The Riff
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The Riff

Battling The Poisons That Kill Creativity

Phil Circle in a Live Radio Appearance, 2019

In Buddhism, there are three poisons that degrade life: greed, anger, and stupidity. While thinking (chanting?) on that one evening, I decided to do some mental gymnastics in search of other poisons as they relate to my work in music. I was also putting together a master class at the time, so giving consideration to the things that kill creativity was especially relevant. I came up with this breakdown and hope it’s helpful as a guideline for growth.

Now, I’m usually a pretty positive guy and I realize that presenting the threat that something could kill your creativity might come across as dark and scary. So, also keep in mind that to every dark side is a flip side. Anger, for instance, when given some light, turns to righteous indignation and determined action. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. So, hang tight until the end of this little breakdown. I do flip it. After we do the necessary work.

Here are three things we think, feel, and act upon that can kill our creativity.

Thinking, feeling, believing, or saying “I’m not worthy.”

Thinking, feeling, believing, or saying “I have something to prove.”

Thinking, feeling, or acting as if “I need to justify my work.”

These are all, of course, forms of insecurity. And the problem with insecurity is that it degrades our value as people and often causes us to degrade others in defense of our fragile egos. The upside of insecurity is that it will happily rear its head when you most need to do some growing as a human being. Congratulations! Now let’s deal with it for a few paragraphs.

No matter what was dished to you as a child, no matter what life has handed you to “confirm” your innate unworthiness, it is wrong. You are worthy. Period. The simple fact that you had the desire to create and the trust in yourself to follow this desire; the simple fact that you have found the drive to continue pushing it forward; the simple fact that you’ve gone about developing the skills required, against all advice to do otherwise…these all bare proof that you are worthy. Look to your hardship as a training ground, not some negative proving ground. Everybody suffers, so you’re no different whether you win or not. Everybody wins and loses, so you’re no different whether you suffer or not. And you’re going to suffer. Hardship is inevitable. I’m not being a stoic or a cynic, here. I’m a pragmatic optimist. I believe deeply in our inherent ability to excel. And I believe that being driven to create is one way that we develop the ability to be truly happy under any circumstances. So we can start with the understanding that our suffering is not some punishment or test of our worth. It just is.

“But I have to prove I’m right!” or “I have to prove it to myself!”

Some people think having something to prove is a great motivator, but it leads to unhealthy comparisons and not very humanistic competitiveness. And when you watch someone succeed where you didn’t, now you’re primed for vindictiveness, which is anger-based. Having to prove something all the time also tends to include bragging, whenever you come out ahead. This degrades your own successes and points big shiny arrows at others’ struggles, rather than lifting them up. It’s so much better to lift others. Lifting others up actually bolsters both of you. And it’s just so much more comfortable to sit in a place where your heart is full enough to celebrate others’ successes. I feel so much happier in the place of quiet and grateful confidence that I enjoy today than I ever did when I was running the gauntlet of compare and despair.

I know. I know. Believe me, I know. You’re constantly asked questions like “Do you think that’s a good idea” and “Can you make a living doing that” or other not-so-subtle negative-scattershot-loaded questions. When I started answering “yes” to all these questions without any qualifier, the causes of my intentions actually began to move in the direction of truth. “Yes, I can make a living doing this.” And weeks later someone offered me my first teaching gig.

Justifying one's work happens mostly from within. Don’t waste your energy constantly explaining yourself. It’s yet another degradation of your true value. And this time, it’s largely your fault, not the nosy “concerned” friend or family member. Your need to justify, and thereby respond to doubt, and thereby degrade your worth, undermines one of the initial reasons for creative enterprises; the intrinsic need of all humans to create, solve problems, and connect through empathy and compassion. Yep, it’s biological. Ask an anthropologist.

Words, of course, are cheap. How do I act upon all this? Using the generally held belief that thoughts lead to feelings lead to actions, we can begin by developing better habits. Try the exercises listed below. Feel free to adapt them to the way you best work, to how you best understand the worldview that your mind has created. Continue the rewiring whether it goes well every time or not. Try not to let it become a source of anxiety when you still do stupid sh*t to yourself. It’s a process. Be patient. Every moment has thousands of possibilities within it. You’re not going to make a perfect choice every time. But you can consider your choices (and responses) more carefully, build more positive habits, and gradually find emotional reflexes that are less reactionary.

Try these steps. Approach them as if you’re teaching someone else how to overcome these issues. This will help you gain some objectivity.

1. Make a list of reasons why you think and feel you’re not worthy. Shoot them down one by one. List out evidentiary proof of your worthiness from every source you can muster. If you’re spiritual, that can be a source. Your creative drive is a source. Your love of humanity, indicated by your need to create, is a source. You get the idea.

2. Make a list of reasons why you feel you need to prove yourself. Negate everyone as a waste of time and energy. Because they are. Then go back and read why you are worthy. Read it out loud.

3. Make a list of ways you justify yourself. Now read them out loud and record them. Then do this with all of these steps. Listen back and pretend this is your best friend saying these things. What would you tell them? Go back and recite aloud all the reasons you are worthy. Don’t confuse being worthy with trying to prove yourself or justify yourself. Worthiness is not entitlement. This may become a slippery slope. Understand that the sense of being worthy of who you are comes from your pure existence as a creative human and your endless potential. Dig deep enough that it scares you a little, but excites you, too.

Go back over these as regularly as you like, and can stand.

Creativity comes from within us and our direct connection to the universe, which is basically also our connection to other human beings. The only way to block it is to deny our truest self. We do that with remarkable effect on a daily basis, even an hourly basis. But this personal and deeply emotional struggle is also the source of a powerful tension. It’s this tension that we push against in order to create deeply honest and profound works of art. So, really, this fight against poisonous tendencies is also, very often, the source of our art. Voila. You just discovered another reason you are worthy through a little writing, reciting, and resilience. Keep it up. Keep getting up.

Peace and creativity,




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