The Reenchantment of Vision

Opening the Gates of Perception

© Rachmad Sofyan

© Rachmad Sofyan

When I was growing up, we hungered for the sight of the soul—to witness the invisible, slender threads that interweave all things and to search for a connection to the underlying sacredness and mystery of life. Many of us took drugs. A lot of them. I didn’t. I meditated. Either way, we longed for a taste of the infinite. “This is how one ought to see, how things really are,” remarks Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. Under the influence of Mescaline, he saw the “suchness” of things, the “glory … of naked existence, of the given unconceptualized (italics mine) event.

In the twentieth century, Jung and Freud explored the reality and power of the unconscious. Both the shadow world and the numimous reality beyond appearances were brought to life in a vital experiential study of the human psyche. Today, cognitive behaviorism dominates psychology. Everything must be measured to be considered real. The discoveries of neuroscience cannot yet find the existence of god or the underlying reality behind all things.

My brother has recently returned to graduate school after a highly successful career in Finance to study psychology. He felt the inner call of the numinous and is now passionately engaged in the search for Self. One of my students, a former successful photojournalist, has also been touched by fire, uncovering the things that are found in the night, in ones dreams and within those unformed vague visions that intrude upon ones consciousness. These dark things—facing the unknown—ultimately open to our potential wholeness. We cannot become whole without integrating both the light and shadow.

Breaking the Spell of the Rational

We live in a strange society. Freud and Jung were towering figures in psychology. Yet my brother tells me that they are scantly mentioned in modern psychology programs. One of my students even described Jung’s insights as “old fashioned,” a common belief in academia. Shouldn’t we attempt to build on the discoveries of the past, updating them as needed, but respecting the lifelong efforts and the penetrative wisdom of our antecedents? Mere rationality and the human experience are strange bedfellows. Today, rationality rules at the expense of our resonant human potential and our souls.  Ancient Greece, which in part gave birth to western models of thought, believed in the intertwining of reason with the mythic dimensions of life.

While my generation needed more sobriety and impeccability, today’s world is crying for a vision, in desperate need of the re-enchantment of life, to honor and search for our own natural wisdom and the luminous realities beyond the material world and its superficial pleasures and pains.

The generations of people who have come of age in the past twenty-five years aren’t experimenting with drugs to reach higher states of consciousness nor seeking universal brotherhood through Woodstock or love-ins. Today we attempt to find normalcy through pacifying ourselves with Xanax, Lexapro, and Prozac. This isn’t to say that we aren’t searching for meaning. Many of us do search, but we find little in a culture that has been so diluted and desecrated. Today, we pick and choose our preferences from the buffet table of spiritual practice. Though we are afforded a quantity of choices, we now lack quality and distract ourselves from the lifelong commitment to uncovering who we really are.

Our culture has lost its faith in spiritual traditions and mystical experience. Religion once functioned as a way for us to allay the inherent anxieties of being human. Through faith, we may attempt to understand impermanence and our own mortality. The world over, we all experience the same feelings of sadness, fear, anger, joy, and love. Today we don’t go to our elders with our deepest inquiries; we go to people with the right certifications, being told that higher education and talk therapy can equate to genuine insight. Modern psychology has taken over the guidance of our inner nature. Even spiritual practice becomes something we “do,” often to feel good rather than to open to the tender and terrifying rawness of our inner depths.

Philosopher Peter Kingsley claims: “More or less everybody, spiritual teachers as well as politicians, wants to fix things and make them better; but you can’t do that with our inner nature. And if you approach a spiritual lineage or tradition, the chances are you’ll immediately be given a string of external techniques and told to do this or meditate like that. It’s very rare to find someone who’s willing to take you with all your thirst and longing and make a commitment to preserve and increase the power and sheer rawness of that longing. Everyone wants to fill the hole in our heart that could draw us back into our inner nature, instead of helping us to make it bigger.”

Educating the Heart

According to the Dalai Lama, what’s needed is an education of the heart. What the heart sees is invisible to the eyes. We need to cultivate a relationship to a vision that incorporates the resonant wisdom of the body, the sensitive knowing of the heart, and the penetrating insights of the mind: together as a single holistic form of understanding. Everything we see in the world has a dual reality: what it is and what it means to us. We have both a conscious and unconscious response to literally everything that we perceive. Our nightly dreams as well as art and creative efforts often clarify what our unconscious response is to the external world. They are a means of self-knowledge. True integration is when the conscious and unconscious come together, and when our essential self begins to make its appearance through the cracks of the dominance of our conditioned personality.

A beautiful and evocative Zen parable speaks of educating the heart and opening to our natural wisdom:

When I was young and I went to nature, mountains were mountains, rivers were
rivers, clouds were clouds, and trees were trees;

As I grew up, mountains were no longer mountains, rivers were no longer rivers, clouds were no longer clouds, and trees were no longer trees;

And later, once again, mountains were mountains, rivers were rivers, clouds were clouds, and trees were trees.

With elegant simplicity, this parable enlightens the quality of perception unique to human beings — where our seeing contains a dual potential. We perceive the world as a reflection of who we are, of our values, our beliefs, our experiences, our conditioning and development — or we perceive the world cleanly and directly, seeing things for what they are in moments of illuminating vision.

As young children, our perceptions of the world are innocent, pure, and direct; that is, they take place without the intervention of mental constructs and the labeling capacity of the mind. We see things for what they are without the enlarging yet complicating perspective of knowledge and past experience — and our perceptions represent a manner of exploring the world cleanly and inquisitively. We are in the present moment, rooted in the direct experience of the here and now.

As I grew up, mountains were no longer mountains, rivers were no longer rivers, clouds were no longer clouds, and trees were no longer trees

When we grow and learn, acquire knowledge and undergo the inevitable process of socialization, what transpires? Have we lost this quality of direct perception, this source of endless joy and discovery that is present in engaging the senses? Our seeing becomes a reflection of our worldview and our propensity to conceptualize all phenomenon. Our rational mind insists on naming everything. As soon as we give it a name, we think we understand it, and this gets in the way of the direct perception of the present moment. We need to look deeper than our concepts—much deeper.

The conscious mind has much to learn about the way in which our unconscious “sees” outer phenomena. Indeed, the integration of self can only proceed, according to Jung, by integrating the contents of the unconscious gradually into conscious awareness. What in the outer world resonates within us with the most power and impact? Why are we drawn to this scene, this place, this person, this condition, and not another? Can we begin to determine — to feel and sense — how the world interacts within us? What is being mirrored? We cannot avoid seeing the world, and even other human beings, as mirrors of ourselves — of our inner conditions, our potential, our obstacles, our angels and demons. If we wish to achieve the aim of self knowledge and insight, we must pay attention to these deeply rooted, often unconscious responses to the world surrounding us. Observing our dreams certainly helps, but the daily effort of witnessing our reactions and interactions with the world around us is a valuable key towardinsight and self-discovery.

Our unique experiences, cultural biases, upbringing, our gender, race, economic status, ethnic background, and national heritage; all contribute to our subjective perceptions. Upon close examination we can see that the influence of these factors is at times obvious, and at other times, subversive or hidden. To witness our response to the world based on these factors is highly instructive. It is a necessary tool toward self-awareness and for tolerance of each other’s points of view. We cannot be accepting of others with compassionate understanding until we observe these deeply ingrained elements in ourselves and within the society-at-large.

By far, the most important discovery available through this form of perception is to find our true selves — to see aspects of our essential nature mirrored in the world around us. When we see our original face reflected in the world, it is a moment of revealment, a heightened moment of awareness, one that enters our consciousness with a directness and force uncharacteristic of our usual perceptions. When our inner landscape corresponds to the outer scene in front of us, an unmistakable sense of resonance is experienced. Here we begin to know ourselves in context, as part of a larger whole. We begin to feel our relationship to the living world, of which we are a part.

And later, once again, mountains were mountains, rivers wererivers, clouds were clouds, and trees were trees, and—one form of this parable goes on to say—one knows the taste of pure water.

Moments of this form of consciousness are rare in our presently incomplete and fragmented states of being. But we have tastes of this pure form of seeing; in moments of perceiving the sublime beauty and unity in all things, in love, in transformative pain and suffering, in quiet connection to the natural world, and in experiencing works of art, music, and literature arising from a deeper source that reveal a greater dimension.

We may touch this form of perception through empathy, seeing the world for what it is — which may be different than what we want it to be — and using our senses and feelings to know what stands before us. Striving to get beyond our own world view and subjective filters, we attempt to perceive and then honor the inherent nature or innate characteristics of the object of our perception. We may, through our attention, enter the energy field of another and understand them from the inside-out. We may feel the life force of a mountain or a tree inside ourselves. We are them, and they are us. The world is one. We all contain the same energy. While this may sound like a mystical conundrum, we are called to this form of awareness through respect for others, love of nature, and a deep caring for our collective existence. Ironically, through seeing our own contradictions, we may open to glimpses of realty. The awakening of conscience is a powerful force for perceiving truth. Through hints of conscience, we may awaken to the reality of self and others. And we may glimpse the splinter of divinity in all things.

What characterizes these moments of awareness and illuminating vision? There are degrees of heightened awareness — awakening may be less like a lamp that instantly turns on and off and more like the rising run, which gradually spreads its rays over the welcoming earth. Like the sun toward the earth, we may bear witness to ourselves. We strive toward a connection to the organic energies of the body, a state of relaxation, an awareness of the breath and the heartbeat, a witnessing of the thoughts, associations, and emotional reactions coming and going… and the growing presence of an inner stillness, which brings in its wake a deeper awareness.

Inner silence, a refined rate of vibration, brings understanding, allows finer energies to pass through, and invites a deeper awareness of ourselves and the world around us. It is true, we cannot really “make” this happen. We cannot force it — yet through our efforts, our attention, we can create the conditions for its appearance through an inner alignment of forces: body, mind, feeling, and spirit. It is up to us. It depends on our striving toward an inner accord, a sensitive alignment with the forces within and without.

Respect for the world is paramount. It will continue long after our demise. To see a mountain as a pristine manifestation of life, a reflection of the world’s divinity, far surpasses our usual self-centered subjective standpoint. We cannot experience the world’s divinity without knowing the sacred in ourselves and we cannot approach pure seeing without cleansing the doors of perception. We cannot be brothers and sisters to each other without a conscious recognition of the unity of life.

Can we be more open, more relaxed, permeable and receptive to a widening stream of invisible influences; present to our own existence and to a deepening contact with the currents of a subtle reality, or in the words of sculptor Isamu Nogouchi, this something moving very rapidly through the air?

Toward real seeing . . . real listening . . . Being.

. . . And one knows the taste of pure water.

 “It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. One who has never experienced that has missed something important. We must sense that we live in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole.”
— C.G. Jung

Adapted in part from Deep Perception: Cultivating the Art of Seeing by David Ulrich

The Grace of Great Things

Beginnings, Rochester, NY 1962 © Minor White

Beginnings, Rochester NY 1962 © Minor White. This photograph hangs in my bedroom. Suggestive of wheels of being, or the chakras of hindu tradition, it has offered me great nourishment and inspiration over many years.

What in today’s world ministers our most cherished hope and ideals? Where do we seek—and hope to find—in Rilke’s words, the grace of great things? What brings us inspiration and guidance, and in whom can we trust? Strangely, we have come to ennoble the marketplace itself, honoring the free exchange of goods and services, and now, even of ideas, often canned and predigested for mass consumption.

In various forms of meditation, contemplation, or prayer, we reach up as it were to contact and eventually serve levels of being that transcend our current reality. It is an act of devotion. Certain ritual acts, certain words and phrases, and certain kinds of activities are designed to assist our awakening to a higher source. Yet these same words and phrases are being degraded, reduced to the lowest possible level— often through the voices of media and advertising. Explicit allusions to truth, love, and beauty permeate the marketplace, designed to manipulate human sentiment for the basest of reasons. It is an upside-down view of reality.

Over twenty years ago, one of our teachers, Dorothea Dooling, Founding Editor of Parabola Magazine, observed that one of the maladies of modern society could be seen in the flattening of levels, where the higher realities are brought down, stripping them of dimension and meaning. With incisive wisdom, she remarked disparagingly about book or movie titles, and advertising copy that appropriated words and phrases once used to open us to consciousness and awareness and that are now being employed to sell products or lifestyles. And . . . this was long before the popularization of Yoga Journal, exploitive Lululemon promotions, or books like Religion for Dummies.

We recall a former Sanskrit professor shaking his head in disbelief and disappointment after meeting with a journalist carrying a copy of Religion for Dummies. He commented to the class that only in the contemporary West would you see someone so disconnected from faith that they proudly touted a book titled with the words “religion” and “dummies.” He often warned us to be skeptical of modern yoga schools and people claiming to be gurus. He said that the real teaching of yoga was so esoteric that it would be impossible to learn from books or yoga schools that didn’t include a long and in depth study of philosophy.

Somewhere between the dawning of yoga and the present time, we have managed to get lost in our ideas and opinions about what yoga is and what it isn’t. We’ve mistaken yoga for fitness, designer apparel, and proficiency in different combinations of asanas. Spiritual traditions have, quite frankly, entered the marketplace, with many conflicting claims and espoused beliefs, making it difficult for students trying to find their way in the mess of what we refer to as spiritual practice in the postmodern world.

Stillness . . . . . . . . Silence . . . . . . . . The Void . . . . . . . . The Field of Being . . . . . . . . Vision Quest . . . . . . . . The Center . . . . . . . .The Sacred . . . . . . . . .

How often we hear these concepts expressed in a wide range of sources, from traditional sacred texts, to New Age essays or books on self-improvement, and even now in magazines, movies, and television. We even see sacred Om symbols emblazoned on the bumpers of automobiles, chakra symbols adorning clothing, and Tibetan prayer flags prominently displayed in western commercial establishments. Frankly, these words and symbols have become so cliché that in careless, everyday use their original and essential purpose has been lost. But in our experience, they have definite, even precise, meaning. We strongly believe that we must return these ideas to their proper context and place—that these concepts represent an action, an inner movement, and an absolutely necessary quest for us living at the turn of the millennium. The reality of our fragmented selves and fractured world demand that we return to something within us that stands apart from the fray, the struggle for achievement, and the increasing demands of everyday life.

To return to a place within us—to sit quietly and allow the dust to settle—to engage the subtle energies of the body, mind, and feelings—is not a passive exercise, but an active turning toward the still resonances of the interior world. This movement is an essential means of inner transformation, growth and change. Do we want or need to change, as individuals or as a society? Why would we aspire toward this quality of inner silence today? Doesn’t this go against the very grain of modern life? Most of us are certainly not striving to be Zen monks, have not yet joined a religious order, and live quite ordinary, even uneventful lives. We simply want to live our lives, do our work, and get on with it. But if we care about personal and collective healing, if we want inner transformation, then we need to find the way home, forging new connections to the deeper parts of our being and the causal realms of life itself.

From inner quiet, the right, true action arises—a genuine response. Through the field of silence, we hear the subtle voices of intuition, and open to hints of conscience and moments of greater consciousness. We know what is right and true—and we see more clearly our actual condition, with all of its potential and contradictions. Ordinarily, our thoughts turn constantly, our bodies are rarely still, and our emotional nature distracts us from this moment and from our true purpose. The action of sitting quietly, sensing the body, quieting the mind, allows for the emergence of our true Selves and reveals the essential shape of our own mature form of creative expression.

Yoga Journal Ad

Naked yoginis portrayed to sell socks in the pages of Yoga Journal. Photography by Jasper Johal.

Yoga philosophy asserts that the practice of yoga is quite simply the ability to be completely aware in the present moment. We would like to think that most of us, aside from our personal preferences, opinions, and conflicts with others, engage in contemplative practices with the sincere intention to be more present. How do we nurture authentic awareness? Is it through wearing True Religion jeans or through purchasing clothing from Lululemon. (Lululemon Athletica, purveyor of high end yoga apparel, has been deemed unethical for human rights violations within their China-based factories and for their founder’s racism toward the Japanese)? Students of spiritual practice can easily become confused by the plethora of voices promising instant enlightenment and suffering-free, spiritual disciplines.

Yoga philosophy presents us with a guide for awakening our perception, stating that yoga is essentially the stilling of the mind. The stilling of the mind opens us to an awareness that is choiceless and wordless, one that is not structured on opposing viewpoints of right and wrong, or good and bad. Nor is it one that is attached to concepts like enlightenment or heaven and hell.

True spiritual practice does not seek results and cannot proceed from forced, self-willed efforts. It proceeds from the search for Self and the gentle but firm efforts to engage a contemplative practice. This, and this alone, engenders growth of being, from which certain results may proceed according to one’s temperament. The practice of sitting quietly, of returning to the subtle inner sensations, we liken to watering this young growth, giving it nourishment and sunlight—and simply providing the necessary conditions for growth to occur. The seminal work outlined here can be defined by the wisdom found in four simple words from the Christian tradition: Be still and know.

Be courageous and discipline yourself…

Submit to a daily practice.

Your loyalty to that

is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside

will eventually open a window

and look out to see who’s there.

Rumi, from The Essential Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks

Adapted in part from The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity by David Ulrich and LauraDunnYoga blog. 

Living in the Light

Social Engagement in Spiritual Practice, Art … and Life

La Danse by Henri Matisse

La Danse by Henri Matisse, Courtesy of Musée de l’Ermitage à Saint-Pétersbourg

As soon as a plant breaks the surface of the earth, it begins to live in the light, to participate—receive and contribute to and from the complex eco-system that surrounds it.  Organic life both gives and takes from its environment. Are we any different?

Personal evolution—in the form of contemplative disciplines, creative development, and the search for awakening—takes place in context, in relationship with society and others. Spiritual work—and life—is at its core egoistic, but not narcissistic. Between these two, there is a world of difference. Can we learn to serve ourselves and others simultaneously?

A healthy egoism values oneself and has a certain kind of confidence and faith, that we can evolve and grow, that we have something to contribute to the world and others, and that we are fundamentally good human beings with the capacity for love and compassion. Narcissism, on the other hand, only recognizes others for what they can do for me, that the me is the center of the universe around which all things revolve, that my standpoint, my success, and my happiness ascends to the pinnacle on the scale of importance.

In an interview with James Hillman, art critic Suzi Gablick remarks: “You know it’s being said even of spiritual practice these days that hanging out in an ashram, or meditating on a mountain top—spirituality without service—is middle-class self indulgence. Isn’t that what it’s boiling down to for both of us? Therapy without service, working on just healing yourself, becomes another form of middle-class self indulgence. It’s like going to your studio because it makes you feel better. It’s not that I’m against feeling good, but at this point in time, is that enough?”

Inward growth, however we define it, has the universal aim of both presence and service. We wish to become more related to the whole of ourselves, in all of the dimensions of being human, and we need to open to those higher, finer energies that are knocking at our door, that we may someday receive and have the privilege to serve. We are told that the gods need us to fulfill their work on earth, to have a voice through which they may speak and act. To touch and serve the higher; what does this mean? And how may we become worthy of this great honor?

One of the key elements of the teachings of the Dalai Lama, for what he calls “this age of degeneration,” is developing a kind heart and an altruistic attitude toward all other human beings. Across the planet, we are witnessing unprecedented conditions of change, many of them not for the common good. Many artists and creative individuals are deeply searching for ways to cultivate and preserve empathy for the world and others, to renew hope, and to revive passionate caring. They sense the danger to our common humanity if any one of us of runs away in fear or panic, becomes cynical or apathetic, or turns a blind eye to the world.

Young scholar Jedediah Purdy eloquently asks: “Whose well-being is in my hands and in whose hands is mine?” This question redirects into our lives the light of Buddha’s teaching and the purpose of the bodhisattva’s great vow: to help all sentient beings and to assist all others on the path with skillful means. It offers a new perspective for caring, intelligent individuals that remains fully aware of human folly, but encourages us to keep on trying—bringing our wisdom to others with persistence, detachment, and the unshakable conviction that the world is worth saving. Vowing to find creative solutions to our challenges requires courage, and courage is found when we no longer view ourselves as the center of all things existing and open our hearts to the fragile, beautiful world we inhabit.

Spiritual teachings provide humanity with a path of development and a code of ethics that extends beyond one’s own boundaries. Jesus taught to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” (Matthew 22:36-40). The Buddha taught that one of the highest manifestations of spiritual work could be found in the Bodhisattva’s Way. Yoga’s eight-limbed path begins with the yamas, yogic guidelines for one’s relationship with the outer world.  Why is living beyond the self so important? And how do we practice and understand compassion and social responsibility from a higher place—a place that isn’t concerned with appearances?

Compassion and genuine caring—about each other, the society, and the planet—strengthens the fiber of humanity and brings us into closer union with each other. New-ageism, individualistic paradigms, and capitalism have promoted the idea that self-involvement is in our best self-interest. The belief is that what serves the one serves the many. Yet this statement is not understood reciprocally. I would argue that what serves the many, serves the one. Isn’t this what our founding fathers implied by the “pursuit of happiness?”

We can apply this to any aspect of our lives: our families, the environment, our nations and ourselves.

This mirrors the great Boddhisattva’s Vow, a condition we can all aspire to. How often have we heard the comment: “I cannot help others until I myself become whole and complete?” Well, let us know when you get there — “send me a postcard,” as psychologist James Hillman wryly asks, when you arrive at this fictional destination, this shifting point, this elusive, never-to-be-fully-reached goal. Life is a process, a journey, not a destination. A way of balance is possible—to be equally and simultaneously attentive to oneself and the other; to have a broad, embracing attention, one that is not locked within ourselves or identified with another’s concerns. We strive to cultivate the courage to see what is—within ourselves, with others, and to bring our attention to the point of intersection—the relationship How do we respond to the call from other human beings? Can we see and hear the real request beneath their words and appearances? Others deserve our real attention. Learning to see others beyond the tight walls of our desires and personal agenda is a skillful act—the great Bodhisattva’s Vow.

Pema Chödrön states: “Few of us are satisfied with retreating from the world and just working on ourselves. We want our training to manifest and be of benefit. The bodhisattva-warrior, therefore, makes a vow to wake up not just for himself but for the welfare of all beings.”

Some people—and some works of art— are here to nourish; others to challenge; others to inspire and teach. Some are here to directly serve others through social action or the helping professions. And yet others perhaps hold the mission of art or story telling or creating new myths to live by. What is our task? What do the seeds of our own individuality dictate? All of us can strive to embody two of Gurdjieff’s five strivings: “to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need to perfect oneself in the sense of Being”, and “always to assist the most rapid perfection of other beings.”

In reading the accounts of Gurdjieff’s work with his groups, and observing the members of present groups that I have had the privilege to participate in, I find a new kind of potential in human relations. There is a word for this, a French word that has no exact translation into English: compagnons. This word implies companions on the way and strongly echoes the need to work together, strive together, and to make the vow to grow, for ourselves, each other, and even the world itself. The question I believe that sensitive people face daily is: do we wish to nourish our soul, through responsibility, effort, and caring, or do we lapse into the mere feeding of our ego and conditioned personality? Can we see and know the difference?

We are not alone. As an extremely elegant expression of the striving toward responsibility, one of the most inspirational speeches we have heard was Vaclav Havel’s address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress in March, 1990:

The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility… Without a global revolution in the sphere of consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which the world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountains of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have definitely won. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than ‘my family’, ‘my country’, ‘my company’, ‘my success’—responsibility to the order of being where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where and only where they will be properly judged.

Adapted in part from The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity and Deep Perception: Cultivating the Art of Seeing, by David Ulrich

What is Inspiration?

A sudden answer to a long perplexing problem, a burst of insight that deeply informs your creative work, a moment of wisdom that changes the shape of your life forever or even the fabric of society; these moments are highly inspiring. As artists and creative individuals, we seek to know—and come to rely upon—these stunning moments of epiphany and insight.

© David Ulrich

© David Ulrich

It is said that Beethoven could “hear” the music, and Einstein “saw” the theory of relativity in his mind’s eye before going to sleep one night. History teaches that Martin Luther King heard a voice answering his uncertainty, whole and complete, that impelled him to “stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth.” In that moment, he knew the direction his life must take. Many creative individuals report great discoveries made from the deeper, non-rational mind. The Greeks called it the muses; Carl Jung—and other psychologist—know it as the depth consciousness; others know it as the voice of the gods.

We have many words for its different flavors: inspiration, intuition, insight. Where does it come from? How do we touch this state of grace, this inner knowing?

There are many answers, though all of them seem incomplete. The sources of creative inspiration remain an unknowable mystery, yet anecdotal information from many artists and scientists, as well as contemporary brain science, offers the outline of a way of working towards epiphany and deep insight:

•  Inspiration often comes as a result of past work on a topic and arises in the alternation, the space between activity and rest. We need to make our best efforts, then stand back and allow for gestation and the ultimate blooming of an answer or insight that comes from the depths of the mind. The fire of inspiration needs a branch to light on, which usually means that we need to work hard, sometimes for hours, days, or weeks of dry, unproductive efforts, before our insights can be realized or our forms can be harvested.

The messy enjoyment of experimentation, wild, even unfocused, exploration, and earnest expansion of our ideas and unformed questions will, over time, lead us to potent discoveries and spontaneous insight. Just begin, even if you do not yet know where you are going. Rationality alone does not engender creativity. Non-rationality and play can open us to the right side of the brain, where myth, metaphor, symbol—and deeper forms of knowing—reside.

In dialogue with others, when we remain open and allow the viewpoints of others to influence our own, creative discoveries can build. We say that something is “in the air.” A collective wisdom between people in a well-functioning group or relationship can bring insights to the forefront that we could never come to on our own. When two or more are gathered together, creatively, epiphanies take place, problems can be solved in ways that we could never envision alone. Collaboration yields power and grace—and greater understanding . . . but only when we yield our own staunch agendas and learn to listen and think and build together. Wasn’t this once the ideal of democracy?

The unconscious is a powerful source of knowledge and insight. Many consider it to be our “real” mind. Forms of access are: dreams, waking visions, creative activity, stillness of the surface mind, and struggle. Yes, we must let go. Meditation, yoga, contemplative disciplines, mindfulness can serve to spark our natural wisdom.

Striving towards a centered presence in the body can bring us closer to a potential unification of body and mind. Inspiration seems to partake of a centeredness in the body, a clear, still surface mind, and from the buoyancy of uplifting, positive emotion. The first step towards the inner search for inspiration is entering the body and maintaining an awareness of our physical states.

The search for inspiration represents one of our most human characteristics. One of the most beautiful titles for a book that has ever crossed my path is The Joy of Man’s Desiring, by Jean Giono. Say these words out loud. Feel their clarity as they roll off your tongue, feel their sheer poetry, their resonate meaning, and what these words evoke. The sharp poignancy of our passion and longing. The beauty of human striving. The impeccable ardor of knowing what we truly want, what we aim for, arising from deep within. The force of our wish. Our wish can move mountains.

We must take the risk of not-knowing, standing in front of the unknown in order for something higher and finer—wherever it comes from—to appear. The way towards knowing is through staying in front of not-knowing. Facing the unknown is the first step towards inspired thought. We need to stay in a state of questioning for inspiration to appear. We also need to place our conscious assumptions and beliefs under the lamp of scrutiny. When we are no longer invested in being “right”, we leave room for flashes of insight to reveal themselves on the horizon of the mind.

“Consciousness precedes being, not the other way around.” –Vaclav Havel

Rationality alone does not engender creativity. We need something else. But what? From where does deep insight arise? We must take risks, open to the mystery, and learn to stand in front of something greater than our ego with humility and an attitude of open acceptance. Learning to live with ambiguity and an experiential awareness of our ignorance is often uncomfortable, but there is no other way.

Photographer Minor White writes: “In the silence of a blank mind, [I] raise the intuitive antenna, become the instrument, the messenger . . . Finally only meditation seems to generate input worth tapping. Hypnosis, drugs … all appear to be skeleton keys to the locked rooms of my house I have never entered. Skeleton keys that open dead rooms.

When I make keys for these doors by being still with my Self, the room, opened, is full of flowers, furniture, friends.”

Inspiration visits. We receive. It is the yoga of creativity. In a still, quiet state, open to life within and without, we may be privileged to experience those rarified, refined, yet very ordinary moments, where everything becomes clear, where inspiration descends in a crystalline fashion, revealing sharp clarity to our questions and the shock of recognition of what is right or true. Something is given. Yes! This is what we seek, This is what we have been asking for. We can create the conditions for its appearance yet inspiration is not governable by our rational mind.

“Ah but when, in which of all of all our lives, shall we at last be open and receivers?”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus

Please join Laura and I in our workshop on The Search for Inspiration as part of our upcoming classes in creativity, where we offer simple, yet challenging exercises and instructive material, designed to open the door to inspiration, stimulate creativity, and gain a broader understanding of your own creative process. And join Laura in her eight week Art of Yoga class designed for creative individuals. Please check out Laura’s new blog post on “Why I love Yoga.”

The Earth: What Have We Done, What Can We Do?


courtesy NASA

The earth needs healing. Now. As we enter the New Year, perhaps it is time to think beyond our own prosperity, our own happiness, our own success, and look at the pleas of mother earth. No longer can we naively view nature as a virgin, pristine presence—as generations have done in the past. We must look ahead and witness the legacy of our consumption and inattention on the generations to come.

We stand among the many who have been deeply touched by the views of earth from space in NASA photographs. The solitary blue planet—the one round ball, unencumbered by divisions of nations, peoples, and ideologies. This is probably the single most monumental visual image to have ever entered our collective consciousness. Our beautiful, fragile world—our home.

courtesy NASA

These photographs from NASA are beyond art, beyond science. They represent a new paradigm, one that is nearly impossible to ignore, and a new challenge for those of us fortunate enough to live in these times—with the extraordinary intersection of forces and events that are taking place at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We have, on the one hand, this image of the single, isolated planet Earth seen amidst the black vastness of space—showing at least the potential for a vision of global unity—contrasted with the plethora of events, challenges, complex issues, technological achievements, and conflicts that make up the world we live in.

If we are the least bit sensitive, all of these phenomena have entered our collective souls,compete for our attention, causing much questioning and consternation within us. The challenge is to move this questioning beyond the mind; to embrace the question which does not contain words or concepts or have an answer, but presents an opening, a doorway to a deepening sense of experience, one that includes the body, mind, feelings, and soul. To ask the question with our entire being: how to live a human life, one filled with integrity and shaped by conscience?

Ultimately, the creative process is not about making objects. It is about the rediscovery of ourselves and the re-making of the world—to become an artist of the very act of living. The quest for genuine creativity, in whatever form it takes, is none other than the search for the awakening of consciousness and for uncovering the long-buried voice of conscience. If consciousness is the higher and truer function of the real mind, then conscience is the higher and truer function of the feeling nature. However, due to the conditions of our upbringing and the discordant conditions of modern life, we are often exiled from the transforming influence of conscience. A thick, inert crust has grown over it, separating us from its unifying potential. Conscience begins to make its appearance when we relinquish the shields that hide us from feeling and knowing the truth of our situation, replete with inner fragmentation and contradiction. Even our rational minds know that to achieve unity we must first embrace, and then go beyond the region of duality where contradiction resides.

The masks that hide us from ourselves—and prevent a keen awareness of external realities such as the state of the earth—are often deep-seated filters that block our entrance into the subtle, causal levels of reality. Don Juan recounts to Carlos Castaneda:

“The things people do are the shields against the forces that surround us; what we do as people gives us comfort and makes us feel safe…We never learn that the things we do as people are only shields and we let them dominate and topple our lives.
…The world is incomprehensible. We won’t ever understand it… [or] unravel its secrets. Thus, we must treat it as it is, a sheer mystery!

A warrior is aware of this confusion and learns to treat things properly. The things that people do cannot under any conditions be more important than the world. And thus a warrior treats the world as an endless mystery and what people do as an endless folly.”

Seeing, feeling, and deeply engaging the mysteries of the world brings us closer to the joy of consciousness. Seeing and feeling the contradictions within ourselves and witnessing those very same contradictions reflected in the world itself brings us closer to the sorrow of conscience.

Many artists and creative individuals have simply not taken responsibility for seeing the larger picture, for becoming the shamans of our age, or for endeavoring to assist in the necessary process of healing ourselves and the world. Genuine creativity brings a palpable force into the collective atmosphere. It can literally help heal the world. To be creative is to participate in the ongoing process of making our world anew, of searching for innovative solutions, and offering a vital, special energy to our planetary existence.

Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s successor, said simply: “The earth needs our work… now.” If humanity has helped lower the level of vibrations on earth, then humanity can help raise it once again. William Segal, also a student of Gurdjieff, perceptively regards the conditions of our time in The Structure of Man: “Power potentials have been released which threaten to upset cosmic balances. Ironically, the more gigantic and astonishing our manipulation of these energies, the more puerile and insignificant our understanding of them. Philosophers and scientists are coming to agree that not only do we need a deep alteration in the present state of mankind, but that this radical shift depends solely upon our relationship to consciousness—the invisible, fundamental energy behind phenomenal existence.”

mauna kea, hawaii © David Ulrich

Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i © David Ulrich

The guiding values for Native American and Hawaiian cultures, for example, reveal the means for a proper relationship to the land. Aloha ‘Aina, love of the land, treats the land as a profound living force that, in its essence, cannot be tampered with without serious consequences. The Hawaii State Motto reads: “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono” or “The life of the land is perpetuated in its righteousness.” Humanity lives with the earth in deep harmony, not above it with a sense of manifest agency, an entitlement that allows for the exploitation of its resources or the willful manipulation of its intelligent systems. “I belong to the earth; it does not belong to me.”

Can we change the devastating affects of our conspicuous consumption? Can we learn to live more simply, not enamored by material goods or living a frantic lifestyle that costs an enormous amount in fossil fuel? Can we become responsible towards the earth, once again? Can we begin the journey of uplifting our own states of being, and by extension, society and the earth itself?

Creativity, yoga, inner work, meditation, stillness—the greatest gift that we can give mother earth is consciousness. To change the discordant vibrations of humanity into a peaceful guest that deeply acknowledges its host.

What can we do? What will we do?

Adapted from The Widening Stream: the Seven Stages of Creativity (Beyond Words 2002) by David Ulrich