Creative activities—and the creative approach to life that often accompanies them—can help us better withstand the huffing and puffing of life's Big Bad Wolf.
Creative activities are rewarding outlets for self-expression. They give us a sense of accomplishment, often have a centering effect, and they’re usually fun to do. But besides these obvious benefits, creative activities can also enhance how we approach our lives.
When we work creatively, we dive deep into ourselves. We pause, look at what we are making, check inside and ask, “Is this working?” and then bring up something of value that we might otherwise never have discovered.
Each time we do this pause/look/check/incorporate cycle, we further nourish our capacity for diving deep. Because our brains get better at doing whatever they do, the more we practice diving deep, the better we get at it—not only with creative activities, but also more generally.
Regularly doing creative activities can facilitate the development of a broader tendency to dive deep, allowing us to become increasingly proficient at sensing and more fully responding to ourselves and the world around us. This increased capacity for sensing and responding helps us more effectively deal with change.
When we are able only to access our superficial thoughts and feelings, our responses to changing circumstances are likely to be limited in their effectiveness. It’s as if we are trying to move an iceberg by pushing on its tip, the part we can see. We may manage to lean it over, but it will soon spring back.
But when we dive deep and experience the world as our full selves, we can forge ahead more surely.
Diving deep allows us to travel below the water’s surface in our mental/emotional submarine, where we can take in the whole iceberg, home in on its center of gravity, and exert our efforts exactly there. The movement that results may be smaller, but what moves stays moved.
I often see this dive-deep/-move-forward-surely process in my work with therapy clients. Those who make the most profound changes may begin a session by simply describing what’s going on. But then they pause, check in with some murkier, less clear part of themselves, and bring to the surface something they would otherwise have missed.
For instance, they may begin by describing a situation that made them angry. “When he did that,” they might say, “I was so mad…” And then they pause. “Well, it wasn’t just that I was mad. I got mad, yes… but really, I was hurt.” They arrive at a more complete understanding, and then deal not only with the surface feeling of anger, but also with the hurt that triggered it.
Diving deep through creative work can encourage positive life changes.
Engaging in a creative activity can not only train the brain to dive deeper, it can also lead to changes in what we do with our lives. People often make meaningful, long-lasting life changes when they engage in creative projects.
I’ve been engaged with both long-term and short-term creative projects most of my adult life, but I didn’t think much about their psychological benefits until I had a near-death experience while a PhD student in English in the early 1990s. I struggled with its meaning and was prompted by a professor to write about it. Through the process of creating a story, I was able to examine the experience differently than I did in my day-to-day life, in therapy, or in a support group I attended. One of the most profound outcomes was that I abandoned my English PhD and returned to grad school to become a psychotherapist.
Even when people don’t make dramatic career or other lifestyle changes, working on creative projects has widespread positive effects. Here’s how some of the people I’ve known have described the benefits of creative work:
Calming. “Writing fiction has a great calming effect. I forget time and hunger and fatigue and enter another, rejuvenating world.”
Meditative. “There’s a meditative aspect to having a creative practice, in my case painting. It allows me to be in the moment. It’s complex, but in a way that energizes. If I’m painting, I’m sane. If I’m not painting, I’m insane.”
Touchstone. “I like the touchstone effect. When I’m not doing something creative, it’s too easy to get caught up in the demands and responsibilities of my day job and how exhausting that can be.”
Nourishing. “I find creative projects a source of nourishment. To see that portion of the journey and think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s great! I really did that? That came out really well.’ Or to go back to another part and think, ‘I really struggled with that.’ Going back to it keeps on giving back.”
Spiritual. “When you start a project, there’s a lot of planning, and the goal is far away. It can be a spiritual journey, going from point A to point B.”
Evolving. “It’s a process of becoming. The artwork evolves, but you evolve, too.”
Transformative. “The nature of making art—good art—requires going deeply within and getting in touch with your deepest feelings. This can be difficult—you might revisit past trauma or unpleasant situations. But it can also connect you with exalting joy and even bring on an extreme or altered state of consciousness.”
Sustaining. “If you have a project you’re working on, you’re not alone and you don’t feel lonely. I think there’s great solace in that. It’s a very deep relationship—like the relationship some people have with God.”
What to do:
- If you’re already doing something creative, keep doing it! If you’ve stopped, start again. Creative work can be calming, meditative, nourishing, even transformative, in ways that may not be obvious right away, but that become evident over time.
- If you don’t do anything that feels creative, experiment with different art forms and activities. Begin with the forms of creativity you enjoy taking in. If you like to read, consider writing. If you like to listen to music, consider learning to play an instrument and/or composing. If you like to look at art, consider painting, photography, sculpture, pottery. If you like movies, consider acting—or making movies yourself. If none of these “takes,” then experiment with other ways to be creative. Creativity is not limited to traditional forms of art. For instance, if you enjoy walking in gardens, consider starting one.
- Dive deep. To train your brain to respond more fully to yourself and your surroundings, do something creative on a regular basis, then practice applying the dive-deep/-move-forward-surely process of creative work to your daily life.
Copyright 2018, David J. Bookbinder
Nonfiction by David J. Bookbinder
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.com
The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World on Amazon.co.uk