10 Riffs to Stoke Your Creative Vitality
1. SCENARIO #1:
YOU’RE GETTING OLDER.
“I get four hours of sleep,” a young entrepreneur told me with a smirk. Another 20-something founder of a new online marketing biz tells me at the same conference she knows she should take better care of herself than her four lattes a day and four cocktails a night and gung-ho hutzpah multi-tasking in between suggests, but who has the time?
When you’re a young adult, your body and mind can handle the late hours, the spurts of sleep, the booze all compensated for via cups of caffeine.
But that ruse does not last long.
Creatives age. Even by your late twenties if not sooner, the body creaks and falters. The mind’s microprocessor slows down. And the physical energy that propels your sheer will and volition gets sapped.
So you push through your work, knowing that you’re not creating at your best but “good enough” and that faking it really well will have to suffice.
What to do?
2. SCENARIO #2: SPRINTS & SPURTS
I create mostly in sprints. I have my routines that propel my faculties and fingers into flow for, usually, 90-minute periods. At Behance’s 99% Conference, Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project confirmed and gave me guidance on this practice. I shape my days accordingly.
Sprints work. Up to a point.
But sprints are more like spurts for some of us. An idea bursts. We get jazzed. We start designing a website or shaping an encaustic or crafting a new speaking series only to feel that burst, well, spurt and spittle out in a matter of days or even minutes.
When I run, something similar happens. Even before I put on my running shoes, my mind envisions beautiful strides with the wind at my back, the farmland or buildings or beach – depending on where I’m at – waving as I pass by.
But then my feet hit the sand or asphalt. My body’s jiggling. And ten minutes later, my body’s saying, “Okay, that’s probably good enough. Let’s go get some 88% dark chocolate and celebrate.”
But if I can run beyond that spurt, something else happens. My inner body quiets and pays attention to the scenery, and I flow for three, four times that long – which is better-than-good for this middle-aged guy who, before a few months ago, has never desired to run.
How to replicate something similar in the studio? How to propel my mind past the novelty spurt?
3. A TICK, A LIGHTNING BOLT, & AN EDUCATION IN VITALITY
About three years ago, I kept mostly to myself a series of blows. That summer, I felt unreasonably blue and lackluster even though everything on the outside seemed to be going swimmingly. Then a tick bit me in the gut. I got Lyme Disease, which not only saps your energy; it also plays all kinds of tricks on your muscles, brain, and mind. Plus, the antibiotics took a toll on my immunity. Three weeks later, lightning struck our house, burned my study, and left us – after water and fire damage – out of our dream home for fifteen months.
For months, while I argued with an unctuous insurance adjuster and supervised an architect, contractor, and a team of sub-contractors and then argued with our mortgage company, my brain and body fired away fight-or-flight adrenaline shots and built up a strong reservoir of acidity. And I also got bit by another tick and contracted Ultra-Lyme. In the middle of it all, we got pregnant and had a baby.
Even my body-mind knowledge in founding Yoga As Muse Trainings was challenged this time around. But I persisted and learned even more in that time about increasing creative vitality and deepening physical intelligence (Read more about that journey here.).
I took stock especially of my emotional body’s raging tug on my creative mind. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been tracking.
Descartes did the best he could regarding the body-mind connection given his resources and cultural context in the 1600s.
He describes how the mind influences the body and can even heal the body by regulating our emotions. But he falters when he claims the body has no effect on the mind. None.
Thanks to the work of Timothy Wilson, Antonio Damasio, George Lakoff, and others – and thanks to observing our own experiences – we know otherwise. The body houses emotions and memories and images. It regulates hormones, organ functioning, heart beat, blood oxygenation, and respiration. And guess what? It’s constantly influencing the iota of the mind we call awareness.
In fact, unless we have a mechanism for regularly checking in, monitoring, and adjusting how we feel physically and emotionally, the body’s storehouse of irrational impulses and feeling states can constantly run the show. And we’ll be oblivious to it.
Why? The body’s bigger than awareness. Emotions are bigger and more influential than thoughts and willpower alone. All of that fluttering of blood and digestion and DNA dancing “down there” makes up for about 95% of the mind’s activity. And our flash light of awareness typically accounts for 5%. But the tricky thing is that 95% of the dark underbelly shapes and influences the other 5%.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt compares what I call the “embodied unconscious” – this 95% on average of the mind’s dark activity – to an elephant and the small light of awareness to a rider on the elephant’s back.
We don’t “control” the elephant. But we do develop a relationship with it. We do find interventions to coax the elephant to work with us and to go where we need it to go.
Consider the example of Haruki Murakami.
Haruki Murakami is possibly Japan’s most celebrated living author. Since he published his first novel in 1979, he’s penned over a dozen books and has received numerous awards.
Soon after he virtually stumbled upon becoming a novelist and then devoting himself full force to that endeavor, he realized something:
“The whole process – sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track – requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine.” (79)
He needed stamina. So he also has devoted himself to running.
In his memoir-like meditations on running and writing, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami claims three things essential for a writer to flourish (which could be applied to any creative field):
Talent. Focus. Vitality.
If you lack talent, Murakami says, you can make up for it by amping up focus and vitality. He’s right mostly. Every study of thriving creatives and of creative intelligence I’ve reviewed affirms that optimal creativity actually has less to do with talent or genetics than with dedicad know-how, mindset, focus, persistence and the vitality to keep momentum.
6. 4 CONDITIONS TO REPLENISH THE BRAIN FOREST
Something else more profound happens when you boon your creative vitality regularly and with intention.
Last night I saw neurons fire and wire together. It wasn’t in a dream or fantasy or woo-woo meditation.
I’ve had the good fortune the past few days to have lunch with and listen to brain guru Joe Dispenza. Last night, Joe showed us videos that capture in live time the human brain in action.
Thanks to the research of Fred Gage of the Salk Institute and other neuroscientists, we know now in no uncertain terms what fifteen years ago 9 out of 10 brain scientists would’ve shunned to admit: We people in the middle can grow new neurons (neurogenesis) and grow new neuronal connections (neuro-plasticity).
Consider the hippocampus, a part of the emotional brain. Emotional memories get wired here. A thriving creatives’ hippocampus teems with neurons firing away and talking to each other like a fertile forest of continuously branching trees.
Under certain conditions, new brain cells grow here. Under certain conditions, you can replenish your brain forest – although not to its pristine state before your college days, before all of your excesses, and before natural gray matter wear-and-tear.
What are those conditions? Gage’s and other scientists’ studies confirm that your middle-aged brain’s hippocampus can create new brain cells when you
- engage in a physical routine regularly such as swimming, yoga, bicycling, or racquetball
- that involves repetition
- that is practiced with intention and attention
- and that gets your heart beating faster.
Regularity. Repetition. Attention & Intention. Pulsing Heart.
Gage cannot yet explain the mechanism for why these conditions grow new neurons. But they do.
Creative persistence beats like a heart. And you want yours to beat with regularity.
You know to keep at your creative work every day whether you have a “big” assignment or not – just as a musician or vocalist must keep her cello or voice finely tuned every day. But the body, the case for your creative instrument, also needs regular maintenance.
There’s something else, too. Passion. Love. Caring. In short, your best self requires an elevated emotion toward that physical activity. Find a physical routine your body and mind love so they’ll insist you come back for more. And more. And more.
“[N]o matter how strong a will a person has,” Murakami writes, “if it’s an activity he doesn’t really care for, he won’t keep it up for long.” (44)
7. TUNE UP
Vital physical energy stagnates if left to its own devices. Sort of like a stagnant pool of water where mosquitoes hang out. Energy most frequently gets stuck in our joints. Then, our muscles build up lactic acid and our blood becomes oxygen-depleted, both of which trigger fatigue.
In less than five minutes, you can jolt some of that energy.
Try this anytime you feel your vitality wane, or try it regularly every morning or afternoon as a prelude to your creative work:
Stand in place in your studio. Shoes on or off, simply observe your feet on the ground. Engage your thigh muscles. Draw the shoulders away from the ears.
Alternate between making fists with your fingers and stretching them out like starfish. Back and forth. Rotate your hands. Rotate the arms. Sway the arms and the torso. Stretch each side of the torso and then the hips.
(Do I hear a little swaying music?)
Shift weight to one foot and lift the other foot. Rotate the lifted foot to refresh the ankle. Then rotate the knee. Move the three free limbs while the one foot keeps the body anchored. Then shift feet and repeat.
Remember what it’s like to live in a dancing body that teems with vitality. Why be embarrassed about that?
I have a cadre of other tools to tune up. But this is a favorite.
This exercise won’t establish deep re-patterning for a continuous flow of creative vitality, but like the physical intelligence conversation, this Tune Up Dance is a beginning.
8. TUNE IN WITH PHYSICAL INTELLIGENCE
Running also puts Murakami in conversation with his body. He knows his body often speaks in with the voice that wants to keep things just as they are, the voice that says, “Go eat cookies and stop this ridiculous running business.” He writes, “Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.” (49) And it makes it easier for him to override it.
This capacity to override that deeply patterned urge is, frankly, one of the marvels of being a creative human.
What Murakami describes is physical intelligence.
By “physical intelligence,” I don’t mean what Howard Gardner of Harvard’s Project Zero calls “kinesthetic intelligence,” that spectacular dexterity exhibited by the Michael Jordans and Olympic gymnasts of the world.
By physical intelligence, I mean a mechanism that helps part of your mind regularly check in, monitor, and adjust your vitality.
Murakami has found a way to tune in and coax his elephant.
It’s easy to tune out. Especially when your body and heart hurt. We fill our bodies with numbing food and activities, and our minds with numbing entertainment and information. I get it. I do it.
But it’s also easy to tune in, and if you learn to check in with your physical energy every day, in the long run you up the chances of making it easier to sustain your creative productivity and deepen its quality if you do so.
So even you young ones who romantically “push through” your days with coffee and bravado still might be giving your creative work significantly less than what you could.
Maybe if you’re 25 and thriving in your field with the “push-through” method, you could be leading your field.
After you’ve tuned up and jolted your limbs, talk with your body and with your best possible self:
How are you feeling this morning? We have work to do for this guy today. What can I do to help you feel even better?
Asking those questions is an efficient way to be clear about your intentions. When you know in your core what you’re creating for and you feel your work’s importance, then you’re motivated to harness your body’s energy on behalf of your best self’s work.
This way you don’t ignore your physical energy. You don’t just “push through.” Instead, you inquire and you adjust. Such conversation is a beginning.
It doesn’t take long to play the body well. With the right intention and attention, even three minutes of smart breathing can oxygenate your blood and stimulate the right parts of the brain.
My Creative Vitality routines vary but go something like this:
- Tune up with the limb shake described above.
- Quiet the body and mind for one minute with harnessed breathing.
- Check in with my energy and intentions.
- Go through a 5-10-minute routine of yogic tools I’ve designed expressly to increase vitality.
- Continue with my creative work – writing, designing new programs, developing new business structures.
I have 40-minute daily sequences, and I also run three times a week for short but regular distances, but for constant vitality and to move beyond the energy sputter, this protocol works.
My 90-minute sprints feel relatively effortless (relative to than if I had just plopped in a chair and started pushing through). I repeat the vitality practices between 90-minute sprints and sometimes adjust in the middle of a sprint if I recognize my energy wavering.
10. NOT PERFECTION, BUT VERSATILITY
I kept reminding a group of writers of this adage last week – “Not Perfection, But Versatility.” And then, as the course facilitator, I had to keep reminding myself of it, too.
Be versatile with your creative mind. And don’t forget that a large mass of the mind is part and parcel of that fleshy mobile home.
By the way, if you want to gain more tips and tools to boost your creative vitality & more, join me at Tiferet: A Global Community of Writers next Thursday, February 9. I’m leading a webinar on Yoga As Muse for Creative Flow on February 9, 8:30-9:30 pm EST/5:30-6:30 pm PST.
I’ll give an overview of ideas with slides, lead you through an exercise, and field your questions about your creative productivity.
I’ll share with you, in essence, the spirit of the one physical practice I’ve stuck with every single day for over a dozen years and that helps me write almost every day despite unbidden ticks and lightning and other tricks of fate.
DROP IN THE HUT
I’m curious how the rest of you keep your creative fire stoked. What regular, repetitive, enjoyable routines help you pump your vitality? What’s your biggest perceived barrier to stoking your fire for the long run?
See you in the woods,