Spirit Rock: How can a mindfulness practice benefit one’s own creativity? What does the interplay between meditation and creativity look like?
Nina Wise: One of the most important benefits that can accrue to an artist from a meditation practice is the capacity to become comfortable with stillness. With improvisation for example, an impulse arises and you respond to that impulse with movement or narrative, depending on your specific art form. When the impulse runs its course, there’s a lull before the next impulse arises. It is often during that lull when people panic and then do something out of discomfort or fear. As a result their work bears the mark, the feel, of inauthenticity. If you can ride out that lull and wait for the next impulse to arise, and know you’re waiting then your work can emerge from a place of deep authenticity.
SR: In that stillness, do you have to have a certain amount of trust, or in other words, where does that “knowing” come from?
Nina: For me, the trust comes largely from my meditation practice. Knowing that I can be still and realizing the stillness is full in and of itself—and that I don’t have to say or do anything— has helped me a great deal. I can’t overemphasize how important this has been in my work on stage, in interviews, and even in daily conversation. I think becoming intimate with stillness, becoming aware of how full and satisfying this stillness is, and realizing that being still is not a doing nothing—it is as much a doing something as it is to do an action—has become one of the most important skills I have as an actor.
During an artist residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts many years ago, I was working on a piece about solitude. At HCA, they do not encourage you to produce, produce, produce. Instead, they encourage you to walk in nature, rest, pause, and wait for inspiration to arise. I was given a huge studio with windows on three sides that looked out over the ocean and the hills. I spent a lot of time lying on the floor. Or looking out the window at the way wind moved through the grasses. And then I would suddenly feel like galloping around the room like I did when I was a child. So I galloped. I had no idea what it meant or why I was galloping. And then I would lie down on the floor again. Or sketch something. Then look out the window. Or put on music and dance. I gave myself permission not to do anything important. Not to do anything meaningful. I gave myself permission to be still and then follow whatever impulses arose at the moment.
In the end, one of my best pieces, Private Road, came out of that process. Stillness allows you to respond to deep impulses in the psyche that seem to emerge from “below” the impulses that demand endless activity. As artists, we are typically not encouraged to work this way, nor do we necessarily know how to.
SR: How can we get to this “not doing” space, how can we access this stillness?
Nina: By allowing ourselves the time to get quiet enough, to rest in “not knowing” and then observe one’s own mind and feelings. Meditation reveals what your mind is doing. It reveals your own obsessive thoughts. It reveals your emotions. Grief—the intergenerational grief that you’ve inherited. Fear. The way your heart has become armored. Anger that you are holding against those you feel have caused you pain. Forgiveness as well to those very same people. And joy. Meditation practice is in part a deep psychological process. So if you’re either telling a story about your own life or creating a character, the knowledge acquired about yourself and others is enhanced, amplified, deepened through meditation practice. Because meditation is a form of close observation of the heart and mind, it can be of great benefit to anyone writing a novel or short story, memoir, poem or article. Meditation also results in much clearer seeing. It is as if windshield wipers have cleaned the lens of your eyes. Colors become brighter, shapes more precise, the play of light more heartbreaking. And it results in a deep sensuality. You begin to feel your body, your muscles and sinews and breath and the myriad sensations that arise and fall moment to moment. For a dancer, this is invaluable.
SR: And that takes slowing down.
Nina: Slowing down, being quiet, refraining from the endless talking that takes up so much of our daily lives. If we want our art to be about the deepest aspects of the human condition, to reflect insights about reality, to be something other than spitting pop culture back to itself—and maybe one doesn’t—but if one wants to make art that is truly investigative and revelatory about the human condition, then engaging in a meditative methodology that reveals wisdom and compassion as well as the obstacles to wisdom and compassion—the anger and hatred and grief and trauma and jealousy and fear that prevent our well-being—gives us the capacity to create art that in some way communicates wisdom, truth and insight.
SR: As creatives, many of us deal with the overbearing voice of the inner critic. What are your thoughts on working with this self-judgement?
Nina: In our culture, artist or not, we have a more developed and sophisticated self-loathing than people in other parts of the world whose cultures don’t support such rabid self- criticism. In our culture, our inner critic is very active. I see it in both my meditation students and my improvisation students. So how do we tame the inner critic and manage to create in the midst of it? And how do we listen to the voice of the inner critic that’s actually helpful and not be disabled by it?
One of the first things we can do is get quiet enough so that we can perceive the inner critic, identify it. Often this voice is jabbering away and we don’t even realize it. Once we can clearly identify it, we can then learn methodologies for intervening, like Metta practice, which is essentially a loving-kindness practice aimed towards oneself and others. Another helpful practice is recognizing that this self-loathing is universal in our culture and that you’re not the only one sitting there going, “I’m a horrible person. I’m an idiot. I’m disgusting. I’m worthless. My work is disgusting and vapid and stupid.”
By perceiving the inner critic from a more distant or slightly detached point of view, we can disarm it and not give it the same credibility that we would were we unaware of its presence or blindly buying into its point of view. We can even give her a name, Hostilia or Criticia, and watch her carry on. And say to her, “Thanks for your advice but I’m going to ignore you for a while because I want to get some work done. After I create some work, maybe we can talk as I’d like your advice if you can be kind and helpful.” In many ways, the inner critic is trying to protect us from humiliation and disgrace and failure. If we can recruit the critic to serve us, we can benefit from its feedback. But first, we need to create in an atmosphere free of constraint and judgment.
A simple exercise and one that we will sometimes end a daylong with, is have people think of three things that made them happy that day. This can often interfere with the tendency to complain about all manner of irritations that arise and leave us feeling more calm and happy and satisfied with ourselves and our lives. This practice also, evidently, changes the neurological pathways in our brains so that we are physiologically more able to experience happiness. I also suggest people give themselves complements out loud and use their own name. It feels a bit odd at first but it’s truly helpful. “Good work, Nina,” I’ll say to myself. “You just taught a really great class. Congratulations.” Or something to that effect. We need to say to ourselves the words we wish others would say to us or wish our parents had said to us. If we have an inner critic, we can also have an inner cheerleader—and develop some self love.
I think of self-love not as, “Oh, I’m so in love with myself!”, but rather as affection—the kind of affection you feel for a puppy or a kitten or a teddy bear. Self love can be a sweet, almost innocent affection for oneself, warts and all. We can learn to locate this feeling underneath all of the layers of self-loathing and fear, and then strengthen it. Beyond this, we can learn to discern the voice of the inner critic that is serving us and the voice that isn’t. In many instances our inner critic has good advice and it is what pushes us to make better art. To continue to refine or edit our work until we feel it is right. This rigor is important to our success as artists. But when the inner critic begins to disable us from working at all, that is simply harmful. Meditation practice can be a key component in helping us discern what inner voices, even if they are critical, are supporting us and which are undermining us, not only in our artmaking but in all aspects of our lives.