Take Care

Often when we wish someone good-bye – we say “take care”. Like most language habits it’s trotted out unconsciously, just part of the sleep state we spend most of our time in.

But is it worth pondering what “take care” might mean in your day? What would it be like to approach things with care? Not so seriously to crowd-out a care-free demeanor, but…

This morning I finished a yoga session and had allowed it to be more than physical – there was more space induced by the breath, postures and released endorphins. The wind is blowing a gale today – I stepped toward the window to close it.

I’m pretty good at closing windows, done it thousands of times. So my hand grasped the window unconsciously and automatically and started to slide it shut.

Blown by gusts inside the window there were small end branches of a bush (planted outside the window). I could have easily crushed them in closing the window. Luckily* there was enough space in me to see the branches and STOP.

Still, mostly automatic, I reached to carefully moved a branch outside the window. Then everything changed – in the caring touch, I saw the scene for the first time.

I really could see it.

For the first time I watched these branches – they were flashing and sparking with the morning light as the gusts jostled them around. The tints of green, the veins of growth rippling through the leaves and the sturdy and the willowy resilience of the end stems of the branch. And the truth was there of why branches bend in a gusty wind.

It was over in a few seconds, but it was a privilege to have taken enough care with the branches to be gifted that experience in return.

So it seems that “taking care” is a great example of “give and you shall receive”**.


* The yoga had made my own luck.

** I’m not invoking Christianity with this quote, just the naturalistic experience seems to match the words.

Note: I owe:

a) both “take care” and “make your own luck” to Henryk, who I have posted about previously.

b) STOP to my teacher Ron. This is the first part of the “Stop, Breath, Stillness, Balance” practice.

Living a good life

We all drift… sometimes an hour is lost scrolling (more on that another time). Sometimes for weeks or years.

Pam recently read Julia Baird’s book Phosphorescence*.  One of the key themes that resonated with Pam was “Living deliberately” – it seems a sure antidote to “drift”.

Julia Baird is a political journalist and presenter in Australia and Phosphorescence has been read by several women in my life – it’s apparently a journey worth taking.

When I looked Julia up, she is the daughter of highly regarded state politician Bruce Baird and sister of Mike Baird who became Premier in NSW. Julia, aside from writing, co-hosts a political affairs show on the ABC, so this family are full of public service and lives very deliberately.

Discussing “Living deliberately” (over toast), we brainstormed what that might mean. We came up with:

  • 2 big dimensions: Personal (self) and World (others)
  • Combined with:
    • WHATS (principles of “living deliberately”)
    • HOWS (tools, rhythms and skills)
    • NOURISHMENT (things that bring joy and recharge your resources)

Above is one visualisation. We also thought “Living well” or “Living a good life” might have a little more balance than just the mental fortitude of “living deliberately”. It’s far from perfect but it might be a useful reminder for us and others. 

Drop us a note if you think we’ve missed something or could make it better.

We’ll write a few blog posts on some of the sections – any idea which should be first? 🤷‍♂️

Below is another visualisation of the same content.

* Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & the Things that Sustain You When the World Goes Dark (HarperCollins)

Then the man (or woman) ain’t bright

One of my teachers was a man called Henryk who had worked in building, carpentry and eventually used to run gangs of council workers in the 70’s and 80’s. In those days it was an open secret that some council jobs were a haven of bludging, side projects, day disappearances – the kind of low level corruption from a more socialist time.

Henryk wasn’t that kind of guy – he was straight as a die – son of German mother and Polish father, clear-eyed, lean, a blend of discipline, temperance and stillness – with a bit of opera thrown in.

I worked with Henryk on a large building project and his work was fast, no bullshit and precise – one morning I was struggling with sawing some timber, splintering the edge as I went. Henryk reached in and drew the saw from my hand and handed me another. Whilst doing so, his lips parted into a wry smile, saying:

“If the tool ain’t right, then the man ain’t bright.”

His quip cut through better than any saw. 

The lesson for me was to pay attention to what I was doing. To be “bright” and be awake to the possibilities of a better way. In each situation: dropping habits or pre-conceptions can mean that there may be a better way to do the work….

“is this the right shade of pencil in a drawing?”, “could a better brush be selected?”. The questions not arising in words but just the feel of “fitted-ness” to the needs of the moment.

Humans are problem solving “machines”** and creators, to be cognitively present and find the right “fit” for a particular job infuses meaning into your day and life.

The opposite of this is “square peg in a round hole”.  If you’ve ever felt like that, it’s an awkward dissonance – a feeling of being “un-fitted” to the situation. This too is super-helpful and constructive because something in us wants to seek the fit and flow – the discomfort is a signal*** for needed change.

Another interesting part of the quip is the double meaning of “bright” – language is so often pregnant with depth – to be “bright” is to be light-filled – that’s another clue to the recipe (or perhaps outcome) of being “in this moment”.

** please forgive the use of such a term. There is no intention to reduce humans to machines, but some part operates below the surface with an intelligence that uses senses and feedback that could be considered a very fine mechanistic process.

Consider simply “picking up a cup”, the fitted-ness of the cup and how my hand wraps around the handle, whilst (mostly) unconscious is a beautiful flow of sense and response. To bring that into my awareness is a rich experience which should be covered in a seperate post!

*** tears, stress, anger are mostly considered inappropriate in social situations, so we don’t value (and often ostracise) these signals.

What is One Step Beyond?

Everyone is creative. Creativity is a birthright. But we seem to have lost the art of it. 

As children, we played. Everything was a game. We made things with mud, paste and paper, our food. We didn’t think about it, compare it, keep it. It was just about the moment. 

As adults, we hold opinions of what we can and can’t do. What we are and are not. We don’t just play anymore. We think and we plan and we judge and we don’t start. The page is always blank. The journal empty. The beautiful new pens still pristine. The bag of supplies and tools unopened since purchase.

Starting is scary. Especially when you hold the opinion about yourself that you’re already no good at this. Every idea you come up with has already been done – and done better by someone else. Or by thousands of others. Instagram has a lot to answer for.

Starting

In 2019 we set up a space, open to the garden with gentle sounds of water – a creative space to run creativity workshops, to enhance a creative experience, to gradually build the creativity muscle.

There is a creative element in everything you do and think. So our initial ideas for the space included art and craft workshops, yoga and meditation sessions, music, design, photography workshops, talks and discussions, nutrition and cooking, writing and reading groups, … there was no end to the possibilities.

Stillness

Stillness is the best catalyst for creativity. A time of quiet sitting, breathing, setting aside “monkey mind” thinking or urgency, quieting my fears, all allows for spontaneity.

Stillness IS the catalyst, returned to over and over again. Stillness will always be the basis of everything we do.

One Step Beyond

So this is not about technique or skills or results. It’s about personal experience and building some creative muscle. It’s about wanting to explore the creative present. It’s about diving into the unknown, open to the possibility that awaits. 

This is what it is to take one step beyond. It’s a small thing. An unknown thing. It’s allowing yourself to trust the unknown, in a safe and creative way. To make the page un-blank.

It is about the individual, the environment and the interplay between the two, to make the experience enriching and memorable.

On to 2020

In this strange and new world we find ourselves in (with COVID-19), finding our creativity is so much more important. From cooking to exercise to amusement to work, and learning new tech to keep us feeling connected, every act of creativity is flowing positivity to the world. 

Anyone can be a blank sheet and couch surf Netflix for hours, but you can also take that breath and explore, make that sorrel sauce recipe (having grown the sorrel), tackle Banksia pruning, repot that poor Aspidistra that everyone assured you would thrive even when neglected, take up knitting, write for the joy of it, YouTube a dance class, call a different friend every day to catch up…

For us, it’s exploring how to move our next series of workshops from the physical space into the online world. We’ll keep you posted.

Stay kind. Stay safe. Stay creative.

Just to finish: Twyla Tharpe, speaking of her book “The Creative Habit – Learn It and Use It For Life” expressed her wishes beautifully:

If you’re starting, I hope it gives you the courage to take your first step and go in the direction of your dreams.

If you’re stuck, I hope it helps you get going again.

If you’re lost, I hope it helps you find your way.

If you manage to touch your heart and move even the slightest bit, consider it time well spent.
For me, “… to touch your heart and move even the slightest bit” is going One Step Beyond.

Have you heard of Super Brain Yoga?

It’s a quick and fun way to wake up both the analytic and creative sides of the brain. 

  1. Face the sun with your feet parallel to your shoulders and press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. 
  2. Pinch your right ear lobe with your left thumb and index finger. This activates the left side of your brain. 
  3. Pinch your left ear lobe with your right thumb and index finger. This activates the right side of your brain. 
  4. While pressing on both of your earlobes, squat while keeping your back straight. Do this 10 times, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. 
  5. Feel both sides of your brain wake up, charged and ready to create!

August awakens the senses 👁👄

Winter is coming to a close. Get a jump start on the awakening of Spring with some sensory outing to stimulate the creative muscle.

QVB After Dark 

455 George Street, Sydney
Throughout August

https://www.qvb.com.au/#after-dark

After Dark Tour Series – just a little spooky
After Dark Live Event – Thu 22
Heart of the QVB – an immersive installation

Cherry Blossom Festival

Auburn Botanic Gardens
Sat 17 – Sun 25
https://www.cumberland.nsw.gov.au/sydney-cherry-blossom-festival
A feast for all your senses – cherry blossom, Japanese snacks (Adam Liaw), an izakaya serving  cherry blossom flower sake.

Luminous

A multi-sensory concert experience
Sat 17 – Fri 23
https://www.aco.com.au/whats-on/2019/luminous
Singer-songwriter Lior,  photographer Bill Henson and the Australian Chamber Orchestra join for a visual and aural feast.

Genius

Post workshop palettes

I recently rewatched the TED talk “Your elusive creative genius” by Elizabeth Gilbert from 2009.  

It reminded me again of the possibilities that await if I am continually opening myself to their arrival.

Some historical background 

Ancient Greece and ancient Rome did not believe that creativity came from human beings but believed it was a divine spirit that visited human beings from somewhere.

The Greeks called these spirits “daemons” and Socrates believed his wisdom came to him from a daemon.

The Romans also believed in this creative spirit but called it a “genius”. However, they did not think that a genius was particularly clever – just a magical divine entity, who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work.

Jump to the Renaissance. People started to believe that creativity came completely from the individual. So, for the first time in history,  people started referring to an artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius. This puts an incredible demand on the artist!

Back to now

I would guess that almost anyone involved in creative pursuits, whether they be of the “agreed” “artistic” kind – painting, writing, design, dance, … – or the rest – business, parenting,  relationships, life! … has had that moment of inspiration, that spark of an idea, that gift. Being aware of its arrival can be a joy and a scramble to jot it down, capture it in that moment before it’s gone and perhaps forgotten.

The saying “First thought, best thought” also captures this fly-in spark. As a designer, I would often be gifted with this during the initial briefing for a new job. I would be scratching it down on paper as the conversation continued. Invariably, as was convention, three designs were submitted, post briefing.

Once I’d completed the gifted piece, then was the slog began to deliver up the two others to meet the brief’s requirements. But, for me, it was always that first gifted one that was the winner.

I recall rightly or wrongly, (see box below for the facts!)  a famous New York adman from the sixties saying to a client, when they requested three designs, “No. You’ll get one design – the right design.” I haven’t been able to track this down as fact – maybe it was a scene from the hit show Mad Men! ,

Paul Rand – one design only

Paul Rand on trusting that first design idea

an Interesting example – Steve Jobs approached Paul Rand and asked him to design the NeXT identity. Paul stipulated that $100,000 would be paid upfront, he would design one identity/logo and Steve would have to like it or lump it.

It takes a confident designer to take this approach, but it also takes a very confident client to accept!

Day to day reality

But most of us don’t have that kind of confidence. 

Few of us can we call upon the genius – at will and on-demand. But some of us practice to make this visit more possible.

What we can do is to be open to the moment – because you never know when the spark will come. We can be curious and keep playing with what comes our way – then we are honing our skills to welcome the genius.

Keep playing!

An antidote for earworms

Self-talk

Most of us would be embarrassed if others could hear the contents of our internal soundtrack. Our self-talk that usually focuses on self-criticism, comparison and commentary on what we see in the avalanche of images coming at us via Instagram.

Internet cat videos, TV and even reading a good book give us a holiday from ourselves and huge growth of “mindfulness” practices, youtube meditation sessions, podcasts are proof that “the west” is seeking refuge from our default mode.

Earworms

One refuge we love is listening to a favourite sound in our head. Even if that song has lots of redemptive elements (“Don’t worry, be happy” – Joe Dolce, “Happy” –  Pharrel Williams) it can get annoying when it’s clamped onto your brain like a crab claw and just…won’t….let….go.

THIS my friends is the well-known “earworm” (or “stuck song syndrome” – SSS or Involuntary Musical Imagery -IMI). People literally exclaim to their friends “I can’t get it out of my head” which also triggers people to hear Kylie Minogue singing a perfect earworm “Can’t get you out of my head” and so the infection spreads when they sing a piece of the song, the friends fill in the pieces and then it gets stuck in their head.’

I’ve asked people if they have earworms and usually say “no”. But if I check in with them a few days or a week later, they’ve suddenly become aware that songs are a backing track to their day.

Repetition exacerbates the problem – in the past “high rotation” on radio meant that songs got stuck in people’s brains. More recently playing Beat Saber on Oculus is based around very catchy music and now those songs are in my brain as soon as I wake up. As soon as I finish a task that I’ve been focussing on and head to the toilet or the kitchen – the Beat Saber song is riding along inside my brain.

So what is the antidote?

I discovered by accident that “choiceless listening” is the most natural go-to solution. This is a form of mindfulness and part of “Choiceless Awareness” (I was surprised to learn that the term was made common by J. K. Krishnamurti).

Choiceless listening is simply allowing your attention to “let in” the sounds around you – this is not a problem while you are making the bed, brushing your teeth, walking to work. I was surprised that whilst I might often be practicing “mindfulness” while doing these tasks, my focus might be more visual or tactile.

Our society is so visually overstimulated that sound is relegated to a minor part of our daily experience – we take hearing for granted – we latch onto words that people say and extract the symbolic meaning, agendas from them – we treat listening as very transactional.

So being super-simple and letting sound come into my presence is a beautiful experience – and I discovered (obvious in hindsight) that my earworm just stopped dead – temporarily.

Try it! I’d be interested to hear if it works for you – or not!

Isn’t this harmless?

Is there something wrong about songs tootling along? When you start Googling “are earworms…..”, the first suggestion while you type is “are earworms a sign of mental illness”.

This is pretty heavy stuff: the British Journal of General Practice reporting that “up to 98% of the Western population has experienced earworms” and can be “more pronounced or debilitating in patience with OCD”.

I don’t line up my socks, straighten cutlery or obsess over the jaunty angle of a painting but I carry some traits that help earworms hitchhike into my day. At the very minimum, they are consuming mental bandwidth and energy that could be conserved or spent profitably.

Do earworms stifle Creativity?

Abso-bloody-lutely. Simply put this mental bandwidth* is a precious resource. The more we are present – in the moment is our most creative and responsive state. Earworms steal from this and setup a loop that cramps out “presence”.

Two Oscar Wilde quotes make the case well:

“A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”

You might think that an earworm is “misbehaving” but it’s really just behaving entirely predictably. I love that Wilde states that “taught” is a very important part of creating. It takes discipline, presence and space. 

“The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”

An earworm aims for perfect imitation – we don’t need another copy of that song!

Other antidotes

Some other antidotes can be found here and borrow from the BJGP** article above. But I don’t think they have the same self-awareness as what I suggest earlier.

      1. Chew some gum. Chewing gum could be a good way to get rid of earworms.
      2. Listen to the song. Listening to the song stuck in your head may bring closure and may help extract it.
      3. Listen to another song, chat or listen to talk radio.
      4. Do a puzzle.
      5. Let it go — but don’t try.

* Its quite possibly earworms are an artifact of the Default mode network and that’s another very big story in the discovery of how our western brain functions (or doesn’t).

** The BJGP article references a study that comes close to my proposed antidote. Personally I think that CBT is demanding a less natural and more ritualized way of dealing with earworms, in a sense they are pathologizing it: 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is evidence-based and effective for OCD. Patients learn to replace dysfunctional thoughts like ‘These uncontrollable songs indicate I’m going crazy!’ with new, more accepting thoughts.

AND

“Non-judgemental focus and acceptance form the basis for gradually shifting attention to other voluntary thoughts or emotions…..Yet, distraction is the most common self-help method for SSS and is often effective.”

Balance

This is not new. As with everything in life, the cycles keep moving – the good times pass, but so too do the challenging ones. Over the years, this little diagram keeps popping up, in slightly different forms each time, but with basically the same help.

In some forms it divides into 4 elements – fire, water, earth and air. In others, it is action, emotions, structure and wisdom. Each of the four elements should be in balance… in a perfect life…  in a perfect world!

Over the past while I’d been feeling a bit lost, unproductive, my mind awash with ideas but not quite able to get a start on anything, resulting in a feeling of time passing by without realising anything.

I happened upon the four elements again, sandwiched in a miscellaneous folder, and relooked at it. Rarely lacking in fire/action, or water/emotions, what lit up my realisation was earth/structure – my nemesis! Yes, planning. For reasons I still don’t understand, I feel that planning robs me of my freedom. My brain knows this is rubbish, even my experiences know this is rubbish. Yet tucked away snuggly and safely somewhere in my being, it resides.

So with the warmth of fresh realisation, I started to write the important things down (important for now, anyway).  Just five loose categories, ones which cover my everyday needs as well as my creative and physical needs. Almost immediately I started to pull away from the stuckness I had felt, feeling an accomplishment of sorts. Big goals, bite-sized actions and steps. My first bite-sized step!

Relook at the 4 elements diagram. Where are you strong? Where are you out of balance? Start with one small step. Good luck.

Marie Kondo for the creative spirit

The sensation that is Marie Kondo has the magic of old truths that ring true being repackaged in a new and exciting antidote to a very common malaise – clutter.

mariekondo

Thankfully the last decade has grown a number of movements attacking the very Western (primarily North American) conspicuous consumption and excess.

These movements like: Minimalism, Digital Nomadism, Veganism all call bullshit on a fixed abode filled to the brim with lettuce spinners, outdoor furniture, a garage full of unused adult toys (exercise equipment, not the others – ahem) and wardrobes full of once-worn clothes.

marie-kondo-spark-joy-featured-image-e1445355081720-846x715

The spark in Marie’s approach is that an object must “Spark Joy” to be worth keeping. The spirit of Marie’s method is an interesting observation that you don’t decide from some ideology or “ism” – you apply your own personal emotional response as your guide.

So too with creativity!

Debilitating Clutter?

Some people defer creative action because they feel paralysed by the clutter and disorder of their workspace. 

Others celebrate being surrounded by the tools of their trade. 

The photo of Einstein below is not one of a mundane scientist but a fabulously creative thinker, his writings outside science are also worth a read. Clearly clutter was not debilitating to this creator.

Einstein at his desk, Princeton, New Jersey, circa 1955
Einstein at his desk, Princeton, New Jersey, circa 1955

Recently, popular startup investor Naval Ravikant (@naval) and clear thinker, commented that he leaves books lying around the house and picks them up when the fancy takes him – skipping through the irrelevant cruft and not fearing that serendipity comes from outside himself. Perhaps conversely Paul Graham (@paulg) gets serendipity from the chaos of second-hand bookstores.

Is internal mental clutter the actual problem?

We fixate on the external, we blame external conditions. But if we look closer it’s not the external clutter but our internal response to the environment around us that is the big deal.

If Marie Kondo tidied Albert’s office it may look great but we may have less scientific breakthroughs! So it’s clear that Albert had an exceptional ability to focus and mentate with incredible clarity to the exclusion of the surrounding mayhem. Legend is that Nikola Tesla  would complete an invention in his mind before making the project manifest in the material world.

So these people are just a snapshot – others love to write books in noisy cafes. So it’s not JUST limited to geniuses.

Creative Clutter Exercise

Self-awareness** of what triggers Marie’s state of “Sparks Joy” within is the key here.
It’s an observation that is richer than dry mindfulness. Here’s a practice you can try:
  1. If you are a grub (you like chaos and mess). Get yourself to a library or even more grotesque – a conference room. Something that is as ordered or as sterile as you can find.
  2. If you are a neat-freak, get yourself to a cafe, a gym, a playground, a food-court in a shopping centre.
  3. Now get in touch with a sense of “joy”. Write, draw or code something around you that sparks that joy. Feel this inside.
  • Can you do this immersed in an environment that you would normally whinge about?
  • Do you have enough “self-awareness” to note that the environment is objective but your criticism is just a habitual response?
  • Can you take something from this opposite (“can you find beauty in a conference room”?,  “can you find stillness in a shopping center”? I assure you I’ve experienced both – I shit you not).
Try your art with 10,000s people going nuts at Singapore's Jewel Mall
Try your art with 10,000s people going nuts at Singapore's Jewel Mall

Any benefit?

Is it possible that you’ve now strengthened your creative muscle? That you are a more creative supple athlete?

Does Marie Kondo  inspire us to throw out some old mental clutter that has been stifling our creative spirit?

Have we used external circumstances to foster self-doubt and postphone “JUST DO IT”?

We’d love to hear, hit us up!

Postscript: Sense of Completion

Many people love, love, love the thrill of a good tidy-up.

The endorphin’s of an easily achieved goal can be an addictive distraction. We have unread books, messy bedrooms, unwashed plates – they are all awesome tools in getting a “hit” of the good stuff during the day – but don’t let them thieve from your creative schedule.

Make internal space for both.

** Everyone claims "self-awareness" but have no objective proof or realization that its an onion (a topic for another blog post)