The arcade game Pacman makes a perfect symbol for life in constant pursuit. How ironic it is that most people’s lives can be aptly described in this iconic video game of endless chasing and being chased.
“Not until we are lost , do we begin to understand ourselves.” — Henry David Thoreau
In life, it’s all too easy to be caught up chasing things, or being chased by them. This constant quest for success, security, approval, comfort and even happiness, can lead you into a life of continual distraction away from the present and farther from your path as an artist. We seem to be always running out of time, pressured by the demands of our jobs, the limitations of our bodies, and even the drive to achieve our dreams. We get lured into asking the silliest, most abstract questions: Can we get or achieve it? Will we get enough of it? And can we get it all in time? We divert our attention and energy on the abstract instead of focusing on what’s directly in front of us this very moment. The magnitude of frenzy before us is often so strong that our brains make an incredibly convincing case for its acceptance. We forget that the choice on what to focus on, and hence, how to live, is actually OURS to make.
In Frank Dabaront’s 1994 masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption (starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman) the characters aren’t just imprisoned by the walls that surround them, but also by their own mental barriers.
Sometimes, in order to find the answers to our questions and problems, we need to be lost, so that we can be found.
“To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present, is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” — Rebecca Solnit
It’s scary being lost, and it’s even harder to consciously “be lost.” Fortunately, as artists, we have no choice but to do so. In fact, it’s absolutely essential for us to dive into the pool of the unknown because the best ideas — those that are unique, true and meaningful — are the ones that connect and matter to us on a grand and personal scale.
From the first movable type printing system (top) invented by Pi Sheng in China around 1040, to the industrial printing press (bottom) developed by German Freidrich Koenig in 1814, the invention of published text was an invention that help changed the entire literary and thinking world.
We all know that when we’re trying too hard to find solutions, the universe always seems to do its best to hide them from us. We’ve talked on this blog already about planning, the need for hard work, and the necessity of having good routines and practices — these are all helpful for bettering our creativity, strengthening our skill and giving us confidence, but it’s not enough. Then, “what do we need to do?” you ask.
“Forget yourself.” — Henry Miller.
We need to take the self out of the equation, to forget everything about you, or that which has to do with you. It’s why our devotion to craft gives our lives so much meaning and joy — it’s outside of the ego. It’s an act of service to the art, to other people and to the world at large, both now and in the future. It’s the only way to pure and absolute freedom.
Obsessed with the living world around them, the ancient renaissance artists captured, explored, and dared to dream about the future. From human anatomy to tanks and flying machines, the great Leonardo Da Vinci, thought big and far. He playfully threw himself into both the present and the future — observing, absorbing and inventing.
What does being lost mean? What does it entail?
“Why do lovely faces haunt us so? Do extraordinary flowers have evil roots?” — Henry Miller
Follow the yellow brick road! Dorothy gets lost into the colorful, strange and magical world of Oz, all in order to find truth, friendship, and ultimately, herself. From MGM’s musical feature based on L. Frank Baum‘s book, The Wizard of Oz.
Being lost encapsulates the idea of giving in to the world, to accept that often dreaded feeling of vulnerability. Only by letting go and being open to the unknown can we see with “different eyes” and be able do something out of the ordinary and out of “habit.” Only then do we stand a chance of finding that which we can not find but are desperately looking for. If something as tangible as house keys are so difficult to locate when you want or need them, how much more futile is it to search for such abstract things as success, love, creativity, uniqueness or connection? We can only find them when we don’t pursue them. We need to have our arms and minds open to receive rather than to take.
“The wisest person trusts the process without seeking to control.” — Taoist proverb
The best ideas and solutions always come to us when we’re the most relaxed, like when we’re in bed or when we’re out experiencing the world around us. It’s why I keep notepads with me all the time, and all around my house, so that I capture those magical flashes when my consciousness catches up to their discovery. Our brain is not a muscle, but an organ, like the liver or kidneys. And thus, unlike our muscles, it’s unmoved by will or force — thinking harder doesn’t make it stronger or more effective. Rather, it works best when it’s relaxed and ready. Just like animals that have homing instincts, it’s based on a trusted, instinctive automatic system.
Laugh at the bird brain all you want but birds travel thousands of miles and back without technology. Where would you be without your paper maps or GPS navigation system? Birds are probably the freest, most mobile creatures on the planet and that really says something. From Sir David Attenborough’s documentary on the evolution of flight, Conquest of the Skies.
By getting lost, you get to wonder about things aloud and smile regardless of whatever happens next. As writer Rebecca Solnit so wistfully described, there are four kinds of “knowns” in this world: There are “known knowns” (things we know that we know), “known unknowns” (things that we know we don’t know), unknown unknowns (things we don’t know that we don’t know) and finally, “unknown knowns” (things we don’t know that we know — this last one is quite a doozy when you think about it.)
Given that revelation, do we dare to assume that our limited views and interpretation of the world around us are correct? Should we continue to commit so fully to our current path of abstract busyness and mindless pursuit, knowing that so much of what is “out there” is still a mystery, still to be discovered and understood? I believe we need more humility. We need to show more respect for the grand intelligence of the universe.
Jim Henson’s marvelous invention, The Muppets, is a quick reminder of the kind of fun and silliness the can happen if we let it.
When the questions get too deep and hard, whether artistic or personal, we know not where to go or how to proceed. The more we search or battle sometimes, the worst it gets. We fall prey to our surroundings, the noise that emanates from our insecurity or worse, the external pressures that get blanketed on top of us such as advertising and social media — distractions based on abstractions that take us away from ourselves and our joys in witnessing the world around us. We’ve become without a compass; moving constantly, fearful of what’s in front of us and disappointed with what’s already behind us.
The deluded mind is the mind affectively burdened by intellect. Thus, it cannot move without stopping and reflecting upon itself. This obstructs its native fluidity.” — Bruce Lee (likely adapted from the Tao Te Ching)
Bruce Lee was one of the most brilliantly creative, charismatic and dynamic human beings that ever lived. Unfortunately, when he reached his dreams of Hollywood stardom, those mental “abstractions” of fame, fortune and image promptly ended his freedom, happiness and ultimately, his life.
This is why it’s essential to take the moment to escape, to dive into the unknown, not just so we might find solutions to our problems, artistic or otherwise, but that we forget all of society’s noise and pettiness, if even for a short while. The treasures you find in such a journey are the bonus — a surprise that can sometimes turn out to be life changing. At the very least, you find reprieve from a life fully distracted and occupied. It’s refreshing to rediscover the world, and even better to rediscover ourselves, every now and again.
“The practice of awareness says don’t grasp it too tightly, don’t be too convinced. And in that simpler way of being… it’s okay to sometimes experience not knowing what to do next, to run into a barrier… that life has a mysterious quality to it.” — Rebecca Solnit
What is most important (and most interesting) in our lives and thus, in our art, is often the unpredictable; beautiful surprises, revelations and connections that enlighten us and bring us joy. How can we not give in to those possibilities? Why should we continue to strive at striving all the time? Goals aren’t everything. This can take a long, long time to recognize and even longer to absorb.
The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing by Vincent Van Gogh. This impressionist’s artistry always reminds me of the moment and to give in to it.
“I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Until you are willing to be lost, you will never discover the “why’s” to your life. Getting lost is so imperatively important because only then do you have the opportunity to permit yourself to get off the path, to take an outside view of it, switching perspectives so that can see whether it’s one that might not be written by you but for you. It’s all too easy to be caught in the wheel from birth and keep at a life of busyness until death. This is a VERY hard thing to realize, and sometimes even when you do, it takes a Herculean amount of courage to get off. But it’s only when you get off the path, can you see where you are and where you’re going, and more importantly, whether you should continue the same or change course. Getting comfortable with getting lost now and then, opens up the chance for you to experience the world anew – to see, hear, touch and feel things for the first time all over again. And it just might help you find what you really need on your creative path.
“… I had observed that the men who were most in life, who were molding life, who were life itself, ate little, slept little, owned little or nothing. They had no illusions about duty, or the perpetuation of their kith and kin, or the preservation of the State. They were interested in truth and in truth alone. They recognized only one kind of activity — creation. Nobody could command their services because they had of their own pledged themselves to give all. They gave gratuitously, because that is the only way to give.” — Henry Miller.