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A Big New Free Happy Unusual Life: Self Expression and Spiritual Practice for Those Who Have Time for Neitherby Nina Wise
The Art of Freedom
Remembering Who We Are
"We all want to be free. That is human nature. We want to be free from pain and suffering and limitations. If we look deeply into our hearts, we know what we want; we are in love with the condition of liberation. Our pain is the feeling of alienation or separation from our Beloved, which is this freedom. . . . But finding true nature is not for the timid. It requires courage and a sense of adventure, a fearless heart, and optimistic strength."
The Art of Freedom
It is our nature to be free and it is our nature to express that freedom, spontaneously and without hesitation, through song, and dance, and painting, and poetry, and prayer. In the same way that the universe gives birth to uncountable shapes, forms, colors, and beings in a grand panoply of flowing, changing manifestation, we, too, are of the nature to give birth to myriad forms of expression. In the same way that birds sing, and lions roar, and prairie dogs dance, and cicadas chant, and water sculpts rock, and sunsets paint the sky, we, too, are of the nature to sing, and roar, and dance, and chant, and sculpt, and paint. And we are also of the nature to pray--to give thanks and reverence to this Creation that we are an inextricable part of as witnesses and participants.
All of us are free, and this freedom is our very essence; we need not do anything at all to achieve it. But distracted by the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and who we believe ourselves to be within these stories, we forget that our essential nature is unencumbered and liberated. Instead, we enforce stringent rules on ourselves and each other, confining our freedom of self-expression to meager slots of time in rigidly defined arenas. Dancing on the sidewalk is forbidden except in the movies. Singing while riding your bicycle is forbidden unless absolutely no one is within earshot. Spontaneously talking in a French accent because your lover has just left you and you're a little depressed and feel like being someone else for a minute--forbidden. And we, ourselves, are the prison guards who keep ourselves incarcerated. So it is we, ourselves, who must open the doors and step out into the light and gaze unflinchingly at the boundless sky which is reflecting our own nature.
Freedom does not mean that we cease to feel pain, but that we have the courage to move through the depths of suffering and the pinnacles of joy alike. And as we allow ourselves to express whatever arises, fully and without judgment, we discover that what ails us transforms into what heals us, and the distinction between pain and delight fades--this is the alchemy of creative self-expression.
It is our nature to be free, but we forget, since it is also our nature to forget. Spiritual practice is a method of remembering who we are. And spiritual practice need not be restricted to sitting still and watching the breath. As Rumi says, "There are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
Reclaiming What We Have Lost
"If you don't change the direction in which you are going, you will end up where you are headed."
We speak of progress. We speak of evolution. We imagine we are moving forward, fast. But where are we going? If we look at the evidence, we recognize that as we have progressed technologically, we have systematically divested ourselves of a vital source of well-being.
Since the inception of the human species and until only decades ago, daily life was infused with art making. We crafted our own tools, we sewed our own clothing, we built our own shelters, we cultivated our own food. We sang songs that we made up, songs that were passed down to us, and songs that were given to us by the gods. We danced together matching our steps to the steps of our companions. We built musical instruments out of hides and sinew, twine and bent wood. We painted on walls and on our bodies and our implements. These creative acts enhanced our well-being as individuals, strengthened family bonds, knit communities together, and provided access to states of being that invoked insight and wisdom. We as a species cannot reside in psychological and physical health if we abandon the very activities that maintain well-being.
Everyone is creative. Creativity is our very nature. But for many of us, the creative impulse has gone into hiding. "I can't draw, I can't sing, I can't dance," we confess to each other, and we plant ourselves in front of the television for the evening. But the creative impulse that is at the core of all being remains robust within us.
Creativity is about having the courage to invent our lives--to concoct lovemaking games, cook up a new recipe, paint a kitchen cabinet, build sculptures on the beach, and sing in the shower. Creativity is about our capacity to experience the core of our being and the full range of our humanness.
The question of how to become more creative is not about learning anything, or even doing anything, but about allowing whatever arises to gain expression. To do this, we must bypass the voice inside of us that says stop. The censoring mind is clever and has an entire litany of reasons we must refrain from expressing ourselves: You are a bad dancer so sit back and watch while the skillful ones dance. And you certainly can't paint so don't even try because you will embarrass yourself. You sing off-key and you can't hold a rhythm--you will disturb everyone within earshot if you open your mouth. And if you happen to disregard this sage advice, you will make a total fool of yourself and no one will ever love you or give you a job. We obey this voice as if being guided by inner wisdom; but when we tune in, we hear a quieter voice calling out to us to express ourselves freely. This is the voice that can liberate us. If we listen and respond, our lives become rich with the pleasure creative freedom provides.
Many years ago, I learned an important lesson about the value of self-expression. I was ending a long-term relationship and spent day after day sequestered in my studio where I played a particularly sad love song over and over again as I rolled slowly across the dance floor letting the tears flow. After a week of crying and floor rolling, my heartache lifted. I was surprised by a wave of disappointment--I actually missed the romantic pain that had moved me effortlessly around the room. As I emerged from the swoon of grief, I realized that inherent in the act of art making was a relief from pain--suffering became more bearable when expressed through art.
"Art is a wound turned into light," the French painter Georges Braques wrote. Worked with as material, the very feelings and incidents that cause our suffering can be transformed through our creative acts into sources of amusement or a bittersweet pleasure. While drawing or painting, singing or dancing, writing poetry or prose, rearranging the furniture or arranging flowers, we allow our psyche a way of emerging from the dark recesses of the mind into the perceived realm of form. In the same manner that our bodies are able to heal from cuts and bruises and colds, our hearts are able to heal from emotional injuries if we find a means for healthy expression. And this expression does not necessarily require that we spend hours of time in our studios--creative expression can occur in minutes, anywhere.
I spent a remarkable afternoon with a friend recently. As we walked near his office along a mesa toward the beach, my friend asked me about my work and I told him I was writing this book. He paused for a moment and admitted in a somewhat confessional tone that the one element in his life that he feels is missing is spontaneous play. He is internationally successful, committed to his marriage and his meditation practice, but he doesn't play.
As we continued our walk, my friend asked if I would teach him one of the movement practices and I described A Moment of Movement to him. He stood close to me on a rise of white sand, and with the sky and the ocean as his backdrop, began to dance. I fully delighted in the intimate pleasure of observing his arms sweep from side to side, his back curve and arch, his knees dip, and when he finished, I applauded with genuine enthusiasm. My friend then asked me to move so that he could observe. I stood yards away and closed my eyes. I had been feeling sad due to a conflict that had arisen with a professional colleague that morning so I let the melancholy move me. My head dropped to my chest, my shoulders caved downward, my knees drooped until I fell, and I rolled slowly across the sand. When I finished, I felt lighter, and I relished the moment of release and truthfulness.
"I get it," my friend said, grinning.
By witnessing my movement, he had come to understand what I had been attempting to say with language--that when a person dances, we see not only physical movement but also the inner life of the person who is moving. And by being the mover who is watched, we allow what is inside our hearts and bodies to come out, and we feel better.
My friend and I continued our walk, appreciating the touch of sand against our bare feet, the sudden emergence of the sun from a bank of low clouds. Our conversation flowed with a notable ease, quickened by our having danced for each other. When the time came for us to return, I asked my friend if he would do an experiment with me.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Take one minute and build a sculpture out of things you find," I said.
"One minute?" he asked.
"Okay, two," I said.
He leapt up and ran to a huge plastic buoy that had washed up on the beach. I stayed where I was, sorting white pebbles from shale. When we were done, we looked at each other's art. My friend had assembled a coil of ocean-drenched rope, propped on top of the buoy by a piece of driftwood, and at the foot of the sculpture he had set the bright orange shell and turquoise claw of a crab.
There is a word in Sanskrit, I learned from an article in a music magazine (and have now unfortunately forgotten), that means the way the psyche is affected when looking at art. I have since been told that there are many Sanskrit words describing specific influences that regarding an artwork has on the mind. But in English there are no such words so we are vague about how we are affected by our gaze. Yet we feel the transformation. And we are affected not only by looking at art but also by making art.
Walking back to our cars, my friend and I paused for a moment at the top of the mesa and, looking out over the rolling waves, we confessed to each other how happy we were to have played together.
The practices we had done were easy--games that anyone can play--and took only a few minutes each. Yet the effect was profound in ways that can be spoken and ways that cannot be spoken. The games we played were not particularly unique; we have all at one time or another danced for a minute and arranged objects in a way that has pleased us. But most of us do not spend our afternoons this way, even if we are with a friend whom we love and trust and are on the beach and the sun is shining and shells and pebbles and driftwood abound.
The reclamation of our creative spirits is an easy and enjoyable journey. We only need to devote a modicum of courage and short, but regular, periods of time to find our way back to our essential nature, which is unfettered, playful, and free. The heart of most spiritual teachings is the same: that each person is born in a state of perfection, and this quality is innate to being itself and does not require that we do anything at all to achieve it. But due to personal, family, intergenerational, and cultural conditioning we lose sight of our innate wholeness, and we look to the world of things to satisfy our longing. Yet our longing can only be satisfied by turning our gaze within and becoming aware of who we truly are: radiant beings, already wise, already rich, already content. We know this, but we forget. All we need do to remember who we are is to reconnect with the freedom within our hearts, which is always there, waiting for us to come home.
"In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by mid-life it is overgrown . . . But the channel is always there, and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves."
You may decide to read this book and follow all the practices as you go chapter by chapter. If followed in this order, you will notice that the practices build one upon another so that you feel guided step-by-step through a process that unfolds and spirals.
You may read the book through and do only a few of the practices, or none of them at all, and then later when you feel the need, pull the book from the shelf the way you reach for a cookbook and turn to the section to which you are drawn. You will find that each section can stand alone.
You may read the book through ignoring the practices altogether and suddenly find yourself dancing in the living room, or singing while you walk the dog. The notions encoded in these pages can influence the mind whether you do the recommended practices or not, but you will benefit most if you engage in some form of creative self-expression on a regular basis. You might invent your own practices, or amend the ones presented here to suit your own taste.
You may pick up the book when you have an evening alone, or when you are going on a weekend getaway with a friend. You might close your eyes, flip through the pages, and land somewhere, guided by chance.
You might choose to set aside "studio time" and take an hour or two a week to do a combination of practices: movement, voice, writing, and visual.
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