Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced
as birds’ wings.
That’s part of a poem transposed by Coleman Barks in his book The Essential Rumi, written by the great Persian Sufi mystic and poet Rumi back in the 13th century.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 23 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about Limits, Genre and Numbers but today I want to talk about balance, health and a bit about notebooks. I would ordinarily split some of this up into several episodes but I feel like they’re all very interconnected so please bear with as I ramble on a little longer than usual so I can unpack what I see as the connections.
There’s a poet who goes to La Muse every year, a very wise soul. To her, poetry is a sacred practice, one of self-actualization, self evolution. When she’s stuck on a poem, she walks. When there are no poems coming, she walks. One morning she came back from a two hour hike, what she calls her “walking meditations”. She was glowing, joyful.
“Looks like you had a great walk?”
“Oh, John, it was wonderful.”
“Did something come to you?”
“Oh, yes, a whole poem. It just dropped in.” She tapped her pocket. “It’s all in my little notebook. I wrote it sitting on a rock looking at the Pyrenees.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“No,” she said, “it’s wonderful.”
She walked in the main gates of La Muse.
To me, she’s a classic creator. She gets inspired because she’s taking care of her spiritual and physical needs, which in tandem help her mental health, but at the same time focuses her consciousness on creation, and then when it comes, she has a pen and notebook on her to get it all down, in the moment.
Michelangelo, DaVinci, Picasso, Tolstoy, they were healthy creators like that poet. They created a space for inspiration, and created. I don’t mean they did yoga, meditated, ate well or had some kind of spiritual superiority complex. Maybe some did and some didn’t. It’s just a different way of looking at health. By creating, they became healthier, like my friend the poet. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as you create something, and for the majority of creators I’ve met this leads to a daily mental health regime of walking, meditating, and eating well – balance. The psycho-pharmaceutical industrial complex doesn’t want you to have this balance. It wants you to think despair, suffering and having a bad day are some form of mental illness that should be solved by a pill they’ve made. Someone in a clinic said it’s so so take a pill.
This is not schizophrenia or chronic illness but natural Walls we create to stop ourselves creating. Balance is not easy. We have to navigate the pain to create, and at times use the pain to create and feel the pain of others.
There are many ways to help balance mental health. Personally I do yoga and do some Wim Hot breathing and jump in the ocean most days. For the Irish writer and podcaster Blindboy, he runs, does weights and talks about how CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, has helped him and so many others enormously. Then there are programs, like the 12 step program of addiction.
There are many of ways of not allowing the mind to take over. A lot of people adapt Buddhist principles to suffering, or even stoic principles. They adapt to life by not trying to control what is outsideand focus what is inside. Anxiety is natural. Good and bad feelings: nothing’s that simple. Buddhism sees life as pain and suffering and that we have to sit with the suffering. Watch it. By watching it we “see” that Happiness is an illusion. For example the future of buying something to make you happy is only transitory. So, as the hippies used to say and what many have scientifically proven since, find something that allows you to: Be in the now.
Generally, not really completely down with Buddhism and stoicism as they can ironically lack christian charity, that whole Good Samaritan thing. They see kindness and community as a bit out of their world, because it’s seen as a strength in not having to reach out to others, or trying to discover meaning or purpose in the Viktor Frankel sense of meaning. One has to remain detached and yet be in the world. Basically, what I’m trying to say is to consider that stress and daily life leads to suffering, so we all need tools to counteract that suffering, a personal mental health regime. The thing is to discover some avenue for transcendence. That word transcendence actually comes from the Latin trans which means “over” and scandere “to climb”. So what is going to help you climb over, step over, transcend all this suffering?
Meditation, exercising and eat well don’t simply benefit the body. Many writers, like Haruki Murakami or Mohsin Hamid, run or walk as part of their creative practice. Gandhi’s activism created a whole new world by focusing on his own diet, meditating, believing raw food was liberating as well as cleansing, nutritionally as well as monetarily. I’m not advocating only eating raw foods to write or paint a canvas. I’m simply pointing to the fact that creative humans need balance, discipline and a health practice in order to create. Ever growing urban environments and modern technology effect our mental health even more today so that we have to pay attention to this balance. At times, this attention to balance can drive you a bit crazy, when you have so many people advising us on how to live in the world, psychologically, physically, emotionally, spiritually. But, in the end we do need out own personal balance mechanisms else we can’t create consistently.
I also want to look at balance from a different perspective, the act of creating itself. For example, if someone is not creating something, well… then they’re probably destroying something, maybe even themselves. As I said in an earlier episode Hitler stopped painting. Look what he got up to afterwards. He literally starting burning creations, books, and then people. Destruction is the complete opposite of creation, when the mind takes over, when thought structures compound against creation, into fear, then hatred. Again, mental health falls apart from lack of balance and balance comes from a healthy personal regime and creating. The word often used today, holistic. So I supposed I’m talking about a holistic way of creating.
Just look at art therapy. It actually helps with trauma, helps improve the health of so many. Professional art therapists actually exist out there, which is a beautiful thing. It allows people to imagine possibilities, to see a future that isn’t the present moment of depression or despair. The imagination can actually lead to healthy path. My good friend Tom, a Texan artist living in the south of France, talks about this, the importance of taking on a daily creative practice (for example keeping a sketchbook or coloring with your kids) and how just the simple act of creating something filters into how you approach everything else. It’s more about maintaining your “creative health” than producing something original and earth shattering. He says it’s like an athlete who trains regularly to eventually maybe win a race; the point is staying in shape and striving to improve.
I saw many creators at La Muse who came to work on a series of paintings, a novel, a memoir, but what they were really working on was trauma, trying to find balance. Creators who were abused, broken from divorces, others who had lost someone close to them. Their way of dealing with this loss? Retreating, away from the world, to a safe space, towards creating something out of the imbalance so as to try to recenter themselves, to rebalance. It didn’t matter what they were creating because whatever they created it was about the healing they found in painting, or trying to paint, or writing, or taking photographs, or simply reading and meditating on creation. So, the path of creativity can often be one of healing, and if you ask most creators, many of them will tell you that creating helps them feel better, helps them feel good, kind of like when I was talking about catharsis in an earlier episode.
Being creative makes you feel replenished but at the same time it can also exhaust you, but in a good way. Jung talks about this in his book “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”. He talks about a capital of energy every individual has, and if we are not careful we will deplete it. The creative force, he says, can drain you so much that your ego starts to create all sorts of negative qualities so as to keep your creative spark going.
Again the thing is to be balanced, so as not to expend all of our energy in one direction at the cost of the other parts of our lives. This is why it’s important to replenish yourself in a different way after being creative.
So, the two important aspects of balance?:
⁃ Be active.
⁃ Stop, relax, daydream.
Sound contradictory? They’re not. They’re simply two equal sides of a scales.
Be active: If you don’t move your body, you don’t move inspiration. Micro movements, as well as a daily practice, ritual unplug us from technology and move our body to reenergize it.
It could be walking for an hour. Aristotle walked with his students. Nietzsche got the majority of his book ideas after about three quarters of an hour hiking. Dickens’ friends used to worry about him because he used to walk so much. Kierkegaard got inspired walking the streets of Copenhagen. Then there was Einstein, and so many more. Beethoven was a big walker too, bringing paper and pen in case inspiration came, like the poet from La Muse I mentioned earlier.
Which touches on something else I want to take an important aside on as now I’ve given two examples of creators using them: Notebooks.
Da Vinci’s notebooks are still with us over five hundred years after his death. And how wonderful they are to look at. His “Vitruvian Man”, flying machines, anatomical drawings, and countless notes.
All creators need notebooks. Keep one in the toilet. Put another in the glove compartment of your car. In your handbag. Inside your jacket pocket. Beside your bed. Everywhere you regularly spend time. The point is to have them, plural.
When you’re not able to sleep at night, write your thoughts, your ideas into a notebook. They might be fantasies, but they could also be amazing ideas. They could be the seeds to a book, a gadget, an app, a song, a painting. Some people use their phone to record these seeds while they drive. Others have notebooks in their office. With time, and by a process of winnowing, you will hear the voices and thoughts, if you don’t ignore them. The quiet voice I talked about before is actually trying to inspire you.
I have a notebook for my novels. I write construction ideas into another. You want notebooks there for you, always, when you need to write something down. Why? Because they do four things:
One: they give you a daily practice.
Two: they don’t allow an inspiration to escape.
Three: they make you a creator, not a creative.
Four: they give you a safe space in which to have a relationship with yourself.
A notebook is a way, a daily practice, to create, to take the initial jump, to move from creative to creator. Some call it automatic writing. Julia Cameron in her book the Artist’s Way calls it “Morning Pages”. She writes into a journal whatever comes out on the paper, stream of consciousness, first thing in the morning, for three pages. It doesn’t matter what you write, the point is to get whatever is in you out onto the page.
The idea that you’ll remember what you thought this morning or yesterday is rubbish. If you have a photographic memory, perhaps, but first you need the photo, that is, you have to write it down or sketch it first to “see” it or remember it.
Whatever you’re into. Carnet de voyage. Bullet journals. Moleskins like Picasso and Hemingway used. I use small legal pads.
Over time, if you do it every day, you start to realize what notes are what. Some of it might be just rubbish. In the beginning it could be dreams, things that happened in the past, the present, something you read. It doesn’t matter. You just write it down. This idea I’m talking about right now came out of the notebook I used keep in my truck in France. Most of this book came out of my notebooks. Where do you think I got the idea for this chapter? From the notebook I was writing into.
Pinterest is an example of how powerful notebooks and journaling are. Why? Because it’s like being able to pry open the private journals and notebooks of countless other creatives and creators.
Whatever comes into your mind, put it down. Don’t edit. Just write, sketch, document. Don’t investigate what you’ve created. Don’t edit a paragraph you’ve just written, a design you’ve just created. Just do the work. Questioning, editing, refining, can be done later. Be easy on yourself, and the work will come.
Write down things people say, or the things you see around you. Then look and read between the lines, later. The inspirations are there, hidden in those pages. Sketch. Doodle. Draw maps, bugs. Collect leaves, crushed flowers, pieces of your day.
Do it for a set amount of time. Soon, it becomes second nature to go into a notebook. When I’m waiting in a car, I go into a notebook. On a train, plane, subway, in the toilet.
Don’t get precious about them either. You can get precious about how they look, but don’t get precious about what you put in them. If you do, you’ll start editing yourself. Again, write, don’t edit. They’re there to catch your inspirations, not to analyze them. Oftentimes what we think is rubbish today is an epiphany in the weeks or months from when you wrote down your idea. If it’s relevant to a construction project then write that. If it’s relevant to a novel, poem, invention write that. Why? Because in a couple of months when you come back to write up all those notes you’ll get inspired again while inputing them. The most important thing is to just write down your idea, phrase, words, when they come to you. If you don’t, they’ll fly away. You won’t remember them. Don’t think, just write. If you think too much you’ll forget what it was you were about to write down. Don’t let them escape.
So, go buy some notebooks, now. They are your space-time for creation. That’s all it takes to get started.
Right, getting back to my point: balance, consistent balance, and how personal health and balance can make your creative world consistent. If you sit at a computer all day you’ll lose your mind in the wrong way, and your health and balance.
So stop, relax, meditate but also daydream: Archimedes discovered the displacement of water when he stepped into a bath. He was relaxed, not thinking, when inspiration came. In his excitement he ran through the streets of Syracuse, naked, shouting “Eureka!” “I’ve found it”, a word now synonymous with discovery and invention.
Einstein sailed. But, he always brought a notebook! Like Archimedes, it was his way of relaxing, letting go, so inspiration could come. Some creators like Henry Miller paint when they can’t write and write when they can’t paint. He even wrote about this in: “To Paint Is to Love Again”. Painting is just another form of recharging your batteries. Using a different part of your brain allows other parts to rest, and replenish. Miller’s creative energy was replenished by a different form of creation, painting.
Sleep helps too. I take a fifteen minute “sieste” nearly every day after lunch, like most of the people in the south of France. I always wake refreshed. This makes complete sense if you research sleep, the first fifteen minutes being quiet sleep, not the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or active sleep which occurs afterwards.
In his book “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship”, Salvador Dali writes about this magic of napping. He said it was a secret of his greatness. The man called himself a genius quite often. He called his method “slumber with a key.” He would sit in a chair in the afternoon with a big old key in between his thumb and his forefinger, a plate on the ground underneath, and fall asleep. The key would fall out of his hand, hit the plate and wake him up. He writes that this brief nap was all he needed for his physical and psychic being to get replenished.
World leaders stop in the same way, as do inventors like Thomas Edison. Ronald Reagan was famous for his naps. John F. Kennedy napped every day after his lunch. His wife, Jackie, actually got Lyndon Johnson to nap too. Winston Churchill napped daily. Napoleon, and generals like Stonewall Jackson, napped, even amidst a war, because they believed it helped them regenerate and be able to think creatively.
If you think about it it makes sense. After eating a meal your body needs to relax and use its energy to help digest your food. Also, by decreasing your heart rate and allowing sleep spindles to occur you get to replenish yourself mentally. Your head becomes more clear, balanced.
“Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney in a dream. When we sleep we imagine, literally. Images come to us. Intuition comes. “Frankenstein” came in a dream too, as did the general theory of Relativity. Mary Shelley woke in 1816 with the images of a man in pieces being put together. Einstein dreamed of cows getting electrocuted and arguing with a farmer.
As I said before, I do yoga. I meditate. Why do I waste my time with an hour and a half of yoga and meditation every day? Why do I waste half an hour going for a walk? Because it’s not a waste of time. It’s an investment in time. The benefits come when I sit down to write. I’m clear. I have energy. I feel more balanced. And I get inspired more often. On my walks, characters, scenes, phrases come to me. Doing yoga I write into my notebook. This very idea was written on a yoga mat.
When writing, every twenty minutes I get up, take off my glasses, walk around my office. Well, I try, and am successful most of the time, enough to keep me clear. This is not my advice, this was the advice of my osteopath. I kept putting out my neck and hips because I didn’t move from the same position for hours on end. Then when I moved I got “bloqué” as they put it in France. Because my body wasn’t supple I put vertebrae out all the time.
The body is needed, to get your work done. So, you have to take care of it, even if it’s only at the minimal level. It has to be balanced. So be active, but remember to daydream or take a “sieste” at the same time. Get bored, take some downtime.
When we were kids growing up in Ireland the national TV station didn’t come on until the afternoon. There were no iPads. No iPhones. No kids said “I’m bored.” Because as soon as you said you were bored you were told to weed the garden or get outside and school through the fields. So we’d scale trees and jump ditches and chase cattle and go on adventures. We’d get creative. When you’re bored, you get creative. You start to doodle, again, into a notebook! You start to play, like we did when we were kids.
In my earlier episode on School and Education I mentioned an interview with the Irish writer Alice Taylor, when she talked about children and the Imagination. Here’s that quote again:
“The glory of childhood. Children have their own magic. I have my own grandchildren… [We] have to give them time to be children, not to cram their lives with too much activity. I don’t mind them getting bored. I think it’s good for them to be bored. They start exploring then, poking around, and using their imagination. I think that’s our greatest gift, our imagination. As Blake said “Imagination is evidence of the divine”.
Now kids have 24 hour cable news with all these gross reactive emotions being continually foisted upon them, storm of the century, another war coming, someone killed. Jesus, when I was a kid I’d no idea what was going on in the world, I was too busy creating my own worlds out in the fields. Even when a kid goes into their bedroom they can’t escape the TV. Their phones start pinging them with notifications about banal rubbish, which is now seen as the natural human weather. All the time has to be filled in, instead of not being aware of time, out in the fields hanging from trees. Yes, we were bored out of our minds in those fields, but they made us work our imaginations. We had to be creative to keep ourselves preoccupied, to play. Now being bored is seen as somehow unhealthy, unbalanced. This is bullshit. I think boredom is wonderful. But when does it happen now? Does it? Are we allowed to get bored, to daydream now? It’s almost impossible. If we’re not on the internet reading about the internet or whatever the hell we’ve been directed to from some feed, then we’re checking the weather app on the phone to see what the weather’s going to be tomorrow, or how far away we are from the store on google maps. It’s a farce when you think of it. You’re not allowed to get bored, not allowed to daydream. You almost have to make a concerted effort to get bored. Perhaps there should be classes, workshops on boredom! How to get bored. How to get in touch with your inner boredom. It sounds mad, right, but isn’t that where we’ve gotten to? When’s the last time you stared out the window like you used to do when you were in school as a kid bored out of your mind by a subject or teacher that didn’t inspire you? Or is your daydreaming and boredom being taken up by blue screens? How are we supposed to get inspired if we’re not taking the time away from devices, and this whole getting busy being busy activity. What’s wrong with staring at the clouds, without taking a photo of them with your phone? Unless you’re taking a photo of them so you can paint them because of the way they look in the beautiful light.
Daydreaming is important. It’s another ingredient to balance and health. Because daydreaming is to your brain what sleep is to your body. Daydreaming allows you to synthesize what you’ve already created, allows it to cook. Also, it allows you to start the process all over again, creating the space to get inspired again. So at the end of the day, relax. Pause. You worked. Enjoy a hike, a glass of wine. Play the violin like Einstein. He actually said some of his greatest physics breakthroughs occurred when he took a break. He saw it as connecting different parts of his brain in novel ways. Walk like an Auden, or fish like a Hemingway but stare at the stars like Wilde said in his oft used quote: “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a Persian mystic, but as always I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one is well known in English too. It literally means:
Health is better than wealth.
Is fearr an tsláinte ná na táinte.
This podcast is supported by you the listener via my Patreon page. If ya want to support the podcast and help me get paid for doing it then please head over to patreon.com/johnfanning where you can get early and ad free access as well as extra episodes when ya sign up. Ifya can afford it then give me the cost of a price of a cup of tea or pint once a month. Ifya can’t afford it that’s grand too, ya can listen for free, but please subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to it and leave a review on itunes too or wherever ya listen to it and let your friends know about it so the listenership grows. Thank you! And thanks for listening. If you’re looking for more episodes you can find them on all the usual places like iTunes – or on my website at johnfanning.me under “podcast” where I’ve put up overview transcripts with links to all the people and ideas I mention. If you’re into social stuff and you’re looking to engage with me one-on-one, check me out on twitter @fanning_j and instagram @ johnfanning_. It’s been great sharing stuff with you today so until next time take care out there and do the work but above all be benevolent when you can!
Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.