When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
That was a favorite poem of mine, “The Peace of Wild Things”, by the American poet, environmentalist and farmer Wendell Berry.
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 25 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about Process, Retreats and Dark Nights of the Soul, but today I want to talk about distractions, awareness and sacredness.
Philosophy used to be a way of life. Now, it’s something studied by experts so as to teach new experts. Aristotle, Plato, Heraclitus, Lucretius, all the ancient philosophers didn’t study philosophy, they practiced it. It was a way of living. Buddhists and philosophers of the East call it meditation or as the wonderful Thich That Hanh would put it being Mindful. For the most part we would maybe call it thinking about thinking over here in the West, allowing ourselves to lose our minds instead of being Mindful. We’re not so much out of ours minds but too distracted by the thoughts inside our heads instead of being aware of those thoughts, aware.
As with Blake, and Plato’s cave, when I talked about them in episode 16, Doors and the Cave, when I first talked about Doors, you open the door to a new reality, a new awareness when you start to question the system or systems, the Walls, you’ve been conditioned to think are real when you become aware they’re really distractions, not something personal and sacred, but shadowplay on the walls of a cave. We have to step out of the cave, out of what Blake called the cavern, to really see, to see the light, to become the perceiver in order to really create, much like Wendell Berry talks about in his poem I just read, into what he calls the “peace of wild things”.
But there’s another layer to this, to awareness. Awareness is when we ask the question: Can the perceiver be perceived? This is the furthest we can go as a creative human being, out of the cave, away from the binary, the opposites, the duality of this world, into awareness. The door which opens nearest to this reality is when we ask the question: Can the perceiver be perceived?
Everything we see in front of our eyeballs, all these sensory objects, everything, that’s us the Perceiver, perceive this world in front of us. And then, behind the eyes we perceive another reality, one of feelings, and thoughts, and memories. What Blake really meant was when we become aware of the other Eye with a capital E, or Eyes. Not this conscious state of eyes open, and eyes closed perception. Not the external and internal states. Instead the door to awareness is when we create an openness to whether the perceived is a something or a no – thing.
Is this awareness? It can’t be some kind of intellectual door, some kind of philosophical/intellectual level perceiver, because that’s biased, a bias perspective.
When we open this creative door what happens is that the perceiver and the object of perception both appear at the same time… and then this language disappears. We’re silent when we become aware of the vastness of awareness, the real Perceiver. Language is no good for describing the experience, the awe of awareness. The binary mind wants to hold on, maybe say what the experience is not, but language doesn’t work for the realization. It’s like a train. The train is running, and this question: Can the perceiver be perceived? slams on the breaks of the train/mind but it keeps moving, even when there’s no energy being injected into it. It takes time to stop. So when we are in awareness, the thoughts, the mind keeps fighting to try to explain what is happening when it cannot explain this open door. Identity, language, they lose their power. So awareness comes when we wait, when we meditate and wait for the mind, the train, to exhaust itself. The ego and body want to keep moving, that way they are moving, they exist, but when you stop, become aware, whether it’s looking at a duck like Wendell Berry and calling awareness the grace of the world, or whether we call it awareness, what we are conscious of is that awareness is outside of the body and in it, everywhere, because it’s the end of the ego. The brakes of the train are the beginning of the end of the ego, when you sit down and watch, when you embrace the world by doing nothing. The ego doesn’t want you to do nothing, it wants you busy, to keep moving, attaching you to fear, what I called the Wall of walls in earlier episodes. The ego mind wants you to attach to attachment, personhood, the country you come from, the role in your family, how much you earn. Awareness? The opposite. It’s nothing, and everything, the witness, the Perceiver, but also the perceiver of the perceived and then it’s nothing again. It exists, and exists when we watch, when we perceive without the ego and the body. This is the door Wendell Berry opens in his poem. Stillness, not insecurity. Peace, not fear. Infiniteness, the infiniteness of the open door, identity, personhood, victimhood, “despair for the world” as he put it, nowhere to be seen. The grace he talks of is the grace of awareness, the great creative act, the stability of awareness. He sees, but not with his eyes. Instead he awakens into awareness by trusting what is really in front of him.
The despair of the world Berry talks of wants the fear to enter into us, not the awareness. The fear wants to close the door to awareness, build walls all around your consciousness. It wants you to fail again, not trust awareness to open doors, instead of creating walls of polarities. Berry, to paraphrase his words, “for a time” rests “in the grace of the world” and is “free.” He is free because he is experiencing pure absolute awareness, a joyous emptiness, the infinite.
This is a gift. This is grace. A gift from doing nothing, and that can only open in an experimental way, a creative doing, and this knowing is only experiental. You only arrive and rest in the grace of the world when you are aware of awareness, when you open the door to one of the most creative questions there is: Can the perceiver be perceived?
This awareness, this Mindful way of being which Berry and so many before him like Blake and others, is why this creative form of awareness is often understood as something sacred. To say it’s sacred means it’s something to be honored in a sense because we have to honor aspects of our self to be in the world in a Mindful way. One of these aspects is creation and this is why we have gods of creativity in every continent. In Ireland, an example would be Brigi or Bríg, who Christianity would have colonized as Saint Brigid. Called the Exalted One you could see her as an adaptation of the dawn goddess, dawn being another symbol of creativity because She creates the day from the darkness, delivering us from darkness you could say, out of that classical cave of Plato again. Bríg is associated with healing, Spring, fertility and poetry and smithcraft. An even more famous example would be the Muses, who we named the rooms in our retreat after, as they represented different Muses to certain arts. Even someone like Hephastos can be seen as representing aspects of creation. He literally forged, created, beautiful jewelry, objects and weapons. Then there’s Hathor and Isis in Eqypt, the Aztec gods who names I can’t pronounce, the Hindu goddess Saraswati, Athena, Apollo, Dionysus, or Lono in Hawaii.
If we don’t respect these aspects of ourselves, the creative aspects, then we are punished in some way. These aspects, or Gods are internal aspects of our creative selves that are expressed in external manifestations and stories, each religion having it’s own creation story, and then its own gods to honor so as to receive inspiration and creativity into your life. When people take these stories literally then they lose the profound insights and inspirations, the door to sacredness and awareness these stories are trying to tell us about ourselves, away from the distractions of blue screens, and other mental dross. Wendell Berry says it better to me in another poem. This one is called “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself),” found in his New Collected Poems. It goes like this…
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
We used to always ask the ancestors for help with awareness. We’ve lost this sacred silent speech. The Romans used to have lares, the spirits of your dead family which meant acknowledging and honoring them daily. The Zen Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh who I mentioned earlier has this same awareness of those who went before us. The Roman had this kind of cupboard as a shrine in their home, the lararium, with little statuettes, the spirits of the family and spirits of the home as well as lares who protected the community. Daily prayers and offerings were made to the lares during the year. Again what Berry wrote:
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
And what takes us away from this silence, this creative awareness? Noise in all its forms. The Walls of blue screens, social media: all electrifying, disturbing the silence. Day to day activities can be distractions too, walls, but since the introduction of the iPhone today’s teens in America are much more likely to say “A lot of the time I feel lonely” or “I often feel left out of things” according to a book written by Jean M. Twenge. She writes that teens are nearly always connected but are growing up less rebellious and less happy, being completely unprepared for adulthood. They’re also getting less sleep because they’re always on their devices, a lot of them bringing their phones to bed with them, irrespective of the fact that they need them for an alarm, but more because it makes them feel better.
At our retreat in France one of our American artists used to have what she called a technological sunup and sundown. She switches devices off before she paints and at least an hour before she goes to bed. She gets a lot of painting done. We, especially the younger generation, have to be like her — bookend your day. Like the beginning of your work day, no blue screens for a period of time, so the brain knows it has to slow down, rejuvenate itself. As a naturopath told me once, you have to train the brain, body, to decompress. It takes time. It doesn’t happen in a day or two. It’s like the train I talked of earlier. If it’s been driving fast all day and you slam your feet on the brakes, then you’ll come to a sudden, shocking stop. If you ease your foot gently on the brake, you will eventually come to a standstill. To Stillness. You can’t get to stillness immediately. It’s gradual, trained. In Ireland, just like every other country, there was always the seomra ciúin, the quiet room, where you sat beside the fire and crocheted or read. We’ve lost these quiet rooms, these quiet sacred spaces. Noisy screens have invaded them.
Capitalism doesn’t value stillness. It values speed, constant motion, again, the high speed train. Technology has sped everything up, but you can’t speed up the Imagination. The imagination works with the presence of stillness. Stillness is not online. If you are online you’re not in line with Imagination. As I said in an early episode on Imagination, Imagination literally means “to picture oneself”, to image oneself, to imagine oneself, which is a real understanding of creation, to investigate and picture from yourself, create from your images, your memories, your imagination, a visionary Blakean place where visions create mental concepts that are not actually tangible to the senses, but are there, present, nevertheless, coming out of the sacred silence of awareness.
You can’t imagine a new reality if you’re online in the noise of the Internet, a place that wants you to produce the next thing now, and again in a few months, not in years. Productivity is not the field of Imagination. More products, more books, paintings, creations, afforded by the advent of the ever increasing speed of the Internet is not the path to the Imagination, but the path to commodification and capitalizing on product, not art. The so called disruptors really are that. They disrupt the imagination with their Amazonification of our Imaginative worlds.
Speed is everywhere but I still like to think there are people who value time, taking time to create something in silence out of the silence in a prayerlike state of awareness what some call flow. If the form in which we share our images, canvas, wood, disappears we’ll still have the image, it’s narrative or lack of narrative. If book objects transform, from paper and ink into ebooks then we’ll still have the narrative, the poem, the story. Why? Because ever since our beginnings around the silent, quiet, crackling cave fire we have told each other stories to understand ourselves, our rites of passage, our common thoughts, sensations, feelings and emotions and spiritual evolutions. We all still need the stillness, away from the digital noise. Even after overdosing on blue screens we always know we are hankering after stillness.
In economics they have the concept of velocity of money, where the poor spend everything they earn or have, and oftentimes much more than that, and where the very rich can never spend all the money they have because it’s always making money. So money is about speed too, literally, where time is money. If you’re unable to invest some of what you earn then you’re literally living in the fast lane, to use another cliche. So, as I talked about in the episode on capitalism, how are we supposed to live in a society where most of us are forever speeding along to try to decrease the velocity of our spending. The question then would be to ask whether there’s a velocity of creativity, a velocity of the Imagination, because some are able to take the time to invest in their creations where others it is very difficult.
If you go to bed straight after being on blue screens, after working, after being frenetically active — after too much time on the fast train — how do you think your brain is going to react? It’s going to keep you awake. It needs a ritual, a habit, a sacred space like the Romans, in front of a cupboard, or Berry, where the wood drake rests, to slow down. And the next day, will you be able to get back to your work, revived, ready to put in another good day? No. Not if you don’t bookend your day.
Drugs, alcohol, all the rest. They’re seen as addictions. What the Buddha called “cravings”. So are blue screens. If you wake up in the morning and start texting then how are you supposed to create? What are your distractions? What do you do first thing in the morning? Do you watch the news? Read it on Twitter, Facebook? Do you answer email? Your mind/ego loves the Internet. As soon as you go online, you’re lost. Creation goes out the window.
Are you a suffering artist? Do you get drunk to create? Do you smoke like a train? I used to do both. I thought it was part of my identity as a writer. Well, it’s bullsh*t, a myth I created for myself after seeing what other writers got up to. Negative myths are a distraction from the work. Again, it’s all about balance. Alcohol in moderation can actually be good for you. Look at all that resveratrol French and Italians get when they drink red wine. Look at how a glass of wine can chill a person out at the end of a day.
So, no blue screens in the morning, unless you’re creating with them. There are even programs you can download to stop you from being able to go online. Take the first 30 minutes to let the problem, chapter, painting, business plan, construction project sit in your head, as you meditate, drink your coffee, do your yoga. Something may not come every time, but the more you train your brain, the more inspiration will show up.
It’s a win-win situation. Why? Two reasons. You get back wasted time, and you start doing what you love. Then genius, your subconscious, inspiration has the space to appear.
Another way of looking at it would be to ask the question: What do you do when you’re stressed? Do you go down the YouTube rabbit-hole? Do you get sucked into the Facebook feed? How about using that time, when stressed, to turn to what you love, to create. Meditate on it. Sit with it in that silent sacred space.
If we add up all our little distractions minutes become hours become days. They become a huge hurdle to getting creative. Protect yourself from distractions with bookends and what some call technological avoidance tools, behavioral architecture?
So basically, awareness is one of greatest anti-distraction tools we have. Distractions are systemic, from small systems to larger ones. We have to become aware of the systems and share that awareness with each other, even if it’s disagreeable and difficult to talk about because of the conditioning we’ve all been “educated” by. Through awareness of the systems, institutions, we can then have compassion for other human beings who have never read about, discussed or experienced these distraction systems with awareness. Then we can bring awareness to the personal, to observe what’s right in front of us. All the mystics of every religion return to this. Every poet practices it. Great creators inspire their creations with it.
So, for one minute go to your sacred space and in silence do any of these: Meditate. Watch. Listen. Do an asana. Breathe.
I know. Today, a lot of people are afraid of solitude. You don’t want to be alone. It’s not acceptable. So many of us are so afraid to be alone with ourselves that we create noise all around us: TV, social media. Diversion, noise, keeps us from being aware.
It’s very simple. Switch the noise off, but how many of us do it?
For a poem it could be the red flower in the nettles, the accidental sunlight on a stem or stone in winter. For isn’t that what reality is, something fleeting, never all the time, but moment-to-moment, something that just happens when we’re busy doing something with our lives, whether it’s experiencing the birth of a first child or meditating on the blooming of a flower or idea. It appears.
Of course this is hard to do today, because people are so busy being busy, which reminds me of Kierkegaard’s quote in “Either/Or”:
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.
When you get out of the way, when you meditate, listen, watch, the little voice of inspiration will come. Many creators do this when they are with other people. They’re quiet. Why? Because they watch and listen to others, then transform what they’ve seen into novels, philosophies, business plans. Novelists and screenwriters are notorious for this, especially when it comes to dialogue.
So, you make the effort, because it’s an effort to train your mind, to develop awareness, what some call mindfulness, to be more loving to what is all around us, and then let the work lead you. If you show up consistently, with your awareness, then so will inspiration. And anyway, as Picasso put it, if you know exactly what you’re going to do, what’s the good in doing it?
Document your moments of awareness, what Aristotle called each “moment of being”. These moments can be transformed into creations, the painting of the fisherman’s line about to touch the water on a lake, Cartier-Bresson’s “Man Jumping Over a Puddle.”
Be aware of what is around you. Engage those realities with your awareness. Why? So they become inspirations to your creation, not Walls. Picasso painted “Guernica” because of the horrors of war. Tolstoy wrote “Anna Karenina” because he wanted to understand, after reading a newspaper article, why a woman would throw herself under a train.
With awareness creators create their own worlds, their own “system” as William Blake called his own mythical creation. To Blake, and later Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others, awareness meant recognizing myths and their powerful interpretations and meanings, how they allow the individual to evolve. Blake’s awareness manifested itself in his wonderful mythic poems and engravings.
It’s about watching how your thoughts and emotions create Walls within your reality, wherever you live. By being aware of what it is your mind is doing you can find ways to move through the walls, away from what Nietzsche called “the herd-instinct”.
Creation comes when we become aware that the rational is not all there is. If we are aware enough, “irrational” enough, if we get inspired, mad, we create the world anew again. We re-create meaning out of the seemingly meaningless.
I know I’ve been going on a while now but there’s one last thing I want to address as far as sacredness and awareness are concerned when we create.
“The Song of the Partisans” is sacred to a good friend of mine. It was the most popular song of the French resistance fighters in World War II. Her uncles were resistance fighters. Her father was in a POW camp, and a concentration camp. It’s a song about the life and death struggle for national liberation. They almost made it the national anthem in France after the war.
When I told her Leonard Cohen had created his own version of the song she was outraged. To her, this was sacrilegious. It denigrated her family, their resistance to fascism. This is a very calm and intelligent women. But this upset her. She said people died to write that song about people who died for liberty. She said there should be a law against profaning creations like that. It’s a lack of respect for the love, the sacrifice all those people made during the war.
The Romany gypsies in the south of France are the same with their religious music, which is extraordinarily beautiful. When some of them recorded their music and released an album the rest of their people were outraged. To the gypsies, the music is sacred.
The word sacred literally means “set apart”, in Latin. So, what is set apart to you? What is sacred to you? Whatever it is, it’s probably a good place to create from, a good place to be aware from. You create what Heideggar calls a clearing, a place to think, pure thinking, not declaring anything, a placeless place apart from the noise where you can have an opening, a lightening, where openness allows you to shed light, where everything that becomes present and absent at the same time, an opening in the forest, set apart from the rest of the trees.
A lot of creators talk about the revelatory experience of creating, about it being a holy experience. A creation, like “The Song of the Partisans”, can be a sacred creation to a creative, not just the creator creating it.
You can pray to the Muses, like the Romans, Greeks and Homer did. Or, don’t pray to anything, but honor something, the memory of someone you loved. Honor yourself. It’s better than honoring medals, windfalls or awards, especially when you’re trying to create. With honor and awareness a creation becomes sacred, meaningful, important, not just to you but to everyone.
So thanks for listening. I started with a poem from a great American writer and activist, but as always I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. It literally means:
God never closed a door without opening another one.
Níor dhún Dia doras riamh nár oscail Sé ceann eile.
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.