Here are some of my thoughts on inspiration, from posts I put up on our retreat website years ago. I think I’ll talk about them on a future podcast episode when I get that far into talking about my new book, “Create”.
What is Inspiration and How to Get Inspired?
Whenever there is inspiration, which translates as “in spirit,” and enthusiasm, which means “in God,” there is a creative empowerment that goes far beyond what a mere person is capable of.
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
The Oxford English Dictionary sums it up this way; as a noun inspiration is:
the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative; the quality of being inspired, especially when evident in something; a person or thing that inspires; a sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea; the divine influence believed to have led to the writing of the Bible; the drawing in of breath; inhalation; an act of breathing in; an inhalation.
Literally, from the Latin, inspiration means “to breathe into” from the verb inspirare.
So, breath is life and the creative life comes through inspiration. Carl Jung writes about this in his autobiography when he remembers carving wood in the 20s:
Only while I was doing this work did the unconscious supply me with a name. It called the figure Atmavictu – ‘the breath of life.’ It was a further development of that fearful tree of my childhood dream, which was now revealed as the ‘breath of life,’ the creative impulse.
The artist breathes in the inspiration. The “breath of life” then goes into a wood carving, musical instrument or invention or onto the page or canvas.
This kind of talk about inspiration makes some writers and artists want to thump their head off a wall. A lot of the time they see it as anything but a magical process, calling inspiration only part or even irrelevant to the creative process. As William Faulkner once said:
I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.
You can go online and find countless writers, articles and creative people commenting the same way, saying that the creative process is almost mechanical, like a mechanic greasing your car (E.B. White) or an engineer thinking about an engineering problem (Doris Lessing).
So, yes, getting to that inspired point is work. But if it is then that means we can all get there. But couldn’t it be both at the same time, work as well as allowing “spirit” to come into us?
Stendhal says something along the same lines:
Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration.
Easier said than done.
Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how frustrating this process can be. Instead of using the word inspiration though, she replaces it with “genius”:
That’s not at all what my creative process is — I’m not the pipeline! I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is that I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly. But even I, in my mulishness, even I have brushed up against that thing, at times. And I would imagine that a lot of you have too. You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify. And what is that thing? And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds, but, in fact, might actually keep us sane?
So, we need to make time, find space, be consistent, and have the intention to find inspiration by working.
What is the link between Creation and Inspiration?
Here’s the funny and inspirational Brazilian artist Vik Muniz talking about creativity and how getting shot helped him get to the US. He has a lovely clarity on the distinction between creation and creativity.
Creativity is how we cope with creation, while creation sometimes seems a bit ungraspable or even pointless. Creativity is always meaningful.
Muniz sees what we “see” artistically as creativity and what nature, the world gives us, objects etc. as creation.
Which explains inspiration again, in that it’s something that we “see” spontaneously, differently, when others don’t “see” it all.
The art critic and novelist John Berger talks a lot about ways of seeing in his book of the same name saying the process of seeing
is less spontaneous and natural than we tend to believe.
The book was based on a BBC 2 television series where Berger compares “the stillness and silence of a painting” divorced from the “religiosity” or what “people teach us about art.”
So, the link between creativity and inspiration is to make the distinction for yourself of creativity and creation. It would seem that creation is where inspiration lies, not creativity.
How does going on retreat lead to Inspiration and Creation?
Intention, then space-time.
You bring your idea, your talent and your intention. A retreat gives you space-time away from the real world, and a support system to make the most of your stay.
Then, you do the work. You do the work just like you would for your job back home.
You give that two hours every day Stendhal talked about, or whatever amount of set hours you want to give every day. You start at nine o’clock every morning like Faulkner, or even earlier in the morning as Auden did, or late at night like Dostoyevesky. You get up at the same time every day as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it and you “sweat and labor.”
The thing with a retreat though is that you will be doing this “work” with a group of people who have come here for the same purpose, a group of people who understand what you are going through.
As John Cleese says, you have to find a “space” where you can give yourself that “time” to connect with that flow, that genius, that inspiration.
Yes, this space can be created in your home or office, but what about what Cleese calls the “interruptions”: phone calls, ticking things off on lists, racing around all day? If we are talking about a sustained amount of time to really get into your project without interruptions then a retreat is far more productive.
And as Cleese says in another video on creativity if you are interrupted during your “creative state” then you lose the flow of what you were working on. Unless you create what he calls an “oasis of space-time” where there are “boundaries” of “space” and “time” then you can’t tap into creativity.
Ultimately you have to have the right conditions to be able to make the effort to get inspired. Inspiration and genius are in all of us. However, we are not all truly receptive all the time as it takes a huge effort when surrounded by the vicissitudes. It takes courage to be receptive and to create.
Places like La Muse, the retreat we created in France, are spaces designed to reduce these “interruptions.” “Quiet Hours” and the natural, tranquil setting allow for creative ideas to seed and grow.
Sure, you can optimize those conditions in your own life whether it’s with meditation or a non-negotiable writing routine, but it does help to get a boost, to say the least, by going on a retreat. Just creating those conditions at home can take years. Establishing them in a retreat and then bringing them back home with you would be even better. As opposed to having to fight through your routine to form a creative schedule you can come here and be encouraged by the example of other creative individuals in addition to having no excuses to not do your work.
What has Disconnection got to do with Creativity and Inspiration?
In the orientation materials we used to send creators before they went on a retreat, we talked about how you have to disconnect in order to get connected.
Today we’re so connected to machines, computers, TVs, phones, email, the Internet, the news, other people on Facebook… we hardly have any time to ourselves as individuals.
Our attention is always being pulled outward.
Our attention needs to be drawn back in. It is this intention, this connection we were talking about.
Connecting with yourself, with your creative self, is what you have to trust. This can be through writing, inventing, crocheting, singing or painting, to name but a few.
Being inspired and connected to yourself is one of the most important things there is about being a human. It makes life bearable, and joyful!
As the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said:
Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
Connection, or “flow” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it in his book of the same name, is the experience every creator talks about in some way.
In society the idea of being creative and getting inspired is frowned upon, so running a “business” that focuses on exactly that can’t be lucrative. Right? “You’ll never make enough money to support your family with that,” was the kind of stuff we always heard from people. We didn’t blame people for their skepticism. They just didn’t understand. Fortunately these potentially discouraging comments came to us when it was too late for us to be discouraged. We were already locked in. And so, we just had to do it. You see, we weren’t doing it to support a family. We were doing it because we believed in it.
People are educated to stay in the box. Society’s educational system is based on this broken model, that of the mathematical mind created during the utilitarian Industrial Revolution.
Ken Robinson talks wonderfully about this broken model here:
There’s a quote I love in his talk:
life is not linear; it’s organic. We create our lives symbiotically as we explore our talents in relation to the circumstances they help to create for us. But, you know, we have become obsessed with this linear narrative. And probably the pinnacle for education is getting you to college.
We were inspired by so many of the people that came to us at our retreat. One former Muser, a landscape architect and photographer from the United States, approaches his life like any of the large gardens he creates: He talks about how he turns the dirt over here and spreads compost over there. He trims the hedges on this project and spreads some seeds on that one. He does a little watering over here and weeds a bit over there. Over a period of time, he enjoys watching his projects grow. In this way, different facets of his life are consistently tended to and allowed to take their own shape.
This type of creation is not linear or square. It’s inspired. It’s out of the box. This is inspiration and creation.