You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
When attempting to put pen to paper, or brush to canvas, or fingers to string all artists face that moment commonly referred to as writer’s block. The blank page is void that seems impossible to fill, or there is simply the sense that the Muse has left you. As you begin to search for topics of inspiration, the clock ticks on the wall, and you begin to question what you are doing with your time. Large projects like a novel may take up years of your life at great personal sacrifice, so the question of what is worthwhile to work on inevitably comes up. Usually this isn’t for a lack of ideas. An artist doesn’t spend years of cultivating methods of creative inspiration and perfecting a craft only to suddenly find that he has no ideas. Rather, the problem is that ideas that once seemed worthwhile are no longer attractive.
Returning to the concept of a novel, if you are a professional writer, someone who makes his living solely on the income made through your novels, you most likely have a brand or characters who are your intellectual property. The question of what is worthwhile may never surface, because your motivation for completing the next book in a series is to manufacture something that will help pay off your mortgage. Imagine now that you are not a professional writer, but that you are a contract technical writer who is paid for examining design documentation and working with developers to translate the information they provide into a manual to explain to the client’s customers how to use a piece of software. There are most likely scope changes and delays on the client’s side often causing you to work longer hours without an increase in your pay. At the same time, your wife and children constantly need your attention and juggling the balance of what you must do to be a good provider to your family and what you must do to be a good husband and father seems impossible. You would like to sit down to write, but now all the stress from your work has your family demanding that you carve out the time and money from a nonexistent budget so that everyone can have some time to relax and get away from it all. The build up to the vacation has you pulling your hair out, because you are now working extra hours to try to finish your project in time for your vacation, but the client comes back with yet another scope change, and you realize there is no way to get this done other than to work through your vacation, despite your promises to your wife. During the trip the two of you fight, except when you are in the same room with the kids, and then the frustration is filled with a cool silence that despite your best intentions will damage your children’s’ perceptions of marriage for decades to come. The entire time you’re thinking, “I wish I could use this time to write,” but instead your vacation is spent fighting or acting like you aren’t fighting, or finishing the project that should have been done weeks ago. When you get back home your wife is convinced that you don’t do a good job prioritizing your work, and that if you were just a more efficient writer you would be able to be present with your family. The project you were working on over your vacation is now done and the next project is just starting up, so you finally have a little more free time. You resolve to get up an hour earlier every morning before the kids have to get ready for school, hoping that you can write. You wake up the first morning, and you turn on the computer. That blinking cursor on the white page stares back at you, and you think, “This had better be good”.
This is how it starts, and it may be an extreme example, but the pressures of life affect all writers eventually. When faced with that one shot to do something decent, your willingness to experiment diminishes. Given that play is such an important part of the creative process, these pressures have a significant effect on the quality of what you produce. More serious is the pressure to do something that is significant. The first question you ask yourself in this situation is whether significant means being profitable or profitable enough to get you out of your current situation, to be critically acclaimed, or to do something that will be culturally significant, even if it isn’t recognized in your time. This conversation goes back and forth in your mind, all the while staring down at a white screen when you notice that it is almost half past. You come to an agreement with yourself to put aside what kind of market you are targeting and instead resolve to just do something good. You think about all the things that interest you. Maybe you’ll write a fantasy novel, except the market is inundated with those, and writing another book about elves and dwarves certainly isn’t going to create a book for the ages. Then, you ask yourself, “What is? Is there anything that ought to be written? Is there anything that can be said now that hasn’t been said?”. You want to give that some thought, but there’s only ten minutes left, so you hurriedly begin the introduction to a work about the life of a technical writer who suddenly decides to leave his family. Then your time is up, and you think, “I don’t want to leave my children. I don’t want my wife to see this. Besides, the style is horrible, and I’ve somehow managed to make myself look like a two dimensional character.” You delete the file and turn off the computer. You’re frustrated that after all that you couldn’t come up with anything good. You are somewhat relieved though because you’ve started to convince yourself that this whole thing is a waste of time. You don’t have what it takes to be commercially successful, and you’re also starting to think that this whole writing thing is a waste of time.
The next morning you get up late, ignoring your writing session. You do the same thing the day after that, which is fine but after running an errand on your way home you look at the sun shining off the mirrored windows of an office building, and you think to yourself, “What if people could share emotions with each other? Not just the feeling but all the experiences that caused that feeling.” It sounds like a good premise for a short story, but then you remind yourself that you’ve been down this road, and the whole thing is a waste of time. You think that maybe it would be useful to explaining something about human relationships, that if you could list out all the reasons that made you feel a certain way that the other person would have an easier time understanding why you did what you did, and you could better understand why her demands seemed so unforgiving. The problem is, this idea is only a short story at best, and you can’t get any decent kind of money for a short story. Even if you could, it would be a one off to a small literary magazine and nothing would come of it. Are you really going to risk your job and family for a short story? And that’s where you leave the idea. And you step away from your writing again. Days later there’s another idea, and the cycle starts again.
We all want to do something good, to create something notable, to take a shot at greatness. Not everyone has the same opportunities though. In the 19th century you either needed an inheritance or patronage to be an artist. Today, the situation isn’t as black and white. Who creates and who is an artist is more a question of intent. The advantage is that more freedoms are available for those who wish to express themselves. The tragedy is that this opportunity brings with it greater stress than has been experienced by artists of previous eras. You want to be competitive with the great men and women who have established our culture, but you don’t have the same resources. The result is that you are more parsimonious with your time. You question what is worthwhile before making an investment. You limit your time playing, experimenting, learning, and perfecting your craft. After all, if its not going to lead anywhere why do it? And it isn’t just you who puts this pressure on your work. Your family and friends want to know why you spend so much time alone with nothing to show for it. Under these circumstances, nothing you do can be worthwhile.
That isn’t to say that no one has done anything worthwhile. What would Protestant Christianity look like without the Gutenberg Bible? What conception of the individual would we have without Shakespeare? What would science look like without Newton’s calculus? What would modern art be without Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Starry Night? What would industrial reforms have been without Upton Sinclair? If you believe that the human endeavor is important, then you have to believe that creative acts are worthwhile. What you don’t believe, what you shouldn’t believe is that sitting alone in a room on a Saturday night will allow you to create the same kind of milestone works as the giants whose shoulders you stand on. Great works are owned over time, and they are the product of mastery.
Yet, if these works are so great, if we are on the shoulders of giants, how much higher can we possibly go? If the work of those that have come before us creates our culture what hope do we have? Is there anything left that can done that is culturally significant? This view of life relates culture to a giant Ponzi scheme. If you weren’t in on the ground floor, you’ve got no way to make it, and sooner or later the whole thing is going to bust and we’ll look back at it as the big meaning to life bubble of the twenties. Like all hyperbole, there is some truth to this. We refer to Western religions as Abrahamic, not Jacobean or Josephean. When we think of the founding fathers, we throw out names like Washington and Jefferson. Roosevelt’s name doesn’t come up. Even for more recent developments like science, Einstein is the first name that pops into our heads. If you think of Oppenheimer or Feynman at all, aren’t those just pretenders, bathing in the afterglow of the singular genius that established their field of study? What hope can there be for modern man if even the field of technology is multi-level marketing, corrupt and bankrupt, its founders skipped town, probably somewhere in the Bahamas right now?
It is true that we can’t become Abraham, which is to say that we can’t appropriate the culture we’re born into for ourselves. But, no one is asking us to be Abraham. That desire to be bigger than ourselves in our own lifetimes, to take the success of another man and wear it like a cloak, it’s an act of theft. It’s intellectual conspiracy, a violation of the commandment to not covet your neighbor’s belongings. If you want what your neighbor has, you have to earn it for yourself. The proof of the value of what was created by those who came before us is the culture they created, which is to say the future decides what to make of your work. It’s unlikely that you would even live to see what effect you might have on the world to come.
And to this notion that culture is a pyramid scheme, I can’t deny the underlying truth that some things are easier when the odds are stacked in your favor, but it doesn’t mean that the game is rigged. Borrowing from the Bible again, Jacob wasn’t Abraham, but he became Israel and founded a nation. When you think of Einstein, do you hold him in less esteem than Newton? Is Picasso’s achievement less valuable than Van Gogh’s? The culture that comes before us might have discovered continents, but it didn’t found the new nations there. Opportunity is always limitless.
My final point here is that you don’t know what your work is going to achieve or how important it will be. Abraham is noted as the source of Western religion, but not Noah, and not Adam. Newton spent his the bulk of his later years researching alchemy, completely turning away from the physics, optics, and math that established his legacy. He was searching in vain for something bigger than science, something that he never found, leaving the way open for others to fill in what he’d lost. Then there’s also Alexander.
Alexander’s father Philip, had created an Empire from a backward nation. Philip himself had been captured and held for ransom when he was younger, and it didn’t look like he’d survive let alone become a great king. Philip was the George Washington of his nation. You simply couldn’t imagine anyone duplicating his success. So, when he was assassinated, you’d assume that this would be the end of the Macedonian Empire. But, then there’s also Alexander, his son. Alexander built on the Empire given to him by his father, and he marched from Greece to India conquesting almost as much land as the Romans at their preeminence.
This is the lesson for us. It’s a metaphor for culture. We can see it as an impediment to greatness, as a high water mark never to be duplicated, or like Alexander, when can recognize its advantages. We can build on what we’ve been given and make something even greater.
It’s fair for you to ask what’s the point of all this conquest. Is the world any better with an Alexander? How about a Hitler? I won’t make any apologies for despots, and it’s a fair question to ask about Picasso. Would the world be any worse without cubist paintings? I don’t know, but I can imagine a world without painters, without poets, without Monet or Whitman, or without Watt or Gutenberg. And I can imagine a world without Churchill or Roosevelt. Everything I can imagine is a world I wouldn’t want to live in. It takes people who have something to say to make a difference. Maybe the world would still go on without Hemingway, but it wouldn’t be a world we’d want to live in if there was no one to take his place.
It’s also fair to ask what you can do in the face of so much greatness. How can anything you say be compared to men who were in the right place at the right time, who were professionals dedicated to their craft? After all you’re no Alexander, heir to one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world. At best you’re a soldier in his army, or maybe a merchant back home, or even a slave. Then again, so were Tubman, Pope Callixtus, and Spartacus. My point here is that there may be people out there who are better writers if you want to be a writer, or painters if you want to paint, but there is no one in history with your experience or with your vision.
There’s always going to be someone better at math, better at creative, someone richer or more successful than you. In terms of raw power, or quantifiable outputs, this may be true. If you think of the Olympics there are people trained on a specific test of skill for their entire young lives. And then they hit their 30’s and it is all over. Maybe they set World Records, but they are no longer the number one champion, because there’s another young athlete who is faster than the aging World Record holder. Even for the best in the world, there is someone else that can claim to be better than you.
My point is that there is no top, no pinnacle that can be claimed where someone can stand up and say i did it, history is now over. You can’t worry about whether there is nothing left to be said if you know that no one has said it your way. It is true that many of the occupations of this world are cyclic. There will be and have been artists. Nations rise and fall. Religions appear and then fade. It’s a mistake though to look at this recurring activity and think that there’s no reason to recreate it. Without action, the cycle dies and nothing goes forward. This is where you come in.
It may be true that other people are better at certain things than you are. But, it is also true the mixture of what you are, all your thoughts and opinions are unique to you alone. There is as such a metaphysical soul whether or not you believe in a spiritual soul. It is the sum total of your experiences, and what you have to say.
If there is then a uniqueness to you, a metaphysical soul, it doesn’t matter if what you are working on is competitive with the great men of history. Picasso wasn’t born drawing abstract shapes. Ford’s first engineering feats were with broken pocket watches, not combustion engines. Elliot’s first published works were simple and sophomoric, showing none of the proficiency of the later poet. If they had stopped there with the assumption that they had nothing to offer, we would have never heard of their names. Call it ego, or faith in the human spirit, but each of these men felt compelled to keep working despite the odds that they would come to something worthwhile.
There is a developmental process all artists go through. I’ll speak more about this in future posts, but creative inspiration is the successful culmination of vision and ideas. Briefly stated, this vision is something external, it’s something you are open to, but cannot easily command. Ideas are concepts that you want to work on. They are not always worthy of production because they lack art and feeling. Vision presents the kernel of a work, an emotional guidepost, but vision often lacks the depth to be developed. As artists work with both vision and ideas, they learn to unite these two, to match their ideas to visions and to learn not to shoehorn a private idea into a granted vision. This process of learning how to balance these two creative impulses is the method by which an artist finds his voice, his metaphysical soul. By going through this process the artist learns more about what he has that is unique and what it is that he wants to say.
More than likely, by going through this process you will find that there are works you create that you are deeply in love with, but which do not find an audience and conversely, works that you do not feel close to will meet with success. One of the first things I learned in the game industry was that after spending a year developing a game, developers frequently tuned the game too hard and gave too little instruction to the player on how to do better. They felt that if the game was any easier it wouldn’t be challenging and if there were additional instruction it would be too pedantic. The team had grown too close to their own game to understand how to relate it to their audience. They were “too close to it”. I learned a very important lesson about the job of the producer, which was to help the creative vision of the team find its intended audience, to separate them from their sacred cows and help them find their creative intent.
To become a better artist, you must also come to realize when your work is hitting with your audience and when it is failing. You have to understand when your clever ideas seem overworked and when minimalism appears polished, not simple. This cannot be done without engaging in a dialogue with your audience. You have to submit your work to the scrutiny of others. Their input is what tempers your skills, if you are open to it. Through it, you will better be able to decide whether vision and ideas are properly matched in future works.
It is not enough to be a skilled artist though. If you are only an expert in your craft, you are simply an artisan. The dialogue you have with your audience must continually expand. You must come to an understanding of how your metaphysical soul, your uniqueness and your art can meet the needs of a wider world. What separates Shakespeare from average writers is not one of style. There is nothing so unique about Van Gogh that can keep forgeries from being sold in his name. What separates these artists from the less successful is not a dedication to their craft, but their ultimate success at finding a message that meets the wider world.
The core nature of mastery is not just to have skills, but to be able to take the product of your visions and ideas and create something that is culturally significant. You may never know as you’re working on it whether or not it will become culturally significant, but the skills of a master are to take not only what is of interest to him, but to engage with the world around him and what is of interest to the world. Through mastery we transcend our limitations as individuals and through an apotheosis of insight we engage the greater human endeavor.
This is the essence of mastery, to not only be an expert in your craft, but to have a singular expertise in manufacturing works derived from your soul and directing these works to the questions and interests of human culture, to have your work transcend your own visions and ideas and find a place for them in the public consciousness. There is no recipe for success here, and it can easily be argued that luck plays just as much of a part as persistence.
There are no guarantees that you will master your pursuit, that you will hone your skills and shape the soul of your message to something that will find mass appeal, but there are no shortcuts to mastery either. Much of what you will aim to produce will end in failure. You will waste a lot of time, and the question of whether this has value in your life will continually recur. There simply is no way to create mastery without holding your work before the mirror of other people. In their expressions you will come to a deeper understanding of what you achieved.
In an artist’s darkest moments it can seem that reaching mastery will be impossible, that there is no way with limited time and resources to produce something worthwhile and lasting. Yet, it is my belief that it isn’t a finished work that should be pursued. A true artist yearning for mastery should instead seek a process for development, while keeping an eye on the needs of the wider world. It is the process that makes way for dialogue which in turn creates a pathway to mastery. Without this dialogue, there is no real understanding of how to adapt the needs of your soul to the needs of others. With dialogue there is a sort of personal alchemy that occurs in which your message becomes the world’s message, meaning that you lose ownership of the message and what is essentially you perseveres in the minds of others. This process of losing yourself and finding what was lost reflected in others is the process of mastery, and from the perspective of the creative philosophy, it is the very meaning of life and the point of human existence.
The title of this podcast and website derives from the term “perennial philosophy”. It’s a centuries old theory that modern religious practice stems from a common religious faculty in humans. I’ve borrowed this term, because I believe that in order to understand creativity, you must understand creativity as a religion. I’ll frequently reference this theory in the podcast and on the website, so I’ve decided that it would be useful to give some insight into where this came from.
When I say that creativity is a religion, I don't mean this in the colloquial sense that it requires dedication to master, I mean that in the common sense of the word “religion”. Being creative requires the same faith and devotion to a higher power that is exhibited by the world's major religions. In fact, I believe that being in a state of creative flow is the same feeling we have when we say that we are “close to God”. For me, creative actions are evidence of a common spiritual bond between men, and as such the pursuit of creativity, innovation, and invention is a good in itself. It is what unites us together as a species, gives hope to communities, and is a means of spiritual fulfillment and purpose for the individual.
My assertion is based on two beliefs: that the creative process is similar to ritual meditation and prayer, and that creativity as an act is very similar to religion. It is similar to religion in the colloquial sense that one must be devoted to it as a practice, but in the same light one also must be devoted to it as a worship. To be creative means to be devoted to the spirit just as the ancient Greeks were devoted to their Muses.
Additionally, creativity is similar to religion in that both have the same affective results for the practitioner; they are redemptive to the person and are of benefit to the community. The most singular aspect of religion, at least from the Catholic perspective, is redemption and renewal. Catholics return to communion each week to literally fill a spiritual hunger with a metaphorical meal. Creativity, likewise allows the individual to reinvent himself and the world around him, and while the product of that creativity aids the individual, the resultant work shared with the world benefits the community, just as a united and caring core of faithful practitioners helps strengthen the broader secular community in which it resides.
Creativity and religion are similar as well in that at their core they are exaltations of generative acts. The Bible begins with the creation of the world, follows the creation of a family, the creation of a tribe, and the creation of a great nation on Earth. Modern Jewish practice and my own religious tradition uses that wisdom to create a better society, a better community, and a better individual. They are both about realizing the potential in ourselves and, more broadly, as a species.
Finally, the two practices of creativity and religion are similar in that at their core, truest, and historical instances they both concern balancing the needs of the individual with the needs of others. For religion, this balance is most often a moral concern, and for creativity it is an aesthetic concern. The concern of the artist is to express himself individually within the social milieu in which he resides. The danger of being too creative, too individual is that his work would be disregarded, that it would speak but it would not inform. These two understandings of balance of the self and other come together in creativity and religion, and they express themselves in similar practices whether called meditation, improvisation, brainstorming, or prayer, they are all attempts to tap into a core of humanity, a spark of the numinous, that lives within us individually.
I first came into contact with the term perennial philosophy after reading Huxley’s book of the same name. Huxley’s book was an amalgam of religious quotes that showed the similarity of views across religions. This similarity wasn’t simply academic, because it had implications for how one must live his life. For Huxley, the purpose of life was to move closer to the will of God, metaphorically speaking. The same can be said for the purpose and meaning of a creative philosophy, which is to open yourself to inspiration and to pursue acts of creativity that benefit others. For me, these are the same purpose and the same practice. Those flashes of insight and moments of peace both come from the same source. Both must be cultivated equally to support each other, and both provide the essential nature for a practitioner's existence.
The implication of this is not just what you believe, but what you do. Religion is not so much a noun, but an act that is performed. To be religious, it is implied that you go to church, but it also means that you enact certain values and behaviors into your daily life. To be creative and to produce good works, you must also be religious. You must master your skill, of course, you must aim to create great things and new ideas, but to be truly creative you must be truly religious about it. You must move it into your daily life, allow it to become the source of your devotion and you must practice it at every moment.
My belief about the practice of creativity is that its benefits extend far beyond any individual spiritual or material gain. I believe that practicing creativity as a devotion is a worldly good. To be creative you must on some level open yourself to the numinous, which is inherently socializing, but I also believe that in practicing any activity of faith and being willing to share that practice with others, if to do nothing more than to serve as a moral example, that this alone helps improve lives. I believe that a society invigorated by faith and excitement is a better functioning society that produces positive outcomes for all involved. By digging down and understanding the source of that faith, realizing the similarity between creativity and religion, one begins to feel connected to the world in such a way that all the positive outcomes for me will also be good for those around me, and that the balance I find between the world and myself helps me adapt to the world and in turn helps the world find a place for me.
Understanding the perennial philosophy, both Huxley’s conception and the original sources going back half a millenia, is important because there is a balance there, a comfortableness with uncertainty that mimics the creative process. In understanding this balance, one also comes to an understanding of what is required to undertake creative acts.
The suggestion of a perennial philosophy is commonly attributed to Leibniz, a 17th century philosopher and mathematician. The term itself came from the monk Agostino Steuco, who first wrote about the term in De perenni philosophia written in 1540. In it, Steuco was trying to assert that the rational achievements of the past were grounded in the same spirit of research as Catholic scholasticism.Though the term originated with Steuco, the concept of the perennial philosophy was also shared by Ficino and Pico della Miranadola in the 15th century. Both men wrote about how Christian truth and Catholic doctrine stemmed from universal truths and understanding established by Plato and Aristotle.The concept is equally controversial in our times as it was in Steuco's or Liebniz's time, certainly because of the theological implications, but also because it suggests that all progress is not truly progress, that the understanding of what it is to be human is continuous across generations.What is truly heretical for our generation is the suggestion that technology may advance, but the meaning and purpose of human life has been continuous since the creation of the first flint rock tools.
This is in effect what the perennial philosophy in all its incarnations has suggested, that beneath all religious practices there is a shared core experience, and whether this is priscia theologicadegraded from the Platonic form or whether it is simply the suggestion that certain experiences are universal, advocates of the perennial philosophy share the same core beliefs.
In my view, the concept that creative inspiration is motivated by the same experiences as religious inspiration is a reasonable assertion. What may be more challenging is my belief that to be creative you must be religious and to be religious you must be creative. The theologian will see secularism encroaching on his realm and the academic will find my unscientific statements intellectually unsatisfying. I know that I have no ability to satiate either side and I must simply make my argument to those without entrenched interests in these matters. My belief is that the practices which help those who follow the perennial philosophy find God are equally important to those who wish to be creative. Principally, this is because I believe that creativity itself is an act of devotion and that to be creative one must recognize one's connection to the numinous and have faith that answers can be found with introspection.
The methods of the creative philosophy for approaching the numinous are similar to that of the perennial philosophy. The religious experience of the perennial philosophy is one in which an individual conception of God is encountered simultaneously with a broader understanding of the God of different religions. The God we know as a personal God must also be balanced with the broader human understanding of God in all His incarnations. In order to have this understanding one must also balance an individual spiritual faith with a meditative acceptance of the religious experience as the product of human existence.
This conception of balance with religion is not unique to those who subscribe to the perennial philosophy as a term. Throughout history there have been thinkers, both religious and secular who have accepted the possibility of a personal faith that is not exclusionary, which is to say it is a faith that believes in your own view of God but accepts other views of God as valid and values those views as equal to one’s own expression of the religious urge.
One of the first authors on comparative religion I read was Karen Armstrong. Armstrong references a “God beyond God”, which is to say beyond the personification of God, the representation of God as all of existence as humans experience it. This is at the base of what religion celebrates, embracing the mystery of existence. It is in the indescribable aspects of God instead of the words used to represent Him.
Armstrong goes a step further and points to the heresy of idolatry as a representation of the need to abstract God as we describe him from God as He exists. Ancient proto-monotheism had to condemn the worship of personal Gods and their representation as idols in order to gain acceptance for a more singular, distant God that represented a single, indescribable entity that was responsible for all of creation and not just the interests of a limited group. Armstrong suggests that the same idolatry is present when we attempt to define God in our own terms or even with words. In some sense this implies that all religion is as much idolatry, at least when it attempts to limit what God is, but at the same time religion, and even a specific, personal religion, is needed to experience the manifestation of the mystery of God. God is approached as a personal God, but only understood when one recognizes the God beyond God.
In The Perennial Philosophy, Huxley confirmed much the same. The “Ground”, as he refers to the numinous, can only be experienced but not described. Any empirical understanding of God will by definition fail, as God is a representation of the ineffable. Huxley wrote The Perennial Philosophy so that readers could experience the minds of holy men from a variety of different religions who had experienced Armstrong's God beyond God. For Huxley, this experience is the “Highest Common Factor” of all religions, written long ago and experienced by anyone who approaches religion with a pure heart and full of spirit. The text of any personal religion intertwined with the weight of its cultural significance can get in the way of true understanding of the Ground. Huxley's intent in publishing his work was to put these separate traditions together in order to relate their similarity so that by feeling around the elephant its form could be described.
Much of Huxley’s book is an attempt to approach God by understanding the writings of others. Huxley describes the activities and behaviors one may undertake to approach God, including charity, suffering, silence, and prayer. He also talks about the metaphysical implications of the perennial philosophy on subjects like grace, good and evil, and time an eternity. All of these are the consequences of the thesis he extrapolates in the first few chapters of the book which is that the great religious thinkers of the past have all recognized the unity of the Ground present in religious practices and that this understanding can only take place when one balances individual experiences with the infinite.
The core of Huxley's work in The Perennial Philosophy is embodied in the statement that:
“..two abstract notions have to be realized…in the same place, the intrinsic nature of the realization of God within is qualitatively different from that of the realization of God without, and each in turn is different from that of the realization of the Ground as simultaneously within and without–as the Self of the perceiver and at the same time…as 'That by which all this world is pervaded'”.
One must recognize that God is all of existence, not just an interpersonal understanding of God, yet God is also internal to the self and pervasive in all of existence and as such interpersonal perceptions of God are understandings of God. One notion may not outweigh the other and both must be balanced in order to approach God. Huxley refers to this process as coming to know the “'That' which is 'thou'”.
Students of Martin Buber will notice this formulation as being very similar to his I-Thou (or I-You, depending on the translation) relationship. Buber postulated that we relate to the world in one of two possible ways. The I-It is when we recognize others and even ourselves as objects. The I-You is when we recognize others or ourselves as being part of a greater, interrelated whole. Buber was an interesting man whose life was full of paradoxes. He was raised by his grandfather who was a rabbinic scholar but Buber himself went on to study philosophy instead of religion. He became a zionist who lived in Israel but later dissociated himself because he supported a two-state solution with Arab Palestinians but at the same time didn't believe the Zionist movement adequately represented Jewish culture. His philosophical leanings turned existentialist, but he also chose to translate the Hebrew Bible into German.
Buber's philosophy, as expressed in I and Thou, was as full of as many difficult contradictions as the man who gave the concepts life. For Buber, the I-You and the I-It weren't two separate states with one preferable to the other. He didn't see the numinous relationship as one in which an individual should strive to eternally reside. Like the concept of grace, one could be open to the possibility of an I-You relationship but one cannot summon it at will. As he writes:
“Thus human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.
Just as the melody is not made up of notes nor the verse of words nor the statue of lines, but they must be tugged and dragged till their unity has been scattered into these many pieces, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I can take out from him the colour of his hair, or of his speech, or of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou.
And just as prayer is not in time but time in prayer, sacrifice not in space but space in sacrifice, and to reverse the relation is to abolish the reality, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I do not meet him in a particular time and place; I must continually do it: but I set only a He or a She, that is an It, no longer my Thou.”
The passage between I-It and I-Thou is continual. The openness to the I-Thou experience then must also be continual in order for it to be experienced. We cannot wait for the experience to be convenient for us, but must instead allow for it to occur wherever it will. This balance between the material world, the I-It world in which we must live and the I-You world to which we must continually strive for is the soul of the experience of the perennial philosophy and by extension the core activity of the creative philosophy–it is a continual openness to inspiration that only occurs when we can balance in our minds the physical and spiritual aspects of existence.
This sway between the material interests we have as individuals and the social relationship we have with those around us is key to understanding the creative process. It is the economy by which all human undertakings are advanced, but it is also the source of the spark of inspiration. It is the moment at which we can recognize our needs in others and the willingness of others to support us as well as the moment at which we come to a realization that we are both alone in the universe and yet we share that same experience as those around us. Creativity comes from embracing that mystery and remaining eternally open to it. It is by balancing this other as object and other as self that we come to moments of creative insight. Creative insight is in short a result of religious inspiration.
I’ll be talking more about this similarity between creativity and religion in future episodes, but I wanted to give some background to why I refer to creativity being a religious experience. It’s an important understanding, because it has implications for how you approach creative acts, but more importantly, why it’s meaningful to be creative in the first place. The view I take in The Creative Philosophy™ is that having this religious devotion to creativity and finding your voice as an artist is not important just to understand creativity, or religion, it is the core of what it means to be human, to find what is unique in you and present it to a greater dialogue with humanity as a whole. Again, I’ll cover this further as we go on, and in fact, it’s most of what the website and the podcast was created for, but for now I wanted to give you some taste for what I mean whenever I say, “creativity is a religion”.
In common parlance “creativity” is used to describe either the moment of creative inspiration or more broadly it refers to any artistic act that creates something new. When we speak of something created for the express purpose of fulfilling a need we refer to this process as design. Web sites are designed to give a better user experience. Furniture is designed to match form, function, and cost to the needs of the people who purchase it. Cars are designed with the intent of differentiating style and features to capture a market segment. In short, we often use “creativity” to describe ideas pulled put of the ether and “design” is reserved for things created through research and engineering. In most of this work, and in the title of this book I use the term “creative” to mean both methods of design and creativity, but it is important to distinguish them here.
This division is appropriate for most uses of the language. We need to differentiate between the process of creation so that meaning can be specified. Unfortunately this differentiation often segments the two processes as different disciplines. Research is done into what makes individuals creative, organizational psychology studies the way in which companies can be more creative, and biographies are written of dancers, painters, and physicists to learn how they come to their genius inventions.
On the other side, design is written about listing rules and methods. Graphic design has the golden ratio, perspective, and color theory. Web design sets forth rules about how much information a person can take in, minimizing mouse clicks needed to get to a desired page, and the arrangement of elements to help draw the user's attention. The assumption is that if the practitioner masters the rules and methods he will be successful with his design.
I suspect that anyone involved in art, design, or production would recognize the separation of design and creativity as artificial when it comes to their daily activities. I've never experienced a moment where I can say that there was a clear division between design and creativity. While the two are nominally separate disciplines, they are continually iterative in practice. Ideas must flow from creative methods, yet these ideas must be filtered through the process of design.
This is not to say that there is not a difference between the process of creativity and design. Just as ethics and meaning require balancing the self and the other, the creative process requires balancing things that interest you (creativity) with a product that is made to appeal to your audience (design). These are not small differences. Untold projects have been ruined because the creator refused to put aside his own predilections and just allow the idea become what it needed to be. On the other hand, popular culture is full of movies, games, and music that are overproduced and soulless; all of the right beats are hit but the product falls to do or say anything interesting. At the end of the day, these two aspects of the creative process must be brought into balance. The work must have a soul and it should be new and innovative, but it also has to be relatable.
The methods of design and creativity as separate acts also differ. For creativity there are two main methods of producing new ideas: preparing yourself for the possibility of inspiration, or using creative methods in an attempt to achieve inspiration. For the former, this may include concentrating on a problem then walking away from it, meditating and clearing your mind, or studying related works hoping to find new ideas. For the latter, this my include brainstorming, asking naive questions, or attempting to define what the work is not. The hallmark of creative inspiration is the pursuit of ideas that excite you individually. You are looking for solutions that are unique to your personality and interests.
For design, the opposite is true in that your goal is to meet the needs of others with your available resources. Whereas creativity is a wide funnel catching everything that comes near, design is a sieve that filters out any conception that doesn't meet the requirements. Where creativity tends to demand artistry, design is engineered.
Methods of design are varied, but in general it is the study of the relationship between form, function, and cost. Form may be thought of the style of the work, or broadly it's outer appearance. Function is the feature set of the work, what it achieves, or what it offers as a tool to the user. Cost is the balance of these two, and for many industries it is the most complex in that the designer must understand not only the material costs to manufacture a work but the production methods needed to manufacture it. Depending on the work, designers may weigh aesthetic rules or use style guides in the creation of the product. In level design in the game industry we talk about experiential density, tuning the amount of task overload we assign to the player to issue progressively harder challenges over the course of the game arc. In architecture, materials, weight, and appearance must all be taken into account when designing the shape of a building and the materials themselves create rules for what can be created.
Even though the methods of design and creativity are separate, as a practice they cannot be separated. Just as the perennial philosophy asks us to balance the self and the other, the material and the spiritual, and to take into account the past and future implications of our actions and balance them in the present, creative acts ask us to balance creative methods with design methods. We must balance our individual desires with the needs of the market. We must balance inspired concepts with the restrictions of what is achievable and desirable.