Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Tao of Art Making: Part I - Feedback Loops

I was speaking recently with an artist friend about the difficulty she was having climbing out of a creative rut. She was blocked, had not painted for weeks and couldn't get off the dime. This is a perennial problem for most artists of all types - cycles of creative fever and action followed by the sudden disappearance of passion and joy, the muse silent, the divine spark quenched. I call it an art hangover, and like an alcohol hangover it makes us feel lousy. There is no simple hair-of-the-dog cure for an art hangover, but there are tricks and techniques that, if employed with diligence and discipline, can go a long way toward mitigating the depth of the crash into the creative black hole, and smoothing the road of return. In other words, there is The Practice. And, as the term implies, it takes practice. Regular practice. Disciplined practice. Persevering practice. Faithful practice.

It also takes an understanding of how the creative process works. Every one of us has to dig deep to find the individual blueprint of that process, but there are common landmarks within that sometimes mysterious, sometimes murky terrain of the inner self that can be shared. There are maps that can be consulted. There are compasses that always point to true north. There are doorways that can be opened with a skeleton key. I call it The Tao of Art Making. And yes, hitchhiking is permitted, even encouraged.

The art making process can be considered on one level as a system - the artist's intent interacting with the raw materiality of the world to create a painting, a dance, a book, a symphony. An idea cannot just sit in the head, it has to emerge into materiality, and it needs a system to accomplish that, a system that is flexible and evolves. This is where feedback loops come in, a fundamental concept of Systems theory. In a feedback loop you have output, input, a comparer, and a regulator. Input is the goal, output is the result, the comparer tests the goal with the result, the regulator adjusts to meet that goal. The thermostat in your home is a particular kind of feedback loop, a negative feedback loop. The goal is the desired temperature of the room, the result is the actual temperature, the comparer is the thermometer, and the regulator is the switch that is controlled by the thermometer, turning the heat on or off. This is called a negative feedback loop because when the system is out of equilibrium (too hot or too cold) the regulator tries to bring it back to stability, reducing the difference between input and output. A positive feedback loop adds to the difference between input and output - the most obvious example being a microphone and speaker getting too close to each other, the mic picking up sound from the speaker, adding it to the speaker, which it then picks ups and adds again, and so on until a loud screeching overload is heard and everyone covers their ears, screaming "Turn off the feedback!!!!".

Now, back to my artist friend. She's stuck in a negative feedback loop - the system is stable, but it's producing nothing new. Art making goes in cycles, just like most of the rest of life, and a stable system can be a good thing. It allows one to step back, take a deep breath, recuperate and evaluate with a sober eye and mind. But my friend is stuck, and the negative feedback loop has gone from stable to pathologically depressing (ok, that's a bit melodramatic - she has a touch of the blues). She wants to be in a positive feedback loop, but she doesn't want to become a screeching microphone either. It looks like the choice is between two pathologies; this is a dilemma. However, there is a third option - the morphogenic positive feedback loop. This is a positive feedback loop that PRODUCES CHANGES IN THE SYSTEM! In other words, it's a self-evolving feedback loop. As an artist, or in any walk of life I would hope, that's what the search is for.

Let me give some examples. I read long ago about a writer who published a wildly successful first novel, gaining fame and wealth and a retainer from his publishing company to complete a second work. He never did. He got caught in a demonic negative feedback loop, and suffered permanent writer's block. Five years later he committed suicide in despair. At the other end of the spectrum is Vincent Van Gogh, a story we all know well. He got caught up in a pathological positive feedback loop, spinning further and further out of control (aided by a doctor who was prescribing poisons to cure him), producing great works that sadly chronicled his increasing dementia, until he ended the torture by also taking his life. Here are examples of the two extremes of pathological feedback loops. Then there is the story of Emanuel Swedenborg, a man I wrote about in a previous blog. A brilliant Age of Enlightenment scientist, Swedenborg suddenly, at the age of 56, began having conversations with angels. He spent the rest of his life until the age of 84 writing about what they had to say. Happily. Smiled alot. Was a great dinner companion, generous and gregarious. He had found a morphogenic positive feedback loop, and took the ride of his life.

This all begs an important question: How does my friend get out of her rut, her slightly pathological negative feedback loop? There are many temporary fixes, but in the long run she needs...The Practice.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 14, 2009

How a Little Dream Became a Big Dream

Are dreams meaningless nocturnal hallucinations, or meaningful nocturnal visions?

Off and on throughout my life I've kept a dream journal. I leave a notebook and pencil on my nightstand and if I wake up from a dream I try to fight through my grogginess to jot down as much detail of the nocturnal adventure as I can. I hadn't been keeping a dream journal for awhile, and in fact hadn't been remembering many dreams at all in the past year. So when the library gods steered me to the book "Transforming Dreams" by Kelly Bulkeley, I was reminded that a key component of my creative diet was missing. Determined to re-balance my psychic nutritional menu, I placed a fresh yellow legal notepad and newly sharpened pencil on my nightstand once again.

In this book Bulkeley, a noted dream researcher, places his attention on the Big Dream, that dream that shakes us up and and leaves us wondering for days what it was about, often becoming a catalyst for a new behavior or a transformation to a new kind of consciousness that permanently alters our way of looking at our place in the world. I've had a few Big Dreams over the years, but it had been a very long time since the last and I felt a pull, a kind of anxious yearning to have my psychic juices stirred once again.

That night, I woke up from a dream:

I'm at a club or gym of some kind. There are lots of teenage boys and young men milling about in white robes and cotton pants. I realize it's a martial arts academy. It seems strange that I'm here since I've never taken martial arts training of any kind, preferring yoga to judo or kickboxing, and indeed I've never been one with an interest in any of the fighting arts. I look across the room, and to my surprise I see Captain Picard of the Star Trek television series. He's wearing a shimmering multi-colored robe, Japanese in design. I realize that he's the head teacher of the academy.

Much to my surprise, Picard catches my eye and motions me to join him. I cross the crowded room and he greets me, suggesting I accompany him to a back room. He explains that there is a tournament about to begin and he will have to change into his fighting clothes. He pulls the elaborate robe over his head and tells me to put it on. I'm flabbergasted, but he insists so I slip the robe on. As we turn back to the main room Picard explains that everyone picks a partner who will fight with him, and I will have to make a careful choice for my second. As I'm walking alongside him I keep tripping awkwardly over the hem of the robe; it's way too long for me, and I'm embarrassed at my clumsiness.

We get back to the fighting room and everyone is hastily picking their partner; my range of choice is narrowing quickly. I look around frantically, finally spotting a fellow I know sitting alone at a table. I stride over to him and put my hand on his shoulder, indicating I've chosen him as my second. He looks up at me and I remember that he isn't much of a fighter either, but he'll have to do. He grins and shrugs, and we both see that we're going to get clobbered. The absurdity of our situation hits us and we break out laughing.

I woke up from the dream laughing out loud, and the more I thought about it the more I laughed. There I was, a gentle, pacifist non-fighter who wouldn't harm a flea, being given a ceremonial warrior's robe and promptly tripping over the hem because it was too big for me! This struck me as one of the sillier dreams I've had in awhile, definitely not in the category of a Big Dream. However, It was my first dream since I brought out the dream journal, so I dutifully recorded my comical exploits and rolled back under the covers, still chuckling to myself, and drifted back to sleep.

But that was not to be the end of it.

To be continued....

Friday, March 13, 2009

How a Little Dream Became a Big Dream : Part II

I woke up the next morning and read my journal entry, getting another chuckle from the silly antics it described. It may have been a small dream, but as the first entry in the journal it carried a certain degree of significance and I lent my thoughts to its possible meaning. It was obvious that I was out of place in the martial arts academy, a feeling I encounter often enough in my day to day life. It's also not unusual to find myself in a situation I'm unprepared to handle, whether by chance or my own blundering, so the dream scenario of being on the verge of getting the crap beat out of me certainly reflected an aspect of my reality. The image of tripping over the hem of the too-long robe was a particularly vivid memory - obviously a fighter's mantle will never fit me properly and I'll only trip over my own feet if I attempt it. With that analysis I dropped the dream from my thoughts and went about my business for the morning.

It was while biking to my studio later that morning that something from the Bulkeley book came to my attention. He suggests that in analyzing a dream it's useful to isolate significant elements and expand on what they might mean to the dreamer outside of the context of the dream, thereby shedding some new light on their place within the dream. With this bit of advice I set about taking the dream apart in my mind.

The first element I examined was the use of the term "warrior", not one that normally enters my common vocabulary. I'd even used the word in my grogginess at 3am when I wrote the entry down. This seemed curious to me, until I remembered a book I'd read a few weeks prior to the dream, a book about the phenomenon of shamanism and its transfer from the indigenous context to contemporary urban culture, sometimes called neo-shamanism (think Carlos Castaneda, for example). There was an interview in the book with a Siberian shaman in which it was posited that with effort and training one could travel inward and find one's spiritual twin, and by meeting the twin discover one's true calling in life. The spiritual twin, as the shaman described it, could manifest in only 7 ways - Healer, Teacher, Warrior, Magus, Executor, Protector, or Messenger. I had found this interesting in a Jungian archetypal kind of way, and had decided that as an artist, or one who uses a kind of alchemy to turn common materials into something magical, the term Magus best fit for me. But now my dream had picked up on the Warrior image; at that moment of revelation I saw that this dream might have more to say than I had concluded earlier. As I glided down the Cherry Creek bike trail I fell into a deeper revery.

Now I had no choice but to look more closely at the appearance of Captain Picard in my dream. I'm not a fanatical Star Trek watcher, but I sometimes enjoy science fiction and I think the Star Trek series made good use of the device of encountering alien civilisations in space as an allegory for our postmodern clash of cultures here on Earth. The series has had at least four different crews in different time periods within the over-arching narrative. With each iteration the tone changed according to the personalities within the crew, and particularly in the person of the captain. In thinking of this I realized that of all the captains, Picard was the one I admired most. His character was a fierce warrior for sure, but one who was prone to quoting Shakespeare, or Milton, or the Upanishads. He grew up on a family winery and was familiar with good food and a fine bottle of wine. In other words, he was a cultured warrior. I suppose if I was going to be a warrior, I would want to be a cultured warrior.

This put a new spin on Picard's appearance in my dream - instead of treating it lightly as a pop culture image randomly tumbling around in my brain and finding itself lodged in my interior narrative by happenstance, his presence now meant something far more significant. Here was not just a warrior, but a Master Warrior, the Master of a martial arts academy. And this Master Warrior, one whom I admired, had picked me over all the highly trained warriors in the room to wear his ceremonial Warrior's Robe. What an honor! By insisting I don his robe he was recognizing me as his equal, despite my lack of training - he had seen something within me and was bringing it to my attention.

But, all that tripping and stumbling! I could hardly get across the room without falling on my face as all those around me leaped and twirled and punched and kicked in the most controlled and graceful fashion. Surely I was not fit to wear this garment, this persona of the warrior. Then I had one of those aha!!! moments, slamming my bike to a halt and staring with wide eyes and slack jaw into the sky. The robe wasn't too big because I wasn't fit to wear it, I JUST NEEDED TO GROW INTO IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I must have laughed for 5 minutes. Of course the Magus was not enough. The dream was telling me I needed to take the stance of a warrior as well in my life and work. The Magus/Warrior, if you will. The magician certainly, but one with strength and courage and daring, one who can defeat his demons, whether inside his psyche or in the outer world. I had the Magus part down, the Warrior needed some work but it was there, deep in the person of my spiritual twin.

And that's how a little dream became a Big Dream.