Create like an athlete
In his famous paper, published in Mind in 1884, psychologist William James posits the importance of the body in, not just responding to, but forming states of mind:
…the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be. Without the bodily states following on the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colourless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear, and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we could not actually feel afraid or angry.”
James’ ideas were an important turning point in Western psychology for their recognition of the role of the body in producing, mediating and facilitating experiences.
Contemporary scholars like Bessel Van der Kolk add to knowledge of how the body figures in cognitive and emotional outcomes. In his book, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Van der Kolk discusses the body’s role in ‘holding onto’ emotion and processing trauma.
The ultimate conclusion is the body and mind work in complex and integrated ways, especially when it comes to emotion and cognition.
Rates of obesity, addiction and diabetes and other lifestyle diseases suggest many people disregard their bodies, perhaps preferring to emphasise aspects of their lives like family, work, relationships, money and creative pursuits that don’t – at least ostensibly– look like physical activities.
One of the most pervasive therapy movements of the last decade – mindfulness – is even named for the psycho, rather than correctly for the psychophysiological.
Creative cultures generally do little to challenge the privileging of the mind over the body.
“ By ignoring the body, creatives are also ignoring a significant tool for rhythm, stress reduction and revelation about lived human experience. ”
Taking ‘time out’ to lift weights, go for a swim or dance are generally regarded as luxuries and indulgences, rather than a central part of the creative process.
What a high school music recital revealed
Recently I went to a music recital at the local state school.
I observed how the young musicians used their bodies:
- some performers were technically correct but deliver without evoking feeling.
- some performers moved as they played. Movements were slight, like tapping out a beat, or more liberated with larger parts of the body, like the waving of arms and the sway of the entire torso.
- many performers’ movements were contrived and ‘unnatural’.
- a few performers played not just with their hands, but with their entire bodies. Regardless of prowess, this last group was the most engaging.
How much emphasis is placed on the musicians’ bodies in their training? How are they encouraged to exercise, to eat well, to actively make connection between body sensations and the stimuli that produce them?
As an observer, it didn’t seem to me as though many of the musicians had much body awareness at all – even down to the basic level of posture, which is an important element of playing and presence.
I was not entirely surprised by these observations. Few syllabi for courses in the creative industries mention the body, even despite the evidence suggesting its importance to thought and feeling; two of the facets central to the production of creative work.
“ It’s so 1800s to think you have to be mad to be creative. ”
One of the reasons the body is not mentioned in the classroom has to do, no doubt, with the conflation of the body and abuse. ‘The body’ is connoted as animalistic, raw and outside of culture or cultured discussions. And so it becomes unacceptable to mention in scholarly and professional space – another symptom of this type of ‘somatophobia’ or fear of referencing the body in conversation or discussion about products of the ‘mind’.
However, by ignoring the body, creatives are also ignoring a significant tool for rhythm, stress reduction and revelation about lived human experience.
Performance artist Marina Abramovic knows the benefits of harnessing the body in the process and products of creativity. Her performance art tests the boundaries and limits of the body in gruelling ways.
Abramovic’s installation, The Artist is Present, for example, involves her seated in static performance for 736 hours and thirty minutes.
Performers in her shows endure a regime of fasting and exercise before they perform. This promotes a keen awareness of how the physiological affects creative responses. For instance, one performer writes about the effects of dairy on her hormones during a performance:
During one afternoon’s performance of Luminosity, a performance in which I sat nude on a bicycle seat that was attached to the wall 10 feet above the audience, I remember feeling my hormones run wild while making eye contact with an audience member. I came to realize that it was not my hormones, but a reaction from the cow’s milk that was in the yogurt I ate hours earlier.”
What about the creatives who don’t want to push the limits of the body? Can we learn from Abramovich’s practice?
The answer is yes.
Using your body in the creative process
Many creatives are anti-zombies. Instead of wandering, hungry bodies without minds, they are wandering, hungry heads without bodies. They are disembodied.
Which is dangerous if you rely on feedback from the external world to respond and reflect reality in what you create.
Here’s a series of exercises to help creatives integrate their physiological and psychological processes. These activities help access the important knowledge that bodies’ engagements with the world ‘out there’ provide.
Many of the techniques are based on mindfulness, some not at all. Most of them cost little to no money.
Here is a quick snapshot of some of the things you can do to become more embodied today:
1. Be sensual
And this doesn’t mean sexing it up Bellucci-style. Sensual people are sexy simply because they slow down and savour inputs from the world around them. They seem more present, more grounded in their bodies – and this makes them more responsive. And that happens to be appealing.
Sensuality is an engaging feature in creative works as well: an image that resonates with the specific details of the thing it renders holds more appeal than the object that is disconnected and unplaceable in the context of the ‘real’.
This truth applies to artefacts from the imagination to the more material enterprises such as the human and natural sciences.
How do you get sensual?
Fortunately our bodies are predisposed to processing sensual information. The senses are the mainstay of our knowledge about the world. So it’s really just a matter of taking notice of what you:
You can become more aware by spending five minutes a day listing all the inputs from your senses.
Focus on one sense at a time to start with. Once you have done this, ask questions of the sensual data. Whose dog is barking, is that smell toast, biscuits baking? What are the notes in the perfume on the woman who just walked past? Can you work out the ingredients in the tastes you experienced?
This process of deconstruction, done for a short time every day, builds a habit of sensuality.
2. Apply your observations
Next, practise incorporating the observations into your work. You may be surprised at how readily they integrate with what you produce.
You’re always using the senses to make your work. The only difference is this time you’re doing it consciously.
Consciousness and important virtues like control, discretion and discernment are related. Your best creative work is focussed and deliberate, not a haphazard shot in the dark.
3. Take up a movement
Do an activity that involves movement your body is not accustomed to. It could be dance, martial arts, parkour, yoga; anything that asks your body to move with intention and intelligence.
This is a great way to keep your mind strong and to activate brain muscles that go slack with the constant sitting many creatives do.
The brain is a system. When motor areas are developed and engaged, other areas are affected too. And vice versa.
4. Monitor your addictions
Drugs are not a pathway to creativity, despite the romanticised myth. They just mess up your brain function and disconnect you from your body. This is especially the case with the drug that is most prolific and dangerous to brain function – alcohol.
If you intend to have a sustained and prolific career in your field, find healthy addictions. Or do without them altogether.
It’s so 1800s to think you have to be mad to be creative.
5. Listen to your gut
About to make a big business deal, change direction of your plans, employ a new person, choose poetry over prose, sign a lease, accept a project, resign from work?
Let your ‘gut’ guide your choice.
You have to be centred to do this because sometimes the rest of the world will disagree with your instinctive choice. But if you develop a strong enough knowledge of your gut feelings, you’ll find that it can lead you to decisions, especially in the interpersonal realm.
Awareness of the body’s role in feelings, emotions, thoughts and behaviours enables us to harness powerful knowledge about ourselves and our place in the world.
And isn’t this the essence of all creative works?