Art thinking, casual art, and following bread crumbs to deeper self discovery

Yesterday while listening to a Big Think podcast, they played a segment of an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn where he talks about the results of MRI scans comparing people who meditate and who don’t, when asked to just sit and do nothing. Those who don’t meditate activate a ‘default’ mode part of the brain, thinking in linear time and about themselves, their reality. Those who do meditate activate an adjacent part the brain, where this is a sense of expansion, possibilities, energy, growth – beyond the self. In other words, the potential of what we can become. He says that we go through life with the brakes on, because of that default mode.

My experiences so far with art thinking (color thinking) makes me think that I’m tapping into that space. Art thinking and color thinking releases me from the usual ego-centered, me-centered, self talk and seems to be a gateway into a space that is rich with potential for new experiences and ways of thinking.

In recent months I’ve tried to flip from telling myself I have to follow a certain rigid path, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, to giving myself permission to discover a path, and listening for subtle signals I hadn’t paid attention to before in order to allow for a path to unfold.

Reading the book Mastery by Robert Greene set me up for this, to a certain extent. He talks through different paths people who become masters might take – whether through an apprenticeship, or doing deep into one topic, or moving from one topic to the next, making connections between them and basically discovering a new, untapped niche. At the core was this idea of letting this path organically evolve by letting yourself be drawn to whatever resonates. Get ride of assumptions, open yourself up to possibilities, allow yourself to be curious, and see where it takes you.

I went to the bookstore around that time and let books talk to me…and certain art books did, ones I hadn’t considered before. I look back now at the progression of my interest in art, and the ‘signals’ I feel, and what I’ve come to value. It’s quite different than what I was trying to force myself towards.

Originally I thought about art as a skill to perform, for an output that would be meaningful. I collected art supplies while in college with the intent to one day ‘do lots of art’, because I was drawn to it and wanted to. But I never did. I tried often, but it didn’t stick…because I was approaching it the wrong way. I bought many ‘how to’ books and started on the first lessons, but it wasn’t all that enjoyable, because I could never do it ‘right’. The books were very much focused on the outcome – the different techniques, and step by step process for producing certain outcomes.

That day at the book store the books I bought approached art very differently. Two books, Art Before Breakfast and The Zen Drawing Pack, focused not on the outcome, but the process, especially the state of mind – relaxed, open, free. They stressed that art wasn’t about producing artwork, but nurturing a creative state of mind.

The other book was a Zen Doodling. Adult coloring books are the rage right now, but they don’t appeal to me because you only color; it’s the drawing of new lines that I want to explore. But most art books are very heavy in that direction – it’s not about simple lines, it’s about entire projects and that tends to set me up for failure. Zen Doodling shows you tiny little steps you can take where you just start to draw, no pressure, no failure. Tiny little steps where you pick up a pen, and let it go on its journey, and start to create. With that aspect of ‘doing’, you begin to chip at that wall that holds you back from creativity, you begin, ever so slightly, to release that brake.

I spent several weeks with Zen Doodling, bought additional books, mostly by Carolyn Scrace, because she goes deeper into the creative process, past just basic doodling. The taps into nature, other art materials, other patterns and methods – gradually expanding the ‘casual art’ space, one small step at a time.

I then looked to other books that nurtured creativity through other gateways – not necessarily through learning one technique or trying to create a certain masterpiece. Another book I’ve enjoyed is Draw Paint Print like the great Artists, as it encourages art for the fun, free, creative experience it can be – not pressure to create a specific thing. It further helped me free my tight hold on expectations of what being artistic and creative should be.

Another stepping stone to elevate my doodling was 20 Ways to Draw a Tree, by Eloise Renouf. I’ve always been drawn to nature, and this provides a plethora of suggestions to work with, copy and modify creatively.

Along the way I came across Steal Like an Artist, where Auston Kleon encourages you to copy artists, copy what you love, it helps you discover you. And as you copy, you get glimpses into the minds of your heroes. And I strongly believe great artists are driving without the parking brake on! And that’s how I want to live as well.

And so I’m copying a lot – it makes ‘doing art’ far easier to do, because you have the idea and inspiration right there, and it allows you to easily practice and flex new muscles.

I’m ‘doing art’ with a ‘casual art’ attitude – it’s for the pleasure of doing, the nurturing of new a new mindspace, not for what the physical outcome is. It becomes peaceful and invigorating at the same time.

Finally, I’m doing casual art and art thinking for self-discovery. This is a big theme in Art as Therapy, by John Armstrong, one that I’m still exploring. But related, the new trend of art journaling is fascinating, on two levels.

One, I’m embracing art journaling for the new perspectives – the crossing of left and right brain, the different perspectives that arise when you include doodles and sketches with your words – entire new frameworks evolve, and deeper understanding.

Two, I believe it is a gate way to that living without the parking brake on, and I’m fascinated by art journal pages others have created. Pinterest has become a great resource, not only for doodle ideas and casual art ideas, but glimpses into other artists’ minds through their art journal pages. A few books have come out highlighting examples – such as A World of Artist Journal Pages. There is something so deep and intimate in these pages – artists, those very people living without the brake on – are sharing very personal visual stories that show vulnerability and authenticity I strive to nurture in my own life.

In continuing on this journey, following signals, taking small steps, exploring new paths, copying others, and applying art thinking, I stay close to that path of self-discovery that I’ve come to enjoy so much, and now feels much easier than it ever has.

My failures are improving

I’m noticing significant changes in my perspectives and patterns – I am thriving more consistently than I ever have in the past. I am still failing often, but those failures are becoming easier to recover from, easier to manage, and of greater value as I pay more attention to them.

What do I call failure? I’m pretty hard on myself, so there is a lot I call ‘failure’ that many people might not. It’s not about wanting to be a perfectionist by any means, but it is about being consistently happy. And I don’t mean massive happiness, but contentment -feeling at peace, feeling connected, feeling like you are of value and are loved, feeling accomplished, etc. Whatever it might be for an individual or for that moment, but to feel good.

My personal ‘failures’ are when I’m not in that space of feeling good, and I’m doing things that undermine feeling good in the near future. I’m a jerk to others, I am a jerk to myself, I shut down and retreat, become antisocial, depressed, start to binge or worse. It can get ugly. There are, of course, big failures and small failures, but in my mind, they all feel really shitty.

In the past even a small failure – something as simple as not exercising one day, when it was on my to-do list – can snowball and result in a dismal personal state. I am wicked hard on myself, but that’s not something I can easily turn off.

That’s where systems thinking has become so important to me – coming to understand connections and network effects, and non-reductionist thinking. For any ‘bad behavior’ there are a number of drivers and causes, and a number of approaches to modify the system that results in that behavior. For example, it’s not just missing exercise one afternoon that causes a depressed state. Other things may have caused it, and not exercising might be a consequence, not a cause. On the other hand, exercise is so fundamental for the ‘me’ system to feel good, that missing it one day can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The main point is that taking the lens that you should simply ‘stop’ a bad behavior is the complete bass-ackward approach to take. Making the decision to stop and telling yourself to stop is an important step, but it is never that simple. Pretending otherwise sets you up for failure. To say ‘just quit smoking’, or ‘just start exercising’, or ‘just stop snacking after 7’ by itself doesn’t work. For success, there are big and small system changes you need to make before and during. And for real success, those changes are unique to every individual and their situation – they need to be discovered with experimentation.

For example, recent system changes I’ve made – small things, but that impact bigger systems – and that I continue to experiment with:

  1. Gradual diet changes – reducing sugar and gluten intake, drinking more water, eating more protein and fat.
  2. Creative exercise routines – mixing and matching different exercises, for different opportunities and moods, making it easier to be physically active in some way, every day
  3. Nurturing rituals – starting simple, and modifying to where it fits me, not a ritual that someone else is doing for themselves. Rituals in the morning help me get out of bed and into a better mood very quickly, and set me up for a better day. I am working on an evening ritual that promotes healthy sleeping and not late night snacking.
  4. Casual art – this has been huge, finding a comfortable path toward more creative, artistic behaviors and mindsets, flexing that muscle that taps into a deeper creative energy that has been dormant for too long. This has been tough, but very rewarding
  5. Pacing – creating buffers, allowing more time, being thoughtful of what I’m doing when, how different tasks cost energy or add energy, and being thoughtful of how I combine or stagger them can improve the system as a whole; listening to my body, hearing what it needs
  6. Defining goals and priorities – this, too, is a work in progress…but it adds important focus.

These are all just examples, but together, they are making a big difference.  I am thriving more, aching less. I am happy and content more often than battling depression.

The ‘failures’ are happening less often, and I am able to recover more quickly because I am building resilience and creating more ‘rescue’ tools through rituals and new habits and opportunities.

More importantly, I am actively learning from them. Failures used to be just that – failure, and validation that I truly do suck, and just seem to be pretty good at hiding that fact from everyone. Now, failures are becoming signals. They are clear announcements that something isn’t right and I should take a closer look. I can backtrack from failures and look at patterns, discover new connections and understand more deeply how I tick and what I need. Failures allow for that deeper understanding and this informs changes I can make to allow myself to thrive more deeply.

So now I work towards several goals:

  1. Set myself up to thrive more, fail less.
  2. Build up resilience and capabilities so when there is failure, it’s easier to bounce back.
  3. Practice awareness around failure to learn more (to support 1 and 2)
  4. Nurture the sensitivity to feel the ‘failure’ signals sooner

One of my hobbies is martial arts and MMA (for fun). With practice, I am learning to read the signals from my opponent and anticipate punches sooner. The better I get at this, the more I can ‘see’ into the future. That’s what I’d like to do with the failure signal – become more aware and more sensitive to my feelings, thoughts, and actions, so that I can sense my ‘crash’ sooner, and learn and act accordingly to adjust course.

Works in progress. For now, my failures are improving, and that makes me happy.

 

Week 1 Bits & Pieces

A collection of tips I liked

  • Where do you start? You just start. If you want to do something, do something. – from The Spark & The Art (Creativity Podcast). It resonates a common sense truth that is easily said, but hard to do. But he added something – you keep starting, and maybe it takes a few months. That’s ok.
  • Anything worth doing takes yearsa post on Medium by Jon Wenstenberg. How incredibly refreshing! Just the space this gives you to thoughtfully create, experiment, fail and refine! And with that lens, the realization that you better pick something you enjoy doing.
  • Do something new every day – a principle I’m applying to my life to promote creativity, neurogenesis, surprise. Doesn’t have to be big, but it needs to be new.

Things I’m coming to really understand

  • Creativity, whether drawing, writing, sketching, singing, should be about what YOU want to do, not what you think you have to produce for anyone else. Writing this blog is about writing what I want to write, what I want to learn about, what sparks a fire in me. It’s the conversations I want to have, the things I want to learn. If someone joins in the conversation, that’s awesome. If not, that’s okay too, because I’m still really enjoying the conversation.
  • Flexing new muscles is what builds new skills, opens up new spaces, both practically and perceptually, and you should start with really small, easily repeatable steps. I’ve always wanted to sketch regularly, but struggled with starting and having it come easily. So I started with zentangles – doodles with intent and guidance. Easy to start, easy to repeat, and it gave me satisfaction. Now I’m doodling, sketching, and painting frequently, simply for pleasure

New books I’ve gathered

  • 20 Ways to Draw a Tree: a beautifully simple way to prompt doodles and sketches with different media and styles; a great way to play and explore with your own artistic creativity, no matter the skill.
  • The Neurogenesis Diet & Lifestyle: Recently featured on a  Bulletproof Radio Podcast episode, I had to follow up. Two points in the podcast alone had me hooked: (1) “serotonin deficiency” theory behind depression has been debunked and (2) the mouse experiment demonstrated it wasn’t just one thing that had a big positive impact, but a combination of several things. Both points support a systems thinking lens to better health, not an oversimplified problem-solution lens. This is right in line with Dr. Hyman’s system thinking approach to health with functional medicine. Kudos!
  • Art as Therapy: Appreciating art for how it can tap into your emotions, deliver more meaning, reveal deeper truths.
  • A World of Artist Journal Pages: glimpses into the role art has played in the inner lives of others; both thoughtful and inspirational.

Experiments I’m running

  • Color thinking / art thinking (see blog)
  • New approach to my evening rituals (see blog)
  • Daily blogging – for me. Not to be selfish – but that way I enjoy it, even if no one else stops by. I want it to be a blog that I’d be interested in reading every day.
  • Letting art lead me – to still write about…
  • Letting my story guide me – to be kicked off….

Where things are headed

  • Continue compiling topics that fascinate
  • See what structure and patterns organically evolve and feel good
  • Gradually get to some more unpacking and connecting, eventually to support my Design Your Journey Line project.