“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of the imagination.”- John Keats
The creation of art is an ecstatic practice that is strongest when it is born from the eternal mystery bound within us from Newton’s limitless universe. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi terms these ecstatic states as “Flow.” Scientists term them as hypofrontality, a slowing of the prefrontal cortex resulting in a loss of ego. Artists speak of them mystically as when the muse takes over. No matter the definition applied, these selfless and timeless states allow artists to do their best work. In these waking dreams, there is no self to judge or interfere with. As writers, we are only taking dictation and trying to keep up. For the last few years, I have been studying practices to cultivate these periods of rich not-being. But this search is as old as humankind.
In the twelfth century, Suffi Muslims practiced reciting divine names and prescribed breathing methods and body postures to transcend to higher states. The same practices can be found in some Kabbalistic Jewish sects of that time, Gnostic Christians, Zen Buddhists, Yogic mystics, and beyond. Each is a method to leave the ego to reach the unseen. We all should find a practice to set our conscious minds aside for the divine. Cold exposure, trail running, and yin yoga have helped me immensely.
Karen Armstrong in her work A History of God relates that the words “myth,” “mysticism,” and “mystery,” all derive from the Greek verb “musteion” which means to shut one’s eyes or mouth. The senses that focus on the present are barriers. Therefore I meditate before I write to silence everything that isn’t this now.
Csikszentmihalyi found creative consciousness is not either/or, but both/and. Steven Kotler condenses this into the formal: creativity equals pattern recognition (linking of ideas) plus risk-taking (courage to bring the novel into being). Both of these mind states create dopamine in the brain, the hormone that creates a sense of well-being in expectation of reward.
The Flow Collective through fMRIs found that Flow exists on the border of alpha and beta brainwaves. But Flow also requires gamma waves which are fast-moving, make connections and drive binding neurons which are literally physical connections between two ideas. And gamma waves depend on theta brainwaves which appear when we meditate, practice yoga, or walk in nature.
To create one has to make space for that hypnagogic state between dreams and waking to arise. The richest ideas arise when our minds are free of surface concerns. When we cultivate these spaces we allow our brains to rejuvenate with oxytocin and dopamine. We also experience an uptake in anandamide (from the Sanskrit “ananda” meaning blessed) that binds to the same neural connectors as THC and promotes openness and relaxation. This better enables us to overcome the innate resistance we feel when it comes to doing the work.
Romantic poets like Keats and Wordsworth understood the necessity of submission to the natural world, of feeling rather than knowing, and leaving the logical deliberate mind behind. Even pessimistic philosophers like Schopenhauer felt that salvation could still be found in nature and art.
Transcendence is a fundamental need not only to be an artist but to simply be. In an unpublished paper found after his death psychologist, Abraham Maslow listed transcendence as the sixth, and therefore highest, a human necessity on his revised Hierarchy of Needs.
I offer this to encourage you to step outside yourself, make room for the muse, and find your own practice to better not-be. When we are better able to escape ourselves we can do more than we reasoned possible. It is science and mystery; something we have always sought.
Williams Wordsworth “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”
Steven Kotler The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer
Listen to this:
Tia Blake “Plastic Jesus”