Do you have the courage to go looking for the magic in you?

breatheMany of us have been taught to be safe. The world is scary, unpredictable. Do the safe thing, for who knows, what might happen. And so we are safe. We don’t take risks. We don’t speak our truth. We skim life, instead of diving deep and getting engrossed in the juicy, messy business of living our life. We do the best in the situation we find ourselves in, instead of choosing to put ourselves in worlds where we want to be. Sooner, or later, we find that we  can’t hear ourselves anymore. There’s a deafening quiet where there should be an inner radar. And then, because we don’t want to feel like hiding our gifts and our voice and our  idiosyncrasies in the treasure chest that stays locked in our hearts anymore, we start…opening up. We begin, in the search for ourselves, and in search of the magic hidden inside of us.

I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us as human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

The hunt to uncover those jewels-that’s creative living.

The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.

Elizabeth Gilbert

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Dancing with Creativity

brainSome artists and creatives fear losing their pain, believing that their pain fuels their creativity. Others on the path to rediscovering their creativity approach creativity as a suspicious object, with caution and with fear, afraid that their creativity will suck them into a whirlpool of unexamined packets of pain.

Both camps implicitly believe in the relationship between pain and creation.

I belong to the second camp. I hold my creativity at arm’s length. I want to bring it closer but I fear losing control. The left brain is a safe haven. Life is a maze that I have often navigated using instructions from the rational part of me. Living like this is safe and contained but it doesn’t always light up my soul. My right brain is moody and not in my control. It is playful and impulsive like a child. Whereas my left brain is black and white and grey, my right brain is Technicolor. To be honest, being creative and living creatively scares me a little bit. And so I wet my feet in the word of feelings and intuition before running to the safety of facts and logic.

But what if creativity doesn’t deserve the bad rep it has acquired? What if we are creative despite our pain, and not because of it?  What if we can be happy, healthy, and functional – and creative? This is what the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert proposes in her ode to creative living called Big Magic.

I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies—not from the pathologies themselves. But so many people think it’s the other way round. For this reason, you will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that it they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish. Think of Rilke, who famously said, “If my devils are to leave me, I’m afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Rilke was a glorious poet, and that line is elegantly rendered, but it’s also severely emotionally warped. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that line quoted countless times by creative people who were offering up an excuse as to why they don’t quit drinking, or why they won’t go see a therapist, or why they won’t consider treatment for their depression or anxiety, or why they won’t address their sexual misconduct or intimacy problems, or why they basically refuse to seek personal healing and growth in any manner whatsoever—because they don’t want to lose their suffering, which they have somehow conflated and confused with their creativity.

People have a strange trust in their devils, indeed.

It is easy to get this intellectually, but hard to let go of the mythology of the wounded artist. But we should at least try, as we pick up the pen or the paintbrush for a date with creativity, maybe at a café that plays some wonderful jazz with a dark hot chocolate, no sugar, before we put on our work clothes and game face for a day of creative problem-solving at work.

I may feel a little afraid of my creativity, but I know it heals me. It doesn’t pay the bills but it thaws my frozen heart as I axe some of the ice to pick a wisp of a memory from the years past to capture on the page, or just examine for a few moments before letting it go.

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Do you know what you’re feeling?

feelingsSometimes our inner self is confused, or lonely, or in disrepair. But it can be hard for us to recognize that in ourselves. Like my patron saint, the wise and wonderful Gretchen Rubin quotes: Surprisingly little clues are offered to us about who we are. For some of us, surprisingly little clues are offered into how we are feeling.

I’ve had this experience myself, when anxiety has crept into me, without my realizing till its too late. The same for sadness. Little by little the weight added up, till the burden felt too heavy to bear.

How do we recognize  – and act on – these feelings while they are still manage-able, before they have snowballed into something scarier?

Gretchen Rubin suggests shining an indirect spotlight on our feelings, which can be otherwise hard to put our finger on. While we may find it hard to recognize our squishy, shape-shifting feelings by looking inside, we can do a better job by identifying trends in how we behave when we are feeling a certain way.

For instance, when Gretchen is anxious, she reads kidlit. Gretchen’s sister’s voice shakes when she speaks when she’s anxious. The psychologist Harriet Lerner says she starts under-functioning on the practical, real-world skills, those that don’t come naturally to her.

I realize I go quiet when I’m anxious. I sit on the edge of the seat, instead of sinking in, like I belong. I worry about what I will say, instead of being present in the moment. When I’m sad, I can spend time lying in bed thinking, instead of getting up and starting the day. My purse and my fridge, like my head go messy. Externally, I create an environment that mimics my internal world. And so, to feel better, I start fixing my external world and as I do I find myself being repaired.

A wonderful affirmation from Louise Hay on this idea:

I make housework fun. I begin anywhere and move through the rooms with artistic flair. I toss out the garbage. I dust and polish those things I treasure. We all have a set of beliefs. And just like a comfortable, familiar reading chair, we keep sitting in these beliefs over and over again. Our beliefs create our experiences. Some of these beliefs create wonderful experiences. And some of them can become like an uncomfortable old chair that we don’t want to throw out. I know that I really can toss out old beliefs, and I can choose new ones that significantly improve the quality of my life. It’s like housecleaning. I need to clean my physical house periodically, otherwise it gets to a point where I really can’t live in it. I don’t have to be fanatical. I do need to be clean. Physically and mentally, I fill the rooms of my house with love.

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Getting lost in the work

marcusRevel in the process, not in the results. A wise aspiration, so difficult to execute.

If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word that you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this.     Marcus Aurelius


Strange, weird problems

say wha

It seems like we all suffer from strange / weird problems. Today, I was speaking with someone who shared his problem with me: he remained calm and unperturbed in stressful situations. While the rest of the team scurried in the face of an impending audit at his office, he remained calm and unfrazzled. The problem? The head of the office found his behavior strange – it seemed he wasn’t as engaged as the others. This is not the first time I had heard of this – my husband suffers from the same cool cucumber syndrome.

Other strange problems I’ve spotted include:

  • finding it easy to yes, but hard to say no
  • being harder on yourself, but more understanding of others
  • easily advocating for others, but not being able to advocate for yourself
  • knowing how other feels, but being clueless about what you feel
  • being able to see a situation from so many perspectives, that your own is just one of them, instead of being the most important perspective

What are some strange problems that you grapple with? Would love to hear in the comments.

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Getting rid of the golf ball stuck in my throat

throat chakraSometimes it feels like a golf ball is stuck in my throat – the words I want to speak don’t come out. They go back down, sometimes lodging heavily in my heart, sometimes weighing heavily on my mind.

How do I open up my throat chakra, I ask my husband. Practice everyday, he said. He doesn’t know about much about chakras, but he knows me, and he knows the answers. The only way I can unblock my throat chakra is by practicing, starting to speak. Maybe a thin voice comes out, squeezing around the golf ball stuck in my throat; thin, like a singer’s voice on the decline, but I hope it grows stronger with practice.

We were on holiday recently when I rediscovered the beauty and restorative power of music: sufi songs; old hindi songs with a word or two in urdu, maybe, just maybe, the most lyrical language on the earth; new songs, some with personality, some with a sameness that blended into each other.

I sang along as we drove through the vast majestic mountains of stone and sand and multiple colors. At first, my voice was weak and limited to a narrow band from years of being forgotten, but as I sang, it grew stronger. Maybe it was the strength of the mountains seeping into me?

I feel compassion for my voice. It has been suppressed on occasion and so it is scared.  It takes some time to make it past the golf ball stuck inside, and when it does come out, it wavers, it is shaky. I send it out, shaking courageously into the world.

I draw on the first day of art class. It is my attempt at a self portrait and after drawing what looks like a sad woman, I scribble some crosses on the neck. The teacher knows when she sees my work, that I am showing her what is inside, telling her something about me, but she does not know exactly what. Do you have a thyroid problem, she asks – she has noticed the dark squiggles? No, that’s my throat chakra – it’s blocked.

I try and open it with sodalite and lapiz lazuli, and singing in the mountains, and saying I don’t like this, and I will not be treated this way.

The throat chakra is expression and expression is creativity. With my throat chakra blocked, I fear creating, I fear making mistakes. Maybe the golf ball stuck is perfectionism?

So, I give myself, little by little, permission to not be perfect. I give myself permission to write shitty first drafts and say rambling sentences which have a seed of an idea that may take root – or may not, and that’s ok too. I give myself the permission to wreck my journal, to squirt it with lemon juice, and stitch some pages together, to doodle all over it, including the edges, to rip out pages and lose them because loss is part of life, and part of creation. I give myself the permission to break an egg and squish it, shells and yolk and all, letting the shards dig into my hands to see if it really does unblock me as it is touted to do, and find that heart does feel lighter and the censor in my hands that keeps a finger on the backspace is a little bit more relaxed, like after a few glasses of wine.

My throat chakra opens slowly in the midnight hour as I sit on laptop and go clicket-y click. I type to know what I think, what I feel, and what I must do. I type to become.

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From blogosphere: 6 tips for clearing your throat chakra
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Is your aspiration wise – or unwise?

I was reading Tara Brach’s “True Refuge – Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart,” in my midnight hour of quiet reading and drifting, when I came across this passage:

In the Buddhist teachings, the conscious recognition of our heart’s deepest longing is called wise aspiration. Yours might be for spiritual realization, for loving more fully, for knowing truth, for finding peace. Whatever its flavor, the awareness of what you care about energizes and guides your practice. As Zen master Suzuki Roshi taught, “The most important thing is to remember the most important thing.”

Do you remember the most important thing? Or is it buried, somewhere deep below the buildings and the rubble of false aspirations and achievements?

The little day dreamers

bougainvilleaToday, I went for a walk to the beautiful park that I am lucky to have at walking distance. I saw a bunch children’s backpacks under the trees. The kids were there for some sort of nature appreciation project. A few were busy picking pink bougainvillea flowers that lay scattered on the grass, and dried twigs. Many ran around the park, laughing, playing games. A little day dreamer ran into me as I walked on the track, lost in his own world, clutching a twig. Another little one ran around, the branch in his hand held up as a sword, in a dreamworld of his, where maybe he was a knight.

Though it has been a long time since I was a kid, it’s not been so long since I pretended to be one. In my creative writing class last year,  we went through a workshop to help us get in touch with our free, playful, creative natural self before it was chained. One of the students who was also a dad had been tasked with bringing toys. He’d brought along little Hot Wheel cars, some bigger fancier cars, and teddy bears, and dolls.

Pretend you’re in kindergarten and play, Menon sir said. Do what you want. Don’t hold back.

It began soon. “Kids” ran across the room, shouting loudly. In another group, the kids smashed the cars into each other. One broke. A little girl hung on to her stuffed toy and wouldn’t let go, It’s mine! I sat, a little away from the group of mostly boys who were busy orchestrating accidents with the little cars, with my teddy bar in my arms. I held him close for comfort and whispered little secrets into his ear. I walked sometime with him, holding him close, and then went back to my perch, hugging him tightly, glad he was around in all the loudness and excitement of cars crashing into each other that the others seemed to enjoy so much.

Why don’t you play? Do something, Menon sir cajoled. Act like you’re in kindergarten. This is how I was in kindergarten, I told him.

This is how I still am. Easily stimulated by loudness, aggression, crowds. But also dreamy, imaginative, and kind. I had real empathy for myself during that workshop, when I realized how over-stimulated I probably was as a kid, with little control over my environment.

Today, when I saw the little ones who marched to the beat of their own drum,  sensed little kindred spirits.

Enjoyed this post? You might enjoy the wonderful Susan Cain’s treatise on introversion, Quiet.

If you know someone who’d relate, do share this with them. And for more posts on self-awareness and living better, do follow the blog. Thank you!

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Letting go of perfectionism and wrecking my journal

I don’t remember when I colored outside the lines. The lines were always severe, defined, binding. I colored safely within. The leaves of the coloring book were always limited; how could I “waste” them coloring with abandon?

I drew a vase brimming over with flowers one day in Art class in first grade. As the teacher took rounds of the class, she stopped to appreciate my drawing. That was it. Her approval meant I drew a dozen safe vases with flowers brimming over till the flowers didn’t have their exuberance and their wildness and abandon. They were staid replicas of the image that had come up from somewhere inside.

Safe is what I drew. Safe is what I did. My Camlin pastels preserved safely after their coloring was done, instead of being broken in half and rolled across the art sheet to create textures and messes.

I had flights of fancy sometimes when I was free. I remember taking my mother’s old pair of iron scissors, cutting through my white frock with soft pastel frills of pin, lemon, and blue, and sewed it up to create an off shoulder dress for my Barbie doll. But most of the times, I followed the directions to the T. Three quarters water, a quarter milk, a tea-spoon of sugar, half a spoon of tea leaves, and two cloves, was how I made tea for my mother when she was tired, or sick from her asthma from the humid Bombay air and her burdens.

There comes a time when following recipes and directions  does not cut it anymore. For me, the big 30 has been a marker of sorts, coming with the realization that this is it, this is my life. Maybe it’s ok not to follow directions. Maybe it’s ok to make mistakes. Maybe it’s ok to be free. Maybe it’s ok to fail. Maybe it’s ok to be. Maybe it’s ok to be me.

Perfectionism is a relational trait. It is an outcome, a badge of a time where I needed to be perfect. A remnant I would like to let go off, so I can color outside the lines. But how do I let go of something so deep-rooted?

Reading to understand why we are the way we are helps intellectually, but it is being present that heals us. Being in nature, walking on the wet earth barefoot. Looking at  mountains with the windows of the car rolled down, watching them turn from stony to sandy to red to purple, watching the snow sprinkled on top of the mountains like one might scatter powered sugar on a muffin. Feeling the cold wind and watching the blue skies and seeing the shapes the clouds make; a heart, I saw a heart!

mighty mountains

I look to renew my soul, little by little everyday, by coloring in my coloring book for “advanced colorists” (read adults), by writing in calligraphy the names of my favorite books as a child (The Wizard of Oz!), and most recently by following directions of writer Keri Smith who orders her readers in her wonderful book Wreck This Journal to destroy the journal to unclog the flow of creativity in us.

If I am afraid to destroy, I cannot create. I write one line, then delete it. I try to write a perfect line, instead of writing shitty first drafts as the wise Anne Lamott advises us. I pick up this journal and give myself permission to destroy it in the myriad ways Keri has cooked up.

After a tiring day at work where I have been productive, left-brained, and efficient, I want to breathe free, be creative. Put a pen in your mouth and write on this page, Keri commands, and I do, a 30-year-old lying on the bed, wrecking the journal at 11 at night. I smile. Infuse this journal with a scent of your own choosing. I hop over to the kitchen to slice a lemon and squeeze it on the page.

In the course of a few days, I have torn a page out of the journal and let it go, made a paper plane, squirted water from my mouth on to the journal, sewn some pages together, and written backwards from right to left, only to be reminded of my grandfather who wrote in Urdu, a luminous script that flowed delicately from right to left. Close the journal and write or scribble something on the edges. I write the words a close friend said to me recently: Khul Jao. That’s hindi for Open Up. Slowly but surely I am unfurling. Slowly but surely the ice is melting.

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Would your words change if your draw the letters by hand, instead of type them?

I remember reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Minds a few years ago and remember her advice to writers on the importance of writing by hand. While I can’t find her exact words, the essence (if memory serves me right), was that the voice that comes out when we write one word after the next, drawing the curves, stringing the letters, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is (or not) is different from the voice that comes out when we’re going tap-tap-tap on the keyboard. This same idea came up again in Lynda Barry’s beautiful book on writing “What It Is – Do You Wish You Could Write?” which combines Lynda’s advice on writing, her drawings,  collages, and some of her life story in one of the most unique books of writing and living that I have come across. Why write by hand?  Here’s what Lynda says:

There is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something. Something physical we move. Like a pen. Like a pencil. Something which is in motion. Ordinary motion like writing the alphabet. The ordinary everyday motion of a person with a pen writing the alphabet. on writing

  What does writing by hand accomplish that writing on the computer does not? Lynda says:

I have found that writing by hand slowly is faster than a computer-way. I know it’s not easy the way tapping a computer is easy. Tapping a computer is easy. Tapping a finger is not as complicated as making an original line in the shape of an S. Different parts of the brain are used when we make an S by hand and more of the body than a finger tap and images seem to come from this kind of being in motion. S

So, I was thinking, may we can try, you and I, to write by hand this week, even if just once or twice? And see the voice, the writing, the movement,  the red ink spill on paper? You don’t have to share them, maybe those words are for your eyes only. How does your voice change when you write by hand versus write on paper? Would love to hear about your experience. Enjoyed this post? Sign up to receive posts on creativity, writing, generosity, and living better.

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