Tonight I’ll give the eleventh in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from chapters of Jack Kornfield’s book, No Time Like the Present Moment. The chapter, entitled “Free to Dream,” begins with a quotation by Jack Kerouac: “All human beings are also Dream Beings. Dreaming ties all mankind together.”
Creativity is at the heart of life. In nature, we witness endless creation of clouds, waves, plants, insects, and sunsets. Human beings are part of this natural creative process. Even in the most difficult circumstances, when we view life as an opportunity to awaken our creative spirit, we are free to make a positive contribution.
Consider the universal impact of Anne Frank’s diary, written during World War II, while she and her Jewish family were in hiding. Although Nazis discovered them and sent them to a concentration camp, Anne’s creative work far outlasted her brief lifetime. As Jack says, “Whatever your circumstances, you are free to pen your poem, dance your dance, express the depths of your own heart.”
Sometimes adult mentors discourage youthful creative expression. I still recall in elementary school that my music teacher, Miss Van Etton, took me aside to request that I silently mouth the words to a song that our class was about to present for visiting parents. She didn’t want my off-key singing to offend the audience. Many years later, after earning a Master’s degree in music therapy, I improvised songs to interact with children who have autism. Some of those children responded by verbalizing their very first words. When I published a book about some of these musical success stories, I fantasized about sending Miss Van Etton an autographed copy.
In the early years of my music therapy career, I conducted a chorus of young adults with learning disabilities in performances at a nursing home in New Haven, CT. With great gusto, the off-key choir sang for hard-of-hearing, wheelchair-bound elders, who applauded enthusiastically after each number. Both the singers and the listeners were gratified by the lively musical interchange.
We must not let the doubts and judgments of the world’s “Miss Van Ettons” lead us to despair. How can we move beyond old ways of thinking to develop our innate talents and creative gifts? The first step of creativity is imagination.
Jack recounts the story of a visitor interviewing stonemasons about their work. One mason described cutting stone into blocks, and another boasted that he was carving stone to earn a good living. What most impressed the visitor was a third mason’s joyful account of helping to build a great cathedral.
The creative spirit cannot be bound by fixed hours and set tasks. Our ancestors have sung, danced, painted, built, designed, cooked, decorated, traveled and prayed. Everyone has artistic potential, whether it erupts readily or waits to be tapped. Jack cautions that it is not frivolous, trivial or optional to be creative. It is a way of contributing to evolution and of reclaiming one’s soul. He asks us to reflect upon some thoughtful questions:
What is the vision of your life?
Are you envisioning a change of home or occupation?
Do you want further education or opportunities to travel?
Are you longing for a quieter, more contemplative, inwardly focused life?
Would you like greater social engagement?
What limits your imagination?
What is your very own style?
Are you willing to set off in an unknown, uncharted direction?
What would you like to create?
As you imagine possibilities, notice how doubts, limiting beliefs, and reservations also arise. Be aware of fears of not having enough energy, time, freedom or money. Note customary responsibilities to family, work, community and friends. What might happen if you shook up family expectations, disappointed colleagues at work, or risked ridicule in society? Acknowledge each inner voice and bow to all the cautionary thoughts.
Then consider, “If I could do anything, what might it be?” “How might my life change?” “What could be the first steps to move into this new creation of my life?”
Would you regret not trying something new?
Start by honoring your family’s history and society’s expectations, and then allow fate and destiny to propel your dreams. Remember that racism inspired Gandhi, the horrors of the Crimean war motivated Florence Nightingale, and travels in India and training in calligraphy galvanized Steve Jobs. These leaders remind us to let our circumstances invite our dreams.
Creative acts require both discipline and letting go. Igor Stravinsky mastered musical notation and composition techniques before he surrendered to primal imagination and created The Rite of Spring. Initially his daring dissonances and pulsing rhythms shocked traditional audiences but thrilled later generations of music lovers.
Jack quotes saxophonist and jazz musician Charlie Parker,” You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
When I was learning to play the piano, I had to trust the process of practicing many repetitions of each musical phrase and to tolerate moments of failure. My senior year in college, I performed by memory a lengthy piano concert and allowed the pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy that I knew so intimately to flow through my fingers.
It’s possible to bring style to whatever you do. At Omega House, I witness the graciousness of hospice nurses bringing comfort to terminal patients. Gustavo, the maintenance man at First UU Church, cheerfully works overtime to make needed repairs. Every Monday evening, Lisa Murphy carefully waters the heat-parched flowers outside our meeting room. No matter what the task, it is important to do it mindfully and to make our own particular mark.
The most engaged people are those who are interested in life. Creative interests are always specific. When he was a child, my chaplaincy teacher Koshin Paley Ellison saw a photo of a Zen Buddhist monk and was inspired to embark on the Dharma path. As a youngster, José Altuve determinedly struck walnuts with a stick until he developed the skills to become a World Series Champion baseball player.
Jack’s advice is to express whatever creative urges are bubbling up inside and to connect with other creative souls. When we recall that we are incarnated not only to toil, we are free to dream big and dance!
Let’s practice an adapted version of the guided meditation called “You Are An Artist” that concludes chapter 11 (p. 196).
Sit quietly with eyes closed.
Connect to your own unique rhythm of breathing.
Reflect on your life as a work of art, with its loves and triumphs, its joys and sorrows, its losses and redemption.
Envision yourself adding artistic pursuits to your life.
You might imagine yourself making a video, painting, dancing, surfing, writing poems, practicing one of the martial arts, creating an app, or growing prize-winning roses….
Now envision your whole life as a work of art.
How could you add artistry to your life?
As in Shakespeare’s dramas, a full life encompasses comedy and tragedy, leadership and discipleship, love and conflict, loss and reconciliation.
What kind of playfulness and style could you add to your life story?
What would make your life more heroic, more poetic, and more beautiful?
No one has lived your life before, and it is uniquely yours to create.
Take a moment to reconnect to your own rhythm of breathing, and slowly open your eyes to reconnect to the group.