Awakening: or How To Work When You Feel Like Crap


I know I said that this was gonna be about real photography stuff. It's not so I guess that means I broke a promise. I beg your pardon. It couldn't be helped. As some of you know, I've been off work for awhile because I had surgery on my arm. So far, I've been off for eleven weeks. That may sound great, but in reality it's been very hard on me. I feel isolated and I've been having a very hard time getting any work done. I've been having a hard time getting motivated to do anything at all.

I can’t help but wonder why I'm feeling so down, why it's been so tough. I was talking to a friend the other day and I said that the trick seems to be balancing the momentum and the forward progress with times like this. Then I started to wonder why this was so. Why can't forward momentum be steady, especially when you have a pretty good idea where you're going? And it always seems like that, doesn't it? It always seems like "two steps forward, one step back". Why is that?

Feeding My Little Brain

Then I started thinking about some of the things I've been reading to keep my little brain occupied. I'm a seeker so I read all kinds of esoteric stuff. One of the things I’ve been reading is The Kybalion, an interesting little book first published over a hundred years ago. In it, the unknown author describes the grand scale of the universe and the principles upon which it operates. And he (or she) does it in a non-religious way. Pretty heady stuff for a book from 1908. The first principle states that "all is mind"; the universe is mental. I don't see any way around that. Look around you and think about all of the processes that happen on their own, without any participation from you. Cells dividing and reproducing. Your heart beating. Trees growing. Tides coming in. Stars being born. Galaxies forming. Assuming that there is some kind of "creator", and I don't see any way around that either, there must be a mental process at work. How else could the creation of the universe have happened? How else could all of these processes have begun? Let me say at the outset that the very existence of the human body is enough for me to believe that there is some higher process at work. How anyone can look at the delicately balanced complexities and subtleties of the workings of our biology and think there's not some master plan is beyond me. I think that requires a mental suspension of the highest order. Our science, great as it is, has limits. It explains a lot but it certainly can't begin to explain love or courage or why we are almost universally moved by certain works of art. It can give us a deeper look into the process of how such things happen, but it can't explain why they happen. Refer back to any of the processes I mentioned earlier. And I don’t buy the argument that asking “why” is an meaningless question. We ask why because we were meant to ask why. It seems to me that no matter what science tries to explain, no matter how deep it delves into any process, at the end of the day the root question preceding the offered explanation is always "why?” That's where science ends and metaphysics begins. And there’s a lot of scientists out there that just hate that.

The next thing The Kybalion states is that there is always a correspondence between the laws and phenomena that govern all processes and planes of being. Here’s an example: a single strand of DNA contains the potential to recreate the entire organism it represents. It's kind of like thinking about fractals. A fractal is a mathematical set represented by a geometric pattern that repeats endlessly and can be perfectly reproduced on infinitely larger or smaller scales. No matter how far you zoom in or out, the pattern remains the same. (You can see some really cool examples at The human embryo follows the same mathematical pattern of development as a galaxy. To see this, all you have to do is look at a picture of an embryo next to a picture of the Milky Way. Forget about the content of the pictures and just look at the shapes. This geometry is evident in all of creation, natural or not. Its variations are in the horns of a ram and in nautilus shells and artichokes and roses. It’s in grass and cloud formations and ocean tides. We use it to knit sweaters and build skyscrapers and send astronauts into space. Now I'm no mathematician, but I know enough to realize the implications of this. What it seems to mean is that if the universe is the macrocosm, then everything else contained in the universes is a microcosm of that. We're each a little universe that's mapped from the larger universe. The Kybalion states that by saying "as above so below, as below so above". Saying it again, it means that the the universe is a system and the same laws and phenomena operate on every plane of existence. So let's apply that to the trouble I've been having with my time off and with the creative process.

Making Sense Out Of Nonsense...sort of

First, if the universe is mental, it means that the creation of everything began with an act of mental projection. What other materials could the divine mind have used to create? Nothing else existed. This, it seems to me, is a mystery that is above our comprehension. It defies all laws that bind us because it is the source of those laws. And because it created those laws, it must exist outside them. Since it's impossible for us to function outside those laws, it exceeds our ability to understand. Every description of it is inadequate because we are trapped in time and space. That means that we have to use language that implies time and space, i.e. "outside", "create", function", etc. We have no other way of saying it or even thinking about it. It's impossible to describe something that "existed before time began" because the word "existed' implies space, and the word "before" implies time. And there was no time before time began. I have no idea what there was but there sure wasn't time. And if there was no time, there was no space because it takes time to travel across space. See what I mean? It can make you nutty. This is one of the functions of archetypes. In part, they are spiritual and psychological containers that convey to us the meaning of ideals that lie outside our rational minds. If you're a positivist, I'm sure that all this makes your blood pressure go up. But hey, it is what it is.

Second, what we can infer from the matrix of life that we witness around us is that the act of manifesting anything requires two forces, not one. The simplest example is the act of procreation. And as below, so above. So after that initial mental projection, two forces had to combine to manifest anything. The problem here is that creation began with "one", the divine mind. But if our observation is that "two" is required to bring something into being, where did the other "one" come from? How did "one" become "two"? Simple... kind of. Because we can't really understand how this happened, let's use the only language we have that's capable of giving us some idea of what's under the hood of the universe: mathematics. Don't break into a cold sweat. It's as simple as 1+1=2. Hang with me and I promise I'll get you there. All the "one" needs is a another "one" identical to itself. Remember that the first principle of The Kybalion states that "all is mind". Since the "one" is mind, it is alive and can therefore initiate action. So it contemplates itself, reflects its light, and casts its own shadow. Now we have two forces; one is the shadow, the "opposite", of the other. You can call them positive and negative, yin and yang, male and female, giving and receiving; hang it upon whatever framework you wish. If they taught math this way when I was in school, I would have paid more attention.

So what makes me think I'm right about this? Why do I think this is the way the universe works? Because I can count. And because I can observe the general function of life around me and then apply the law "as below, so above". Again looking at the way human life is created, we see that both male (positive, giving, yang) and female (negative, receiving, yin) energies are required. Take this further and consider the way we live our lives. Our entire existence revolves around the interaction of these two forces. We engage in a period of activity (positive) followed by a period of rest (negative). We wake and then we sleep. We're happy and then we're sad. We're creative and then we're stuck. It also makes me think about the nature of human beings and the nature of the universe itself. Since we sleep does that mean the universe itself also has periods of rest followed by periods of intense activity? And are we intimately connected to that? Does human nature, like human activity, have sudden growth spurts followed by periods of stagnation? Does our species, technology aside, naturally experience periods of intense awakening and creativity corresponding with the activities of the larger universe? Maybe that's what the Renaissance represented. During that period we were lifted out of the darkness of the Middle Ages and catapulted into modern history. What began as a cultural movement in 14th century Italy eventually spread to the whole of Europe, affecting every aspect of life. Maybe this is how real revolutions happen. Somehow we are awakened from our cyclical sleep and we take a leap forward only to sleep again as a part of a grander operation. If our activity is really connected to the rhythms of the universe maybe we should consider thinking about astrology in a different way.

Where's The Beef?

Now that you've stuck it out and your brain has been bent into a pretzel, let's come back to the creative process. The process by which art is made is both mental and physical, so these laws must apply. Any artist knows that creativity happens in spurts. And we're frustrated by that. But if that's the way of the entire universe then why should we be any different? And that's what we experience in our lives, isn't it? Things go along swimmingly and then all of a sudden the shit hits the fan. Births and deaths happen in threes. You have an unexpected inflow of money followed by an unexpected expense. We have periods of great happiness only to be frustrated by its impermanence. So what's the trick? How do we survive this without going insane or engaging in some form of escapism, whether it’s shopping or drinking or video games or whatever?

We live in the moment, that's how. We fully participate in the cyclic nature of existence by staying present in this moment only. Disappointed in my solution? Maybe you were expecting some great revelation or some grand, new insight. But before you dismiss it look at it in the context of the entire universe. And then stop expecting something else. The trick is to be prepared for it and to fearlessly walk the razor's edge between the two governing forces; not looking down, not looking too far ahead, not looking back. Just living this moment, this reality. And then remember that what we perceive isn't reality at all. It's our mind's construct and interpretation of reality. Only reality is reality. Then there are symbols and archetypes which describe reality to our unconscious. And then there's our quickened mind, which confuses the entire matter by hanging words and thoughts on something ineffable. We try to define the undefinable and in doing so, we rob it of its mystical power and force ourselves down into the prison of only what we see in front of our faces with our waking eyes.

Let's clear something up. If you've been reading anything else I've written, then you know that I'm not advocating not working just because you're in a low or unproductive state. If I'm right, if it requires two opposing forces to manifest anything, then working when you're feeling unproductive is incredibly important. Let's say you're a sculptor. There's you and there's the block of wood. Again, two forces. You bring the inspiration (positive, giving) and the wood brings the potential (negative, receiving). But both you and the wood have to join together to make a beautiful piece of work. So you end up with three things: you, the block of wood, and the finished piece. Those three things represent one thing: your vision for your work. Three different manifestations that all describe one thing. That's a trinity. I bet that sounds familiar, but that's a discussion for another time. What the wood offers is resistance (potential). You must bring the proper amount of force (inspiration) to birth something beautiful. If you overwhelm the wood, then you end up feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. The wood couldn't contain the amount of energy you brought to it. If you're uninspired then the wood overwhelms you. You didn't bring enough to the exchange to create anything worthy of being called "your work". But when you and the wood are in harmony, the result is a leap into the unknown thing we call beautiful and moving art. The problem is that we never know when that harmony is going to happen. Why? Because creative energy, just like all energy, is cyclical. It ebbs and flows. And we can't predict when there is going to be harmonic convergence. At least I haven’t figured it out. So you have to keep working. One state doesn't abruptly end, giving way to the other. They flow into each other. So you have to be ready. What if the harmony is there and you miss it? Then you'll miss the magic carpet ride. All because you didn't feel like it. How's that for a reason to keep working every day? The hard part is staying mentally, psychologically, and spiritually open, especially when you don't feel like it.

Now What?

Once I realized this, once I stopped grumbling about how down I was feeling and got back on the bike, I wrote this. And then I made the above photograph. It's kind of like jumping onto a moving train. You have to be moving at the same speed, grab on, and then leap. If you’re standing still it will just pass you by. If you’re moving too slow and you try to grab it, your arm will get torn off. If you’re moving too fast and you jump on, it’s gonna hurt. Simple, right? The other thing I realized is that if I'm stagnant I lose my creative vision. Why? Because vision is a living thing. It too, is cyclical. It evolves from moment to moment. It morphs and turns over on itself. It can become something else when you're not watching. But if you're moving along with it, if you're actively participating with it, if you're in harmony with it, then you never have to chase it because you are it and it is you. It's another way the dual forces manifest. You and your vision. Don't look for it. Be it. Work with it. Evolve with it. Then you never have to try to find it or wonder what it is.

So walk the razor. Be courageous and fearless. Expect disappointment and stagnation as much as you expect progress and joy. And revel in all of it. Because life is short and time is long. Explore the fabric of now. That's where art happens. As an artist, you have the opportunity to use the present moment to make a connection with that ineffable thing that exists in all of us. When you succeed, you lift us all above the words and thoughts of our waking lives into the realm of our collective unconscious. And maybe in extraordinary circumstances, just for a moment, you touch something even higher and deeper in us: a piece of that initial joining of the two forces that operate on every level of the universe. Now that's a reason to make art if there ever was one.