Art & Focusing: Just Breathe
Sounds simple right? Or is it?
I’ve been using the art of breathing and meditation in my creative productivity for about 15 years or so. I actually learned it in a High School program and kind of forgot it, for about ten years. Just Google “breathing practice for relaxation” and you’ll get lots of various techniques and simple instructions to do abdominal breathing. Many people will describe how for them and others it reduces anxiety and builds focus around the creative process. It’s all there on YouTube these days to pick up on your own and for free.
Yet, for lots of activities like illustration or painting and songwriting, for example, the daily crush of:
“life is what happens while you’re making other plans”
is the tricky bit to get around. Maybe you have a different job and want to focus in your own time for art. Or, what if your job is designing in a fast-paced consulting firm? You probably want the same experience of loving the process and the result both at work and in your private studio, perhaps.
Either way, if you’re like me and have plans to create a body of work before your life is over, we feel the need to shut out some of the background chatter to be able to tune into our muse. For some of us, who make our living everyday at it, we depend on that ability as a skill, and so many of us have learned that abdominal breathing is a quick exercise that can be done at a desk or a break-room.
“What I’ve heard folks struggle with is, when they are right on the verge of trying it in a tough moment and they know it works, still they can’t always bridge the obstacles in the mind to drop into it.”
So what cuts through the noise? What can you do right before you try your breathing practice? The breathing of meditation is not in of itself all that hard. In through the nose, out through the mouth, count backwards, picture blue sky and fields, easy stuff right? Still sometimes the starting point eludes us.
One of my favorite jumping points to cut to the chase and physically relax my mind and body in the middle of the daily hustle–to not only do something productive, but that also really shines and I have the enjoyment of the creating of it too–is really to take this in:
“You woke up today. Appreciate that, right in this very moment.”
No, I didn’t make that up. You’ve probably heard it. I’d like to credit which Swami said it, but it would be hard to know who said first. Try hearing it again, and then saying it again, but at the same time getting all of yourself behind what it means. Behind it the same way you can line up behind the idea of your need to get certain things done or the bills don’t get paid. How if you don’t do the laundry it piles up and you don’t have clean undies. With that kind of force of understanding. Why? The answer is that the absence of this actively acknowledging the gift you have is the cause and effect that makes the things you really want to enjoy about creating art seem to pile up while you pay bills and do laundry. Before anything else, it brings clarity and focus through the daily din to the importance of flexing your true self’s ability to create more easily and more potently.
Have confidence that you are here to create, because then your creations will take on the acknowledgement that you always have “access to the muse”. That bit, that larger part of you, is sometimes called the “Inner Being” or some people just call it the “higher self”. Or some people, like avid hikers, runners and athletes, refer to it as: “The Zone”.
When you’re feeling the push to get it done: The pushing against deadlines is hard, for anyone. We creatives and artists with demands on us in our industry setting know it most it keenly when we are not painting or drawing in our “free-time”, but rather when we are working to the beat of the work-week clock. So how to get that same “flow” when you’re under deadline?
“Remind yourself that each project is just a little piece
of a REALLY BIG picture of your life’s body of work.”
So in that sense, your mind and body will allow itself to relax in the moment no matter what is coming, because that point of completion isn’t today, or next week, or probably even this year. Yet, there is a bonus side to that too, because at the same time, today is the most important day, because it is here!
Today is your chance to get it out there to the viewing audience. Embrace the toughness of it, because the more you live the more emotions you have, both up and down. The more that happens, the more contrast you have in your life to express and then your urge to create, art or anything else, seems to grow.
“I used to think when I was much younger that at some point I’d get to this place of skill or experience, especially with songwriting & music production, and then I’d just be churning out great stuff all the time”.
At around 27 I found that wasn’t the cycle. It was not a steady process of: “I’ll just get better and more prolific”. Instead I had this observation that once I made this great music album, or a series of work, the cycle starts all over again. Then I realized after a couple music albums: “Hey, wait minute, if I want the best results, it’s often like I am almost starting from scratch every time, and what is that?”
It’s creating from within the moment, no matter what’s going on around you. Feeling the experience through fresh senses.
“I used to push through stress just to get some hum-drum, near-hits and lots of misses, and then on another day this killer piece of work comes out… and though I know it came from me, because it was my brain, my hands– yet that different work had this other aspect –I used to say to myself ‘So where on Earth did that come from?’ ”
Your Best Self comes alive from appreciating the moment amidst the contrast of all the ups and downs. Appreciate the hum-drum stuff as it represents the willingness within you, and the desire to see it come to life. If you don’t appreciate that you have contrast, you get the watered-down version of what you can do if you realize that it’s the contrast itself that IS getting you where you want to go with your work.
So how to get into a working relationship with your Best Self? That self that isn’t distracted by the list of to-do’s, the anxiety of the piece being popular, getting approved by clients & senior staff and all the rest?
“You woke up today. Appreciate that, in this very moment.”
Say it right before a basic focus-breathing routine when you first wake up. Once I went back to this simple 2-part thing I had learned in a high school class–this line of words before a breathing routine–I got this “hind sight is 20/20” perspective. I found some meditation tapes (there was no YouTube in 2000) and then I began to notice that with it I found this link, or path to follow, to go between the unfocused and focused times when I would go from mundane jobs to the studio, or from the commuter train to the office-Macintosh.
“15 years ago in this process of creating music & art, I started to keep a journal of notes on it all. I had lots of notes from before and after starting, stopping, and going back to this routine. Then, I looked back and saw so clearly that a big percentage of everything I was doing without it–was just a lot of excess chatter cluttering and clogging up the real work, and more importantly, the real enjoyment.”
Many successful artists and musicians will tell you about this idea of The Zone” (or that I’ve talked to, or watched videos of anyway): “You always do want to just go right there, that special creative place where the great stuff is happening”. Many of those people will also tell you they have some set of tools or rituals that “take them into the zone”. So even if they aren’t meditators, they will talk about how they might just walk or rest in nature at the park or beach, or run, or go to the gym.
Just having this or that new piece of gear, or renting the right studio, or having the right tools, isn’t what its all about. It starts with the quiet, still-place inside, remembering the gift of being an artist in the first place. That is what helps me start to focus again and again amidst all the hubbub.