Self-knowledge has been given the status of a grandiose and rare realisation in popular culture. But it is not so rare, so difficult or so mystical a construct. This disparity arises because there are two different connotations of the concept of self-knowledge and they are both relevant in different contexts.
The common concept of self-knowledge alludes to just knowing who you are and what you want to do. On the spiritual path — this basic point becomes re-framed. The idea of who you are becomes fundamental. Are you your mind? Are you your desires? Are you your fears? Are you your dreams? Your hopes? Your ambitions? The idea of who we are is so vexing that most of us leave it unresolved.
As creative practitioners the question that we require to answer to be productive is simpler but the question that we need to answer to grow is more difficult. Productivity as a creative person might or might not automatically be linked to personal growth. It becomes a motivation or a reason for growth only if the individual in question desires it.
It is possible to keep producing — seeking only reception and acclaim as an end. Aesthetics (the perception of skill, craft and brilliance) and spiritual progress cannot be collapsed into one. Wanting to become a better person through one’s work and wanting to make good work in itself are not the same things.
And why are they not the same things?
If we consider writing, we can easily understand how erotic, fantasy-oriented and criminal narratives offer us immediate thrill, titillation or excitement. And often it is considered a more healthy and harmless form of pursuing these desires themselves. These might be more healthy and harmless ways of pursuing these desires than let’s say participation in unsafe sex, crime or reckless and thrill-seeking social behaviour. But what is the cost?
The cost that we seem to be willing to pay very easily (maybe even too easily) is the mutilation of our minds with an unsavoury ways of fulfilling these desires and experiences. The only yardstick that seems to apply is the degree to which each of us manages to fulfil our desires. Those of us who have the means to ‘live the dream’ — make a point to display their good fortune on social media platforms. On the whole, this helps reinforce the idea that being able to fulfil one’s desires is the only thing that makes life beautiful.
But is this not true? What is the point of desiring if one does not fulfil one’s desires?
The point of dreaming is to set out on the path to try and make the dream come true. The key word here is to “set out” and to “try.” That our dreams will seldom play out as imagined should be obvious to us.
But desire is such a creative and dramatic thing there should never be an expected outcome of “desiring.” The act of harbouring a desire is self-rewarding. Or at least it would be — if you do not hold our breath, while waiting to fulfil it…
The role of any creative process is often to give us an opportunity to learn this point, over and over again. No creative project ever gets finished as initially imagined. If it does, maybe the process identified to realise the project is not creative enough. The meaning of the word “creative” is that it is a process which wants to create, which wants to allow the emergence or the generation of a new idea.
What emerges? What gets generated? What is created?
A wholesome idea of who you are. The best thing a truly creative activity can be is a mirror – the gift of showing you who you are.
With this understanding you do what you set out to do with more focus and dedication.
A creative process is eventually a spiritual process. If we can avoid the process from becoming product-oriented and obsessed with an outcome. But how does this work? How can we afford to enjoy an open-ended creative process that borders on being spiritual? Without a clearly defined schedule of outcomes how do we invest in the process?
In a real-world setting, subject to a realistic set of constraints, being creative in this way is not considered possible. Very few individuals can commit to this kind of creative life.
Most of us are finding applications of our creative process to real world contexts. We want to solve problems and add value and be compensated for doing that.
This can become a worthwhile endeavour sometimes. And other times not. If it doesn’t — it is likely to feel like a double loss. The loss of the creative-spiritual life described above. As well as the loss of a life in which a creative application to an everyday need could not be successfully found.
The most pragmatic of people sign up for this potential double loss. They would like to be sure. It is possible to be sure only after committing. If a commitment to a creative-spiritual life is possible only after this surety — it never happens.
People who make this choice cite practical constraints. Every single person who does this makes these constraints more and more real and daunting for everyone else.
So, today we live in a world where it is common sense to not commit to a creative-spiritual life. It is common sense to consider practical constraints and try to find applications of one’s creativity.
Creativity has become a mode of working, a word that is tossed around lightly by human resources departments. In this form it does not take us any closer to knowing ourselves. It might help us become less of a drone.
Creative practice can produce hints and insights to reveal who we are. This does not make forms of creative practice into forms of spiritual seeking. Nurturing, cultivating and growing as a creative person involves making many decisions that might not immediately make sense to a spiritually inclined person. But it does not need to make sense either. The task at hand is slightly more complex for the practitioner interested in a creative-spiritual struggle.
Such a practitioner seeks a clarity and philosophical sense of purpose in their work. This sense of purpose leads them further on a path that leads them towards better self-knowledge. It also helps them develop personally in a more motivated and sure-fitted way.
But such practitioners are distracted by many detours. For instance, one specific area that a lot of creative people focus on is artistic work. Be it cinema, comedy or literature. Once a specific artistic work has found its audience, it is very difficult to keep seeking answers and risk alienating the newly found audience.
For an artistic person, quite strangely, success in the material, real-world sense can be more problematic than failure.
Here again we must distinguish the creative practitioners who are in the pursuit of career success. And the ones who are want to become better and less-flawed human beings through their practice. These two paths are not necessarily overlapping.
Remaining in constant motion and not stopping at either a good point or bad is an attitudinal principle for those who seek transformation/evolution through their work. But this principle is difficult to put into practice.
It is not difficult to find film-makers and literary figures who keep trying to carry forward the characteristics of their early works that found success.
If we analyse this phenomenon, we can quickly find a few reasons. In history we often find the figures of the artistically creative person and the wise person to be conflated. But across time, the market and the possibility of returns have become better for artistic works. Practitioners have lately felt more and more inclined to see their creations as purely aesthetic works. The social function of art itself has become disoriented and dislodged from its original purpose.
At a time art had a social role of guiding, teaching, giving an opportunity not just to experience different emotions but also reflect on the impact they have on our life journey. So, people sought meaning from art in different forms — philosophical meaning, spiritual meaning, symbolic meaning… In the last couple of decades the cultural journey that our society has made has turned everything upside down.
An aside: almost everything that was moralised and taboo earlier is done today. In fact an active part of youth culture is the resistance and dismantling of traditions and the diktat of the previous generation. Now, a lot of these acts have to be carefully examined. Not all traditions are intrinsically bad for us. Their mode of transmission might be uncomfortable and come across as hierarchical and their mode of presentation might be irrational and illogical but many of these do have their merits.
I have personally come to the realisation that spending so many years in resisting this mixed legacy was maybe not the best of my time. Using this time instead to carefully evaluate the merits of each individual tradition might have been more useful instead.
We all have to individually process the overemphasis and inflated value “freedom” of personal action and of rationalism.
It is difficult to challenge the claim that individuals must process each idea that is presented to them with their own rational mind.
But If there is one thing that I am sure of at this point in life, it is that the rational universe does not contain all the answers. And it doesn’t.
Most of the emotions which have a pivotal impact in our lives are in fact irrational. Consider love for instance.
And that brings us back to a question that this text is seeking an answer to. In the post-modern condition meaning is thought to be a redundant thing. Seeking meaning as well as speaking of providing meaning have become passé. But the fact is that post-modernism was only ever a reaction and resistance to a hyperactive modernism. This resistance led to a wave of liberalism — which can be understood to consist of both good and bad things.
Women’s rights, a popular dis-enchantment with war and a widespread interest in spiritualism were probably some of the good outcomes. But the movement of art and other popular creative media towards a nihilistic rejection of meaning and a social acceptance (of sorts) of deviant behaviour can be counted as some of the bad outcomes.
When the expectation from art and creativity is only a certain kind of entertainment and light celebrity, it easy to provide. It becomes one of the potent distractions for creative people. With the linkage of spirituality broken from the creative act, the creative act has just become a vocation a career. It is what I would call a “missed opportunity.”
Yes, we are free to do whatever we want to do. But what do we want to do? This lack of clarity about this question almost defines time. If we knew what we want to do clearly, we would not need so many reassurances and supportive gestures from our environment.
If we had a spiritual role assigned to creative practice, we would still have an alternative to traditional spiritual practice available to us to pursue self-knowledge.
But without an alternative there are many amongst us who are going to feel like they are in the middle of nowhere.
If there is no socially accepted role to play that finds the fruit of a spiritually motivated creative practice useful, how will practitioners commit themselves to such a path? Unless of course if they want to move forward on a monastic practice anyway.