Most visual artists would agree that how a picture is framed can alter its effect on viewers. Likewise, performing artists have learned to take into consideration the larger context or setting on their performances. Here I want to explore the concept of creative reframing as an essential element of “creativity”, both in the arts and everyday life.
The process of painting “Unresolved” (see photo above), was long and tortuous. When creating abstract expressionist paintings, the artist must apply paint, look at the result and then, based on what is present on the canvas, add more paint or do whatever he or she feels necessary to move towards something they are pleased with. A common issue for such painters is that they find different aspects or sections of the canvas to be pleasing but feel that these elements do not work together to provide a finished piece. My favorite painting teacher, Sally Pearce, used to say that paintings at this stage are “unresolved”; a diplomatic way of saying “get back to work”.
As I recall, the painting that I subsequently titled “Unresolved” was stuck at this stage for what seemed like a long time. I liked it, but it just didn’t seem to be finished. After many weeks of being unresolved (staring at it and thinking about it), I got the idea of putting the canvas on a large frame; once I had done that it occured to me to paint the word “Unresolved” on the frame. That seemed to do the trick; I felt “resolved” and others, including Sally, liked the results.
I don’t recall this resolution coming in the form of an “eureka”-”sudden insight” moment of the type discussed by Joshua Lehrer (see “Sudden Insight and Creativity“). What I do recall is that eventually I put the painting aside for a while, and started working on others. In other words, I “forgot about it”. I stopped thinking about it and, according to Lehrer, that seems to be a necessary step for creative breakthroughs (or creative resolutions) of all types. Not thinking about my unresolved painting not only allowed me to be more present with my other paintings, it also set the stage for creative reframing. In this case, it was literaly reframed, but this term can be used as a metaphor for a more basic psychological shift that can lead to creative solutions.
The term “reframing” has been a part of Western psychology and psychotherapeutic literature for some time now. It is based on the rather simple idea that we “define” or “make sense” of each new situation we face based on past experiences in similar situations. We “get stuck” or “have problems” to the extent that our reactions to new situations are based on old experiences which are no longer useful or appropriate. This is similar to the Buddhist explanation of how and why we “suffer”. According to the reframing perspective, we “solve” whatever our problem is by shifting our perception and understanding of the situation we face. To do this means to “let go of” our old frames, (i.e. our old perceptions and understandings).
Sometimes this “letting go” can happen by conceptual reorganization of the nature suggested in the old aphorism “when life hands you lemons, make lemonaide”. Work with positive affirmations is an example of this kind of reframing. However, more sophisticated approaches, such as that found in a variety of psychotherapies, provides an additional step; becoming aware of the “felt sense” of the problem. An interesting article by David Rome provides an overview of this approach with efforts to relate it to Buddhist Practice. What seems to be the common factor in all the techniques of this types is
learning to expand ones’ awareness to include bodily sensations. By shifting ones attention to somatic and perceptual “signals” it becomes easier to “let go of the internal dialogue (or left-brain processing) that, in the name of “problem solving” tends to reinforce old perceptions and understandings that are based on our past experiences.
I’m convinced that creative artists, learn through practice to allow “creative reframing” to happen naturally. They learn that bumping up against unresolved work (feeling frustrated when slogging through times of unresolvedness) is part of the creative process. They learn to “trust the process”, finding ways of letting go of their preexisting frameworks and allowing an alternative frame to develop. What they learn is to “drop into their bodies”, so to speak, and fully feel what is going on at each moment of the creative process and learn to trust that the process is progressing exactly as it should. This entails fully feeling or being fully present with one’s “unresolvedness” at that point of the creative process. Having this skill allows them to mitigate the nagging thoughts that support beliefs such as “I will never be creative again” or thought like “when is this going to be finished?”. In an earlier post called “Performer-Audience Communication”, I suggested that the artist’s “presence” can be felt by the audience, and being fully present with all aspects of the creative process should help this happen more often.
It should be of no surprise to readers who have seen earlier posts, that I find some interesting parallels in the practice of Zen and other spiritual pursuits. The chief tool for the Zen practitioner is Zen meditation or Zazen. The essence of Zazen is letting go of the internal dialogue or thought trains ,which generally are the focus of our attention,
especially when we feel unresolved. As with the Western psychotherapeutic techniques alluded to above, Zazen entails a shift in attention away from the mind to include bodily sensations that are always present but often ignored in each and every moment of our lives. According to Will Johnson, “The sitting posture itself can be a kind of crucible for burning off the tensions and restrictions to body and breath that all too often keep us lost in thought and unaware of feeling presence.”
While this is easy to talk about, being able to do this on a consistent basis, in a variety of situations, requires years of practice. The result, however is the “awakened person” referred to by Jiyu Roshi or the “autotelic personality” as described by Dr. C. For me, all these terms refer to someone who has developed “creative reframing” or “refocusing” skills; skills that allow them to circumvent or, at least, minimize suffering as they move from situation to situation. The ability to “let go” of or “forget” old ways of reacting based on past situations, allow them to be flexibly adaptive as new situations arrive. In other words, they become more creative; able to respond rather than react to each new moment. Rather than holding on to old experiences that allowed them a momentary experience of “flow”, having these skills allows for a natural life flow of the type described by Jiyu Roshi, a flow based on being present-awake-alive, no matter what situations arise.
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