play harder

“To get what you’ve never had, you have to do what you’ve never done”


I’m reading a book right now, Upside-Down Zen by Susan Murphy, in the middle of a chapter called “The great Way of Play,” which, by directly referencing the playfulfulness found in the practices of meditation and koans, is talking about everyday action:

“We may well be the only animals that play all of our lives – or perhaps only think we are – and we may play all the way up to our death. We may, in this spirit, play even with our own death, meet even that with rigor and playfulness. It is the rigor of what we do, in practice, that raises everything to the state of play. Any seriously undertaken work is play in the deepest sense” -Murphy 43


How can you recognize every action as play? As serious? Sitting za-zen in a quiet room seems like obvious, boring, painful work:

“How is this practice, this immensely sobering Way of meditation, also a matter of pure play? Let’s look at some of the ways. First of all, it costs nothing to sit in zazen.  […] And it has a very strict and serious sense of form, as all great games do. There are no games without rules; the rules are a kind of desirable restriction.” -Murphy 44


Trying to force creativity

“What inspires you?” vs. “what inspires you to actually get off your ass and work?” are two totally different questions: the first one is easy: basically, everything. Okay, that’s cheating, I know, but really, sometimes it feels like it’s coming from all directions – other people, their art, their music, their love stories, stumbles and embarrassments. Being a sponge is easy – soaking up things you love – it’s the wringing out that we so often find so difficult.

I get stuck in creative ruts all the time. I fall into the habit of overthinking: wanting to make only ‘perfect’, ‘polished’ work, to make statements, to be clever and poignant and everything that my favorite artists seem so effortlessly to be. It gets so that some days I’d rather not pick up the brush because then, at least, I won’t create more chaff.

Then I’m reminded that lots of the artwork that I love so much – much of the stuff , the people I love so much, is because of the flaw, because of the fragility, imperfection and fleetingness of it/them. Going into the creative process with a single-minded goal and rigid expectation denies the opportunity for surprise.

The book Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel was suggested to me years back and it deals with the problem of trying very, very hard to… not have to try at all. Pah! What a joke! But it’s a good read. This small book illustrates, through the personal account of the author pursuing knowledge in Zen through the up taking of archery, the art of letting go. The relationship between artist and art is dissolved, and the author carefully addresses his struggles with the nuances of his Zen teacher and the Japanese culture:

“So I must become purposeless… on purpose?” (p. 35)

When I feel like I’m all used up and don’t know what to draw, I pile up a stack of paper, get out my ink, and sit down until all the pages have something – anything – on them. You can try this too. You don’t have to think or plan anything out, and it doesn’t matter if you aren’t happy with all the drawings – actually, that would be amazing! Rather, you will end up getting work out of your system that hopefully is a surprise even to you – no pressure – and it will be fun. I promise.

What inspires you to work?

How do you get out of creative ruts?