Cultivating enthusiasm

‘In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last week, we looked at enthusiasm, and some of the joys and challenges it can bring to our lives. Enthusiasm which isn’t grounded in reality is like a tree with shallow roots which is blown over by the first gust of wind. It’s relatively easy to kick-start a burst of enthusiasm, but even easier to deflate it again. You may know a person who, every time you meet them, breathlessly extols the latest self-help book or diet or guru or TV preacher. They’ve finally found ‘it’ – the one thing which will turn their lives around and set them on the path to happiness and fulfillment. Except that next time you see them, they’re preoccupied with a completely new ‘it’, the formerly wonderful ‘it’ quite forgotten.

It’s much more difficult to stay with something long-term – to remain committed to a teacher or a craft or a sport or religion through the inevitable ups and downs and the tedious, repetitive parts – and still retain some of that enthusiasm which probably helped you to get involved in the first place.

One of the greatest barriers to enthusiasm might also be that it makes us vulnerable. We put ourselves on the line when we show enthusiasm – we’re saying, in effect, this is precious to me, this is something I feel passionate about. It’s so easy to deflate someone’s enthusiasm – just a little pinprick, and the bright red balloon becomes a sad scrap of rubber. It might seem much easier to be cool, cynical, to not show the world what we care about.

Mindfulness meditation can help us with all three of these factors. It can provide a grounded counter-balance to over-excitement, to be more realistic about our present reality – to neither overplay nor underplay our expectations. Mindfulness can help us develop beginner’s mind, an appreciation of what is happening right now, which is useful when we want to stay with something long term without getting bored by it. Mindfulness also helps us become more comfortable with our vulnerability, to be honest about those things we care about, but perhaps to also choose more wisely who we share our enthusiasm with. Not everyone wants to hear all the ins and outs of the novel you’ve been working on for the past ten years, but sharing it with a person who does, and who actually, genuinely, wants to read the latest version of Chapter 1 – that is priceless!

 

Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down what you feel enthusiastic about. If little comes to mind, perhaps remember some things you enjoyed doing as a child. Pick one of these and find a way of including it in your week, even if it’s only for ten minutes.

Anja Tanhane

Developing insight

‘The man with insight enough to accept his limitations comes closest to perfection.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Imagine walking around for days with a serious injury and not even noticing it. There is a rare genetic disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain, where this is exactly what happens. People with this disorder don’t feel physical pain, which sounds wonderful at first, but is actually extremely dangerous. As children, they may chew off most of their tongue, constantly get injured without learning from the pain, and spend a lot of time in hospital. Throughout their lives, they don’t know if they’re getting appendicitis or some other internal disease. People with this condition tend to die young, with their bodies in a terrible state after years of broken bones and other injuries.

Our challenging emotions are the psychological equivalent of the physical pain we experience – often unpleasant, sometimes so excruciating we feel we cannot bear it, yet on the other hand they are like a bell which alert us to what’s actually going on in our lives. If we try to simply ignore them, we’re like the person with severe chest pain who refuses to call for an ambulance and dies of a heart attack. Yet if we investigate our emotions, like a doctor who examines a patient with a set of symptoms, we can learn a lot about ourselves.

In order to investigate the emotions, we first need to have some space around them, which is where the practices of recognition, acceptance and investigation we talked about in the previous two reflections are important. It can also be helpful to talk to others, or seek some counselling. Once we gain a wider perspective, we can then ask ourselves – what can this emotion tell me about my life?

Sometimes there is an immediate, obvious answer – ‘I’m resentful because a colleague got credit for one of my ideas’ – and a deeper, underlying one – ‘I’ve always found it hard to assert myself’. We might notice certain emotional patterns, or over-reactions to current events, which stem from experiences in the past. In mindfulness, we try not to judge ourselves for having these emotions, but rather learn from them. We all have our vulnerable places, where something affects us more than we think it ‘should’. This is just part of our common humanity, and rather than judging ourselves harshly, we can use the insight we gain from understanding our emotional ‘symptoms’ to grow and develop.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down one challenging emotion you experience regularly. Then write about the ‘story’ behind this emotion. What can you learn from this story to help you in the present and the future?

Anja Tanhane

 

Creativity

 

‘Creativity takes courage.’

Henri Matisse

One of the many wonderful qualities of young children is the way they spontaneously and unselfconsciously embrace creativity. Give them some coloured pencils or a drum, lend them some clothes for dress-ups or put some dance music on, and they’re off. Children don’t worry about not being the next Picasso or Shakespeare, about the fact they haven’t sung for years and their voices are a bit rusty, about wasting their time when they should be doing something more ‘useful’. Creativity comes naturally to them, yet is also crucial for their development. Through creativity, children can process their experiences, learn to externalise feelings, engage with others around them, problem-solve, and explore new solutions.

Of course, as adults, we can also benefit from all these – who couldn’t do with ways to process our experiences, express ourselves, communicate and explore? Yet how many of us feel comfortable being creative without attaching a whole range of expectations, pre-conditions, neuroses and qualifiers to the process? It’s commonplace to hear people say self-depreciatingly,

‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing.’

To which I can only say, why not – it would be wonderful to hear more people sing! But we often lack the confidence; maybe we no longer even know where to start. Sitting in front of a blank piece of paper with a pen or pastels, or being asked to sing when you haven’t sung in years, can be quite intimidating. And chances are, our initial efforts will look and sound pretty feeble. Yet creativity can open doors to us which pure rational thinking cannot – doors of self-expression, communication, healing, and community bonding.

As a music therapist, I’ve often worked with people who, for a range of reasons, are no longer able to communicate using words like we normally do. Music can be an incredibly powerful way for them to engage and communicate with the world, and to process feelings of loss, grief, joy, belonging. It seems a shame that, for many people, it’s not until something goes wrong in their lives that they become less self-conscious about being creative. I always feel a little sad when I hear people talking about wanting to be more creative, but lacking the confidence to begin. I’ve seen how much joy it can give to people to sing with others, draw a picture, write a short story or memoir. Dancing, making crafts, telling stories – these are all such wonderful gifts for us humans to have. Often, when people do make a start, they wonder why they didn’t do it years ago.

Some of the core attributes of mindfulness, such as being more non-judgmental and patient, more open and accepting, and cultivating trust and a beginner’s mind, can help us engage with our creativity. Having studied both classical music, with its emphasis on perfectionism and high technical skill, as well as music therapy, where we engage musically with people in a very open, non-judgemental way, has helped me to appreciate both approaches. There is a place for striving for high achievement in the arts, but there is also a place for simply being present with a creative process, regardless of the skill levels of the participants, just because it is so enriching and rewarding.

Henri Matisse is right, creativity does take courage. Perhaps this quote by Goethe can help us make a start:

‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’

 

Weekly practice idea:

How comfortable do you feel being creative? If you would like to have more creativity in your life, can you bring some of the core attributes of mindfulness to the process to assist you?

 

Anja Tanhane