In Terms of Life and Death

I’m not sure when exactly I began thinking of creativity, generally, and of the dynamics of creative living, in particular, in terms of life force, or energy. Those activities and attitudes that are life-giving versus those that take it away. Indeed, I was, you might say, “smacked over the head” with an aha moment recently while conversing with another blogger on this very subject: “I am beginning to think of creative activities as those that generate life…to think of our creative capacities in terms of a life force, of an expenditure of energy that begets more energy, as a form of reaching out…” Yes. A conviction that appears, on its surface, to be have been echoed in my blog’s mission statement since first publication: to use the life within me to beget a more creative life. A phrase whose implications I, perhaps, hadn’t fully grasped when I wrote it.

To revisit that statement, now one year later, I find the words say something different. They convey an understanding of creativity, of creative living, that I hadn’t seen before. (Tell me I am not the only writer who often baffles herself in this way. Wait…you mean, I said that?) The glaring, underlying assumption: that life can somehow create more life. That the thing I make has the power to simultaneously make me. What, I ask myself, has to happen in order for an act of creation to be that transformative? That full of it’s own life? Extraordinary. Much to my subsequent delight, the insightful blogger with whom I was chatting about these ideas–this notion of creativity as a quantity, even an exchange, of life–encouraged me to dig into Jung’s “On Psychic Energy,” an integral portion of is theory on psychodynamics, for which I also, thankfully, found a primer. While the material that follows is not a Jungian-type analysis, I can tell you that I have been influenced by my reading. (But, I have so much more to read…Mandalas might be next.) Here are some thoughts on what it means to think of creativity and the pursuit of creative living in terms of life force, energy, vitality, maybe even libido. I just like to call it “life.” 

You’re a different kind of active.

There was a time when I conceived of creative living in terms of method. Utility. A life by design. I determine my values. I set goals. I make decisions. I execute. In that way, by following that formula, I color my life. I fill it with accomplishments. Adventures. Education. Relationships. Meaning. That is also how I make myself. Physically, psychologically, and spiritually. However important that sort of active, practical enhancement of living is–I have to be honest–I am notoriously awful at it. The whole process is too one-dimensional for me. Too compulsory. Too much like drudge work. If I were forced to live that way entirely, I would never finish anything. And, most importantly, that’s not what it means to use the life within me to beget a more creative life.

abstract colored image orange

At the center of all creative activity, for me, is that which is soulful. Indeed, if I had to formally define, according to my own principles, what it means to live creatively, I would say this: Creative living is a mode of living that centers on the infusion of imagination into and the enlivening of my daily activities. Using the life within me to beget more life. It is a proverbial shot in the arm. An energizing of my internal world. (I have to pause for a moment. Am I writing an “introvert’s guide” to living actively and creatively?) Indeed, it is far more natural to me to pour my energy, my life, into those pursuits that feel inherently energizing, vivifying, variegated–big or small. Those that seem to carry a life of their own. Because they, in turn, give life back to me. Much like a work of art. That’s the missing dimension. The transmission of energy. The talisman. The other side of reality.

You make the everyday magical.

I am talking here specifically about activities that represent more than mere expenditures of energy, of life, but that seem to multiply it and return to us just as much as, if not more than, we’ve have put into them. (Didn’t I just write something bizarrely similar about female orgasms, in terms of life and death?) Totalizing experiences. Lush, sensual, and intellectual. That which seems to break through its own borders, that which seems to make its own magic. That which is never an end in itself. Physical exercise might be the most obvious example. And not just for its energizing effects, but as a form of self-expression. Some days, my entire being just needs to run. To move to music. To sweat. To pound pavement. To lull myself into a state of energetic bliss. Movement is also an homage to life.

Cooking, for me, is another. That kind of long, elaborate, ceremonial meal preparation. An ignition of all the senses that is more than merely an aesthetic experience. The stuff of Sunday suppers, when you can actually “taste the love.” I know my Italian-American readers are nodding their heads in agreement, conjuring images of grandma’s Sunday “gravy,” or sauce—depending on where you’re from—simmering low and slow on the stovetop, filling the house with all kinds of incredible aromas. Spending active time outdoors (in the mountains, especially, hardcore trekking not included) is yet another. Writing, learning, thinking, still others. Indeed, there are few activities that are more inherently energizing, to me, than generating ideas. Than allowing one’s entire being to be engulfed by possibility. To become that much sharper, that much more alive. These are the kinds of activities I have, over time, become reticent to give over to someone else to do for me. Because I depend on the life they give me. Their ability to add color, dimension, an unquantifiable “something,” bordering on the ecstatic, even the magical, to my daily existence. To abandon them would be a sacrificing of my life source. Passivity. Inertia. A quiet little death.

dark and abstract cup of tea

Beauty and utility are one.

I had to ask myself on what basis I selected the above activities as concrete examples. Is it enough to say, simply, that they’re energizing? No. To my mind, they’re also beautiful. They represent not just an infusion of imagination into the tasks of daily living, but a conscious effort to make my life more beautiful. A lust for beauty. That, to me, is one of the profoundest expressions of life. I ask myself, now, Is that which sets our souls on fire–that which is inherently life-giving and energizing to each individual, then, a matter of values? It may be.

And, is the quest for beauty any different in life than it is in art? When I think of the intentional shaping of my daily activities, I am aware not only of my desire to create an enhanced sensual, or aesthetic, experience, for myself, but also of a need to move beyond it. To make beautiful that which is useful, functional, routine (like cooking or exercising). To create an environment for myself in which beauty and utility are not at odds with one another, in which beauty is conjoined with other values and experiences, including utility. Octavio Paz describes this type of art, the art of ancient Mesoamerican cultures in which beauty and functionality are fused, as “transmitting a psychic energy…that vital fluid which links all animate beings–humans, animals, plants–with the elements, the planets, the stars.” A move toward universality. I ask myself, then, if this energy of which I speak is not also cosmic. And didn’t Jung suggest that, anyway? If, in energizing, enlivening, and connecting with our own, individual life source more intimately and imaginatively, we are not expanding, allowing ourselves to become more universal beings. If in bringing a concept to life, we both don’t also change.

15 thoughts on “In Terms of Life and Death

  1. This reminds me a bit of an essay I wrote in college…it’s been 10+ years, but I believe the basic framework was that each individual is out their personal Hero’s Journey (per Joseph Campbell) and must venture into unknown territories where they may encounter darkness and false realities (Plato’s Allegory of the Cave) that represent our “shadows”–those aspects of ourselves with which the conscious ego does not identify (Carl Jung). In his own journey, Jung worked closely with Freud and then broke away to chase his own shadows and discover new truths. He developed the concept of universal conciseness and, I believe reached a similar conclusion as you: To truly live is to experience new things–to allow one’s entire being to be engulfed by possibility. What is life if we are numb to our experience? What is life if we’re trapped in a cave, believing that shadows of truth we observe are truth itself? I think it takes everyday activities–exercise, cooking, intimacy, and walking in nature–to dispel those shadows and create a beautiful, meaningful life.
    I’m really enjoying your writing. Thanks for showing up and pouring out your thoughts and your heart. 🙂

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    1. And, thank you for the thoughtful feedback! I, too, remember learning about those concepts in college about 10 (or 15)+ years ago…but, they take on such different meaning with experience, don’t they? I’d rather live them out and draw my own conclusions. And, you’re right. One of the most valuable (and, ironically, the simplest) lessons I’ve learned about living creatively is that it must be active. I must be doing, immersing myself in whatever experience is meaningful to me. And, in knowing how to make the little, everyday things matter. Thank you again for reading and for the kind words!

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  2. This post speaks to me in many ways. Your writing so often reminds me that whatever I do that is meaningful to me is a meaningful creative activity and should be considered as sacred. A couple of years ago I inherited a cabin on a small island in the San Juans where it is very important to be good with tools. I am, or maybe was, the opposite of a handy man. A splitting maul (for chopping wood), pruning shears (my parents hadn’t cut or trimmed anything on the property in probably twenty years), scrub brushes, and ladders (I have cleaned all of the exterior cedar shingle walls, which had never been cleaned in 25 years) have become good friends of mine. The place appears in my dreams often. It has become part of who I am as a creative person. Creativity has taken on a whole new meaning to me since I started having fun working at the cabin. I am alive there (at first I seriously thought of selling it!). There is much to think about after reading your post. And I am very impressed that you read Jung’s On Psychic Energy. That is not, at least for me, an easy read. I look forward to rereading this post.

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    1. That’s a lovely story about your cabin. It resonates with me, too. Isn’t it amazing how the experiences that we fear or dread the most, those we are convinced we simply cannot do end up becoming such a big part of who we are? I’ll let you in on a little secret…I almost backed out of my Kilimanjaro trip. As the trip grew closer, what initially felt like a great idea quickly became terrifying, but, at the last minute (a few weeks out), I experienced a change of heart. And, I decided to go. Now that I’ve done it, that climb and that mountain are a part of the fabric of my being, too. It makes me so happy that you can relate to the things I write. I am also grateful for the conversation 🙂 …Now, as for “On Psychic Energy,” I am happy to have found a primer. A very user-friendly book chapter written by a Jungian scholar that broke down all of the main ideas for me. Not an easy read by any stretch. Some of Jung’s stuff (I’ve gotten two collections of his writings, excerpts of larger works, mostly) isn’t hard to get through, but some of it certainly is. I feel the same way about Rank. Some works are fairly pleasant to read. Others are quite challenging.

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      1. Thanks for sharing about almost not going on the Kilimanjaro trip. I relate completely. When I decided to chop wood at our cabin two years ago, I had never held an ax before. And I had much more than a cord of wood to chop. I had my first panic attack in a very long time. I spent hours, no, days, practicing with the splitting maul until I felt comfortable (thankfully I had the time to be there so long). I wish I had read a primer on Jung before diving in head first. For me the difficult part of reading Jung is becoming accustomed to his writing style, to how he writes. I can’t read him in a purely rational manner. I woudl probably feel that reading him was not worth the effort. What I love about reading Jung is the experience of allowing his sentences and paragraphs to affect me in an imaginative and intellectually intuitive way. I read him for the experience of it.

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      2. I think it’s fantastic that you grew into the process of caring for your cabin. The synopsis I read of “On Psychic Energy” was a wonderful help. I very much respect the way you read Jung, though, in an intuitive and imaginative way. I think I know exactly what you mean. I read Borges that way (or, he demands it, which might be the more accurate thing to say). Paz, also. I think we sometimes pressure ourselves to read too rationally, to adhere too strictly to someone else’s paradigm, as if understanding them and being able to apply their thoughts perfectly to a problem were a badge of honor. I sometimes have to remind myself that I no longer need to treat myself like I am in school and can give myself a certain degree of latitude in dealing with another’s thinking.

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  3. Another very thought-inspiring post, Laura. I feel that “creating” and “living” are one in the same – that when we are not creating, we are merely existing. This is not to say that every creation must end with a material result. Painting, writing, cooking, gardening all create material results from the activity. This is where I liked that you included exercise as creativity (though I guess a healthier, stronger body might be considered a “material” result). But mindfulness, creative thinking, reading, researching, etc., are creative processes, too.

    For me, even simply walking in the woods, and being aware of things that are going on around me, is a creative process. I see new shoots of green, animals and birds I haven’t seen in months, changes in light-play on the mountains, trees, and rocks. I am gathering information and inspiration for future creative endeavors – whether ideas for trips further afield, ideas for drawings or paintings, or simply something to go home and Google later to find out more information on what I’ve seen (bird species, cloud formations, etc.). I feel this enhances my knowledge of the world around me.

    Gardening. How many parallels with the life-forces – fertility and creation – can be drawn here? This year, as winter began to move into spring, I was excited to get started on my garden again. I thought about, and researched, what I wanted to plant. In the following weeks, I began to prepare the soil as it warmed. I created a meandering irrigation system – like streams, rivers, labyrinths – no straight edges or sharp corners. I’m getting excited now about reaping vegetables and herbs for future summer meals – and a freezer full to warm me next winter. If the garden turns out anything like last year’s, I’ll be chasing people down the street trying to give away some of the harvest!

    I have recently begun reading May’s, “Love and Will”, and I am about a third of the way through it. Now this is a book that has once again has grabbed me by the goon-dahs, and caused me long periods of just sitting and thinking about what I’ve just read. I thank you again for the recommendation on his works. Take care, and I look forward to your next post. 🙂 Ciao!

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    1. Thank you for the wonderful comment! I’m glad you enjoyed this one. I very much enjoyed writing it. Still pondering the fusion of beauty and utility…among other things. 😊

      I love your description of gardening. That’s something I haven’t personally gotten into (yet), but you make it sound like such a lovely experience. I agree with you about being outdoors, generally, though. Somedays I workout just for the sake of being out in the sunshine.

      I am so glad you’re enjoying May! I am currently making my way through Freedom and Destiny. Wonderful. I, too, stop for long bouts of contemplation. And questioning. I don’t always agree with him on first read, but I enjoy the challenge of reflecting on his ideas. Regardless, he’s earnest, he speaks to my soul, and I feel as though I am learning a great deal. Also (and not sure if I’ve said this before), but May’s My Quest for Beauty is sooooo delightful. My favorite.

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