On the Art of Openness

If you were to ask me to name a pursuit, or domain, in which I believe I am most creative, I would say giving form to my inner experiences. Designing my feelings. Fashioning myself. I love to explore the nuances of complex emotional states from the standpoint of an artist, or designer, and embrace the challenge of translating those experiences into words and images. I’ve known that about myself for a long time. Although, it wasn’t until just the other day, following a conversation with a coworker—a bright, curious, and remarkably good-natured lad who was explaining to me the results of an online personality test he’d taken recently—that I got a deeper look into the significance of this activity.

Indeed, my coworker was kind enough to share with me the results of his test, based on the Five Factor Model, which included a detailed summary, not only of the five broad dimensions of personality, but of multiple sub-dimensions on which he was also evaluated. Interesting. And, while I enjoyed leafing through the descriptions of the entire spectrum of traits measured, my attention settled on one: openness to experience. Facets of openness generally include intellectual curiosity, creativity, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to inner feelings, an active imagination, and a preference for variety in one’s activities. I couldn’t help chuckling to myself as I read. Yep, that’s my problem. Though, I found myself far less interested in my own manifestations of (and struggles with) openness and far more intrigued by what it means to be open. That is, what we can learn about openness to experience by being in tune with what it feels like. By the here and now of it. By using the experience of being open, of being attentive to one’s inner emotional states—of using the capacity to design and articulate one’s feelings—to better understand the mechanics of openness. And to help others become more open. While I haven’t yet taken the test in question (I’ve been so absorbed in the creation of this post.) and can’t say definitively where I fall on that or any other openness scale, I remain confident in my ability to articulate my inner experiences. To give form to my feelings. To garner useful information from that practice. And, to craft this discussion around it. In fact, it would appear I’ve been circling this talk for a long time here on The Used Life without realizing it. All that self-fashioning business. Designing my feelings. Might be a whole lot less about being woman and a whole lot more about being open (Or, maybe those two conditions are related in ways I haven’t yet considered.). And, as a not-psychologist who is viewing this topic through a, perhaps, unconventional and entirely unscientific lens, here is another perspective on openness.

Open is big.

The core of being open, to me, is desire. It is a profound and all-consuming desire to be everyone, everything, and everywhere all at once. The desire itself—which can never be satisfied in that state—borders on the ecstatic. Is tinged with lust. It is intoxicating. The need itself is intoxicating. The world is flooded with possibility at every turn. And you—you, yourself—are the embodiment of that possibility. So much so, in fact, that you feel big. Bigger than you are in real life. Bigger than your body. Bigger than anything that can hold you. In those moments in which you confront your own openness, in which you experience it in all of its intensity, it threatens the very fabric of your being. You feel as if the possibility of your own expansion might be endless. It is as if you could simply lay yourself bare, empty yourself, turn yourself inside out, and become one with the world. And, participate in the universe in the most intimate, most soulful way imaginable. It’s the magic of ideas, of art, of creativity, of beauty, of exploring new places, flirting with adventure, and chasing the impossible. You get big. And, it’s deceiving. It’s a lie. And, yet it’s not. It’s very definitely not. 

figure of flamenco dancer girl

Open is in.

I found it peculiar, as I conducted multiple, frenzied Google searches of openness to experience, that the vast majority of individuals who proposed to give advice on “how to become more open” focused on the need for varied experience. “Step out of your comfort zone.” “Do something new and exciting.” “Travel.” “Take a risk.” Nah. I don’t like it. Not that any of that’s bad advice, mind you. At the first whiff of adventure, I am there. But, I don’t know that I believe risk-taking and adventure-seeking should be the primary focus of efforts to grow in openness. I think that kind of advice is based on a pretty limited definition of openness to experience. One that ignores what I see as the single most important feature of openness: its inwardness.

Openness isn’t about forcing yourself out there, about seeking experiences in the external world. Rather, I think the desire for varied experience that is characteristic of open individuals comes from the way they see the world. From a perspective of inquisitiveness. From an increased ability to feel and understand one’s inner world and its relationship to external reality. Imagination, creation, an enhanced aesthetic appreciation, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Apparently (and interestingly), researchers have found that open people respond differently to visual stimuli than more closed individuals and appear less able to filter out information that others block. They are also more likely to experience complex, even contradictory, emotional states at once, as incompatible feelings seem to seep into their consciousness simultaneously. No filter. (“Permeability of consciousness,” they call it.) Too many connections. Too many possibilities. Too many hyphens.

Open is art.

Fashion has two purposes: comfort and love. Beauty comes when fashion succeeds. – Coco Chanel

So, if you were to ask me, a not-psychologist who has no experience in studying openness in anyone, what I would do to help others become more open, what would I say? Based simply on my experience of being open? Change the filter. That’s what I would say. Help people who tend to be closed bring their inner worlds closer to the surface. The inner and outer worlds of extremely open people overlap to too great a degree. Fuse those worlds together. Help people explore the nuances of their emotions. Pay attention to their inner experiences. And give them form. Help them design their feelings. Fashion them. Dress them up like Coco Chanel dressed the world. Piece them together like a collage, a mosaic, a mural. Paper them with metaphors like a poem. Teach them to experience the deep satisfaction that comes from harnessing creative power over their emotional states. Even the ugly ones. Especially the ugly ones. Make out of their feelings something creative and something beautiful. Restore the sacred to their daily existence. Make them want to go out and meet the world. Show them there’s magic inside. Because that is what open people see. Show them how to create, appreciate, and honor who they are, and I think the rest of the world will simply open up to them. They’ll take the risk. They’ll pack their bags and get on the plane. They’ll climb the damn mountain.

20 thoughts on “On the Art of Openness

  1. Sometimes when I read one of your pieces I feel as if I were alongside you while you wrote it, observing in silence. The energy you wrote the piece with becomes part of me. I might have said this before: reading one of your posts becomes a creative experience for me. I find myself becoming more open to my inner experiences while I read. Being open to one’s inner experience, and thus, open to life itself, is much of what our existences are about, isn’t it?

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    1. You have no idea how big my smile is right now. Thank you for the wonderful feedback. And, yes, being open to our inner experiences is akin to being open to life itself. It is, perhaps, a prerequisite for true outward openness and expansion.

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  2. “The core of being open, to me, is desire. It is a profound and all-consuming desire to be everyone, everything, and everywhere all at once.” This line really stuck with me; it’s such an accurate description for me and I never thought deeply enough to put those two traits together. I have this huge desire which often feels overwhelming, but I think at the root it’s beneficial and a gift.

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    1. I’m glad to hear you’ve felt similarly. That description almost felt like an odd thing to write…it’s nice to know someone else can identify! I agree that it’s a gift, even when it’s overwhelming…that kind of lust for life reminds us we are still very much alive.

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  3. A great post, I smell a book offer coming your way! Your perspective is always so refreshing and inspirational – the last part, in particular, gave me goosebumps. I’m curious what you’d score on the openness test. 😉

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    1. A book offer? Wow, that’s quite a compliment! This post was a pleasure to write, and it delights me to know that you enjoyed reading it. Thank you very much for the kind words…Oh, and I’ll be sure to report back after I take the test. 😊

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    2. So, I took the test. You can find it at understandmyself.com, if that’s the kind of thing that interests you. The results are incredibly detailed, and some of mine genuinely surprised me. But, I did score in the 95th percentile on openness to experience. If tests like that intrigue you, I highly recommend this one.

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  4. I think the most important I have found in openess,,, is when you are open about who you truly are. Then you become much more happier. As a counsellor, I’m always helping people find themselves, but they rarely show others even in writing blogs, there true selves. However just knowing WHO you are and WHAT you like is a very good start. Learn to like yourself and purple will be more open to you.

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    1. I agree. It’s impossible to become who you want to be unless you know who you are…and aren’t these very often the same thing anyway? Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

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  5. Hi there, for me, Livinia has said how I feel about openness – it’s where the outer self is in harmony with the inner self which naturally results in a free openness born of self acceptance and an interest in the world around you because you are no longer hampered by inner conflicts. There is desire there, yes, but for me, it’s about living authentically being exactly who you are with very little need for personae. Did the test, got 83% – interesting that it focused on art, but that fits with creative openness, and that’s fine as I’m an INFJ artist which I can now embrace happily. Lovely post!

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    1. It’s amazing how we can experience the same phenomena so differently, isn’t it? Thank you for sharing…I’m excited you took the test! It really was the level of detail contained in the results summary that got me—far more comprehensive and insightful than comparable tests that I’ve come across. And, yes, I do believe that high openness score fits in with your creative nature. Thank you for reading and for the thoughtful feedback!

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