On Creativity and the Sacred

I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog talking about rituals–those humble, self-created ceremonies I intentionally build into my daily routine for the purpose of enhancing my life. For making me feel more alive, more deeply connected to the world around me, and more firmly rooted in myself. These rituals, which are little more than everyday activities done creatively and with an attitude of reverence, have taken years–nay, well over a decade–to cultivate, to suit my innermost needs, to celebrate that which I value most, and to honor, quite simply, life. I have described the attributes of these little ceremonies here before: they are, by nature, almost always sensual; they are creative; they are a tremendous source of vitality; and, they represent, for me, the profoundest expressions of gratitude, of love, and of authenticity of which I am capable. Indeed, if I like you, I’ll buy you a gift for your birthday. If I love you, I will make you something. More than that, I will craft you an experience. An afternoon. An evening. A special, commemorative ceremony–usually one that centers on an elaborate meal, complete with ambient music, just the right lighting, and a carefully-crafted tablescape. But that’s just me. It’s what I do.

In all these years, it never occurred to me–not once, not for a second–to think of these rituals, these life-giving ceremonies and tiny displays of gratitude–as religious. In any way. That’s probably because my relationship to formal religion, which was tumultuous when I was younger (I rebelled against what I saw as an excess of Catholic schooling.), is now nonexistent. It took me a long time to stop having “beef” with conventional religion. To get the proverbial chip off my shoulder. But, I did. A few years back, I even tested the waters again and went to confession for the first time in over twenty years (In retrospect, I probably should’ve bought the priest a stiff drink.) and subsequently attended mass. To find–though, not to my surprise–that it didn’t particularly do anything for me. I tried again a few more times before calling it quits. I’m good, I thought. I already feel full. What’s more, although I am currently on a quest for a meaningful career–to use my skills and abilities to do work that helps other people, perhaps in a nontraditional sort of way–I don’t believe for a moment that my entire life is without meaning. My life is not an unhappy place to be. And, one of the reasons it’s not, even when I’m suffering, when I’m anxious or in pain, or facing obstacles that are, by all appearances, insurmountable, is the presence of ritual. It is ritual that allows me to see the miraculous within and around me.

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It wasn’t until reading Abraham Maslow’s discussion of this phenomenon in Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences that I gained some radical insight. Insight into the reasons these intimate, individual ceremonies of daily living take the place of formal religion for some people. (Our rituals, by his definition, actually constitute a kind of religion.) And why, for others, the two may coexist, to a degree. That is, formal religion and informal ritual need not be mutually exclusive. For Maslow, those who have frequent peak experiences are apt to be the former. That’s the difference. He says (pardon the somewhat lengthy quotation):

All the paraphernalia of organized religion–buildings and specialized personnel, rituals, dogmas, ceremonials, and the like are to the ‘peaker’ secondary, peripheral, and of doubtful value in relation to the intrinsic and essential transcendent experience. Perhaps they may even be very harmful in various ways. From the point of view of the peak-experiencer, each person has his own private religion, which he develops out of his own private revelations in which are revealed to him his own private myths and symbols, rituals and ceremonials, which may be of the profoundest meaning to him personally and yet completely idiosyncratic, i.e., of no meaning to anyone else. But to say it more simply, each ‘peaker’ discovers, develops, and retains his own religion. – A.H. Maslow

Yes. He understood. Maslow understood. With that paragraph, he captured my heart. And he made my eyes well up with tears. He got it. There are only two other people who I know, and who I’ve been fortunate to form deep, lasting friendships with, who get it. Because they live a ritualized existence, too. One of them I fully expect to comment below. For us “peakers,” personal ceremonies hinge on creativity. All creative activity is an homage to life. The “rituals” of which I speak are those that infuse imagination into our daily lives. For me, they’re the little things: the way I move my body, the way I eat and drink, the way I speak and write, the way I indulge softer, more decidedly feminine urges, like the occasional need to pamper myself. These are all experiences I am thankful for. Impulses I honor through ritual. Because they remind me that I am alive.

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My intuition tells me, especially after reading Maslow in conjunction with Paul Tillich’s essay, “The Lost Dimension in Religion,” that the ability to derive a sense of wonder from one’s own ritual is, foremost, a matter of vision. It’s how we see. (Didn’t I say the same thing about openness?) The kind of “vision” poet, Octavio Paz, describes as a totalizing and often intensely erotic encounter with reality. What Anaïs Nin knew as the ability to see a person or an object from the inside out, which for her, also meant to see lovingly, to see the good first. This kind of penetrative vision, to my mind, gives us access to the sacred in the lowliest places. And, it is intensely creative. Creative vision is a soulful kind of vision. It is from what we see–both within and without–that we design rituals in order to celebrate the miraculous in our daily lives. There is, in fact, no doubt in my mind that creativity gives us–all of us (“peakers” and “non-peakers” alike)–access to some dimensions of the sacred. That’s the encounter. The great ecstasy. The creative vision. For some of us, core values spring from that vision. The feeling that, in the act of writing, in the act of painting, in the act of composing, you are channeling something greater than yourself. Creativity is the channel. Or, perhaps vision is. Or, perhaps, these two are tied together in ways that I do not understand (the likeliest answer, to be sure). I rather enjoy the speculation. Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be is next on my reading list.

In closing, I’d be remiss not to mention that it is on this particular subject–and a deeply personal one for me–that I was left with a lingering question after reading Jordan Peterson’s book (highly recommended, by the way. I’m not sure I’ve said that previously. Witty, wise, and an excellent resource for general life advice.). What about the “peakers?” What about those of us who have an innate preference for making our own stories, who use ritual in our own, deeply personal way to encounter what Tillich refers to as the “depth dimension,” the thing and its essence, the symbol and its meaning, the miraculous embedded in the everyday? The lowliest and the most creaturely aspects of our existence can also be the most awe-inspiring and the most magical. What about those of use who have the eyes to see it–the eyes to see their depth? Those of us who, in the act creating, also encounter the sacred?

21 thoughts on “On Creativity and the Sacred

  1. Your words remind me of the first volume of Carl Jung’s Collected Works that I attempted to read nineteen years ago: Psychology and Religion: West and East (Volume 11). I say attempt because I had not yet experienced a religious state of mind in which my own experiences were sacred to me. I took the thick volume with me on a trip to Europe and showed it to my godmother, who is a Jungian analyst. Inside that volume I wrote a quote from one of Jung’s other books, which I’m uncertain of right now: “Religion means dependence on and submission to the irrational facts of experience.” Now, when I return to Jung’s volume on psychology and religion, I feel more at home in his paragraphs. I sense that what you’re writing about is home within, where the experiences happen, where rituals and peek experiences are born, I might want to call it a structure or a mind or a soul or a body or all of them together, but really it is you, me, each of us, who we are and becoming within. This is at least what comes to me now.

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    1. A “home within” is a very appropriate way of describing what I am talking about. In truth, we’re it not for Maslow’s argument, I never would have thought of giving that sacred center a religious connotation. It just seems to me a fact of life—just as you say—for me, for you, for each of us. I’d never envisioned it differently, and yet, I find that doing so opens a number of avenues for questioning, for possibility.

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    1. Oh, no! Not at all. You’ve introduced a different perspective, which I appreciate. Jung is not my forte. My readings of his primary works are limited. I tend to gravitate to the humanists and existentialists…and Freud, but mostly for aesthetic reasons. Anyway, if you choose to read Maslow, I hope you enjoy him. I relate most intimately with his thinking. Thank you, as always, for the feedback and conversation.

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  2. Nadie que lea tu blog podría pensar en ti como alguien que no posea una mente altamente crítica y poética. Creo que has definido muy bien en este post el lado positivo de la sacralidad y la creatividad en el arte. Claro que, según Freud, la creatividad solo se origina en el conflicto inconsciente y se considera una derivación de la sexualidad infantil sublimada. Es lógico que la expresión creativa sea el resultado de una tensión reducida.

    Saludos desde Barcelona 🙂

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    1. Thank you for the kind words. I think an overarching question might be, “Why do some of us use our creativity to produce spiritual/transcendent experiences via the institution of personal ritual, etc., while others don’t?” I think Maslow would agree that there are other, significant personality-related factors that separate those of us who do this kind of thing from those of us who don’t. Some creatives never fully experience the positive side of creativity, even in their craft. I don’t think peak experiences are necessarily the result of creativity. I think the two coexist rather intimately in some people. For them, creativity is used in the service of personal growth and life-enhancement, including transcendent-type experiences. Maslow, I believe, has a name for this specific type, or use, of creativity—“self-actualizing creativity,” if I remember correctly. Thank you again for reading. Barcelona is a very beautiful city…I wish I was also there! 😊

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  3. Aaaaah…once again! 🙂 It seems you have tapped into so much. What could someone else possibly write that you have not already so eloquently stated? Life. The Art of Being. Digging deep down and trying to discover the True Self.

    I really enjoyed your thoughts on rituals, ceremonies, displays of gratitude and the relationships with religion. And your ties to Maslow. Wow! I will get to his writings -someday! I will! I will! I’ve thought about these topics many times myself, and have a few theories of my own. Meaning – another topic I love to research and explore. New names are being added to future reading lists – Tillich, J. Peterson (I’ve watched a few YouTube videos of his). Right now, I’m re-reading Hesse’ “Siddhartha” – enjoyed it many years ago – and I am reminded of the “miraculous embedded in the everyday.”

    Wonderful words again, TheUsedLife! 🙂

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    1. Tim! 🤗 I do hope you recognized that I was talking about you above—one of the only two people I know who can really, really relate to this discussion. (I was betting you’d comment.)

      I’m so glad you liked the post…The Tillich book is coming today, so I’ll update on that once I get into it. Peterson was a solid read. I saw some short clips of his videos awhile back, too. His authorial voice tells me he’s probably got a good sense of humor. Maslow makes my heart big in a kindred spirit sort of way. I am enjoying tinkering with these ideas and attempting to make something out of them. It’s a great deal of fun, as is interacting with everyone here.

      But, truly, Maslow’s thinking that little personal rituals constitute a type of “religious” experience floored me. Never, ever in a million years would I have thought to link those things that make me feel content and sustain me to a private religion. Definitely give him a try.

      I haven’t read “Siddhartha” in years. One of those reads that might be good to go back to…

      Thank you, as always, for reading my stuff!

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  4. I am absolutely intrigued by the Maslow quote you shared, particularly: “Each person has his own private religion, which he develops out of his own private revelations in which are revealed to him his own private myths and symbols, rituals and ceremonials, which may be of the profoundest meaning to him personally and yet completely idiosyncratic.” (Apologies for the length, but it’s all so relevant.)
    I was brought up within an organized religion that never felt right to me, so unwittingly collected meaningful passages and practices that did feel right, eventually rejecting the beliefs of my childhood in favor of my uniquely personal leanings, intuitions, and practices; and, in doing so, I began to feel alive, connected, and in constant awe of the world around me and the ideas in my own head.
    Interestingly, just yesterday I listened to an episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast in which the narrator, Noah, was the guest on another podcast and spoke about his own experience leaving organized religion in favor of a secular mindfulness approach to living. Something that really caught my attention was his comment that some people like to be given the answers, even if they don’t make sense (e.g., Christianity, Mormonism, etc.); other people cannot blindly accept the answers and are, instead, drawn to an exploration of the questions. Your post really brought me back to that idea–our ideas and rituals can either be dictated by a higher power or developed in response to the books we read, the thoughts we think, the art we create, and the ways in which we choose to expand, contract, or remain still.
    Truly enjoyed this post–thank you for always sharing your innermost thoughts so freely. 🙂

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    1. Hmm…I may give that podcast a listen. My experience growing up was similar to yours. It was the implementation of simple little rituals in my daily life—mostly those that honored my existence, my humanity—centering around food, exercise, simple aesthetic pleasures—that woke me up. It was through those practices that I (re)discovered awe.

      I cannot emphasize strongly enough how illuminating Maslow’s discussion of personal ceremonies was for me. I never considered the “religious” aspects of these experiences, and yet, they are, perhaps, so obvious. I agree that some of us are comfortable being led and being told, while others need to decide for themselves. Maslow said that, too. For those of us who have become adapted to our own personal religions, the idea of formal religion becomes further and further removed. Maslow says something else that’s equally impactful: Those of us who do our own thing tend to be more religious—more in tune to the spiritual aspects of the everyday—than those who prefer to connect through formal ceremony once or twice a week. Thank you very much for sharing your experience and for the insightful feedback! 😊

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  5. I understand the Maslow. The external, outer aspect of religion is there as a kind of residue of all that has come before in the appropriate vein, mixed in with some bureaucratic unfortunateness, sadly. But the inner spiritual striving only arises when an individual succeeds in forging his own path, piercing the outer veil, and making spiritual activity new and something fresh.

    Effortful blog. 🙂 I’ll return when time permits.

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