To be Original: A Barrier to Seeing

Originality that becomes a goal or an ambition is no longer original. It is a barrier to seeing. You find yourself within a conceptual prison from which it is hard to break out. Relying on clichéd notions of what it means to be original or creative ties you up. It’s not enough to reshuffle ideas, to be different, to find ways of how to stand out and attract attention.

To be original means to find what is true for oneself, to find one’s way, one’s authentic voice amid a lot of noise. It comes with a price and takes courage. Instead of striving to meet the current standard of excellence you have to find your own – a new standard of quality that is yours. There are no ideas or concepts that can teach or show you how to be original. The best a teacher can do, is to give  a direction.

When the intention of wanting to be original  becomes deliberate it blocks the path to the source of one’s creativity. In Zen, this source is the ‘still point‘ or a mind that is ’empty’ of thoughts, ideas, and concepts. When our work is grounded in a still mind, the self is out of the way and we no longer feel self conscious. One’s mind ceases to be distracted and reflects directly what one sees. ‘Empty’ does not mean our mind is vacant. It means the mind has stopped being a processing machine. It is alert, open and receptive.

How can you free yourself from all the notions of how to be creative or original?

To tell yourself to let go of what blocks you is counterproductive. It just reaffirms your sense of self. The self has no interest in eliminating itself. To free oneself  from its tyranny a more subtle approach is required.

Zen provides us with a method of how we can get close to the ‘still point’ and land in the present moment. The method used is paradoxical: by exposing the barriers for what they are, they loose their importance and our mind becomes quiet. One allows them to be – without judging them. This is the opposite of what we tend to do. So. don’t identify with the barrier and don’t ignore it, deny it or fight it. Instead, welcome it, get to know it and find out how it operates.

Initially this will create resistance, uncertainty, and anxiety because one’s sense of self is challenged. It will feel threatened and tested. However, with continued practice and patience, the anxiety will diminish and lose its significance and influence. One no longer feels that there is anything to hold on to, because one no longer identifies with it. As my Zen teacher would say “…awareness is a powerful solvent…”. One can learn to differentiate between what we think we see from what is actually there. Recognizing how attached we are to perceiving conceptually provides space for direct ways of seeing and perceiving.

A breath of fresh air.

The teaching method of Kenneth Goldsmith is interesting because it illustrates how a paradoxical approach to creativity can work not only for creative writing but for any creative endeavor, including photography. He has been teaching Uncreative Writing to university students for several years. In his class students were penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead, he says, they were rewarded for plagiarism, patch writing, appropriation, identity theft, plundering, and stealing. The students thrived. “Suddenly what they’ve surreptitiously become experts at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment …and then reframed”, Goldsmith comments. What was accomplished was not uncreative at all. By forcing students not to be “creative” they felt rejuvenated, on fire and produced the most creative work of their lives.

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