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Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 3

What exactly happens to us when we become full absorbed in creativity? It affects more than we may realize. Yesterday, we looked at the portion of Rollo May‘s writings on the creative process. Today, we move on to the Intensity of the Encounter, what May calls the the second element of the creative act. “Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved, and so on, are used commonly to describe the State of the artist or scientist when creating or even the child at play,” explains May. No matter what we call it, “genuine creativity is characterized by intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.” He claims we all, artists included,”in moments of intensive encounter,” experience very clear neurological changes. May said these include

  • quickened heart beat;
  • higher blood pressure;
  • increased intensity and constriction of vision, with eyelids narrowed so that we can see more vividly the scene we are painting;
  • we become oblivious to things around us (as well as to the passage of time).”

The part about losing track of time explains a lot to me. Time ‘curves’ when I’m intently working on a project or work. I can even relate to the narrowing of the eyes; however, as yet, I cannot relate to the next aspect. “We experience a lessening of appetite — persons engaged in a creative act lose interest in eating at the moment,” according to May, “and may work right through mealtime without noticing it.” Maybe it differs with ceramics! After all, some of it is exercise, like wedging a big hunk of clay or working against centrifugal force on a wheel; it adds up! I will have to conduct my own scientific experiment and see if my appetite wanes with painting and drawing… May goes on to say that all of the reactions he listed inhibit the parasympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system, “which has to do with care, comfort, nourishment” and activate the sympathetic portion of our nervous system. When this occurs, it engages our fight or flight mechanism.  Ordinarily, such information, he says, neurologically

"I love the high from painting. The intense concentration and discovery, pushing my limits. Motivation isn't a problem - it would be much harder not to paint." — David Ladmore

correlates with fear and anxiety. However, though the fighting or fleeing mechanism is triggered, May states that “what the artist or creative scientist feels is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.” May said he used the word ‘joy’ as a contrast to pleasure or happiness. He explains that at the very “moment of creating,” the artist doesn’t feel satisfied or gratified, even though they might feel that way later. “Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities.” I am astounded…May was so very insightful and wise. He continues, saying that “this intensity of awareness is not necessarily connected with conscious purpose or willing. It may occur in reverie or in dreams, or from so-called unconscious levels.” He then gives the example of a professor who for some time had been unsuccessful in figuring out a chemical formula. Suddenly, the very formula he sought came to him wholesale in a dream, after which he awoke and scribbled it on a piece of tissue in the dark. However, the next day, he couldn’t read his writing. Compelled, from then on, he thought about the dream intently before retiring. He recalled the formula, after a fashion, and wrote it down clearly. May said, “It was the formula he had sought and for which he received the Nobel prize.”

(Next: continuation of May’s the Intensity of the Encounter…covering will power and creativity and ecstatic Dionysian states, which May does not advocate as a vehicle for creativity.)

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Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 1

Last night, I got up around 1 a.m., as I was having trouble sleeping. I started reading from where I had left off with Rollo May‘s The Courage to Create. Very interested in the creative process and the act of creativity, the nuts and bolts behind it. It’s been on my storyboard for a while. Who better to talk about it than May in his piece, The Nature of Creativity? His style is readable and engaging. Published in 1959, his writing is food for the soul, every bit as relevant now. A psychologist, May does use jargon from his field; however, it in no way deflects from the intent of his words. In addition, he was a painter himself, so he’s not talking about art without firsthand experience. Earlier today, as I was out running errands, I decided to share it with you. In today’s post, he defines creativity. Later, he addresses the creative process, the intensity of creative encounter, and how that encounter relates to the world. I believe that we must look beyond the act and consider the process. It informs our work and strengthen us.  “When we define creativity, we must make the distinction between its pseudo forms, on the one hand—that is, creativity as a superficial aestheticism,” wrote May.  “And, on the other, its authentic form—that is, the process of bringing something new into being. The crucial distinction is between art as artificiality (as in “artifice” or “artful”) and genuine art.” He said that such distinctions have been contentious for artists and philosophers through the ages. Using Plato as an example, he said the philosopher demoted artists and poets “down to the sixth circle of reality” because they did not deal with reality but appearances, that art was only decoration and “a way of making life prettier.” He contrasted this demotion with Plato’s later writings in the Symposium. In it, Plato made a 180 degree turn, saying that true artists are those who birth  new realities. May said that, according to Plato, poets and creative people “are the ones who express being itself.” I am not sure why Plato’s view changed so markedly, as I yet to research it. Alternately, May contends that true artists “are the ones who enlarge human consciousness.” He also said a most beautiful thing: “Their creativity is the most basic manifestation of a man or woman fulfilling his or her own being in the world.” He does make a clear distinction. May does not include hobbyists or weekend artists…those who are simply “filling up leisure time.” May laments that “nowhere has the meaning of creativity been more disastrously lost than in the idea that it is something you do only on week ends.” You may think this smacks of elitism, but May’s true artists are fully engaged in the creative process. Countering different schools of thought, he claimed that the creative process should not be explored “as the product of sickness,” referring to those who deemed it neuroses. Instead, May said the creative process represents “the highest degree of emotional health, as the expression of the normal people in the act of actualizing themselves.” He spoke to both the creativity of scientist and artist, “in the thinker as well as in the aesthetician.” Further, he says we can’t rule out the extent to which it is “present in captains of modern technology as well as in a mother’s normal relationship with her child.” To May, “creativity, as Webster’s rightly indicates, is basically the process of making, of bringing into being.”

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