I’ve been sitting at my computer for days, wrestling with a question that is now starting to take on the weight of a Zen koan, though it appears logical enough: How does Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) serve the creative process and how can creative practitioners work with this? (If you are unfamiliar with the word “koan,” it is a short, pithy question or statement designed to awaken the mind and stimulate thought.)
There may be no definitive answer to a koan, however there is an obvious answer to the question of how to match the practices of MSC to the needs of people engaged in creative work: 1) recognize the nature of creativity, the creative person, and the personal and professional pressures one may be operating under, and 2) target MSC practices to the individual’s needs.
Creativity and the Pressures that Creatives Face
Creativity as defined by Oxford Languages is “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.” It is the mother of all powers, for the root word “create” means to “bring into existence.” This is no small task and for many artists and other creative professionals, the pressure to perform at a high level of excellence is inherent in the work.
I know. I am a performing songwriter, publisher, theater and digital arts/media teacher, entrepreneur, arts manager, performance coach and writer. Everything I write here, I have lived: the ups and downs of a life in pursuit of creative achievement, recognition and accolades. It’s been a grand adventure, and at times it’s taken a toll. I also see this in my students and clients: the pressure to live up to the expectations not only of themselves but of others.
It’s worth noting that support for artists rarely targets the need for self-compassion as a core philosophy underlying one’s practice. Rather, the focus is all too often on finding self-esteem by way of achievement, and this can lead creatives in erroneous directions that promote self-criticism rather than self-compassion.
Setting the Stage to Help Artists and Creatives Become More Self-Compassionate
First, one must realize that a budding personal passion is at the core of this work. It requires years of loving servitude to reach the point of being able to create impressive art and, if one chooses to, compete professionally. For many, the making of art involves learning from others, apprenticing formally or informally through a combination of self-study and imitation, and remixing ideas to create a new “thing.” Without nurturance, support, training and the resources to pursue one’s interests, self-doubt and frustration can interfere with the process and ability to create. The struggle to gain financial or immaterial (praise, applause) incentives for creatives can further increase insecurity and confusion over whether and how long to persist in the pursuit of a creative goal or professional career.
There is no denying the nature of creative work will have an artist or creative entrepreneur striving on a journey to self-fulfillment. The journey is hard, beautiful, sometimes life-long and imbued with rewards and challenges. What will help is recognizing that the personal balance creatives must find can be fostered by practices that target the need for patience, strength and fortitude in the creative process as well as alleviate the stress, frustration, confusion and disappointments that can sometimes arise. Mindful Self-Compassion practices can support this process.
How Mindful Self-Compassion Can Help Creatives
The three components of Mindful Self-Compassion—Mindfulness, Self-Kindness, and Common Humanity—can especially help the creative person balance expectations, stay with the creative process, and manage setbacks as well as the pitfalls of accomplishment and the subsequent lows and ambiguity of new beginnings that can follow:
Mindfulness — Mindfulness practices including sitting and walking meditations as well as the ability to seek and appreciate beauty in unexpected places may aid creatives in “coming to” and engaging fully with ”structured play” in the present moment, and with releasing anxiety or overly demanding expectations in the early stages of creating. Affectionate Breathing is a core practice that groups often use to center an ensemble.
Furthermore, starting with what the artist needs in a given moment may be the perfect way to begin a working session and unlock creative ideas. Creativity often flourishes with the ability to make contact with, as well as, clear up feelings. Performers would benefit from asking this question, “What do I need?” before a performance, too, in order to make the micro-adjustments necessary to prepare for performance. Awareness of stress or a problem is said to be enough to shift a person into a better mental or physical state. MSC meditations, like a body-scan, can also calm the amygdala and focus the performer.
Self-Kindness — It can greatly support creatives to know whether the motivating energy of yang self-compassion is needed to get things going or whether the friendly, comforting, nurturing yin self-compassion is needed to support whatever is happening. This can feel like a dance to a performing artist who must keep thoughts in check while encouraging oneself to do the best one can. Self-soothing through journaling can offer the artist a voice of support—one’s own voice or that of a cherished mentor/supporter. Journaling can have the added benefit of tracking and offering insights into the creative’s learning/working processes, much like a sketchbook is to a painter.
Self-affirming, encouraging talk that is not tied to the need for accomplishment is essential for all creatives. When an MSC teacher is not present, artists can learn to do this for themselves, and must, because creating a piece of work can take time and a life-long creative career or quest is long! Creatives can also use lovingkindness meditations with soothing touch to set intention and soften the experience of difficult emotions at any stage of one’s creative process. The practice of softening, soothing and allowing can reinforce the ‘right’ or permission to feel whatever one is feeling at any one given point in time. This is important because judgment can stop artists in their tracks and kill creativity.
Common Humanity — Recognizing and appreciating the unique pressures of creatives, particularly live performers and presenters, will help them to remember they are not neurotic, crazy, isolated, or alone when they are most prone to questioning themselves. Setbacks and difficulties are real and significant. Normalizing challenges will help creatives to feel better, pace themselves and avoid harsh self-criticism and the effects of it. Offering artists and creatives MSC Circles of Practice and providing opportunities to explore reflective practices can help affirm that artists have both unique and common ways of living in the world and a language and lore for their experiences as defined by their cultural industry. Communities like this may very well have the added and unexpected benefit of further spurring on other creative opportunities.
Permission to Feel, Express, and Connect
It may be that the koan of how to support creativity and creatives with Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) practices lies in the inquiry and recognition of the pressures creatives work under. Permission to feel, express, and connect in whatever ways are possible further offers a way for artists and innovators to mitigate the hazards of a professional career and creatively practice in sustainable and more self-compassionate ways.
Lorelei Loveridge is an MSC Teacher, singer-songwriter, and Canadian expat drama teacher living in Saudi Arabia.
If you would like to enhance your creativity through the power of self-compassion, sign up for the MSC Core Skills 4-session workshop starting August 10, 2022, presented by CMSC co-founders and Mindful Self-Compassion co-developers Chris Germer, Ph.D. and Kristin Neff, Ph.D. Learn more or register here or click on the photo.