Finding meaning of life through mindfulness
Author of more than 50 books on creativity, mental health and critical psychology, Eric Maisel is quite an expert in this field. Although retired, Maisel still gets up at 5am and works 8 hours straight every day to keep his creativity flowing.
“There is no retirement for a creative person, because that’s one of the ways we make meaning,” Maisel, who’s also blogged for Psychology Today and runs writing workshops across the world, told Shanghai Daily.
He is at the forefront of the movement to rethink mental health and has been devoted to helping people create meaning and seize opportunity in life.
“Even the greatest artists only have some masterpieces and a lot of ordinary work. We have to get a very clear picture that mistakes and messes and failures and disappointments, and all of that is coming. That’s a mature, creative position.”
His most recent books include “Redesign Your Mind,” “The Power of Daily Practice,” “Unleashing the Artist Within” and “Why Smart People Hurt.”
How did your story with creativity begin?
I started out in science when I was young, about 24. I started writing my first novel. After I became a therapist, I worked with creative and performing artists. But I stopped believing in the therapy model pretty soon because I didn’t think I was dealing with mental disorders.
I thought these were just normal problems of living. So I started doing what I call creativity coaching and I’ve been doing that for 35 years now.
What’s the difference between a therapist and a creative coach?
The therapy model is about 150 years old, actually, but only in the last 75 years has it become a certain kind of thing. And the idea behind it is to diagnose and treat mental disorders, so the therapist is doing something that sounds a little bit medical or a little bit psychological.
But it’s a very particular mandate where you’re supposed to be identifying what the mental disorder is with the person sitting across from you. And I don’t think those mental disorders are real, actually. That’s why I left therapy: it is labels rather than real diagnosis.
Creativity coaching is a simple idea. It looks at the creative person and asks: What are the challenges a creative person faces? Then it looks at how difficult it is to do the work, how difficult it is to write a novel or write a symphony or paint beautifully. And then it looks at the question of the world: How is the creative person going to fit into the world? And how is their work going to fit in?
What do you think is the healing power of creativity?
Let me try to tackle your question about why people would want to be creative and how that helps them. We use creativity as a word nowadays to mean a lot more than producing art. It has to do with self-expression, which is a very big point, because if you silence yourself, if you never express yourself, you’re not going to be physically or mentally well.
Part of the healing power of creativity is about speaking your truth, it’s about expressing yourself. Whether it’s journaling or writing or painting or singing or anything, any creative effort that allows you to make use of your talents.
Creativity is a way of being your warrior yourself, of being your powerful self.
I think the first place is just to think back to what you loved as a child that may be the place that you want to come back to now as an adult. That’s an important remembrance because we lose touch with that. Another tactic for understanding where to be creative is to actually sit down and make a list of what you’ve experienced as meaningful in life. We need to patiently think through what has interested us, what we have loved are places of passion.
But easier said than done?
Oh, it’s very difficult. The main thing is creating is making one choice after another, and the activity of choosing makes us anxious. And most people don’t want to be criticized. If you make something, then you open yourself up to criticism. And all they have to do is some anxiety management. A little breathing or something that will help them get started each day.
How could the creative process help relieve stress?
I write a lot about authoritarians in the family; parents who bully their children. I run classes for adults who are still trying to get over the trauma of having had a hard childhood.
They get writing tips from me. And by doing this writing, they can relieve their trauma. They can finally understand what went on. We can ... learn from ourselves, to investigate problems and to solve our problems.
So one of the most important changes a person can make is to begin to, as the Buddha said, get a grip on your mind. They need to do a better job of deciding what they’re going to think. There’s lots of evidence that when you change your thinking, you feel better.
We all believe there’s a mind-body connection. The mind generates thoughts. So the more that you take charge of your thoughts, the more your body is going to feel better.
What is the importance of daily practice?
Yes, I did a book recently called “The Power of Daily Practice.” People do need daily practice. If you don’t do the same thing each day, then you stop doing it. If you write your novel only occasionally, you will never finish it.
How to discipline ourselves?
It is not about discipline. The great opera singer Pavarotti once said: “People say I’m disciplined, but it’s not discipline, it’s devotion. And There’s a big difference.” So I think we’re talking about not being devoted enough to the things we say are important.
How do we manage failures?
You have to understand the reality of the creative process is it comes with mistakes, messes and failures. That’s part of the process. And only a percentage of the work we do is going to be any good. If we have a bad day, we have a bad day and we come back tomorrow. The composer Chicagoski said “I’m only inspired every 5th day. I get that 5th day only if I show up the other four.”
How do you manage bad emotions, especially during the lockdowns?
I mostly deal with my emotions by working. That’s my place of devotion and love.
I do one thing after another and, I have a phrase for this in my own mind, and it’s do the next right thing. And that doesn’t mean the next moral thing. It just means the next appropriate thing. I just try to do one thing after another. By the end of that day, I feel very good.
And I have another half day of not needing to work. My wife and I’ve been together for 43 years. We do things together after my work day. We also have the opportunity to play with our grandchildren a lot, which is probably my mood elevator.