The Four Steps of Creative Ecstasy

January 18th, 2012
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Dear friends:

On behalf of Ken and the entire Integral Life and Integral Institute staff I’d like to wish you the very best in this New Year. As ever, we are grateful to you for your love and support of the integral movement and the many ways you’re exemplifying wholeness for a world in transition.

As you take on new things this year I’d like to offer you what I learned in 2011 about how to integrate one’s work in the world with the stillness of a spiritual practice, a question that was raised frequently a few weeks ago at ISE 3: Kosmic Creativity. The question always boiled down to this: How do I help to change the world while also not needing to change it? How do I integrate my creative passion while also cultivating my spiritual peace?

These two ends of the spectrum—deep passionate engagement to something larger than ourselves and enough detachment to not become part of the problem—often seem to be at odds with each other. And yet they are profoundly important questions at a time when the world’s prevailing systems—from economic to education to healthcare—are disintegrating because their current stage of operating is neither complex enough nor conscious enough to meet the life conditions of the 21st century. At ISE 3 I briefly mentioned “four rules of creative ecstasy” and below I offer you a specific praxis of how I achieve this balance (haha, on my good days).

The Four Steps of Creative Ecstasy

Here is a brief summary of the steps, after which I’ll describe how they are also a deep spiritual map of working both in and on a world in transition:

  • Be unflinchingly honest with yourself and others about who you are and what you are called to do. It is unique and valuable, and at its core will be driven by love as all creativity is.
  • Take radical responsibility for that vision and never rely on validation from others in order to execute it; your vision is fully your responsibility.
  • Tap the self-emptying courage required when the terror of that responsibility meets you face to face and forces you to surrender your ego into that fear.
  • Cultivate the affectionate detachment to the results of your actions that will sustain your presence and courage and ultimately keep your vision fresh, alive and unstoppable.

These four steps represent a cycle that compels an ongoing integration between emptiness and form, between the peace of resting in stillness (no mind) and the passion of executing one’s uniqueness (my mind).

Here is the cycle in greater detail. As you read notice the movement into stillness and out to motion. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Let’s start by bringing motion to rest.

Step 1: Unflinching Honesty

Rest in emptiness in order to cultivate unflinching honesty.

Let go of who you think you are or want to be in order for the truth of who you really are to emerge. You are timeless, spacious and ever-present. From here there is no fear, nothing to be achieved, nothing to be gained. Nothing ever happens. As Junpo Roshi says, “now we’re getting nowhere.” The ability to be absolutely honest arises from a deep practice of emptiness because deception cannot survive without duality.

When you start to differentiate the stories your ego tells you about what you want and the truth of what lies deeper beneath, a funny thing begins to happen: you start to get unflinchingly honest about who you are and what you really are called to do. Not as a clinging, grasping or needy desire to become something different, but a deep and mature recognition that you have a unique vision and to admit merely that it is so. This move brings you into a powerful and grounded posture of responsibility to the world as we know it, that of evolutionary form. We shift from Nirguna Brahman here to Saguna Brahman, next.

Step 2: Radical Responsibility

Embrace form in order to take responsibility.

If you don’t know what you’ll die for, you won’t know what you’re alive for. You will feel fully alive when you’ve told the truth about who you are (step 1) and you’ve taken complete responsibility for your unique vision (step 2). Getting out there on the edge of your own capability and daring to say to yourself exactly why you live is simply the most powerful and sure proof way to feel fulfilled. Said simply, it’s easy to take responsibility when there’s no risk or fear; this step is about seeking responsibility precisely where it becomes it’s scariest and hardest to do so. It will be irresistibly exciting.

Really you have no choice than to be that which you are. You have a unique vision and when it derives from a place of stillness it will, in its essence, be love by any other name. You might call it your unique self. Take full responsibility for it. No one needs to validate your uniqueness or your vision. The more powerfully situated in love that it is—consider Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi here—the more people will feel called towards it. (But be careful not to mistake your individual responsibility with social regard from others, an instant ego trap that will make step 3 very hard.)

In my experience, when done properly there should be the onset of a feeling of terror. Not a “Nightmare on Elm Street” kind of terror but an awesome, exciting terror that you have found your edge: you are staring into the abyss being called to do something you have no guarantee you can do or whether you’ll succeed. Unfortunately, with that excitement usually comes an over-attachment to a new story of yourself and a new self-identity. Now the hard part … you have to let it go. It’s time to move back to Nirguna Brahman.

Step 3: Self-Emptying Courage

Rest again in emptiness to tap courage beyond self.

There is only one way through the terror of taking full, personal responsibility for your deepest vision, which is to tap the inexhaustible courage that comes from letting go of the results of your actions. Which means letting go, again, of who you think you are. It is counter-intuitive that it takes courage in order to act fully with affectionate detachment (coming in step 4). But this is the proverbial leap of faith: the decision, sourced quietly in the stillness of your heart (for it is rooted there), to let go of your story, your vision and your need to be anything other than what you already are. Done properly, this will bring another kind of terror: “I won’t amount to anything.” “How can I be happy if I let go?” “Won’t I just fall into a mush of nothingness?” “Will I be bored?” “What about my damn vision!?” and a hundred other terrifying prospects.

This third step is the hard part. It’s where many of us get stuck and where the ego loves to keep us stuck. As we know, it’s easy to be passionate about something if we’re curious. It’s even easier to be indifferent about everything if we’re cynical. The magic, the real tricky bit of a life in practice, is to be so wildly passionate about something that you’re indifferent about nothing and in turn not attached to anything. Give that some thought. Then let the thoughts go, because it’s time to get busy.

Step 4: Affectionate Detachment

Embrace form while resting in emptiness to act with affectionate detachment.

You’re now ready to act. Acting without being attached to the result is the height of artistry and creative flow. Affectionate detachment will sustain your presence and courage and keep your vision fresh, alive and unstoppable. Here is the mantra: Expend energy, not effort. The real giveaway when you’re attached to your actions as downstream outcomes is when you are struggling with effort. By my usage, effort implies psychological and emotional strain. Expending energy can be intense, even physically taxing, but it need not be hard. If you find your energy is becoming effort, reexamine where you’re attached to outcomes and go back to practice in step 3.

For some real practice, see if you can generate real, genuine passion about a complete failure of your vision. How might your failure lead to a more profound success for the next effort of its kind? How can you possibly know? We love to imagine that if we achieve what is in our mind’s eye all will be well. What fools we are! We simply do not have the wisdom or the prescience to know what a certain happy future looks like. We only ever know what causes suffering in the present, and it always is when we hijack the present with our imaginative future fantasies or our retrospective memories. By acting from a place founded in the first three steps, our actions, vision and determination remain fresh, centered and alive. And because we’re not fatigued by the slings and arrows of disappointed expectations, our energy remains abundant.

Many people will think that this step is very hard, but I contend that if you stay deep in practice in step 3, you’re already partly home for step 4. Step 4 is about acting fully and forcefully from emptiness. It is not weak, soft or limp. It is focused, passionate and engaged. And yet it also allows what will come and lets go moment by moment. It allows a deeper intelligence in the fabric of reality to work how it will. It is humble yet strong and the power one can feel from someone in this space is JUST…PLAIN…AWESOME.

(The video to watch here is Jill Bolte Taylor’s presentation at TED. Watch how she led an audience that was still largely afraid of tapping stillness and the way in which it moved them beyond themselves with her courage.)

I’d like to think that in the 22nd century an embodiment of this cycle will be minimally required of a future “President of the United Nations.” Indeed it is pivotal to how power and leadership is crafting the world we know and so far the record is very mixed. Just imagine if the leaders of the 20 largest nations and the 20 largest companies in the world were able to articulate a compelling vision in service to love, have the courage to stand up for it against all odds, and most importantly encourage it to find its healthy expression through an example of non-grasping, non-attached leadership that inspired others to do the same. The result might be a natural upwelling of “right action,” selfless and loving service that acted with discernment and precision in the moment but then allowed the next moment to be encountered afresh.

So let me close with a provocative idea: these leaders need their own leaders to look up to and follow. I’d invite you to consider the very real possibility that one of these people, the person who these CEOs, world leaders, and even community leaders can look up to—a person who is setting a groundbreaking example of leading from love, a person who is integrating passion and peace in a serious and focused way, a person who is moving the needle for a world in transition, that this person, this unique individual leading from creative ecsasty, is none other than you. And that 2012 is the year in which you tap the courage and engage the practice to do so.

Here is wishing you a terribly exciting 2012. Go get on the edge and stay there.

Warm new year regards,

Robb Smith

*Photograph taken by Mathias Weitbrecht at Integral Spiritual Experience 3

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