"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Matters?

This is the text of the lecture I gave last week at the Surface Design Association conference in Minneapolis. Several readers requested that I post it on line. It's long - longer than a typical post, since the talk was about an hour. Maybe print it out to read the entire text.
In the fall it should be available as a free podcast on the SDA site. I hope it will provide food for thought:

We are here to investigate this question:
What makes someone creative?

I. All of human culture is one massive creative act. If a system or activity isn’t driven by genes, it is driven by human creativity. Our evolution as a species is all about the gradual invention and creation of domains - specialized areas of the information.
Examples of domains are Science. Art.The Written Word. Music. Government. Each of these exists because of a series of cumulative creative acts.

Within every domains there are fields.
These are even more specialized areas of interest. Sculpture. Painting. Collage. Photography. and that’s just ART.
Think of science and you’ll see immediately that the specialized fields include Physics. Botany, Biology - and, since evolution is occurring even when we don’t acknowledge it because we are right in the middle of it, the specialties are becoming more specialized.

Think about it: Religion. Even religion is evolving....because if a field or a domain isn’t continuously welcoming new information and incorporating discoveries, it is a dead field. And since every aspect of human existence (every living bit of existence) is governed by the same set of fundamental and universal principles (like gravity) Religion must evolve just like Science must evolve. Otherwise it would be dead. IS that what they meant when they used to say God is Dead? We humans couldn’t accept that God could evolve along with the rest of us? (Or at least the systems that honor God....)

Domains are alive as long as they are organic and open to innovation and change. Change and innovation happen because within the subset of Fields, creative people are investigating, seeing, thinking, guessing and discovering. Those discoveries can’t happen in a vacuum, others have to be able to hear about them and embrace them:
SO: When an idea reaches a critical mass of acceptance, then the field, and the domain, change.

And it all begins with Memes.
Let’s talk about Memes.
The funny version is the ham story. The young woman, following her mother’s lead, cuts the end off the ham every time she bakes it. Finally she asks why - was it to make it more flavorful? Juicier?
No, says her mother. I cut off the end to make it fit in the pan.

Or consider the lyrics from the musical, South Pacific:
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.
You’ve got to be carefully taught

White people were afraid of everyone else when that lyric was written in the early 1950’s. Now it is references an attitude - a meme - we have been working to dismantle for several hundred years, and there is still work to do around it.

So memes are the units of information. Memes build each domain and by extension, build the culture. Within the culture there are certain memes we believe about being creative:
Here are a few examples:

Only some people are creative
Being an artist is a huge gift given only to a select few
You aren’t a successful artist unless you win awards
OR get into a good gallery
Or make a bunch of money

II. In fact, there are some observations on record about creative people.
Mlhalyi Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. In it he shares these observations:

If creative people are anything, they are complex personalities. This means being able to live with paradox. To be willing to embrace the shadow side as well as the light.

Carl Jung called this a mature personality. Every one of a person’s strong points has a repressed shadow side that most of us refuse to acknowledge. An orderly person longs to be spontaneous, and vice versa. Not good or bad - rather archetypal qualities that are neutral aspects of the Self. It is how we, as individuals, act on the qualities of shadow or light that can throw things out of balance in our personal and artistic lives.

Csikszentmihalyi theorizes that complex personalities move back and forth between extremes as the occasion demands. He describes sets of personality traits as:

1. A high level of physical energy, but also a need to be quiet and at rest.

2. Being smart but naive at the same time. This intelligence is a Core intelligence - not special brilliance, but a curiosity and willingness to seek intellectual stimulation.

3. A combination of playfulness and discipline. Lightness, irreverence, detachment combined with a willingness to work hard.

4. An ability to move between imagination and reality. Being able to see the future while keeping a sense of past.

5. The ability to harbor both introverted and extroverted tendencies simultaneously. Physicist John Wheeler said: “If you don’t kick things around with people, you’re out of it. Nobody, I always say, can be anybody without somebody around.”

6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time. They know upon whose backs they stand and willingly acknowledge this, but are also rightfully proud of their own achievements.

7. Psychologically androgynous. Able to embrace male and female “qualities” and live with these within one mind and body.

8. Creative people are thought of as both rebellious and independent. This is a paradox because in order to be good in a field it is important to internalize the “rules” of the domain. Not to do so would mean working in obscurity or a sort of vacuum. So a willingness to become traditional is usually evidenced. Creative people are both traditional and independent. Being only traditional leaves a domain unchanged; constantly taking chances or being rebellious for its own sake rarely leads to ideas or creations that have the potential to change the domain.

9. Passion + Objectivity = Energy. Tension exists between being attached to, and in love with what you are doing/making, versus being rigorous and honest with yourself about the outcome/product/process. No passion? You lose interest. No objectivity, and what you do isn’t very good.

10. Creative people express an openness and sensitivity that leads to both great happiness and the potential for hurt feelings, suffering, unhappiness. This is a vulnerability that can go either way.

Remember: All of these traits and pairs of traits are present in varying amounts in all human beings, but in different quantities.
Creative people may have pairs of paradoxical traits. Not every creative person has every set of traits. Plenty of creative people have a little of this, and none of that and loads of something else, and pairs that are out of whack.

SO: the reality of our individual strengths and weaknesses indicates that we should handle the information, the abilities, the same way.

III. By sharing them.

Paradox: We’ve been learning, evolving, inventing, expanding - information, ideas, scientific thinking, approaches to music, art and making, But we’ve also been buying into a consumer culture that has gradually hijacked community in favor of commodities.

Consumer “demand” - for better food, and cheaper prices, and better availability of everything from shoes to computers = using human inventing and creating to get and market more stuff for everybody...

Marketing removes us from the source of where and how our “stuff” is produced.
Children don’t know where milk or vegetables come from.
Adults are even more likely to enjoy STUFF without thinking about origins...

Becoming a consumer culture has affected our thinking/beliefs about other parts of life too. We’ve turned over lots of tasks we used to do ourselves, or asked friends to help us with, to professionals. For example:
Financial advisors
day care
dog walkers
personal chefs

NOW. Don’t get me wrong. Progress is GOOD. This is a democracy (my father always said.) Consumer culture is mainly a problem when paying for services rather than doing it ourselves impacts our sense of connection to other people - or our sense of community, or our own sense of self esteem.

IV. SO: Let’s talk about community.
In The Abundant Community, (written by John McKnight and Peter Block) the authors suggest that there are three properties of competent community that are worth making an effort to cultivate:
sharing gifts
being hospitable and welcoming strangers in
nurturing associational life

(btw - associational life is any group that shares a love of the same thing - boats, beets, or fiber art processes...)

If we don’t act intentionally to cultivate these gifts:
sharing gifts
welcoming strangers
acting associationally

then we lose them by default to consumer culture.

When we DO choose to intentionally cultivate the properties, we are acting in the best possible way to encourage innovation, discovery and new ways of looking at things.

In a scientific community, if the community is healthy, individuals work on projects, theories - using their individual gifts - and when a discovery is made, it is shared with others on the project or in the field - associationally. Strangers (new scientists) are welcomed into this community because of the contribution they may be able to make to the furthering of the group’s goal.

Key to this is the word intentionally. We would be naive to ignore the reality of human frailty when it comes to jealousies, pettiness, envy, and the lot. Those feelings exist in scientists and artists, and in quilt guilds and prayer circles. But acknowledging them openly is the first step to neutralizing them. One evil thing consumer culture has done, is to insinuate into the culture a fear of scarcity. There won’t be enough. I won’t get mine. That some THING is so important I’d better get up at five in the morning and stand in line at Best Buy, or I won’t get what I want. There won’t be enough.

We can and must choose to believe there is enough.
There is abundance. If I don’t get into an exhibition this time, I’ll get in next time. This is only one moment. There are millions of moments ahead of me that will be better; different.

So back to community. If we see the good in cultivating community, sharing our gifts, being with people who love what we love, then there are qualities we can foster that will make the experience richer:
These properties create a fertile environment where certain capacities can grow -
Generosity, which is making an offer for its own sake, not for its exchange value
Cooperation - For me to win, you must win.
Statesmanship - setting aside person preferences for the group good.
Forgiveness, which signals a new beginning, and choosing to stay in present time.
An acceptance of imperfection - recognizing that our gifts are intertwined with our limitations and being willing to deal with it, without passing judgment.
Mystery - which creates space for what is unknowable in life, and honors it.

When we work intentionally to foster the above properties and capacities in the community we are part of, we open the way to a life of satisfaction and creativity.

V. In order to be in community you have to know yourself. We each have to decide what to keep, what to dump, in the effort to make more time for what matters.

So far this lecture might not seem to be about making, but it is. Your whole life is one long and connected creative act. YOU are the only person who can be the unique being who will never be repeated again on the face of the earth. You are uniquely qualified for the job. And yes, life is going to unfold, whether you direct it to or not.

PARADOX: Life is going to happen no matter what you do. So why not take control of what happens? Ha! You can be intentional about your choices, you can be thoughtful. This is all good. However, the most basic lesson is recognizing that after having become intentional, you will allow life to unfold as it is going to unfold, and there is nothing your intentions can do to change that reality.

Life happens. Your best intention is to allow it to do so, without getting in the way, and by being constantly present.

We might ask:
What works against cultivating a creative life?
Being exhausted by too many demands.
Not knowing how to protect the energy we have. getting easily distracted.
Laziness. lack of discipline.
Not knowing what to do with what you’ve got.


Cultivate Curiosity.
Try to be surprised by something every day.
Life is a stream of experiences. Swim in it.
Try to surprise someone every day.
Write down these two events.
When something sparks interest - follow it.

None of the above will sustain on its own. PRACTICE. is needed.
Your thoughts are your life. This is about habits. NEW HABITS.
In the film What the Bleep Do We Know one theorist suggested waking up and visioning the day - just at that moment between wakefulness and sleep. While the veil between conscious and unconscious mind is still translucent.

In addition to fostering that unique timing, consider:

Learning to do something well. Working toward mastery.
Increase levels of complexity to keep things engaged.
Evaluate what you know how to do or what to do better.
Be rigorous with yourself. Let go of guilt, criticism and mean self talk.


and through that honoring, GET your life back.

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.
~ Wendell Berry
There are so many things we do to fit an external perceived requirement, rather than choosing for ourselves. Albert Einstein wore the same clothing for weeks. When criticized, he said he just wanted to put his energies in more important places.
How could you realign your preferences?

The slow food movement is an example of consumers taking food culture into their own hands. My friend Elaine Lipson did the same thing when she proposed the slow cloth movement. Sewing by hand. dyeing with natural dyes. This is worth considering.


SO: What could you toss out that would leave room for something more significant?
Because we’re working toward the SACRED here. Why would you squander any time at all on anything you haven’t chosen for yourself?

Now of course we don’t live in a vacuum. We CHOOSE to take care of children, to be in relationship. We choose community. But what about all the things we don’t intentionally choose. What if we stripped those back and started over?

The point is that the clearer you are about what you prefer, and the more intentional you are about your choices, the more you have to offer others when you choose to engage with them. Make Time for yourself and then your time spent with others will be quality time.

Get control of your SPACE -

What do you LIKE and what do you HATE? It is astonishing how few people are conscious as far as this is concerned. Figure it out and do more LIKE and less HATE.

“The only way to stay creative is to oppose the wear and tear of existence with strategies that organize time, space and activity to your your advantage.”

It’s one thing to recognize what matters to you. It’s another to have the courage to act on it.

Most of us have to rehearse the truth until we find the courage to live it.
Repetition isn’t a failure, it’s the heart’s way of learning to be in the world.

There are TWO versions of repetition.
One is unconsciously reliving scripts - replaying the past without learning anything from it - mostly not even aware we are doing it. this is a trap and we feel stuck when we are caught in these situations.
Dealing with life this way is reaction based. We’re not awake yet.

The opposite of unconscious repeating is rehearsing as a conscious choice - intentional - conscious repeating.

In this form we practice dealing with what Life has given us until we have practiced our way into honest living.
This is a very solid place to be and also humbling but freeing, because to accept this as a way to behave means you are being completely honest with yourself. If you can’t be honest with anyone else, at least don’t lie to yourself.

You may find this difficult, because it means you become very vulnerable emotionally. From an artist’s standpoint, an example would be telling someone how to do something you discovered yourself even though you know they may copy you. maybe they will, maybe they won’t. Can you share from a place that assumes there is enough for everybody?

And where do healthy boundaries fit into this? I have a right to keep a process to myself, don’t I? Why should I tell someone else how to do something?
I take my lead from Starhawk, who wrote:

I am a woman creating myself and all I can figure is
I'm on my own. This I have learned:
All of our activities should be influenced by the pleasure,
not the pain, principle. We have not come into the world to suffer,
or to inflict suffering.
Every day do something that is good only for you. Selfish?
No. Self possessed.
Balance it out by doing something equally good
for the benefit of all...
This will depend on your opportunities.
Only you will know what you can do.
If you are an artist use your power to be original-
to try to heal the wounds you see around you.
Everything we do needs passion to be done well.
Passion is precious. It indicates good mental health.
Use it as an important energy source all day.

You are probably familiar with the idea that we keep encountering the same situation over and over again until we finally get the lesson in it. So when I am half way into an experience and suddenly have a flash of deja vu, it’s time to pay attention. I’ve done this before. what am I supposed to be learning?

Portia Nelson’s poem sums it up:

I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost...
I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in...it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

I walk down another street.

So breaking patterns and establishing new habits take practice and takes repeating.

And what’s it going to get you?

A different reality.
A clearer sureness about what matters.
A clearer head in the studio.

And how do you know?

You don’t know. But imagine a lemon right now. Do you salivate? Can you feel the tartness in your mouth. Is that real?

The sensation is most definitely real.
Thinking has generated a physical response.

If you acknowledge this, then perhaps you can also acknowledge that how you think may truly create your reality.

By sharing you find generosity.
By forgiving, you find forgiveness,
By being clear about yourself, you find clarity with others.

Naomi Nye wrote this poem:

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don't I know you?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

It's not that you don't love them anymore.
You're trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven't seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don't start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

I love that last part. At first glance I thought this poem was about someone who is anti-social. But it isn't. Instead the poem seems to me, to end with a message which is "this is how I am intentional".

Ceramist Eva Zeisel (now 104 years old) - when interviewed by Csikszentmihalyi had another way of characterizing intentionality:

“I was thinking how to convey my accumulated wisdom to my granddaughter. And one of the things I thought to tell her is that one tries to do good and one tries to produce something. I find that my craft helped me very much to make life meaningful; because once you make a pot and it is outside you, it makes your life kind of justified and not flimsy. After all you go through,at the end you die, and it makes your life, well, more satisfying. It justifies your existence.

Then the question of doing good for society. Don’t forget that all of our contemporaries and ourselves had big ideologies to live for. And at the end it turns out that none of these ideologies was worth your sacrificing anything for. Even doing personal good is very difficult to be absolutely sure about. it’s very difficult to know exactly whether to live for an ideology or even to live for doing good. But there cannot be anything wrong in making a pot, I’ll tell you. When making a pot you can’t bring any evil into the world.

So what matters comes down to these questions:

Will you choose intentional creation?
Will you choose to share your gifts with the community?
Will you cherish yourself as artist and original being?

We, the members of SDA, are an association - by definition, a collection of people who share a love of the same thing.

I hope this week, during this conference and away into the months ahead, we will bravely engage in conversations about ALL of the things that we love - all of our challenges - all of our fears. I challenge you to turn to someone you have just met, to seek out those who know you well - and talk frankly with one another. Decide between you what matters, and then go out into the world and pursue it with joyful abandon.

Thank you.


  1. Thanks Jane. I've printed and saved it and will read it after I'm off line. I heard through the SDA blog how motivational and edifying your lecture was. Glad you are in my life.

  2. Thank you for sharing your lecture! Although I have just finished reading it, there are so many ideas I want to consider and review, that I'll be back for re-reads.

  3. Wow! I love the way you think and write, incorporating so many sources and ideas! It's printed and I'll read it again and again. Thank you!

  4. Thank you Jane, for publishing your lecture. It is so inspirational, and if I ever see you listed as a key speaker in the future, you can be sure I will be in the audience.

  5. Thanks for sending me here to the text... what a great blog! - Liza