The spiritual bases of creativity

Slivka pointed me to a great article in last week’s LA Times by Robert Hilburn about Rick Rubin, producer extraordinaire and, it turns out, seriously spiritual guy. It’s so unusual to see any frank discussions of the role spirituality plays in anyone’s career. He was talking about creating music, but I found his thoughts applicable to all creative process, and wise words for everyone.

Whatever the project or musical style, Rubin enters it with the same goal: Create an easy, reassuring atmosphere that encourages collaboration and experimentation. He thinks of himself as a coach, but you could just as easily call him a counselor or therapist.

As a Communication teacher, I agree completely that creating a context in which people feel relaxed and open to experience is crucial to enabling the best of what can come. It’s at the heart of being a good teacher, a good friend, a good person, a good thinker, a good everything.

It’s not hard to see why artists feel comfortable — even safe — with the man known as the gentle guru of pop. Sit with him for even a few minutes and the tension drains from your body, which is unusual in someone in the hyperactive music business, where urgency is invariably the prevailing mood.

This thought on perspective is helpful too:

“You and the band have to believe what you are doing together is the most important thing in the world,” he says. “But you never want them to think that what they are doing today is the most important. You don’t want them to ever think, ‘Oh my God, I have to get it right today or else.’ “

I’m always amazed at the contrast between my experience of a day of writing and the final written piece when it’s long since done. Yesterday I reread something I wrote a couple of years ago and (as usual) it was hard to believe I’d written it. I experienced the writing experience as a stressful challenge of wrangling things together that was taking too long, but looking back at it, with all the individual days of stressing out about it gone, it’s a pretty fine piece of work, and you can’t tell what any given day’s contribution to it was.

Rule No. 2: Keep an open mind.

“It’s one of the things we talk about at the beginning of a project: ‘Let’s try every idea and see where it takes us, not prejudge it.’ Sometimes it still comes up where someone in the band makes a suggestion and part of me says, ‘That’s a bad idea. Let’s not waste time on that.’ I stop myself and think, ‘Let’s try it and see what it sounds like,’ and very often it sounds good.” […]

“I think the act of creation is a spiritual act [...] I don’t think great songs stem from us. They are just kind of in the universe. The best artists are the ones with the best antennae that draw it in, and meditation helps get rid of tension and tune into the ideas that are out there.”

Yeah. And not just musical ideas. I also loved this way of putting open-mindedness into practice:

Today, he takes his belief in democracy in the studio so far that he and a band will sometimes hire several engineers to do the final mix on a recording and listen to the results without knowing which engineer did which track.

“If you know the greatest mixer in the world mixed one track and the guy who is making coffee on the project mixed that one, you’re liable, psychologically, to think the famous engineer’s mix is bound to be the best,” Rubin explains. “But if you don’t know who did what, the playing field is clear and even, and you are really picking based on what sounds good. And very often we’re surprised. Very often.”

There are a lot of riffs I could go off on at this point, but I’m just going to put this up and let them stimulate your own thoughts of how they apply to what you do (and don’t do) instead.

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