The Empty & Full Cycles of Creativity


After two arduous years of research, writing, and re-writing, a client has just finished the first full draft (360 pages so far) of what will be a ground-breaking book when published next year. Her usually bright eyes sagged at our last session, and I could sense her hesitancy about revising. “Put it aside for four weeks,” I suggested. “You’ll return with fresh eyes.” She sighed and agreed.


Incubation, of course, is a necessary part of the creative cycle. Fiction writer John Gardner claimed that after he’d finish drafting a short story he’d stuff the manuscript in a drawer for a year before looking at it again. If it still excited him, he’d consider honing and revising it.


I’ve been wondering about other ways of “creative withdrawal,” both short-term and long-term. Creativity and emptiness, engagement and withdrawal – they seem like two parts of the same cycle. Like summer and winter. Shagbark hickories behind my study leaf out and brim with three, four shades of green this time of year. In another several months, the trees will undress for the coming cold, part-time ascetics that they are. Patches of earth need an annual deep freeze. What about the human creative mind?


I don’t seek six months of naked shivering. Still, I wonder if upon occasion the mind needs to disrobe. A mind that frequently grows bare might bear thoughts, when ready, with deeper colors and thicker veins.


Letting things dissolve could be as important as letting things manifest. That’s the wisdom of Yoga and of contemporary psychology. One of Yoga’s longest living traditions, Kashmir Shaivism, describes five prominent acts of the adept practitioner. Think of yourself as an “adept practitioner” when you focus not mostly on your own ego needs but, instead, with your life’s creative flow, a flow that feels consonant with the way natural cycles undulate. Your creative acts feel as natural as the earth spinning. To groove in that dance, you can practice two supreme acts – emanation and dissolution.


Recently, a client came to my studio. Bright and brimming with concepts for the essays she’s writing, she talked for several minutes about her ideas. Yet, for several weeks, she hadn’t written anything. Only thinking, thinking. When she handed me a book she was reading and wanted to map out more ideas, I nudged her instead toward the mat. “Let’s move. See what happens. Maybe write.” She trusted me. For only ten minutes, we moved through a spontaneous Yoga As Muse sequence. While she flowed through simple poses, eyes closed, I cued her imagination to pick up fresh insights for her essay’s next section. She moved from the mat to the page and wrote for a solid twenty minutes.


“I feel great!” she said. “And that was so simple.” “That” meaning the moving, not necessarily the writing. Still, she got out of her way and into her Way. That’s emanation. She came back two days
later with pages written and a new Yoga As Muse sequence in her writer’s tool belt.


But what about dissolution? Another client went to an artist’s residency last month. She called me: “I can’t sit still.” I asked her if she had kept up with her breathing practice. Silence. “Okay, then. Are you willing to try another practice?” She was.


The simple breathing practice I shared with her has cracked open space in my mind so emptiness can pour in. This is what I explained to my client over the phone: You can practice this breathing tool formally in a seated position or practice it while driving or doing the dishes or changing your baby’s diapers. Constrict the glottis at the back of your throat as you breathe so the breath sounds raspy. Inhale slowly. Exhale slowly. Pause. Focus on the pause. Even when you’re inhaling and exhaling, feel the residue of that pause lining the rest of the breath cycle. Repeat. Over and over again. Mechanically, that’s it.


To pause is the action of inactivity. To pause offers the promise of emptiness. Feel that. With each breath. Something happens.


My client started paying more attention to the space around her body. “There’s a lot of space out there,” she joked. But it’s true. Sometimes our minds are crowded. Thoughts block the windows of our eyes and ears like boxes and bats in an attic. The pause clears a box, calms a bat, and we see space, hear it. On the physiological level, I can feel something deep in my body’s autonomic nervous system shifting.


This practice also comes from Kashmir Shaivism. I practice it every morning and off and on throughout each day. It’s a key skillful means for an adept to let the ego dissolve into the larger self. That self, I’m suspecting these days, dwells both in this body and outside it. To read how contemporary thinkers, Western phenomenologists, and cognitive scientists are in dialogue of sorts with ancient yogis, read David Abrams’ stunning essay “Air Aware” on mind, mood, and environment or Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life: biology, phenomenology, and the sciences of mind.




Through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, the rest of the world penetrates our body and mind. What the sense organs absorb – mostly beyond our awareness –influences our creative thinking. But sensory overload can thwart creative thinking just as thinking too much can deaden the senses. Sensory withdrawal can reverse this cycle. You don’t have to find
an isolation tank or Himalayan cave. Your fingers will suffice.


In a comfortable seat, loop each index finger tip to the base of each thumb. Rest each set of the three free fingers atop closed eyelids and position each thumb in each ear cavity. Listen to the breath’s echo. This practice can feel as if you’ve created your own isolation tank or cave. Breathe slowly ten times. Pause at the end of each exhalation. Just savor the quiet and darkness. Oddly enough, you will hear sounds like kettle drums and thunder and perhaps see colorful dots or other shapes. If so, savor the symphony in this inner space.


Slowly peel the hands from the face. Observe the quality of hearing the rest of the world. Open the eyes and observe the quality of light and hue outside the body. Try this simple practice whenever your mind feels taxed or whenever your inner senses feel dormant.

Contemporary studies in psychology suggest that geography does not correlate with happiness (There are just as many self-reported happy people, say, in Las Vegas as there are in Venice.), but the lack of noise does. So if noise surrounds you, invest in ear plugs or use your thumbs throughout the day.




Einstein, Newton, and other scientists took catnaps to refresh themselves and often to let incubated ideas percolate and possibly boil to the surface. I rest supine almost every afternoon without falling asleep. I lead myself through a variation of what is called Yoga Nidra (the Yoga of Deep Sleep). The Upanishads describe Deep Sleep as a level of reality and awareness just as is Waking and Dreaming. If we arrive at Deep Sleep, we can glimpse awareness of a Mind behind the mind, so to speak. It’s an “under-mind,” an abiding, clear foundation of mind where no apparent thinking occurs. The light of your mind focuses on space while all mental processing whirls in the background. It’s the reverse of quotidian awareness (typical Waking reality) in which the mind’s whirls dominate the foreground and awareness of space recesses.


My mind typically hovers between wake and dream. My awareness watches and even comments on the images and voices that swirl past my awareness’s screen as if I’m watching the movie of my mind (in which case the co-directors must be Salvador Dali, Fellini, and the Coen Brothers).


At rest’s end, I’m refreshed and brimming with new insights. When I lead participants through this practice, their minds invariably startle them with rich fodder for writing and painting. A participant from my recent Yoga As Muse retreat at Kripalu, Sherry Rubin, teaches iRest Yoga Nidra and sells a CD. A client Karen Brody leads iRest Naps for Mommies in the Washington, D.C. area. Amrit Desai also leads several Yoga Nidra workshops throughout the world.


Deep sleep at night brings us closest to emptiness on a regular basis. Yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2009 study “Sleep in America,” most of the 1000 Americans surveyed get on average of six hours of sleep during the week, and 2/3 report that they get insufficient sleep each week. A 2004 study “To sleep, perchance to gain creative insight?” reported that a good night’s sleep after being exposed to mathematical problems might induce lucid mathematical solutions.

To start arriving at deep sleep at night, prepare for sleep. Refrain from “crashing” in exhaustion. Allow at least thirty minutes before bed to rest, read, observe night sounds,

or have a non-fretting conversation with a loved one. Spend five to ten minutes breathing into a few yogic forward bends. Forward bends stimulate the back body, back mind, and back skull near the brain’s emotional center.



A Yoga As Muse retreat is not an escape from the world. Instead, it offers an extended “pause” from our typical schedules of obligations, frets, and to-do’s. I’ll lead the final Yoga As Muse retreat for 2010 this September at the world-renowned Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York (about 90 minutes north of NYC). I’ll be teaching some of the above tools and others as we explore how
to integrate Yoga’s tools and simple sequences seamlessly into our writing process and writing life. Consider joining me. If not this retreat, find another way to treat yourself to a retreat for a few days. It’s not self-indulgent if it’s self-expansive.

For a related topic, you also might read my recent piece for my Psychology Today blog on Tracking Wonder, “How to be Idle and Blessed.”

How do you take creative breaks? How do you approach true emptiness in order to fill back up? Join the conversation here, and share your tips, experiences, and questions.

Empty and filled,

like the curling half-light of morning,

in which everything is still possible and so why not.

Filled and empty,

like the curling half-light of evening,

in which everything now is finished and so why not.

– Jane Hirshfield, from “Standing Deer,” The Lives of the Heart



Jeffrey Davis is Tiferet’s Fiction Editor, a creativity consultant, and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (updated ed., Monkfish Publishing, 2008). He teaches at Omega, Kripalu Center, UNM’s Taos Writer’s Conference, and at centers around the world. CENTERTOPAGE.COM






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