Lessons In the Creative Arts Via the Martial Arts – Part II: Yielding

Accepting that force is one aspect of the creative process it follows to reason that the opposite must also exist. As we discussed last time, force in the martial arts can be met with a counter force via irimi, or the intent to meet a challenge head on and redirect the energy for a favorable outcome.

If there is a science to the humanities it is, similar to irimi, in the practical application of the theories discovered in inspiration (the ideas which we write, or paint, or play) toward the hopeful outcome of a successful creation. This again is intent. The clear-headed, intellectual agreement with ourselves to go forward according to plan with the goal of a certain outcome.

But what of the counterbalance to this heavy-handed directive? What might be said of the opposite of force – yielding?

In the martial arts there is a second concept known in Japanese as awase. In aikido this is an especially central concept. It has to do with blending with one’s opponent, embracing their energy and creating a whirling vortex that quite literally sends the adversary sailing through the air. To experience awase on the mat is an exhilarating thing. The energy is profound, the sense of motion invigorating. There is a touch of magic in awase.

In the creative process I believe we experience this blending in an even more intensely metaphysical sense. (This is not to discount the metaphysical in the martial arts, for they contain a deeply mystical and spiritual aspect in their own right – hence the “art” in “martial arts.”) While the force of our intention drives us to the work studio, and causes us to engage in the physical process of writing, or painting, or playing an instrument, it is the initial mental awareness of, and deliberation on, the idea that first inspires us to create. It is therefor important for the creative individual to think in terms of the ethereal.

No doubt the search for the ethereal is the reason for the excess of drug and alcohol abuse by so many artists. The effects of these substances are a fast track to the secrets hidden from the coldly conscious mind. In the clear light of the day, after a good night’s sleep and a brisk walk around the block, the dreamy ghosts of an other-world are hidden from sight. All there is for the brightly conscious mind to grasp is what it sees before it. It takes a letting go of what can be readily seen in order to attain the things that are hidden. Not unlike the ecstasy of the uber-religious, the meditative creative can invoke the portal to this mystical place, yielding as it were to the forces unseen which lend to greater creative vision. This is a state that is possible to reach naturally, in fact occurs naturally, which must only be embraced in order to be accessed. This is the balance to force, and is the first step in discovering the very ideas of what will become the final product of the creative effort.

The artist is called to be engaged in two primary worlds. There needs to be a time of yielding, of blending light and shadow to get at the underlying truth of our physical, force-driven world. Like a treasure hunter gathering baubles, the creative in this phase is light of mind, intoxicated by the way sounds filter through the spaces between other sounds, the way light falls at certain angles, the way lost love informs new love, despair creates a great need to live, or that hope manifests into unexpected beauty. Yielding is emotional, ecstatic, and whole.

What must be understood is the balance between force and yielding. Although one cannot be fully effective by relying on inspiration alone (yielding), there needs to be frequent time spent meditating on the subtle realms in order to provide the materials that will later be applied (force). It is the responsibility of the artist, however, to determine the nature of the outcome and the stage at which the influence must be applied.

Lessons In the Creative Arts Via the Martial Arts – Part I: Force

It may be said that the application of any of the creative forms involves two primary aspects: force and yielding. In the Japanese martial arts there is a concept called irimi, to “go deep,” the idea being that one might move into aggressive energy with intention, to catch the arc of momentum before it reaches full power, where it can be caught and controlled.

The martial application of irimi deals, naturally, with the courage to face a violent confrontation, to deliberately assess the opposing force and move to action in order to accomplish a goal – in this case to stop an attack and redirect the energy. This intentional action, to step up and address the source of aggression, has relevance to many other things as well, not the least of which is the creative life.

Usually there is no threat of danger in the creative life, at least not at the point of gathering paint and brushes, sitting at the keyboard, or picking up the guitar. All of these actions are (arguably) non-violent. Whether or not the product is inherently violent is not the point. That one must meet opposing energy with intent (in this case a lack of motivation, doubt, or laziness) is.

Attitude is everything when it comes to accomplishing a goal. The axiom goes that “whether you think you can or can’t, you are right.” But what use is there in believing you can do something if there is no intent to follow through with it? In the split second of action required to head off a physical blow there is little time to doubt, no time to question the value of an opposing action. One acts or one suffers a painful blow. But imagine slowing the attack down to the point where deliberation was an option. “Should I step up and stop the attack?” “Should I be afraid and not try?” “Should I start but give up if it doesn’t seem to be going in my favor?” Ignoring the obvious answer to any of these questions results in the same outcome: a painful blow and little to no recourse. But by possessing the attitude of completion – that is, of seeing things through to the end without wavering – one is far more likely to experience success than failure. At the least there will be a sense of satisfaction and the confidence to go deeper the next time.

In the creative life this intention is just as important as in martial arts. Facing the tasks and goals at hand is a decision, and a commitment to completing those tasks is also a decision. This decision is, in fact, as quick a decision as that made by the martial artist when defending against an attack. One simply decides and then acts. Until the decision is made there is no real action. Giving things a try, without committing to completion, is not the same thing. To quote Yoda, there is no try. Until the decision is made there is no action yet worthy of taking. Without such a commitment there is an inherent diffusing of energy. The half-committed artist is always watching the clock. There is forever something else to be done first, something more important during the hour of creative work than the project itself. The mind is distracted, the energy is low, there is no commitment to progress even though there may be some commitment to muddling through. The success, however, comes in the commitment, and the decision must be bold, final, and resolute.

Living the creative life is a choice. While it’s possible to find oneself deeply engaged in the creative life quite by accident, once there it is a rare thing to leave. But it is not enough to exist within the creative life and eschew the power of living-with-intent. Making the decision to go forward is akin to facing into a headwind the moment before beginning a challenging journey. The wind is brisk, forewarning of the potential cold and discomfort ahead. But the trail awaits, and the journey is worth it. Decide in an instant. Meet the force of the challenge before it can overwhelm you. Embrace accomplishment and do not waiver, but persevere until the goal is complete.

[Next week: Part II: Yielding]