• tarahthornburg

The Life-Changing Strategy to Unlock Unstoppable Creativity

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The Fearless Creative podcastIf you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below.

If you do listen, please take a moment to subscribe and leave a review on Apple PodcastsGoogleSpotify, or your favorite podcatcher. (If you don’t know how to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, I’ve got a wonderful little cheat sheet here.)

And now for the transcript…

Welcome everyone! It is so good to be here. It’s a beautiful sunny spring day.

All the trees in my neighborhood are blooming…the apple trees and magnolia trees and plum trees. The sun is shining, the temperature is perfect…It’s the perfect day to be outside.

Today is Saturday and I’m about to take off and go into the mountains, but first I wanted to record this podcast and talk to you about the practice I use to maintain my creative energy. This is a strategy that I have used for years to nurture my creativity and as a way to recover and replenish myself after any big creative project. And it’s the practice YOU can use to unlock unstoppable creativity.

At the time of this recording, I have written 17 full-length novels. Writing is how I make my living, and so I can’t afford to get burned out. I HAVE to have a strategy that works for me so that I can keep writing and continue to run my author business.

Even if you already have your own creative rituals, by the end of this podcast, you are going to have another foolproof strategy you can use to replenish your creative energy, along with three concrete ways to practice that strategy.

Are you ready for it?

My number one strategy for managing my energy and tapping into my deepest levels of creativity is to get out of the mind and into the body. Get out of the mind and into the body. What do I mean by that?

As creative people, we tend to operate primarily from our mind — our intellect, our imagination, the analytical part of the brain. When I was younger, I was 100% in my head all the time. This led to a lot of over-analyzing, a lot of insecurity, self-doubt, and a lot of anxiety.

Even when we aren’t actively creating — even when we’re engaged in “mindless” activities like washing the dishes — our minds are still working and problem-solving to help us arrive at a solution.

It’s like when you have 10 apps open on your smartphone at once. Even if you’re just using the calculator, all those other apps are still running in the background. Over time, this is going to drain your phone’s battery faster because it’s still using energy to keep those apps going. When you are able to switch off the mind, it’s the equivalent of closing out those apps. You’re saving mental energy.

And the best way I’ve found to flip that off switch is to immerse myself in what my body is doing. I discovered this strategy in my early twenties, but I wasn’t consciously aware of how I was using this strategy until a couple of years ago.

Now, it’s my go-to whenever I’m feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, burnt out, or creatively depleted.

To better understand what I mean by “getting into the body,” let’s dive into some more specific tactics that you can use to unlock or replenish your creative energy.

Tip No. 1: Challenge your body with intense physical activity.

Some of my most creative periods have coincided with the times when I was most challenged by an extreme physical feat. Either when I was playing a really physical sport or training for a big physical challenge.

I could do an entire podcast episode on how intense physical exercise can prepare you for creative entrepreneurship, but today I just want to talk about how getting really physical with your body can help unleash and replenish creativity.

If any of you have really dug into the creativity research, you already know that moving the body helps with creativity. Walking, stretching, gentle yoga — all of these things can help get your ideas flowing, but in my experience, the strenuousness of the activity is directly correlated to the creative payoff you can expect.

Taking a stroll around the block can help you get ideas flowing in the middle of the afternoon, but if you want to unleash boundless creative energy, you need to challenge your body more.

You don’t have to be an Olympic-level athlete to do it. You just have to be willing to push your body to the LIMIT of what it’s capable of. For some people, that might be running a mile. One mile. Or it might be lifting half of their body weight. For others, it might be climbing a mountain or biking across their home state. Every body is different.

For me, I can identify a few times in my life when I was pushing myself beyond what I knew I could do and into the territory where I didn’t actually know if I could do it.

The first really intense physical period in my life was when I rowed crew in college. It was a new sport for me. I didn’t consider myself to be particularly athletic at the time, but I thought rowing would be fun.

In case you’re wondering, rowing is NOT fun. It basically forces you to work against the way your body was designed to move and push yourself to physical extremes. But the people I rowed with WERE a lot of fun, and so I endured the extreme cold, the snow, the capsizing boats, the bleeding blistered hands, a dislocated rib…all of it for reasons I still don’t fully understand. But I think rowing ushered in this wonderful creative period in my life just before I wrote my first novel.

Another time when I felt intensely creative was when I was training for my first marathon. I say “first” even though it’s the ONLY marathon I’ve run, and I don’t think I would do it again. The long runs with nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company helped me come up with so many story ideas and plan out the sort of future I wanted for myself and my business.

After running, I moved on to Krav Maga or Israeli martial arts as research for one of my books. I cannot even describe the rush I felt after that first class. It was still to this day the best high I’ve ever had, and I was hooked immediately.

I went on to learn kickbox sparring and MMA, and that was the biggest physical challenge I have endured to this day. It’s not just the insane shape you have to be in to fight someone when your body is flooded with adrenaline. It’s being able to absorb the pain and maintain control over your physical body when your mind goes into fight-or-flight.

The three years that I practiced martial arts that intensely were some of the richest creative years I’ve had so far, and I want to get back to martial arts again because it’s such a wonderful physical practice.

I’ve thought a lot about why intense physical challenges give such an extreme creative payoff, and one reason is that these activities get us out of our heads and FORCE US to go into the body and STAY COMPLETELY with the body.

When you are engaged in taxing physical activity, you can’t think about anything else. Every ounce of your energy must be directed on the task at hand. If you lose focus even for a second, you might lose your race or get punched in the face.

It takes a lot of training to get to the point where you can direct all your focus and energy into a physical activity, but once you develop this skill, you are going to have this unbelievable stamina and focus at your disposal to use in any area of your life. It’s incredibly useful, and I would credit this mental discipline with a lot of the success I’ve had.

If you really want someone to shake up your life and get you on track, let me put some gloves on you and get you sparring. You won’t know what to do at first, and then your mind will get really clear as it shifts its priorities into doing what it needs to do to protect your physical body.

Another reason that intense physical activity works is the sense of confidence we gain when we accomplish great physical feats. After I completed my marathon, I felt like I could do anything.

As creatives, we waste so much energy on self-doubt. Self-doubt is a protective mechanism of the mind that’s actually strangling our creativity. When we do something really physical — when we surprise ourselves with what we’re capable of — we begin to strip away at that self-doubt.

Once it starts to disappear, we’re no longer expending energy doubting ourselves and our ideas. This frees us up for immensely creative work.

Tip No. 2: Meditate.

I debated whether or not to include meditation in this podcast. The reason I hesitated is because meditation has become this trendy thing that’s actually really polarizing. As soon as I said “meditate,” I know I divided everyone listening into one of two camps:  

There’s that group of you that are nodding enthusiastically because you’ve already found meditation and it work for you. And there’s that group of you who are already resisting. Maybe you feel annoyed because you hear this a lot, or maybe you feel insecure because you’ve tried meditation and you just didn’t like it. Maybe you’re writing it off as hippie-dippie bullshit and want no part of it. If that’s you, just give me a couple minutes to make this pitch, and we’ll move on to something else.

Let me first start by saying I get it. We are a culture of doers. We’re busy. We’re distracted. We are addicted to constant stimulation.

We don’t like silence. We don’t like sitting by ourselves. And we definitely don’t like sitting by ourselves in silence NOT GETTING ANYTHING DONE.

That’s why most people I talk to about meditation usually say things like: I tried to meditate. It just doesn’t work for me. I can’t clear my mind. Or…I know I SHOULD meditate, but I just hate it. I don’t find it relaxing. It makes me tense.

If that sounds like you, that’s play. You don’t HAVE to meditate. Maybe you have tried it and it didn’t work for you, but maybe that’s because you only did it for a little while or because you were practicing a style of meditation that’s just not a good fit for you.

Meditation is an ancient practice with roots in many different cultural traditions. In the past few decades, we have secularized it in the West. We’ve taken it out of its religious context, and we’ve simplified it so that it can be taught in schools and prisons and workplace.

What we’ve been left with is a mindfulness meditation practice that lacks context and nuance. There are actually MANY ways to practice meditation. The key is to try some different things until you find a practice that works for you.

If it makes you feel any better, my first foray into meditation did not go well. I’m a short-attention-spanned-brain-goes-a-mile-a-minute-taskmaster Millennial, and I decided that I was going to crush meditation.

I started a 30-day challenge. I downloaded an app. I bought a meditation cushion.

I sat on my bedroom floor for 10 minutes…I’d peek at the timer every minute or two. My knees hurt. My back hurt. And I’d mentally flog myself every time I’d think about how much my knees and back hurt because I was supposed to be EMPTY OF THOUGHTS and that was SO STRESSFUL.

And when it was over, I’d jump up and go about my day. Some days I’d be all tense and in a hurry afterward and be like “WHY ISN’T THIS WORKING! I DON’T FEEL RELAXED!!!”

I quit meditating back in 2013, but I revisited it after I went to a zen writing retreat when I was forced to meditate longer than I’d ever meditated in one session. By sitting in a chair instead of on the floor and listening to the sounds around me rather than focusing on my breathing, I was finally able to relax and go deeper into my practice.

I read a book called Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Han, and that book helped me bring a sense of joy into my meditation practice and become less strict with myself.

Now I meditate every day first in the morning, and it has become my absolute favorite part of the day. I sit in a chair. I don’t always stay focused. Sometimes my mind wanders for 10 minutes before I’m able to get back into the present moment.

Sometimes if the breath isn’t enough to hold my attention, I’ll focus on a mantra or the sensations in my body to help quiet the mind. I’ll put a link to that book down in the show notes. It’s definitely a must-read if you want to meditate but have had a hard time in the past.

You may be wondering how meditation can possibly help unleash creativity. I’ve been working on a book for creatives, and I spent a lot of time trying to answer this question in a satisfying way.

I know that for me, meditation has helped me open up in my creativity. Creativity is no longer something I have to force; it has started to feel more like play, and my practice allows me to come to my writing every day with a sense of ease.

The research supports what I’ve found to be true. There’s a huge body of research that’s come out since the 1970s to support the idea that meditation DOES support creativity.

Benefits include

  1. reduced in stress, anxiety, and depression;

  2. improved memory;

  3. an increase in empathy and compassion;

  4. improved concentration;

  5. and greater introspection.

These are all really helpful for those of us who work in creative fields.

Recently I read a book called “Wired to Create” written by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire that explains the habits of the most creative people. I learned from reading this book that The Beatles were really into Transcendental Meditation and that Steve Jobs studied meditation with zen master Shunryu Suzuki.

The book is a helpful primer on good creative habits, but I just wanted to read a brief excerpt from that section on mindfulness:

“We’ll do well to consider how little everyday distractions might add up in a way that interferes with our creativity and well-being. We’ve seen that the brain needs downtown in order to generate diverse associations and to let ideas incubate. But as cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin warns, “our brains are busier than ever before” — and it could be taking a damaging toll on the way we think, feel, and behave….

“Meditation is a powerful tool that can boost executive functioning, so that we can increase our concentration abilities and exercise greater flexibility in paying attention to what’s within us and around us.”

But recently I’ve come to realize that the “brain downtime” the authors talk about is only part of the picture. The other part is that when our minds are able to power down, we are able to get back into the body. We notice our breath. We notice how our bodies are feeling. We start to become aware of that tightness in our chest we get when we’re stressed or that swirling in our stomach we get when we are anxious.

Meditation is a way to practice noticing these sensations. And when we practice, we can become more adept at noticing these sensations throughout the day when we are triggered into feeling stress or sadness or anger.

And when we are able to FEEL these things, it lightens the burdens of our minds to overthink and problem-solve. When we are able to conserve this mental energy, it frees up that energy to be used on our creative pursuits.

Okay. That concludes my pitch for meditation. I have one more life-changing practice to help you manage your creativity.

And that is to go deep into nature.

So first of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I am pretty spoiled when it comes to nature. I live in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, which is a beautiful place to get out into nature. It’s sunny 300 days a year. We have a pretty mild climate, and Coloradans love our green space.

On the weekends, my husband and I love to take off with the dogs and get into the mountains, and we are in the process of building a home for ourselves in the mountains.

But it wasn’t always like this for me. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I was not a nature girl AT ALL. I grew up in the Midwest where we have humidity and mosquitos and to me, the Great Outdoors was just this place I had to battle if I wanted to go for a run on a trail.

Then I met Ben, who was a hiker. He hiked the Grand Canyon with his dad. His idea was fun was taking off and going somewhere that was so remote you could only reach it on foot or by motorcycle.  

And when we’d been dating for five months, we took a trip to New Mexico together…He told me we’d be climbing Wheeler Peak, which is the high point of New Mexico in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at 13,167 feet. I’d never climbed a mountain before. I didn’t own hiking boots…I didn’t even own a windbreaker.

For those of you listening who might be low-landers, I do not recommend it. I do not recommend traveling from basically sea level to Taos Ski Valley at 10,000 feet and then gaining 3,000 feet on a round-trip 8-mile hike. It could literally kill you, but I did it.

And on that trip, I became an outdoors person. I fell in love with the Southwest, with the mountains, with the desert, and I learned how rejuvenating and healing those places could be. These deep immersions in nature have been a tool I’ve used to replenish my creativity ever since.

If I haven’t been out of the city in a while, I start to get cagey. I crave that fresh mountain air. I crave getting some dirt between my toes and going someplace where I won’t see any other humans.

The best is when we can hike or camp somewhere near a river or a creek. If you can dunk your head under a natural waterfall or swim in a cold mountain stream, you will be forever changed.

Again, the creative benefit comes from getting out of your head and all those swirling thoughts and into the body. Nature engages all of our senses and allows us to tap into the primal human within each of us.

You don’t have to live in Colorado to get in touch with your primal inner human. In fact, I think it’s actually easier to be alone in the outdoors in a state that isn’t full of other people who love the outdoors.

When we lived in Missouri, I could actually jog down to a wooded trailer from the apartment where I lived and not see another soul. It’s not as easy to do that in Colorado if you live in a major city. So no excuses.

We have wonderful state parks and national parks in the US. If you live near National Forest, you can actually visit and camp for free. The easiest way to find nature near you is to get on Google Maps and look for the green space. If you live in Kansas or Iowa or Illinois, I’m sorry…It’s going to be a little more difficult for you because a lot of the natural wooded areas have been turned into farmland.

Wherever you live, just find some green space, leave your phone at home, and just spend some time enjoying nature in silence. If you do this on a regular basis, I guarantee you will unlock boundless creativity that you never knew you had inside of you.

So if you want to be more creative or replenish your creativity after a big project, try one or all of these things to get out of your own head and back into the body.

The body is where we were meant to reside during this lifetime. Our imagination can offer a temporary escape, but our body is our true home. Come home to yourself. Experience this world with all of your senses. If you can learn to be at home in your own body, you will have the energy to release all of your creative gifts.

If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share it with a friend. We are a new podcast, and growing a community on iTunes is super important. It helps other creatives like you find their home away from home.

Today is Saturday, and I have to go eat and get ready so the dogs and I can escape into the mountains. I’ll see you next time…and happy creating!

Did you enjoy this transcript? Why not subscribe to the podcast so you can hear my soothing radio voice? You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts here

Photo by Xan Griffin

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