The Fundamentals

The key to discipline is the relationship between the primary and the secondary choice. Once we know what is primary (first), we may need to make strategic secondary choices in support of our primary choice. If we want to create health, we may need to make a series of secondary choices such as eat a healthy diet and exercise. We might not make these secondary choices if we didn’t have health as a primary choice, but we gladly do them when we know our higher order organizing principle: in this case health.

But there is another type of choice upon which all other choices rest, and that is the fundamental choice.

Fundamental means:
Adjective:
1. Relating to or affecting the underlying principles or structure of something
2. Serving as an essential part of something

Noun:
1. A basic and necessary component of something, especially an underlying rule or principle

A real choice means we can do it (whatever the it is) or not. If you must do it, you have no choice. Some people use the word “choice,” but they don’t really mean you can do it or not. Sometimes they think that a choice is forced upon you, and if you don’t do whatever the it is, you will pay a price until you wise up, and finally make “the right choice.” The thought here is “yes, you have a choice to get it wrong, pay the consequences, and finally come to your senses and do the right thing.” But this is not in the spirit of a true choice. It is just a life-manipulation which presumes there is a “right” path and you must take it – this notion of choice is held by those who have some dogmatic belief system that they feel is the only truth. They think anyone with a different view will eventually be forced to adopt their worldview.

But in life we do have many choices we can make. Some of these choices can make all the difference. If you haven’t made the fundamental choice to be a non-smoker, any method you choose will eventually fail. If you have made the fundamental choice to be a non-smoker, just about any method you choose will work, and you will be attracted to those methods that work especially well for you.

Fundamental choices are about orientation, states of being, the ground you stand on. There are four major fundamental choices we recommend to people. They are:

The choice to be healthy
The choice to be free
The choice to be true to yourself
The choice to be the predominant creative force in your own life

The choice to be healthy

When it comes to health, we are not all created equally. Some of us are, by nature, healthier than others. Our starting point is whatever it is. But, that having been said, all of us can still make the fundamental choice to be healthy. What exactly does that mean? It means that we take on the job of creating health for ourselves. Most of us do not do that. I didn’t do that until I was in my late thirties. I, like most of us, somehow had the notion that my body was kind of like a car. If I got sick, I would bring my body to the doctor in the same way we bring our cars to the mechanic. It is the mechanic’s job to fix the car, and it was the doctor’s job to fix the body. I was just a passive consumer. Once I had made the fundamental choice to be healthy, I was the one, and the only one, whose job it was to see to it that I created health for myself. Others could help by their advice, their medical service, their research, and their support. But, truth was, it simply wasn’t their job, or responsibility, to see to it that I was healthy.

Once a fundamental choice like this is made, our orientation changes. We cannot play the passive victim of circumstances. We have the critical role in how we live our lives, on the primary and secondary choices we make, on changing habits that do not support our health, and on adopting habits that do. No one else is pulling the strings. Life may deal us a different situation than others, but it is our job to see to it personally that we make the most of the raw material we are given.

Choice versus Commitment

We need to point out that a fundamental choice is very different from “making a commitment.” People who talk about “commitment” often are not really making a fundamental choice, but rather trying to manipulate themselves to do what is good for them by entrapment. Once you “commit” you are pledged to follow through with whatever you committed to: i.e. now you have no CHOICE! You are stuck. But a true fundamental choice is still a choice: you can do it or not. The power comes from this simple reality. You do not force yourself to be healthy.

You look more deeply at reality and see that health is one of your deepest values. You could turn away from it at any time. What would lead to consistency is being in touch with the truth that it is a choice, and that you want health. No trick, just truth. Commitment is something that describes what it looks like from the outside looking in, not the inside looking out. Those who have made a real fundamental choice do not talk or think about commitment, they think about their deepest values and highest desires. Those looking on, but not privy to the inner workings of their heart, misunderstand, and think these people are highly “committed.”

Playing the piano is one thing from the point of view of the pianist, another from the audience. To the audience, the pianist is pushing down black and white keys. If they gave advice based on what they can observe from the outside looking in, they would say, to play the piano, push down black and white keys. Their advice would not lead many to become virtuoso pianists. Likewise, just because from the outside looking in, some effective people can look like they are pillars of “commitment,” the advice to “become committed” will end up as self-manipulation that structurally will lead to oscillating patterns. First the person seems capable of more productive behavior, but then they backslide. Commitment is not sustainable. The fundamental choice is. While superficially they can look alike, they are miles apart functionally.

The choice to be free and the choice to be true to yourself are pretty clear. The choice to be the predominant creative force in your own life could use a little explanation.

Once a fundamental choice is made, anything that is inconsistent with that choice sticks out like a sore thumb. You cannot live with the discrepancy. The fundamental choice is an organizing force, creating hierarchy of what’s essential and basic and what is not. If you were to make the fundamental choice to be the predominant creative force in your own life, you would no longer be able to play the victim of circumstances.

That’s not to say that no one is ever victimized by their circumstances or other people. Sometimes they are. It is to say that whatever cards you are dealt, you are taking on the job of making the best of it in favor of your life-building process. For some people, once they make the fundamental choice to be the predominant creative force in their own life, they have to give up complaining about their lot in life. They may have to abandon an “entitlement mentality” – thinking they are owed a good life. They might need to develop certain skills they need, but don’t have. They cannot afford themselves the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves, something human beings love to do. They reposition themselves, and place themselves in the center of their lives.

They are open and happy to learn from their mistakes, and they also learn from their successes. Like all fundamental choices, once made, any processes they choose can be made to work, and they are especially attracted to those methods that work particularly well for them. Other may think of them as committed, but they are conscious that they are organizing their lives around their deepest values and highest aspirations.

Once you make a fundamental choice, everything changes, even if everything looks the same. You are on solid ground and you no longer are subject to the changing circumstances that life brings. Your creative process is driven by the generative love of the outcomes you desire to bring into the world, and the situations you find yourself in are simply the raw material you begin with.

Be in the moment AND in the future!

For years, New Age axioms include “Be in the present.” Are they wrong about that? No. They are just incomplete. The misunderstanding comes from the notion that being focused on the “now” will lead to enlightenment and everlasting well-being.

First, we must observe, that it is hard to be in the “now.” Our minds love to drift, free associate, speculate, worry, daydream, or just take a siesta. Our minds are lazy. Our minds run on automatic if left to their own devices. So, to counter that tendency, the very good discipline is to pay attention to what is happening right now before your eyes, ears, and awareness.

Once you do that, your mind has a job, to focus on the present. This takes training for sure. The mind rebels, and just wants to run on automatic. All disciplines are unnatural of course, so the most natural thing to do is nothing. The true discipline is to sharpen your focus and pay attention to what is right there, in the –shall we say it – “now.”

Those who have spent many years following this advice become very good at being “in the moment.” But, for them, whether they know it or not, something is missing that is built into the human condition, and that is a sense of future. In fact, the psychiatrist William Glasser, the man who developed Reality Therapy, argued that people are unhappy without a sense of future.

Therefore, to be in the “now” denies one a sense of future if that’s all you do.

But, we could create a parallel observation to that; to be in the future denies one a sense of present, if that’s all you do.

Living in the future or living in the “now” is as incomplete as a chair with a leg missing. Some say there is power in living in the “now.” Power for what? Yes, your mind may no longer be running in several directions at once, but that’s about it. It’s true you can stay in the “now” for long periods of time. But, quite frankly, so what? Things change in the “now” and you can observe them change, but you have very little causal relationship to these changes.

Partly this notion of being in the “now” is from Eastern spiritual traditions in which suffering is the biggest sin to avoid. The mind, it is thought, needs to be disciplined so it does not obsess with distractions. Peace of mind is seen as one of the higher virtues that human beings can achieve. Read that as two things: suspension of conflict; and “detachment” from desire. Naturally, if you convince yourself that desire is bad, you’d better not have any. From this vantage point, you may be able to reach a point that many describe as “pure consciousness.”

You become mindful of mindlessness. Aware of nothing, or that everything is illusion. Okay, and then what? Why is that a good thing? Is that the height of the human spirit?

But, once we link a sense of the present with a sense of future, the human spirit is unleashed. This is the essence of the creative process, to bring something into being that has not yet existed. When we create, we are in two places at once: now and in the future. But that sets up a structural tension, which strives for resolution. This is not a steady state but a dynamic. Something that has, build into it, the tendency to change and move. And there is an end point. This is in the universe of the temporal, where time and space exist. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like Aristotle described in his Poetics.

We need to be able to focus in the present, and that means training the mind to do something it is not used to doing. But we also need to be able to focus on the now and future simultaneously. From that vantage point, new worlds open, and the human spirit is engaged in one of its highest purposes.

Elephant Walk Back

In the last 10 years, over one million elephants are gone, leaving only a little over 300,000 left in Africa. They are, indeed, an endangered species. That’s why it was particular appalling to hear that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had lifted the ban on the import of elephant tusks from Zambia and Zimbabwe that has been in place since 2014. Under pressure from conservation groups, Trump has put the change of policy on hold.

There are so many issues here that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps, the sheer stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance of the move. It is obvious that anything that President Obama put in place the new administration is trying to reverse as fast as they can, no matter how sensible the regulations are. But what is hard to take is the image of some rich white guys in Africa killing elephants to bring home something to hang on their walls and a picture to post on their Facebook page while doing such damage to an endangered species.

This is not hunting for survival or even sport. How much sport is there in killing the largest land animal on Earth anyway? It is ego exploitation, maybe to feel more like a “man”.

What is Zinke thinking? The claim was made that this will help finance the cost of maintaining the elephant herds. But, the majority of tourists who travel to view elephants are photographers, not pseudo-big game hunters. The claim is just an excuse to prove the point that anything noble will now be trampled on.

There is the direct impact of an individual elephant killed. But, not commonly known, the elephant’s family members go into grief about the lost of their loved one. Elephants are among the smartest animals in the world. They feel lost, grief, and trauma.

Sometimes it feels that any well-intentioned, humanistic, altruistic gesture is, by its nature of trying to do good in the world, needs to be shot down by a mentality that says, “how dare you try to be caring, sensitive, and of good will?” The flimsy image of hanging tough is as superficial as a tobacco company trying to claim the health benefits of smoking cigarettes.

Another example of this is what Zinke did on his very first day in office. He lifted the Obama administration’s ban on the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle used on federal lands and waters. The ban was put in place to protect birds and fish from lead poisoning. Birds such as the bald eagle, the American national bird. Does ammunition that contains lead kill animals any better than ammunition that doesn’t contain lead? The lead gets into the ecosystem of the forest and harms other animals. What is the point of using lead bullets when non-lead bullets are just as effective?

Frankly, I just don’t get the thinking of such people as Zinke. Was there something in his childhood? Does he have an identity problem? Is he insecure as a man? Or is he just dedicated to being a jerk?

Compartmentalize

Watching the news every morning, as many of us do, can be depressing. So many sad stories, so many disasters, so many heartbreaking pieces. Every day, more and more of the same.

We can become overwhelmed with it all. And yet, most of us have a survival instinct that enables us to go on with our lives. It is the ability to compartmentalize –– that is to say, to put the news in one mental compartment, and then, to be able to change the mental channel. If we didn’t do this, many of us would spend our entire lives living vicariously in the pain and suffering of humanity, unable to act, paralyzed, confused, and defeated.

There are those who want us to be “reminded” of “what is happening in the world.” What they mean is they want us to react to injustice, grief, suffering, pain, danger, disaster. How can we stand by and witness the AIDS crisis, terrorism, famine, weather-related and environmental disasters, without the instinct to take action? Yet, if we did react and react and react, we would get sucked into an abyss.

Now, this article is not taking the position that we should ignore the world situation. Rather it is about how we can understand the situation, but still have room for leading our lives as best we can. If we aren’t able to make a place for both the news and our lives, we become lost, unable to function, even on behalf of important causes.

One of the oldest motivations in history is trying to get people to change their ways by conflict manipulation. The first step in the pattern is to create a high sense of conflict. The second step is taking corrective action evoked by the conflict. We feel pressure to get our car inspected on time, or fill out our tax form before April 15th, and we manipulate ourselves into action by thinking about the bad things that will happen to us if we don’t get them done. When the situation is short-term, it can seem to work.

But if we are talking about long-term change, this structure leads to an oscillating pattern. Here’s what happens over a more extended time:

Conflict drives action designed to reduce the conflict.

Once the action is taken, the conflict is reduced, even if the situation hasn’t changed.
You see a news item on CNN about the diabetes epidemic, and you decide to reduce your intake of carbs. After about a week, you feel better about it all. You are no longer experiencing the conflict you had. The next thing you know, you are eating exactly the same diet you had before you saw the program on diabetes. This pattern always leads you back to the situation you were trying to change.

Here’s another description of the pattern:

More conflict –– leads to –– more action which leads to –– less conflict which leads to –– less motivation to continue the corrective action we took at first, and therefore, a return to the original behavior.

Many important causes are burdened by attempting to foster productive action through conflict manipulation. The founders of these causes don’t realize that they are up against a structure that will first lead to support, but then lead to indifference. Conflict cannot be the driver for long-term change. If you are in an oscillating structure, once movement in one direction is achieved, the structural tendency for behavior is to move in the opposite direction.

So, even if you spent your life in a constant state of reaction to world events, whatever productive action you took on behalf of a better world would eventually be neutralized. This structure is self-defeating. That’s the physics of it.

But, we are not left with two untenable choices: to react or to ignore. We can understand what’s going on as reported by the news, and we can get on with our lives. Our awareness of some of the world’s problems does not call for reaction, even though we do authentically feel compassion.

Some people dedicate their lives to making a better world. I applaud those people. Some think that everyone has the responsibility to be one of those people. This notion discounts freedom of the individual, and paints everyone with the same brush. Why can’t those who choose to act on behalf of world causes take that role, and those who choose to pursue other aspirations live their lives accordingly? This is not a trivial question, because it gets at freedom of choice. Who among us has the authority to tell us how we should live our lives?
Conflict manipulation may enroll many to various causes through visions of threat, guilt, pressure, and fear, but these people will disenroll within a short period of time. So, even in a good and worthy cause, motivation is everything. If we do what we do out of reaction, not much can change. Support is fleeting, and organizers claim that the public has the attention span of a gnat. It is hard to hold the public’s attention when the underlying structure is based on conflict. This is not about attention span, but about human motivation.

Many people join the great causes, not out of reaction, but out of aspiration for a better world and a better chance for others. These people have a vastly different motivation than simply reaction to conflict. They are for the outcomes they envision rather than against the dangers they fear.

For these people to be effective, they must compartmentalize. They must not let the sadness of the world’s condition overwhelm them, for if that happened, they would not be able to act effectively. There are many cases of well-meaning people who have failed to understand the wisdom of compartmentalizing their interests, only to burn out after a few years. Intent, even good intent, never can survive a faulty structure.

It is a big world, bigger than mostly we consider. The world is larger than the news of the day, which focuses mostly on the worst events. Every day, even as the saddest news pours out of networks around the globe, unreported and unknown stories of people building their lives, building their communities, building their families, supporting the heath and well-being of their neighbors, going to work for organizations that invent new technologies or provide vital services, invent new cures for diseases, save people’s lives, enrich civilization by creating art, music, literature, and poetry, take place billions of times. The vast majority of the world’s endeavors go unnoticed by the news departments, as well they should. They are not unusual. They are an example of a world getting on with the business of living. Nothing dramatic here.
Life is big, vast, and varied. None of us live in one simple universe. Instead we live in many universes.

For those who look for unified field theories that tie everything into a homogenized whole, they cannot compartmentalize the many universes in which they live. Eventually, these people will experience overwhelm, burn out, and a general lack of appreciation of the many faceted world in which they live. They will try to make everything fit together, rather than see how unique and varied life is as it manifests itself in its tapestry of experiences.

We don’t need to pretend all music is the same. Rock is not classical. Folk music from Asia is not the same as folk music from Africa. And yet, we live in a world in which many types of music can exist. We don’t feel the need to play them all at once. In fact, to be able to truly appreciate each piece of music, we need to hear it separately from the others. It is only from this act of compartmentalizing our experience that we can make sense of the music. The very same principle is true in our lives. If everything is taken as a whole, all at once, without the ability to make distinction, we would not be able to cope with the cacophony of input. We could not understand relationship, difference, uniqueness, or range. We could not appreciate the smallest moments of quiet joys, or the largest moments of ringing triumphs.

We can empathize with suffering without losing ourselves. We can watch the news, feel deeply about the stories that are reported, and yet get on with our lives. I see, in this, a profound act of affirming life. Robert Frost expressed this instinct as an almost human defiance in a poem called “Leaf Treader.” In the poem, a man is stepping on autumn leaves now that they have fallen to the ground. He says, “I see no reason why I have to go just because they have to go.” How deep is the instinct toward life, even when to go on we must put parts of our lives in compartments. Yes, everything has its place, but we must not let anything dominate to the point of distraction. Because we are aware, sensitive and caring, we must learn to compartmentalize so we can live in the best of all of our worlds.

Blowing in the Wind

Image may contain: nature and outdoorWhat I am writing will make no different in the situation I am describing. So why write it. It is like blowing in the wind. It must be said, but saying it will not impact the underlying structure that is in play in the world at this point in history. I suppose there is some value in understanding cause and effect, even if you are not in charge of cause and effect. That value includes not making things worse.

Let’s begin with the Russian strategy. In a way, it is very clear and simple, although the various tactics they use range from primitive to highly sophisticated. This is the strategy: in any democratic country, try to exploit internal conflicts with which to tear people apart. It’s a “let’s you and him fight” strategy. To do this, they must increase the emotional conflicts between groups. This became clear when they invented lies and placed them as if they were coming from Black Lives Matter, or right wing conspiracy groups. They were simply using anything in sight that would cause trouble. Most of the lies were seen for what they were, absurd and crazy reports that, by their extreme nature, had no integrity in logic or reason. From the Russian point of view, this is a shotgun approach. Rather than send out one or two lies, flood the marketplace with lies. Put them in the atmosphere to create a mood, a climate of suspicion. With enough lies going around from all sides, some of them will be taken seriously and reach critical mass. People on any side of an issue are prone to believe the lies that support their positions. And credit to the former comrades, they know their business. Rather than a debate about substance, it degenerates into an identity conflict. Hard to have a rational discussion when prejudice and tribalism are the deeper issues driving emotions and instincts.

The stages for this strategy include America, France, England, Germany, Spain, The Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, African Countries, and on and on it goes. “Let’s you and him fight.” The more trouble, the more the Russians benefit, according to their strategy.

Why? What is so threatening to them about real democracy? And why is their favorite choice of forms of government autocratic dictatorships?

It is easy to be a troublemaker. The prototypical archetype is Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. He is a master of feeding lies, undermining good faith, planting doubts and suspicion, knowing what buttons to push, and just how, and being the epitome of a destructive force. Often this person can appear in the guise of your best friend, just wanting to protect you from harm while, at the same time, looking for ways to stab you in the back.

This is one aspect of the human condition that we need to be aware of. We can be like Othello, hypnotized by our passions, and confused by our weaknesses. Our basic instincts are toward good will, hope, and love. Our darker angles are always easy to evoke by survival instincts fed by conflict and issues of identity.

The founders of America were some of the most gifted examples of the Age of Reason. They were not naïve to the human condition exactly as it is. They knew the dangers of mass hysteria, of authoritarian excess, of the corruption of power. Yet, they knew the other side of humanity too. Typical of the Age of Reason, they thought that the more people could be motivated by reality, facts, information, and reason, the more able they would be to come together in what they saw as enlightened self-interest. They knew that self-interest would lead people to narrow and destructive conflicts, but ENLIGHTENED self-interest would show people how their highest best interests were to join together to create the world they wanted. This principle was supported by public education, understanding that education could defeat prejudice.

This idea and distinction has been lost in modern times in which those who are educated are criticized for being “elitists.” The Age of Reason is over. Too often, we have entered into The Age of Belief, where various belief systems translate into identity issues, and vie against each other for converts or enemies. In the world of belief, objective fact doesn’t exist, or if it does, it is irrelevant. Reality, as in all cults, loses its credibility as a standard of measurement.

We can know all of this, and yet not change the world, at least right now, and at least not easily. That does not make us helpless. It can make us strategic. First of all, don’t join Iago’s team. Don’t be as easy a mark as Othello, who, in the play, ends up killing the thing he loves most, his wife Desdemona. Enlightened self-interest is a more demanding and sophisticated approach to life than looking out for “number one.”

Okay. I know I’m blowing in the wind. But sometimes, you have to blow in the wind for no other reason than some things need to be said.

The Creative Process

It’s been a pretty creative period for me lately. A new play, a new film, some music, etc. And, I must say, that I love creating. Not only art, but almost anything. Creating, for me, is the best approach to anything in life, cooking, working with clients, writing blogs.

The reason I mention this is that I want to share a good thing. But, we are not talking about a simple thing. In fact, the creative process works on several levels simultaneously. Of course, at its most basic level it is understanding what it is you want to create. But it is also being aware of where you are in the process, the desired state in relationship to the actual state. In other words, structural tension. That is only the beginning of the process. It sets up the framework for further development. Structural tension motivates action. And the action is not a shotgun approach in which you try everything in sight, but rather target a strategy in which there is an economy of means, a type of mathematical elegance.

Forging elegant strategies is not something that usually happens when you are a beginner. It takes a level of experience over time. The more you create, the more elegant the process becomes. At first, there will be lots of false starts, dead ends, missteps. Later, your skill develops, and there comes a level of mastery with most things in which your ability and capacity to create grows and develops. As you create more and more of what you want, your aspirations go up. The new aspirations evoke the need for more and more technique, and learning how to accomplish that new level becomes the norm. One thing that is mastered is how to learn.

Some creations are solo flights, but many of them are working with others. Often, working with others is my favorite form of creating. Of course, this is when they too are in a generative/creative orientation, where we can join together to bring about the outcome we want. Solo or with others, creating is so different from anything else.

What else is there? For many people, their lives are filled with problem solving. Rather than create, they are busy trying to fix what is wrong. There is no shortage of problems, so, if you happen to solve one, there is always another one ready to take over. You can solve all of your problems and still not have what you want. There is a difference between getting rid of what you don’t want, and creating what you did want.

Another approach to life is, what I described in my book The Path of Least Resistance, the reactive/responsive orientation. Here, circumstances drive your actions. In the responsive side of the coin, you look for the right way to behave. In the self-help world, you will find a lot of prescriptions of how to behave. Be more this way, be less that way. Be kind, gentle, non-judgmental. Be less critical, selfish, neurotic. It is easy to tell people how to behave. It is much more complex to understand why they behave the ways they do. Next time you see a list of proper behavior, realize it comes from the “here’s how to respond” ideal. You’ll notice there is little if any understanding of why people do what they do. That is the realm of structural dynamics in which we understand that the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior.

If you don’t want to fall into the party line by responding “properly,” you may find yourself reacting. This takes many forms. You may seem to have a chip on your shoulder, and life feels unjust and against you. Or you may have a more subtle approach, using wit and sarcasm to give extreme contempt for what seems like an unfair game.

React or respond is not creating. Nor is creating the right way to react or respond. It is just a great thing to do in life. The world will be as it is. Most of us are not in positions to impact that directly. But there are things we want to bring into being. Our human spirit, no matter what the circumstances, is to create. Too often, we get the wrong impression from our society, which makes life about adopting the right behavior, the right belief, the right purpose, the right defense against harm, the right tribe with which to belong, the right politics, the right things to eat, the right clothes to wear, the right way to cut your hair, and on and on it goes.

The creative process is the most successful process for accomplishment in history. And when you are in the process, easy or hard, inspired or frustrating, you have a level of involvement in life that is magnificent.

(Painting by Anneli Curnock)

Russian Piano Technique

There are two major techniques for classical piano. One is the French school in which you simply push down the keys. This is the most common technique and has been used by many of the world’s greatest pianists. The other is the Russian technique. In this technique, the pianist creates tension in his or her fingers before striking the key. Then, the actual striking of the key becomes the resolution to the tension. This technique produces the most beautiful bell like tones coming from the piano.

There is more to this technique than this principle, such as weightless of the arms, etc. But the structural principle is that the tension created in the fingers comes before the activation of the note. Tension first, and then the action becomes the resolution.

I learned about this technique from the very famous piano teacher Madame Chaloff. This was while I was going to the Boston Conservatory, and while I am not a pianist, my composition teacher had studied with her. So had Leonard Bernstein, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, George Shearing, and so many more great musicians.

Why this technique should be interesting to those of us who are not pianists is that it illustrates one of the most important principles of the creative process, and that is tension comes before action. As in archery, tension comes before releasing the arrow.

The basic structure in the creative process is structural tension, the relationship between your desired state and the actual state in relationship to the desired state. Two critical data points: know what you want to create; know where you are in relationship to that outcome. And remember, this tension is not psychological. It is not stress, anxiety or pressure. It is structural.

Most people do not use this structure. Instead, they react or respond to circumstances they find themselves in, or, in the future, might find themselves in. This often means a lot of problem solving. One problem after another. As we’ve said, you can solve all of your problems and still not have what you want. Problem solving is not creating, and creating is not problem solving.

A few weeks ago, I led my annual workshop for artists, The Art of the Creative Process. This is one of my favorite courses to teach because it is about creating art, and using structural dynamics to increase the artist’s ability to further master his or her approach. The artists in the course are consummate professionals. They work in various mediums: film, music, visual art, writing, dance, etc. They all go through the same set of projects we set up for them. They all write, do photography, do other visual exercises, structure plots for screenplays, and so on.

One of the major principles is Russian piano technique, as least as a principle, first the tension, and then the creative process is the resolution to the tension. They structure a dialogue, but are not allowed to write it for a while. This space between constructing the form and actually writing the piece consolidates the tension. It is like putting tension in the fingers before striking the keys. Then they have a very short time in which to write the piece. 7 minutes. They write very fast and very well indeed.

The results are amazing. Many of them have never written before, but everyone, experienced or not, creates a wonderful piece. Before this exercise, most of them would have thought this was impossible. But, once they have experienced this and several other examples of “Russian piano technique” they begin to experience one of the great secrets of the creative process, tension before creating.

Now, these people were experienced and masterful creators to begin with. Many of them at the top of their art and craft. But still, there was this one missing piece to the puzzle.

Structural tension is THE most powerful form for creating anything, including your own life. When in doubt, remember Russian piano technique, and firmly establish structural tension before you act.