O Effortless Discoverer! O Wine! Two-Things-at-Once! Dark Sunshine! Old-but-Young! Bestir to tripping dance the Muse of Rhyme Great Uninhibitor, loosen her tongue Send forth your shelt’ring leaves over my mind Embrace with dappled shade the grapes of thought Protect them from the light of Trying-to-Find Lest nude in Reason’s burning glare they’re caught For season after season we entrust This treasure to the cave of rustic stone As silently the ruby liquid dreams Long slumb’ring in the cellar’s dark and dust What secret mysteries to you were shown By under-dwelling nymphs of chthonic streams? O gen’rous partner in the poet’s art Now set the pen in flight, and help me start!
This blog has focused so far on sending out the gratitude you feel for the Universe, but I thought I’d look here at receiving the gratitude the Universe feels for you, because this is all part of the same thing – the circle of Grace, as represented by those three goddesses dancing in a circle. Receiving the concomitant reciprocation of likes from the Universe refills your creativity tanks ready for the next project. It genuinely is a circle because receiving the gratitude back will help you give better things going forward.
Now, you can’t force people to like your stuff, and that’s not what I’m going to focus on here. Rather, I’m going to be looking at hacking into the hardwired response we have in us that triggers the state of feeling liked.
When we meditate, we create a safe haven for the mind. In that space, because we’re focusing on what we’re thinking, we’re able to let go of thoughts we don’t want. This is what creates the safe haven. In Buddhist thought, meditation takes you into the Pure Land, imagined as a symmetrical, geometric mandala representing a fortress whose strong walls keep the forces of chaos outside. As you let go of thoughts that create stress, or which limit your self-image and dampen your mood, it’s natural that your mood will lift.
So meditation is already a safe-haven for self-image, and what I’m talking about here is just a more specific example of this. It’s amazing how tied up mood is with self-image, and it’s also surprising just how tied up human self-image tends to be with what other people think. We evolved that way, of course, to make society work. Think of the buzz you get when you’ve made something and people think it’s amazing. The Reward System gives you big treats in the form of considerably elevated mood. Think of the massive buzz popular musicians used to get when getting to the top of the hit parade back when that counted for something, i.e. when singles was a thing. Think of the uncontrollable smiles of the Beatles when they first met an audience that couldn’t’ contain how much they like them. This is my interpretation of the Simon and Garfunkel song Cecelia. St Cecelia is the patron saint of music, so when he’s down on his knees begging her to come home, or finding that someone else has taken his place, that means his songs aren’t doing so well. But when she comes back and he sings: “Jubilation, she loves me again, I fall on the floor and I’m laughing” – that’s the big buzz when the songs start doing well again.
But it’s your reward system that’s doing it. I’m not saying that there’s not also a transpersonal giving and receiving on the etheric planes – of course there is. But you are still the master of what hardwired response gets triggered. So why not hack into it? In an evolutionary tribal context, this treat is triggered because you’ve just made a good hut, or something like that. Grateful, congratulatory compliments from other tribe members trigger a response which feels great. We evolved to be like that because it made us into good hut builders, digging stick makers, spear makers, etc., all of which gave the evolutionary advantage. This of course is a potential added bonus for your gratitude odes, i.e. having created something good in the form of a poem, you might get some appreciative noises coming back to you, and this might trigger a further elevation of mood, beyond the expression of gratitude itself.
But what if, for whatever reason, such noises don’t come back? There’s any number of reasons why they might not. In the modern context where the made thing has become cultural, there are many different tastes and there’s a lot of subjectivity and most people are not time rich and the market place is flooded with competing attention grabbers including the media and shiny new electronic devices, and concentration spans are not what they were, and so on. You might write what you think is a great gratitude poem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the World will reflect that, or even find a chance to give it the attention it needs.
Yet, it seems silly if you know it’s good that you don’t feed your own thoughts in as a replacement, hack the system, make the hardwired response work for you – create a safe haven for self-image. While the question for this book as a whole has been: “How can we harness the heavenly power of the ode?”, the question in this chapter is: “How can we activate a state that mimics the honeymoon period of success where the serotonin sluice gates are wide open?” The response may be ‘hardwired’ but the trigger is soft, because it’s mental, a perceived state of affairs. Anything that’s all-in-the-mind ought to be hackable.
Clearly a balance is needed here. We don’t want to suffer the ill effects of walking off into cloud cuckoo land. This balance can be reached with a little checklist. First, make sure you do actually think the thing is great yourself, and are not just pretending. Also, continue to pay some attention to feedback, but with a glass half full attitude, assuming the best where there is silence or ambiguity, and shrugging off criticism with generous assumptions along the lines of “they must be having a bad day.” Thirdly, avoid big-headedness by constantly cultivating a sense of deep gratitude about your success (external or internal).
This is what I’m interested in and working on at the time of writing and I have the feeling that the more I master this balance, the more I’ll have life licked.
So how can we tap into this? I’ve done a bit of experimenting and have had some positive results, so I thought I’d share a few suggestions. The surprise for me was that maintaining this feeling made me feel like being creative. It’s an addition to your meditation, in the form of a visualisation designed to trigger that feeling. But I want to make clear, and this is kind of crucial, that this is not ‘Creative Visualisation’ – you’re not visualising something that you want to happen in the future. The purpose of it is right in the present – to trigger the feeling. Then once it’s triggered, you’ll then shift your focus on to that feeling, and work out how to protect, maintain and amplify it, coming back to the visualisation as and when you need to if the feeling needs re-triggering.
There’s lots of things you could visualise. A good tip is to apply the Buddhist principle of non-duality – dissolving barriers between self and other, so you can resonate with the feeling of successes embodied in all well made things, by transpersonal morphic resonance, a painting, a poem, a cathedral, a teapot – whatever. Image you’re the one up on stage with an appreciative crowd, not because you’re becoming a denizen of loony land, but just to get a sense of what it feels like, and then work out how to get that feeling just by willing it.
The visualisation doesn’t need to be excessive and you don’t have to be delusional for very long. You are going to be delusional here just for a bit, to get the ball rolling. A deliberately delivered delicate dose of delusion. This particular visualisation is designed to be used as part of the process of being a poet, and so it has that as a theme. You can use it when you’ve finished a poem and not yet started a new one.
I find this a good visualisation to do during an afternoon siesta – I’m not entirely sure why. What you’ll do is imagine yourself at the site of Delphi, but it’s all come back to life as it was in the Golden Age of Athens – the temples are all standing in all their glory. This was the site on the side of Mount Parnassus in Greece where there was a great temple of Apollo, the leader of the Muses, and where there were great poetry competitions every eight years. There was no higher honour for a poet. You’re going to image a scene like the one in Poussin’s painting Parnassus.
In this painting, Poussin depicted a poet receiving the highest of honours. Muses are gathered round, and one of them places a laurel wreath on his head, a mark of honour, as with the idea of a poet laureate – i.e. a poet wearing a laurel crown. Other poet laureates are gathered round, watching on with respect and admiration. The very god Apollo gives the poet a drink from a sacred golden vessel. This is at once a reward, a reciprocation for good work, as well as a draught of inspiration for future works, and the two are indeed closely linked. We can say it represents a refilling or a refuelling. It’s believed the figure being crowned in the painting was actually Poussin’s early patron, the poet Marino. So Poussin was mixing real people from his contemporary life with an image of gods and goddesses in Golden Age Greece, which sets a perfect precedent for us to do the same.
The idea, then, is that you are going to imagine yourself in such a scenario, as the one being crowned with laurel, and watching on you will imagine peers and other figures whose opinion you most respect, and those from whom you most crave recognition. For a bit of fun, you could even Photoshop yourself in Marino’s place, as I have done here:
Poussin’s The Laureate Coronation of William Glyn-Jones
If you’re the sort of person who complains that you’re “not very good at visualising things” then what I would recommend is simply that you focus on fleshing out the details, and ask yourself what might greet your senses. The trickling of the sacred spring, the smell of the incense, the sound of the cicadas, a warm breeze on the face, the Mediterranean sunshine on your skin, and so on. Somewhere a dove is cooing.
There’s something else you can image here. You know how on Facebook where someone is streaming a video live and you see like and love emoticon symbols floating across the screen? You can image a shower of these cascading down over you, as I’ve shown in the above image. Not excessive amounts – but enough to trigger that feeling.
Once you notice the feeling – being liked, appreciated, your talent being recognised – now focus on maintaining and expanding it. If it drops away, what was the thought that just diminished it? Release that thought – let it drift away. Work out how to groove with this pleasant feeling. A groove is a repeating rhythm that’s fun to dance to. With the first few repetitions the groovy feeling is not very strong, but as it repeats it gets stronger. That’s the nature of getting into a groove. You want to work out how to do that with this feeling that you’ve triggered – staying with it that allows it to grow a little with each breath.
If find yourself wanting to make the cascade of like emoticons excessive, it could be a sign of an insecurity you’re trying to overcompensate for. If so, root that out and heal it, release the repressed emotion and move on, let it go, because this isn’t about big-headedness; it’s just about maintaining a natural cycle of flow that helps you continue being creative. Just a trickle of likes should be enough.
At the end of a session like this, see yourself getting a badge or certificate or some such to signify that you are now able to self like. Then in your day to day life if you find your mood dipping in response to perceived criticism, remember this certificate, and remember the feeling.
Some questions have a permanent power to fascinate. For Beatles fans, two key examples are: 1) What allowed the Beatles to be so creative? And 2) What caused the Beatles to break up? There may be a connection between these two, if you look at the analogy of quantum mechanics.
Quantum particles are capable of mysterious behavior as long as you don’t observe this behavior directly. So, for example, a photon of light can somehow take two paths, pass through two slits, as if it were a wave, and yet whenever you observe it, it’s not a wave, it’s a particle. So if you try to observe it happening, it doesn’t happen – it just passes through one slit. How do we know it happens?
Well, in this example, as the individual photons hit a screen beyond the slits, over time a pattern of stripes builds up out of the positions where they land, with the pattern being that of waves of interference – which could only happen if on some level they took both paths at once.
Somehow each particles has gone through both slits, interfered with the version of itself that went down the other path, and then this “wave function” collapsed at the moment of measurement/visibility, i.e. where it hit the screen. Our inability to see this happening is known colloquially as the no peeping rule.
The analogy with creativity is extremely strong. In a part of the mind that is shielded from the direct observation of the reasoning cerebral cortex, creative leaps of lateral thought can be made which make connections by means of a mysterious process that transcends solid logic. Connections are made between frames of reference that were previously separate, just as if thought was able to take more than one path at once, pass through more than one slit, as it were, then come together again.
What has this got to do with the Beatles breaking up? Well, the World was fascinated by the first question – the secret of the Beatles’ creativity, and they wanted to take a peep. During the Let It be recording sessions, film cameras were brought into the studio to film them in action… being creative. It was at precisely this time that things started falling apart. Creative differences came to the fore. They stopped jelling as a team. George found John too sloppy and lackadaisical and conversely found Paul too perfectionist – the two becoming polarised in this regard, the one making up for the other. Here’s my suggestion: the tensions arose because the no peeping rule was being flouted. It became more stressful to maintain the creativity that was their hallmark. Yes, they were still creative but it became increasingly difficult to do.
Does that mean that we should just listen to the songs, and not allow ourselves to probe into the underlying creativity? Not at all. The no peeping rule is about not exposing the current creative moment to the glare of rational observation while it’s happening, because if you do, it won’t happen. There is no rule about not looking retrospectively at creativity that’s already happened. This is simply the equivalent of looking at the bands on the screen and noticing the interference pattern that has built up. There is wonder in it, but not because it allows you to extract a logical formula that you can then use without creative leaps. You might be able to identify what makes a particular song effective, but this cannot be taken as a simple set of rules to be followed without feeling or vision to produce a similar result. Why bother looking then? Well it’s still fascinating in its own right, and it could expand your general palette of possibilities, a palette that might later be drawn upon in a moment of genuine creativity.
Yesterday is an interesting case. Here we have the most covered song of all time. There’s no doubt that there is something about it which is arresting and beautiful, and it has struck millions over the years as being a startlingly good song. When you look into it, it’s not that hard to pick out some of its key characteristics, the things that set it apart from basic types of melody-with-words-and-chords.
Yesterday features an overall mood, but also fleeting sub-moods that play off each other. The overall mood is melancholic, and this corresponds to the overall mode – the natural minor key. But the first phrase has a certain brightness that fits the words: “all my troubles seemed so far away”. To put the melancholy in perspective, it’s contrasted with what has been lost – a happy time when troubles seemed far away. And fitting this, the song starts on the chord of the relative major, the III chord of A minor, i.e. C major. It very quickly becomes apparent that this is part of a run-down via B to A minor, but there is still some brightness, fitting these words, for it is a rising melody in A minor melodic.
The melodic minor key has the diminished third but, like the major key, has a raised sixth and seventh, giving a sense of brightness. However, the other foot must fall. It’s not yesterday now, and now the troubles look as though they’re here to stay. Nothing bright about that. So you get a descending melody line and the key modulates from the melodic minor to the natural minor: the sixth and seventh are lowered, a much sadder feel. Then there is a partial brightening again as the progression ends back on C major – back to the relative major, as if you’re trying unsuccessfully to make out the whole thing was in C major in the first place. “I believe in yesterday”. This gives it a kind of dramatic irony in both music and words, as you know the run back down to the A minor (the melancholy present) will follow, just as you know that living in the past is a delusion.
We might also notice the use of appoggiaturas. “Far away”. “Used to be”. The root chord is reached but the melody line lingers for a moment a tone above it, as if reticent to accept its fate. Appoggiaturas have been recognised as working to create a sense of whimsical longing.
These appoggiaturas occur at a musical start point, but not at the start of a line of words. This is because the lines are largely lead ins. This is another way the melody is more subtle than the most simple types of vocal line. Once in royal David’s city. Just as when you read a line of poetry you tend to make the first stress the primary one, in this Christmas hymn “once” has the strongest stress. If you look at the lyrics of Yesterday, you can pick out some pentameters:
All my troubles seemed so far away Now it looks as though they’re here to stay
If this was a lyrics-first song, the composer might have assumed the first stress of the lines of words should match up with the starting points of sections of chord progression. But beautiful melodies often don’t start by placing a foundation at the beginning of the bar and then build up from that primary stress; instead they lead in with a sense of anticipation towards a primary stress, which actually comes at the end of the line. So “all my troubles seemed so” is all lead in. Likewise “now it looks as though they’re.” These, respectively, lead into the primary stresses of “far away” and “here to stay.”
Taken all together, the degree of match-up between words and music strikes the listener as almost impossibly brilliant. One asks “how did he do it?” in the same way as one asks how Einstein came up with his theory of relativity.
Paul has actually told us the sequence of events. This was a tune-first-and-words-later-song, and the melody came to him in a dream. He woke up with the tune in his head, and the tune had chosen the right person because this is where it was important that the receiver of the idea was someone very musical, someone with great musical talent. After Paul woke up he went straight over to his piano, and while most of us would probably have tried to play it all in one mode or another, say, making it fit to the white notes of A natural minor / C major, Paul could hear/feel that this wasn’t the case. He was musical enough to play the melody just as he’d heard it in his dream – complete with the raised and then diminished notes. This wasn’t the end of the creative process however, because the beauty of it is also about how well the words match the melody, and he didn’t yet have the words.
Paul tells us he next put in some holding text. The first line of holding text was “Scrambled eggs, oh baby how I used to love your legs.” Some weeks later he was being driven in a car, daydreaming, mulling it over, his head jolting up and down over the bumps when he came up with “yesterday”. We can make an observation here. Most of us when writing a song might start by asking “How do I feel?”, but Paul had this lovely tune, and instead he asked the question “How does the music feel?” Of course, in a round-about way this is still about his own feelings, because it is really “How does the music make me feel?” So rather than starting with a line of words and saying “this should modulate to the melodic minor and ascend to match the mood of the words”, instead he had an ascending music line in the melodic minor and asked himself what that felt like, and then wrote a line of words to fit with this feeling.
So while the songwriter might want to extract simple answers, a simple formula and procedure, what we learn is about approach as much as technique, and it also requires talent. Yes, it pays to know that you don’t have to stay in one mode and can rather modulate as fits the mood of particular lyrics, and yes you can use appoggiaturas for a sense of longing, rising melodic lines for raised mood and descending ones for sadder tones, and let your lines lead up to primary stresses rather than build from them, and so on, but you also need to do some other key things if you’re going to have brilliant results, things that allow creativity to occur in a no-peeping-zone, such as dream states and listening to feelings, and you might need to be prepared to mull things over for several weeks before you get the result you’re after.