Diving into Unconsciousness

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Some time ago I was asked to write about surrender in the creative process for the online zine Courageous Creativity published by Flying Chickadee. The article was published in the May issue of the zine. I here repost the article and hope you will enjoy it – and maybe even look up Courageous Creativity which I think is a very interesting zine. The article takes elements of what I have written on this blog before, but put it together in a more coherent way.

The first time I discovered the beauty – yes beauty, despite the doubt and ambiguity it creates – of surrendering to the unconscious mind in the creative moment, was almost 25 years ago. I was photographing a Chinese New Year celebration in Chinatown, New York during a time when I was struggling with my photographic vision.

Suddenly during the shooting process, I felt like I was swept away and lost completely to the intoxicating and exhilarating activities taking place all around me. The New Year celebration and I became one. I stopped thinking consciously and became absorbed with the energy and power of what was going on in front of my camera lens. It felt like being thrown into a deep tunnel with no exits or alternatives, but to move forward as part of the chaos and madness.

Three or four hours later I was spat out of this tunnel, completely wasted and exhausted. I couldn’t recall my doings or what kind of pictures I had captured through these hours. But I felt extremely good, content and animated. And I knew I had photographed something both strong and personal.

The creative process depends on surrender by the artist on many levels and in different ways throughout the whole process. First and foremost, the artist has to give up the idea that the art he or she is creating is actually his or hers and instead understand that it is simply being channelled through him or her. It’s like a baby; you give birth to it, help it mature and then let it loose on its own as a grownup human being. You don’t own your child.

For me, this concept of giving up ownership in the creative process is closely related to the use of unconsciousness. As artists, whether we are photographers – like I am – or painters, musicians, performers, writers, filmmakers or express ourselves through any other art form; to be able to create something new, we need to surrender ourselves to our unconscious mind.

According to Rollo May – the American existential psychologist whose work includes “The Courage to Create,” creative courage involves the discovery of new forms, new symbols and new patterns.

Only by connecting to our unconscious mind are we able to bring something new into being. If merely the rational mind is involved in the creative process we will find nothing but what is already known, albeit at first sight it may look new. Two plus two is always four no matter how we turn it around with our rational mind. If we look at the equation without rationalizing though, we might find something completely different and beautiful even in such a simple calculation. The fact is that even math can turn into art – and does do so on a higher level.

Our creative expression is channelled through our unconsciousness. Some call it the work of God, some think it’s a spiritual connection, some see it as an encounter with an unlimited creative well, while others call it inspiration and yet others believe it to be something less tangible. No matter how we see the process, it’s all about bringing something new into being; something most of us don’t even understand exactly where it comes from, but certainly has to be outside of our rational thinking. That’s why I so strongly believe we need to engage our unconscious mind in the creative process.

How we make this engagement is expressed in different ways, too. We talk about getting out of our comfort zone, taking chances with our art, letting go or trusting our intuition – all of these address the fact that we need to force the rational mind to step back. As the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said about the photographic process – which I believe to also be true for any art form: “Thinking should be done beforehand and afterwards – never while actually taking a photograph.”

Trusting our unconscious mind isn’t always easy. On the contrary, engaging the unconscious mind in the creative process causes lots of doubt among those of us who think of ourselves as artists. I believe that any artist at some point will doubt his or her artwork. Again and again we see this. Paul Cézanne, for example, strongly believed that he was discovering and painting a new form of space which would radically influence the future of art, yet he was filled with painful and ever-present doubt at the same time. The reality is that creative commitment is healthiest not when it’s without doubt, but in spite of doubt. In other words, we need to accept our own doubts about what we are doing, and still keep doing it. It’s simply another layer of surrendering.

I always try to recall that special feeling from the Chinese New Year celebration in New York when I am shooting. I try to let myself become absorbed in whatever it is that I am photographing and try to throw myself back into that same tunnel of unconscious awareness.

The online zine is published on the web site Flying Chickadee. Courageous Creativity presents stories from people living, working, being courageously creative and changing themselves and others in our community. For anyone interested in the creative process it’s worth following Courageous Creativity. The latest edition can be downloaded here.

61 thoughts on “Diving into Unconsciousness

  1. That moment of flow where you are present with no past or future allows for a step into the unknown. It’s the hardest thing, yet passion leads the way. For me you cannot “try”, because it interferes. Your use of the word “surrender” is most appropriate, and really describes the path to creativity. The other important aspect is just doing it (Nike) over and over and over. Experience adds to the mix. But to be free enough to be reach levels of creativity is always on a continuum of success. Always enjoy your commentary.

    1. Thank you for a very thoughtful comment. Yes, it takes a lot of work to be able to get the most out of our creative potential. I like the way you describe the process as stepping into the unknown.

    1. I think it’s all a matter of being willing to surrender, let go of yourself. If you get completely caught up in the process of photographing, that’s when things really start to happen. And judging by your photos on your blog I believe you have been there – or at least very close.

  2. One of the amazing and memorable experiences of the creative process. One I always thought difficult to explain this experience in words. As usual you did well here!

  3. Your interpretation of the creative process is very interesting. You talk about the need to get out of your comfort zone to be creative yet I always think of those times when I am really in tune with my creativity as being ‘in the zone’. In a way being out of your comfort zone and being in the zone are the same thing when it comes to creativity.

    1. I think being out of your comfort zone and being in the zone is related, but for me they are still different. Out of comfort zone means to me to put yourself in a situation that is uncomfortable because it’s all new, it might put you in the zone, but not necessarily. Being in the zone is for me when you are completely caught up in the creative process, whether in or out of the comfort zone. Does this make any sense?

  4. Yes, there are many paths of creative work. But the process you’ve described here is quite common among artists. And such a pleasure to lose ourselves in our work. An your pictures are a fine source of pleasure and inspiration.

  5. I am really curious to see how I can let go of self-concsciousness behind the camera! I am not sure what it would take to lose myself in the art in the way you describe at the Chinese New Year event, but it’s really a wonderful encouragement to stop thinking, and just be in the center of the environment. I do think I tend to be a more left-brained “learner” and that’s not always the best path to creativity. I’m really eager to let your encouragement seep in and see where it takes me, Otto!

    1. I am quite left-brained to, Debra. Like I have always had an easy going with math and natural science (a good indicator I believe). But I have been trying over the years to let the right part of my brain take more over. So it’s possible, and I think one key element is exactly to surrender, let go of yourself and just flow with you emotions and impressions and thoughts. Thanks for the comment, Debra.

    1. It certainly has a meditative quality to it. But I do not think you have to believe in neither meditation nor Zen Buddhism to be able to enjoy the process.

  6. We sometimes get caught up in the ideals of others and what we ‘should’ be doing instead of letting the moment happen. As always you have eloquently put to words what an artist feels in their soul, including myself. Thank you!

    1. Yes, all too often are we hindered by our perception of how others would judge us or how they would do things. If we can just be ourselves in the moment of creation, our work will be much more unique and true to our vision. Thanks for the comment,m friend.

  7. Dear Otto
    Sailing a little bit on Internet I found your blog – and I even remember how happy you were about your pictures of the Chinese Ney Year in NYC in 1990! Nice thoughts about creativity, they made me remember a quote I picked up during our commun studies: “An artist shoud have no social obligations”. It hang on my pinboard all the time – and it can not be that wrong, because my artistic work became less and less – as my family became bigger. Sometimes I think we should meet once in NY or Paris to defend our actual photographic work – as we loved to do it with Joan Liftin a while ago…

    Best regards


    1. Fantastic to hear from you Christoph. And, yes, those social obligations. They probably pined me down way before you, but now I am out flying again, not free of social obligations. Instead they have become an integrated part of my creative search. I definitely think we should meet up somewhere. This year is actually pretty full already, but what about planning something for next year?

  8. It takes a lot of concentration to achieve this, doing away with multiple external stimuli. Most importantly, it’s the internal stimuli that we need to quiet down so we can focus. That’s not so easy either.

    1. There are many ways to enter the zone or the flow or whatever the mental state is called, some can in fact be enhanced my external stimuli, while often the internal stimuli are more important. Right now I am reading a very interesting book about entering the flow, which I will get back to in a later post.

  9. your photograph is stunning as your description of the New Year celebration and you becoming one. Wow! i always learn so much here. thank you. ♥

  10. First I so love the photo here and the framing treatment you gave it. Just beautiful. I too have occasionally had that feeling of being lost in the moment when looking at the world through my camera. One suddenly see details jumping out that were never visible before. Moments to capture that may have passed without seeing them. But when you are lost in the scene or surrounding you are on with it and almost feel moments that you are drawn too. I find it happens to me more when in crowds and photographing people and the events. I become invisible.

    1. How perfect isn’t that to become invisible when photographing people or crowds. That’s what we all dream about. And, yes, when you submit to this unconscious flow you start to see picture you otherwise wouldn’t have done. Thanks for the comment, Carrie.

  11. I am delighted to have come across this post and it is going to be my first re-blog.
    I relate to the concept you speak of and have experienced it at times.
    What you’ve said about self doubt is comforting to me! It lets me know that it is just a part of the process and I’m not the only one going through it. After reading this I am also going to try to ‘give up ownership’ of my work and let it take on a life of its own. Thank you for this most useful lesson! 🙂

    1. I am glad you found this post useful. And of course we all have doubts, I don’t think even the biggest artists don’t ever have it. Thanks for re-visiting my blog.

  12. Reblogged this on Can I Do It All? and commented:
    I am absolutely delighted to have come across this post. A couple of weeks ago, in my post entitled How Do YOU Write?, one of the things I spoke about was the rare moments when my best writing happens. I struggled to find the words to express the feeling and the process accurately……but now I have found the correct words here in this post by Munchow. This is exactly what I was talking about!

  13. I can totally relate to that idea of surrendering to the present moment while taking photographs. Another very inspirational article, Otto!

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