Diving into Unconsciousness

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The first time I discovered the beauty—yes the beauty, despite the doubt and ambiguity being part of the process—of surrendering to the unconscious mind in the creative moment, was 30 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 trusting the 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 engage 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 expressions indicates 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. 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.

67 thoughts on “Diving into Unconsciousness

  1. Otto – I agree with the comments above, interesting and inspiring. I guess it goes without saying, that this unconscious creativity first requires a great deal of conscious practice in the mechanical aspects of taking a photograph? Like playing a violin, or typing, or hitting a fastball, etc. you’ve got to be able to operate your camera with your eyes closed, before letting yourself go. I enjoyed reading your very effective essay, it sounds like a wonderful experience.

    1. You are right, the skills and the crafts needs to be practice so it can move from the explicit to the implicit memory – from consciousness to unconsciousness. Although it has to be said, that it’s also possible to be creative without having trained on any skills.

  2. Yes, we need to let go from ourselves, to discover real self, at the same time the creative process requires for us to flow, like water in a current, without stopping, what in the Orient its named flowing with Chi, or Ki, in a way we are carried, and going with the current, rather than using our will to swim against it, this will necessary take us naturally, and effortless, where we need to be, rather than using our limited discriminating mind to choose, what it believes to be the best place for us, it can be a tiresome affair, because the rational mind resist the flow.

    When as a child I grew up by the Ocean, and learnt to body surf the waves, a process that requires first to be aware you got to use the wave, by first knowing its strength, and moods, and shape variations, and let yourself be carried by it effortless, rather than by using your strength, a process that it takes a while to master, but once you do, you can do it naturally and without effort, and you learn to recognize the proper wave, distance, and timing, to be able to ride it successfully, a thing that beginners find difficult to learn.
    Another one its jumping through rocks, like a goat, you got to let go of your fear, and just go with it, the moment you think about it you fall.

    Great post Otto. 🙂

    1. This flowing with the current is something I plan to write more about in the future. It’s often the hardest part to accept, because it’s so intangible. Your experience with learning to body surf, very much shows how it works when practicing creative work.

  3. You describe the experience so beautifully. These unified experiences where we seem to become one with everything around us are probably the most profound human experiences we can go through. They are intensely mystical in their nature and often life-changing. A wonderful post – thank you.

    1. Yes, they are wonderfully profound, for some it’s spiritual, for some a religious experience, for some a discovery of their deeper self, or about connecting with something undefined. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, the thing is to let go and accept the unknown.

  4. This was a very inspiring post, Otto. Your experience at the Chinese New Year celebration made me think of John Daido Loori’s telling of his experience with Minor White in “The Zen of Creativity”. I do get too tied up with thinking about the composition, the subject, the technicals of image making, to allow myself the unconscious approach you relate. I think doing so would create a deeper experience.

    1. I think that would be the next natural step, if you allow me to say so. If you trust your skills with composition, the subject, the technicalities of image making – and let go, knowing your muscle memory will make use of it all by itself – you will get to this fulfilling level. And yes, I have read The Zen of Creativity and very well remember the passage with Loori’s experience with White. Minor White was a very unique creative person.

  5. Very interesting post, Otto. I never could have put this in words like you did, probably because I don’t think so much about it, for example when I am into my latest passion of floral photography, I feel like I am guided by my heart ( so I a using this term because that power points it closest) , I am not using technical rules or anything like that, I feel like I am in a flow to what I am being guided to. And somehow the subject, the light and I as the photographer become One. I hope that makes sense. Wish you great weekend, Otto from the other side of the ocean.

    1. I like you thought pattern – being guide by the heart. Because, in many ways, that’s exactly what it’s about. Thanks for sharing your experience of being in flow. And, yes, it does very much make sense.

  6. Your picture for this post drew my attention for a while. I see Chinese characters on the wall on one side but that is not it. The people outside and the person inside and the color tone are addition. Oh, the edge treatment is also another part. Awesome picture. I guess the sum is great creativity.

  7. A very helpful account of the unconscious process. Your final sentence is, I think, the key: we must become absorbed in order to be available to the experience.

  8. Very well expressed, bravo! This is why film or digital I prefer simple cameras which I can use without thinking too much!
    By the way as a someone learning to draw I have the same experience: when I start not think which colour to use but simply take that pencils the results are much better. Not easy anyway to reach this mental status…I learned that music helps !

  9. What a powerful breakthrough you experienced thirty years ago, Otto, and I’m sure that has moved you through the decades to always feel the potential of a similar experience in unconscious creativity. I find your interpretation of the event exhilarating to read, and although I don’t have much experience to share in parallel, I do think that the more we remove our self-conscious voice in anything we do, the more authentic our work. You, as always, encourage and challenge any artistic complacency, and I really appreciate that.

  10. Otto, I loved reading this post and particularly about you experience that has happened such a long time ago, but yet it still inspires you. Creativity is at times hard to tap into, yet as you described so well, it can happen when you least expect. A magic moment of letting yourself go with the flow, the feeling of total immersion. Wonderful post!!

  11. I have had similar experiences during writing, Otto, and I find that I tend to be most creative when I am present in the moment without any distractions. I have other writers say that in order for the muse to show up, they have to show up first.

  12. Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while and all I can say is the fact our subconscious mind has the answers.
    We can solve problems by using our subconscious minds.
    Thank you for sharing such important information with us! ^_^

  13. “Three or four hours later I was spat out of this tunnel, completely wasted and exhausted. ”
    That sentence made me burst out with laughter, and it is soooo true!
    Last night I worked until 5 in the morning, and I was shocked at the time. Yes, it’s like being in another realm and wondering exactly what happened during that time – for me, I barely remember hearing heavy rain outside, but that’s all!

    Enjoyed this very much! Thanks, Otto!

  14. Sounds as though it was a profound moment Otto. Yes, to truly create we have to immerse yourselves and almost lose ourselves in our craft. Inspiring post.

  15. Those involved in mathematics would likely take issue with the first word in “even math can turn into art.” Some would even change the “even” to “especially,” although probably few people outside the field of mathematics would do so. There are two main and opposing views about mathematics: 1) it already exists in the universe and mathematicians discover parts of it 2) people create mathematics. Either way, how someone discovers or creates a mathematical relationship remains mysterious.

    As for your 2 + 2 = 4, it’s interesting that 2 x 2 also = 4. The only other instance of a number with the property that adding it to itself produces the same result as multiplying it by itself is 0. All it takes is a little first-year algebra to prove that 0 and 2 are the only such numbers.

    Although I’ve been aware since elementary school that 0 + 0 = 0 x 0 and 2 + 2 = 2 x 2, only now did your mention of 2 + 2 = 4 suddenly get me wondering how many numbers there are with the property that adding the number to itself twice produces the same result as multiplying the number by itself twice. A little simple algebra shows there are three such numbers: the positive square root of 3, the negative square root of 3, and 0.

    See what fun you can have with even simple mathematics!

    1. Thanks for all the fun math you have come up with. I wasn’t aware of the 2 x 2 is in fact the same as 2 + 2. However, 0 x (any number) is a little more tricky because it’s not possible to really prove it. 0 x A is one of the 13 axioms that all of math is built upon, meaning those are the “ground rules” we take for granted.

  16. Thank you for this interesting read. I like to think of going into the sub-conscience as spiritual, as I am trying to develop it correctly. For some reason, I feel I have a healing aspect to my spirit. Anyway, I thought I would share :-).

  17. Inspirational and wise thoughts about creativity. I like, “The reality is that creative commitment is healthiest not when it’s without doubt, but in spite of doubt”. My process is intuitive, I know the feeling of ‘being in the zone’, but I don’t know how much I connect with the unconscious.

  18. The total absorption in the moment that you describe also sounds similar to the zen idea of being one with the moment. And from a practical perspective, I can see how letting that happen in the middle of a New York Chinese New Year celebration might work – the noise and chaos can be overwhelming (why not just enter into it, right?). Stepping back from the rational mind is such good advice – thanks, Otto. 🙂

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