How to Find Meaning in Spontaneity

"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." - Lao Tzu

Life presents us with a multitude of paradoxes. For example, we have a (potentially) infinite set of options available to us yet we don’t know which to choose. I refer to this as the paradox of freedom: the inablity to act due to an overwhelming abundance of choice. There are so many insights, individuals and experiences to learn from and help guide us. Yet, we sit. We stare. We long.
Creation as Paradox
Through creation and art we encounter a similar paradox. What’s clear and distinct in the mind’s eye comes out opaque when engaged in "serious" work. Yet, we surprise ourselves with the ease of expression when at play or practicing. Ideas flow forth as if from nowhere. It seems that in order to authentically express ourselves, creation must come from an absent mind, without intention. Spontaneity helps us sift through the abundance of choice by relying on reflex.
The process of civilization has molded our raw urge to pummel and scream into socially permisive behavior. Instead, we replace our urges with socially functional behavior since our more violent instincts are destructive to commerce. Freud termed this displacement of aggression "sublimation": to express of our instinctual urges in a socially functional fashion. Instead of a Dionysian and cathartic expulsion of our urges, we bury them or try to sublimate as best we can. Heavy Metal and video games are two examples of this.
The idea of sublimation offers insight into the violent and progressive evolution of Western culture over the last two centuries. As man became increasingly civilized, expression for his urges became less available. Capitalism, for example, uses material possessions as a subterfuge for the instinctual. As religion’s influence faded, the iron grasp of consumerism replaced faith with diversion. As industrialism progressed uniformity, blandness and perfectionism became modern values and with new technology came new standards. Man began to feel separated from the natural world and alienated from the dirt under his nails.
Overcoming Barriers
When looking at the artistic development of the past two centuries we begin to see the breakdown of artificial barriers and rules while structure and uniformity rose in the surrounding culture. As fields and forests were organized into roads and cities and the skies filled with buildings and airplanes, music and art became less rigid and less constricted than in previous eras. Composers began rejecting tonality, artists experimented with abstraction and writers adopted common language. Within societal constraint man found ways to become free. Sublimation began to evolve. As science developed, man shrank from the center of the universe to a speck within the whirlwind of an uncaring universe. Mankind now faces the challenge of perspectivism and continues to grapple with the paradox of freedom.
While civilized externally, internally we remain primal. Bigger bullets, bigger bombs, bigger buildings, bigger fires, and bigger threats. However, our hearts remain the same size. As technology and wealth grow more choice is created. An increase in choice creates the paradox of freedom, which breeds disparity and discontentment. In our present era we lack a single purpose, leaving ambiguity as our essence. Although life seems to have lost objective meaning, we continue to feel, love and desire. We continue to search for a singular answer.
Beauty in Chaos
I find the absurd and chaotic to be beautiful. In chaos, absurdity and atonality there are remnants of harmony. When staring into the cosmic slop of Jackson Pollock’s "Autumn Rhythm" I feel as if the world makes sense. In comparison, the calculated and detailed art of Realism can be cold and distant. It’s as if the artists miss something, or I maybe I do. Probably a little of both. However, when staring into Pollock's giant smear of wild paint, I feel alive.
The same emotion can be found in music. When listening to atonality, such as a Frank Zappa or Cecil Taylor composition, I hear the world dancing. Maybe these artists finally caught up with the universe and began to play to it’s tune rather than making the world fit into their own melody. These composers write the music of life. They sing the poetry of the world around us in all its chaotic harmony. Taylor's music and Pollock's art express the spirit of spontaneity. A balance of release and control. It invokes a unique emotion, one that strikes deep while consoling our soul.
What I’ve found fascinating in my personal experience of creating music and art is that intention can be the biggest hindrance in achieving this potent effect. When creating improvised music, poetry or art, we must let go and surrender our will while still maintaining some control. Facilitating this process can be puzzling as the Doing is quite different then the intention to do. Like trying to calm the ripples of a pond, the best method is to let our ideas settle naturally. We cannot flatten water nor can we force emotion. Authenticity follows a similar principle because we remain ourselves only when not trying. When we try, we imitate (an idea or action of another), and by imitating we end up with a mere caricature of ourselves.
These ideas are foreign to modern Western practice. In our culture, work is highly valued and non-action or idleness is put down as a waste of time. Time is given a dollar value and to waste time is to waste money. We must have goals, orientation, and most of all an intention! Yet, for many, our purpose remains a mystery. We're trying to be somebody, and in turn, lose our authenticity.
Paradox of Happiness
Another paradox of our present age is hidden in our pursuit of happiness. We throw money at it like a wishing well and chase it like starving wolves. Yet, we find happiness in the strangest and quietest of places. Think of the most compelling and interesting nights of your life. Often, they transpire spontaneously. When we intend to have a great night, the feeling remains aloof, like chasing your shadow. However, it seems counterintuitive to say life is best lived directionless and without purpose. Such thinking is usually diagnosed as depression or despair.
If our lives are like a Stravinsky composition or a Pollock painting, how is it we capture our happiness? The aimless life doesn’t appear desirable, but is there a way to synthesize the two extremes?
Leading a life of rigid rules and strict dogmatic devotion often leaves us feeling caged and bored. It’s just no fun. However, total instability is stressful and turns life into a manic whirlpool. Furthermore, if we try and mix up our lives, the process becomes contrived like a middle aged man attempting to recapture his youth by purchasing a new sports car. So what can we learn from spontaneous creation?
Creating a Creative Space
I feel most at home when writing or performing as I am now. Creating a piece fluidly while watching my thoughts and emotions weave themselves through my fingertips and onto the screen. I'm letting the piece write me in a sense. While the finished product is not as as refined as it could be, it contains immediacy and rawness (editing helps as well). The process remains authentic so long as intention is kept at a distance.
To accomplish this one must facilitate the necessary environment to foster flow. Opening a word processor, booking a show or setting up a canvas places us in a context relevant to our chosen mode of expression without having a clear idea of an end. Like meditation, the focus is on the process, not the result.
We can apply this to everyday life by creating a context for happiness and spontaneity to arise naturally. Like viewing a Pollock piece, one has to take a step back and absorb all the strokes of life. When observing the whole of life we become both lost and found in it’s melody. Could it be that the meaning of life is simply to be alive and to revel in its ambiguity? Maybe life is an end in itself. If so, seeking meaning, purpose and direction becomes self-defeating. Authenticity and peace of mind come when we stop looking.
Wholeness in Fragments
In our competitive culture, appearing put together and finding a clear and distinct purpose are held in high esteem. However, maybe being lost isn’t so bad. It seems that those who appear to have their lives together are the lost ones, while the rest end up with something beautiful. Life happens to us whether we want it to or not. We wake up, the sun rises, we participate, we die and the world continues its dance. Change is the only constant in this world, and trying to grasp onto a singular meaning will only make the changes in life more challenging.
Part of Living Lite* is opening ourselves to the variety of experiences life presents us. By doing so we create space for creativity where solutions to life's problems are able to arise naturally. While adding structure and intention to some aspects of life can warrant positive results, sometimes we have to let go in order to see the world anew.