Qigong and Creativity

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Abstract

In this article the connection between qigong and creativity is approached mainly from three different angles: Chinese traditional culture, modern psychology, and multiple insights given by different artists. The first part addresses the connection between qigong and Chinese traditional arts through the philosophical background they share. In the second part we see the similarities and differences between qigong and modern expressive psychotherapy, as well as its connection with the notion of flow in psychology. The last part consists in a compilation and analysis of quotations from famous Chinese and Western artists, as well as the results from a survey taken among 24 Western people who practice qigong and have a consistent creative practice such as painting, music, dance, etc.

We conclude that the practice of qigong and that of creativity share the same function when viewed from the highest pursuit of humanity: finding our life balance by being in the service of the primordial creative force that extends though us.

1. Qigong and traditional Chinese arts

We can define qigong as a modern approach in understanding a vast range of ancient practices related to Chinese traditional medicine, philosophy and arts that deal with the notion of qi, that could be translated as “life force” or “vital energy”. In fact, understanding, or rather experiencing, the elusive notion of qi is key to understand qigong. Qi is considered the common territory between the immaterial and the material world, between spirit and body, between thought and action; and therefore qi does not belong to either side of duality, but to both, functioning as a bridging substance between the tangible and the intangible spheres of being. Qi exists fundamentally in the realm of perception, subjectivity and inter-subjectivity where it can be experienced in various ways. The experience of qi can have specific and various proven effects on matter, however its emergence and the experience of it remains in the uncharted territory where matter and spirit meet, and therefore it can’t never be fully grasped by purely empirical tools.

Guzheng

The character qi is pervasive in Chinese language, we find it in many common words such as 空气 air (empty qi), 天气 weather (sky qi), 运气 luck (moving qi), or 小气 stingy (small qi). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we also find qi categorized in various types according to its origin, function, quality, state, etc. within the organism. However, in the pursuit of either health or enlightenment we are ultimately most concerned about the notion of primordial qi 元气 yuan qi or true qi 真气 zhen qi. We could consider that the purest form of qi, coming directly from its Source, Dao 道. Chinese traditional arts are of course also not exempt of the importance of qi. The supreme goal of the Chinese traditional artist is to imbue his work with the purest form of qi, and thus his action extends that of the cosmic creator.

Chinese traditional arts are not specifically categorized as qigong methods even though they could easily fit in a definition of qigong such as: “Practice based on Chinese traditional thought which through the integration of the regulation of the body (posture, movement), the breathing, and the mental state, exercises and refines the life of its practitioner”. Like in any domain of Chinese traditional culture, the notion of qi is present in the conceptual framework of traditional Chinese arts such as painting, calligraphy, or performance arts. The essence of Chinese traditional arts is not different from that of qigong, it is based in the same fundamental principles of Chinese traditional thought. It ultimately aims to the joining of the human being and Nature, and the return to Dao. From that perspective, the artistic practice can be understood as a path of self-cultivation in which the artist aims to achieve the state of human life that flows in harmony with Nature, described by the Taoist sages. The actions produced in that state are like the one described in the story about Pao Ding [from Zhuangzi 庄子Pao Ding Jie Niu 庖丁解牛] who effortlessly butchered a cow with utmost precision and striking effortlessness.

Illustration of Zhuangzi’s story Pao Ding Jie Niu

2. Modern expressive psychotherapy

We must differentiate the approach of Chinese traditional arts with the contemporary therapeutic approach to artistic creation. On one hand, just like qigong and taijiquan practice, artistic expression can indeed also be a powerful tool for self-discovery and healing. Since the 20th century art has been used as a psychotherapeutic tool, as artistic expression can facilitate the rising of the unconscious mind to the conscious surface, thus facilitating the identification of internal struggles in order to transform them and transcend them. On the other hand, however, this modern approach may open a door into the vastness of the mind, but does not necessarily step beyond the dealing with the struggles and stories of the self indefinitely. In any case, expressive psychotherapies such as art therapy, dance therapy, drama therapy, etc. have become a widely recognised tool in the field of modern psychology for people to examine their body, feelings, emotions and thought processes. In this kind of artistic expression, the process of creation is emphasized over the quality of the final product.

The debate in Art about process versus final piece, rules versus spontaneity, form vs heart, etc. is probably as old as Art itself, and it exists too in Chinese traditional arts, which ultimately attempt to perfect both aspects through their unification: the unification of object and subject, of brush and ink, of technique and spirit, hand and heart, yin and yang. That is why I find the theoretical framework of Chinese traditional arts much more mature than that of modern expressive therapies, which point to the self-transformational power of artistic expression but too often lack a clear destination and purpose, beyond digging in the subconscious mind.

2.1 The notion of flow in modern psychology

The state one enters during qigong practice, or the “qigong state” is both in psychological and neurological terms very close to the state of “flow” in psychology, also known as “creative flow”: a mental state in which the individual is fully present in the task at hand, enjoying and developing an activity effortlessly in an uninterrupted way. The description of the state of “flow” as some kind of ¨effortless efficiency¨ inevitably reminds us of the notion of wuwei in Chinese traditional thought. Research has found a connection between “flow” and the state of meditation [Barry, 2011], both can be understood as a form of concentration in the present moment, not disturbed by critical cognitive thinking. The cultivation of this peaceful and meditative state of mind, related to the notion of jing静 (quietness), is also one of the pillars of qigong practice. [Vilar, 2018]

The state of “flow” can be found in link in almost any activity: an athlete running, gardener plucking weeds, or in an expert butcher cutting an ox, but is also a key state in any creative process and artistic task such as playing an instrument, painting or dancing. What is more, ¨Harvard’s Teresa Amiable discovered that not only are people more creative in flow, they also report being more creative the day after a flow state—suggesting that flow doesn’t just heighten creativity in the moment, it heightens it over the long haul. In other words, being in flow actually trains us to be more creative.¨ [Kotler, 2014]

It is not a surprise then that, the “state of qigong” is cultivated among artists from all kinds of disciplines (painting, dance, pottery, etc.) because it fosters creativity and artistic sensitivity by letting the mind rest in the present moment, undisturbed by critical cognitive thinking. This also reminds us of how the practice of qigong is closely related to Chinese traditional arts such as calligraphy, music and painting, which embody the same principles of relaxation of the body and quietness of the mind in their execution in order to create an art that reflects natural beauty and flow. [Vilar, 2018]

Calligraphy of the character “qi”

3. Creativity and inspiration

Creativity, together with innovation, has been a raising value in the Western world, it is encouraged and stimulated in Western schools and society. Creativity is considered the ability or the phenomenon of bringing about new ideas, patterns, methods, objects, etc. Creativity is closely linked to the concept of “inspiration”, as the source of new and useful ideas. If we look into the etymology of “inspiration” in English we find at first that it literally means “breathing in” or “inhalation” (from Latin “in” (into) + “spirare” (to breath). If we take a closer look, however, we will learn that “spirare” means in fact more than just “breathing”, it implies a “source of life”, a “spirit” or a “divine force”. Therefore, “inspiration” can be understood as taking within Spirit or source of life. One can be inspired to write, paint or act, and in any case is are manifesting something in the realm of form which is rooted in the realm of spirit. This reminds us of the philosophy behind Chinese traditional arts discussed above, and also of the thought of some Western religious art traditions, in which the artistic practice has a spiritual purpose.

Extremely opposed approaches can be taken in the artistic spiritual practice, some are strictly methodical and based on repetition, and others rather emphasize the artistic freedom of the artist. The former, like medieval religious iconography, puts the spiritual authority in the image that is being painted, the painter’s identity is not even considered important, his task is devoting himself in reproducing a representation of the divine without adding anything of himself. [Coomaraswamy, 1980] The latter, like that of Shi Tao (石涛) , defends there are no rules to follow, but the “Supreme Rule of Simplicity”, in the artistic act. The Supreme Simplicity is One, the transcendence of duality, of yin and yang, brush and ink, technique and spontaneity. In any case both approaches lead to common ground: a state of action that surrenders to the divine or the One and the lets go of the judgement from the self.

Shi Tao self-portrait

In Chinese traditional thought, the source of everything is precisely “nothing” wuji (often translated as emptiness or nothingness). From wuji emerges taiji, the realm where heaven and earth have not yet been split, and from taiji emerge the “ten thousand things” of the dualistic (yin-yang) universe [Xu, 2017]. Similarly, the source of creativity is found in a state of emptying the self.

It is maybe not a coincidence that many artists from different eras and places in the world agree that the creation process happens in spite of themselves, not because of themselves, but rather as the natural course of Creation. We find this thoughts in Chinese classical painters and calligraphers, as we would expect:

“The origin of pictorial art lies not in human intelligence, but in the order of Heaven”

Zhang Yanyuan 张彦远 (art historian, calligrapher and painter, Tang Dynasty 815-857) [Cervera, 1993]

“Pure vacuum is the supreme state of painting”

Wang Yu 王昱 (painter, Qing Dynasty) [Cervera, 1993]

“It is not about imitating nature, but rather about participating in the very process of creation”

Tang Dai 唐岱 (painter, Qing Dynasty) [Cervera, 1993]

However, we also find a very similar thinking in quite a few Western artists of the 19th century, like German romantic composers…

“When I am inspired I have certain visions induced by a superior Force. In these moments I feel that the Source of eternal and infinite force, from which you and me and all things originate from, opens to me.”

Strauss (1825 – 1899) [Abell, 1992]

“Being able to recognize, like Beethoven, that we are one with the Creator, is a wonderful and venerable experience. There are very few men who can get to recognize it; that is why there are so few composers and creative spirits in all fields of human effort.” … “I need to be in a semi-trance state to reach this results, a state in which the conscious thought is temporarily without rule and the subconscious leads, because it is through it, as part of the Almighty, that inspiration arises”

Brahms (1833 – 1897) [Abell, 1992]

… or French writers…

“What seems to me the most elevated in art (and the most difficult) is not to make people laugh, cry, excite or be angry, but rather to act like nature”

Flaubert (novelist, 1821– 1880) [Ryckmans, 1993]

“Art imitates nature, not in its effects, but in its causes, in its “way”, in its processes, which are nothing but a participation and derivation of things, of the very divine art: ars imitatur naturam in sua operatione.”

Claudel (poet, dramatist and diplomat, 1868 – 1955) [Ryckmans, 1993]

… and also the Spanish artist Picasso:

“Painting is not copying nature, but rather learning to work like her.”

Picasso (1881 – 1973) [Ryckmans, 1993]

3.1 Qigong and creativity survey

From what has been exposed above, we can say that qigong is related to creativity in the sense that their practice might share common spiritual purposes, and that within Chinese traditional culture qigong and arts share many of their fundamental principles and notions. In order to see more precisely the way qigong and creativity relate in a modern global context, I have conducted a survey with 24 people of my direct acquaintance who I know that they practice or have practised qigong or taijiquan, and have as well one or several creative and artistic practices. These people were all Western, mostly European, between 30 and 66 years-old (average of 45), 16 female and 8 male. Most of them (17) practised traditional qigong or taijiquan styles, and had an average of 8 years of experience, ranging from several months to 30 years. Eight of them said to practice qigong daily, five do it several times a week, six once a week, four from time to time, and one of them considers the practice integrated in all the activities of his everyday life. The creative practices they have are mainly painting and drawing (9), dance and movement (9), theatre and performance (8), and music (7), other creative disciplines are writing (6), photography (5), pottery (4) and sculpture (4) among other hand-crafts and some creative professions such as design and business.

When asked weather qigong or taijiquan nourishes their creative practice, and in what way, most of them see a positive contribution mainly in one or several of this three dimensions: (1) Qigong practice as a warm-up before the creative practice, (3) Entering a meditative state of qigong during the creative process to enhance the flow and inspiration, (3) Taking qigong theory and philosophy as the theme of the creations.

In their descriptions appear the following benefits of qigong or taijiquan practice towards their creative practice (ordered by prevalence): profound understanding or awareness (5), inspiration (4), creative flow (4), focus (3), broadening of perception (3), body awareness (2), quietening of the mind (2), freedom of spirit (2), vitality (2), presence (2), awareness of thoughts, centering, grounding, movement in the body, authenticity, harmony, physical and mental balance, connection of inner and outer movement, self-control, and resilience.

However, quite a few of them very well point out that these benefits are not limited to their creative practice but that extend to all aspects of their life, and that all aspects of their life are imbued with the essence of qigong:

“All the activities I do are related to what qigong brings and means (mind-body balance, being present here and now), not only my creative practices.”

“I can’t separate qigong from my life”

“Since qigong helps to balance body and mind, its benefit must extend to all physical, mental and spiritual activities.”

“I am aiming to in a way merge the qigong practice into my way of being, so it can sustain or be part of all I do. I am accessing the creative practice as another kind of qigong or mind-body practice.”

“Knitting is quite a meditation practice!”

We notice here how qigong and creative practices are somehow equivalent for some of them.

When asked weather their interest and sensitivity for qigong/taichi were related to their creative nature and artistic sensitivity they mostly answered positively, but not all people could answer to this question. Those who saw a relationship between those two practices pointed mainly to three aspects that can be related to the ¨three treasures¨ in Chinese traditional thought:

1. 形 form – Self care (3 people) – Qigong and the creative practices are a way of taking care of oneself, connecting with oneself, searching for balance and naturalness.

2. 气 qi – Sensitivity (6 people) – Some people who’s creative arts are directly in link with movement such as dancers and painters pointed out that the flow of movement in dance, in the brush-stroke or in qigong emerges from the same state, they both require “the same kind of sensitivity and connection to the inner body, being in the present moment with no thinking”. In relation to sensitivity, one woman points out that “the experience [during qigong practice] that being sensitive does not mean being weak or vulnerable was very empowering”.

3. 神 spirit – Spirituality (5 people) – Some see the connection between Qigong and the creative practice as a spiritual path: They are both related to the “learning about the mystery of life, which is creative and transforming”; “They are related in the measure that all arts that become expressions of what is holy are based on the same principles”; “The movement of life force and creativity are the same. The emergence of things from nothing and returning to nothingness”.

The people who could not find a direct connection between their qigong and creative practices (two men in the survey) pointed out that they conceived their creative process as a merely intellectual exercise.

Finally, when asked if they apply any specific qigong or taichi techniques during their creative practice most of them can identify some qigong techniques they use before (4), during (16) or after (3) their creative practice. Musicians and performers use it also as a way to control the tension before a show, and after it to calm back down, and a writer uses dynamic qigong and taijiquan forms in order to release the tension in the body and keep the flow after writing a long time in a rather constricted position. Many of them (10) coincide that they use breathing techniques, and some mention entering a state of meditation (6), however, one points out ¨when I do creative practice the meditative state comes immediately. I do not have to use any technique¨, thus implying that the creative practice itself (drawing) is a meditation technique. Some mention relaxation as a technique (2): ¨For the photography as an example I’ve introduced the total relaxation before I take the snapshot. I use what I’ve learned from photo class to frame, chose an angle and the best lighting, then I let go and enter the qigong state in order to have a more natural shot, less controlled and tense. It seems to appear in the picture when I look at it afterwards. ¨ Other specific techniques they mention are: moving with body unity or from the dantian (4), standing pose (3), inner body observation (2), finally, one of them explains to be using dynamic qigong traditional movements integrated within a danced choreography. Some of them mention the technique of Spontaneous Qigong:

¨Then when I’m looking for inspiration, the practice of zifagong [Spontaneous Qigong] taught me that there will always be something emerging from nothing, so I have this trust that creativity is infinite and will always be there. I just need to let go of the control and let anything emerge and disappear.¨

¨Sometimes I also let my hand move freely [when painting], without being conscious of my doing or worrying about the final result. It’s about just letting go and maybe surprising myself at the end.¨

Conclusions

Expressive arts can be in themselves methods that share the same purpose as qigong when those who practice them are aware of the physical, mental and spiritual dimensions of their art. As not few of the participants in the survey pointed out, the act of human creativity participates of Creation itself. Artistic expression is a microcosm in which to experience the creative power of Life. Self-knowledge through art can be much deeper than the creative exercise in itself, as it nourishes the existential core of our being, if we acknowledge the power of creation we have in life. Inspiration is not only a key element to any creative process, but also crucial for living with a sense of purpose. Inspiration can be expressed through a work of art, but also through a way of life.

In that same way, the practice of qigong takes us ultimately to embracing a different quality of life, in harmony or rather unison, with Nature, 天人合一 tian ren he yi, “heaven and human becoming one”, aligning our actions with the will of Spirit. From this point of view, the true exercise of creativity lies not in Art, but rather in Life. Art, like qigong can be the means, the practice or one of the paths towards self-knowledge.

Creation in Life is always happening in spite of our selves. Being in tune with Creation is closer to surrender than to achievement. Our bodies grow and transform, just like everything in Nature, and we experience it through our very limited perception of the world in our naive intuition of time as linear, uniform, and unidirectional [Rovelli]. The Creative expresses itself through the yin-yang interaction, female-male, spontaneity-technique, winter-summer. Taiji is the point of balance and harmony of yin-yang, and it arises from wuji (nothingness). Qi, emerging from Dao, is the substance that neutralises the duality between yin and yang in our experience, returning it to Oneness, returning us to wholeness, or to what is the same: to health, since by etymology, health comes from old English hælþ meaning “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well,” and from old Norse helge “holy, sacred”. Qigong as many creative arts offer multiple paths into the way of taiji, qi and wholeness.

Article by Estel Vilar Bofill originally published in the 2nd China-Shanghai Taiji Health International Symposium and 15th China-Shanghai International Symposium on Qigong Science Article Complilation on the theme “Taiji ▪ Qi ▪ Health” organised by the Shanghai Qigong Research Institute :

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