Barriers and the Creative Process

· Creative Expression, Teachings · ,

by John Daido Loori, Roshi

As our work with the creative process evolves and we see how creativity extends beyond art into our lives, we may notice barriers that keep us from seeing in a way that’s unhindered by ideas or attitudes. These barriers pop up as we struggle to find equanimity in our art and day-to-day activities.

It is critical that we acknowledge these barriers, and work through them. To be willing to find our own freedom, blocked though it may be, is the first breath of that freedom. We have to be willing to turn toward the barrier and be intimate with it. As long as we think we can run away from it or deny it, the barrier stays with us.

The following examples illustrate what I mean by barriers and how they affect our creativity and who we think we are. Sometimes the barrier takes the form of holding on to an idea such as being “original.”

My good friend, Kaz Tanahashi, a Japanese calligrapher, painter and translator, taught a workshop at Zen Mountain Monastery in 1990 called “Original Line.” During the course of the workshop, he gave the participants a seemingly simple assignment: draw a single straight line on a blank piece of paper. Not one of them did what Kaz asked.

“It was surprising,” he told me later. “They drew dots, snaking lines, arches, circles. Even a spiral! Out of fourteen people, there wasn’t one who stuck to the instruction. I could see their resistance to doing what I asked. A group of Japanese men and women would not have had any problem. They would have painstakingly produced a series of straight lines that looked precisely like each other. Americans are very afraid of looking alike.”

A group of Japanese students might have had a different kind of barrier. But for us, the idea of originality often becomes its own prison, another way of tying ourselves up. It acts as a self-created tether. Nobody puts it around our neck but us, and we are the only ones who can take it off. When originality becomes a goal, it is no longer original. The artist is merely trying to be different. The word “original” comes from origin, the source. Different just means something that is set apart from everything else. In the Zen arts, originality can only be reached through a long, arduous process of self-discipline and mastery of the medium. Then, ultimately, our own uniqueness naturally finds its expression.

A fundamental aspect of training in Taoist painting that was incorporated into the Zen arts was repetitive practice. The Taoist Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting is divided into several books, each with a specific subject: The Book of Trees; The Book of Rocks; of People and Things; of Orchids; Bamboo; Plum; Chrysanthemum; Grasses, Insects and Flowering Plants; Feathers and Fur; and Flowering Plants.

Students of the brush are expected to repeatedly practice the exercises in each of these books, until they can perform them fluidly and unselfconsciously. For example, in the Book of Bamboo, the brush strokes for painting the stems of bamboo are delineated first, then knots, branches, branches growing from a pair of stems, bamboo leaves, the tops of bamboo plants, horizontal branches of young bamboo, bamboo in an environment with moss, grass, water and rocks, and bam- boo shoots. Out of this repetitive practice of the strokes, students develop skill, freedom and trust in themselves, and without any conscious effort on their part, their own uniqueness or originality begins to appear.

Wang Anjie, the author and compiler of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual said:

First you must work hard. Bury the brush again and again in the ink and grind the ink stone to dust. Take ten days to paint a stream and five to paint a rock. Eventually you may try to paint the landscape at Jialing. Li Sixun took months to paint it. Wu Daozi did it in one evening. Thus at a later stage one may proceed slowly or carefully, or one may rely on dexterity… if you aim to dispense with method, learn method. If you aim at facility, work hard. If you aim for simplicity, master complexity.

This training is no different from that of the great artists of the West. Pablo Picasso’s earlier works clearly reflected the discipline and training he received under the tutelage of his father—an art teacher—as well as the academies of art in which he trained. It wasn’t until later in life that his own uniqueness and originality began to manifest. Originality is born of craftsmanship, skill and diligent practice, not from trying to stand out in a crowd.

When we study with a powerful teacher, our work may begin to look like the teacher’s work. We lose our own identity. I had to work with this barrier when my photography started to imitate Minor’s work. Minor never tried to tell us how to see. His intent in teaching photography was to free his students so that they could find their own way of expressing themselves. In my enthusiasm to “get it,” I fell into a rut, trying to be someone other than who I really was. As a result, my photographs began to look more and more like Minor’s.

To clear myself of Minor’s way of seeing, I had to take up the barrier consciously, so I deliberately tried to imitate him. I began with a couple of his photographs, replicating their composition and tonality, as well as the feelings they conveyed. I repeated this process again and again and found that it helped me to see where and how I was being influenced. This awareness eventually led me to work from my own perspective, finding my own way of seeing and photographing.

I Said Before That in order to work with a barrier you have to become intimate with it. But what happens when you’re not aware of the barrier in the first place? How can you deal with it? This is where creative feedback is invaluable. It can show you your sticking places and blind spots. It’s hard to go through this process alone, without a teacher or someone to provide insight into your art. That’s like the eye trying to see itself.

During one of my photography outings to the Delaware river I found a beautiful spot by a waterfall flanked by some unusual rock formations. I was completely alone and feeling a deep sense of peace with myself and the environment. I was delighted to have found these rocks, convinced that there was something special to be seen and learned from them. I became absorbed in setting up my equipment and shooting, until the sound of people laughing reached my ears. At first I tried to ignore it, but curiosity finally got the better of me, and I walked upstream to find the laughter’s source.

I climbed a small hill of boulders. On the other side, a group of young men and women were skinny-dipping. I watched them frolic, splashing and pushing each other playfully; then I went back to work and didn’t think of them again.

After returning to my dark room, I developed the photographs and made a set of working prints that pleased me. Later that evening, I asked my photography students if they were willing to give me some creative feedback on these photographs. “Oh, these rocks are so sensuous,” one woman said. “They’re so tactile and delicious,” someone else said. “Very sexy.” What on earth are they talking about?! I thought. Are they blind to the photographs’ spiritual dimensions? I kept get- ting the same responses. And though at first I didn’t agree with them, I had learned to trust the feedback. It was a shock to realize that while I photographed I wasn’t as empty as I had thought. The experience of seeing the skinny-dippers had slipped into my subconscious, and therefore into the images I was producing.

As a result of this feedback, it became clear that my ideas regarding sensuality and spirituality were a bit confused. This became a visual koan for me. I set out to deliberately create sensual abstract images using inanimate subjects. I continued until the audience’s feedback was consistent with my own feelings. It was through this process that I was able to get in touch with the feelings that were hovering in the back of my mind while I photographed.

On another occasion I had the opportunity to work in a similar manner with a more challenging aspect of my personality. I asked a date to give me feedback on a set of photographs I had just processed. We were both dressed up and ready to go out to dinner, but I was excited about these photographs, so I asked her to take a few minutes to look at them and tell me what she thought. She opened the portfolio and started flipping through the pages. Before long she was sob- bing. “Why do you always take such angry pictures?!” she cried, threw the photographs on the table, and stormed from the room. That was the end of our date. I looked at the photographs, astounded. I had no idea they were going to have that effect on her.

Later that week I showed the images to my creative feedback group and got the same response. I realized that particular day of pho- tographing had its share of frustrations and difficulties. A commercial assignment had been fraught with problems. When I went off to photograph for myself, I carried those feelings with me. Although I told myself that what I was seeing was dynamic and exciting, in reality it was filled with my anger. I couldn’t see it, but my audience clearly felt it. This, too, became a barrier with which I needed to work. I knew that I needed to get clear on anger. I needed to deliberately photograph it and feel it and see it in my photographs if I was ever going to be able to empower myself to let it go.

Barriers In The Creative Process sometimes appear in reaction to painful experiences, and these provide a very rich place to study ourselves. In one sense, the process is the same: the only way through the barrier is to be the barrier. But when what we’re facing is really distressing, this may be the last thing we feel drawn to do.

Zen liturgy provides a model for working with this quandary in the offering of memorial poems at funeral services. The heart of the poem is an expression of the dharma, of the teachings. When the officiant recites a memorial poem, he or she acknowledges the person who has died and the feelings that are difficult to allow, as well as the teachings embodied in the person’s life and death. When my good friend, the poet Allen Ginsberg died, I offered the following poem at his memorial service:

Iridescent words still dust the countryside
following the endless spring breeze like pollen
seeding mountains and rivers alike.
The bag of skin is here
but where is the bard to be found?
Aie e e e e e e e e e e !
Shake oh grave
the sound of the raging river
is thy howling voice.


Once, Years Ago, following a workshop I was teaching on Mindful Photography, I had to work with strong residual feelings that haunted me. A magazine writer had shown up with his seventeen-year-old son to do an article on the workshop that I was leading. They hovered around, but then became interested in the workshop and decided to participate. I gave everyone an assignment, and they all went out to photograph in the rain. About an hour later, one of the participants ran back to the house in a panic. The boy had fallen out of a tree, crashing head-first onto a stone wall below.

When I got to the boy, he was dying. Blood dripped from his ears, and I assumed that his skull was fractured. I couldn’t find a pulse, and he didn’t seem to be breathing. An ambulance was already on its way, but we were out in the country, and I knew it would take at least half an hour for them to get there. I began giving the boy CPR while his father stood behind me, wailing.

The boy was about the same age as my son, so I could really identify with the father. I cried as I pushed on the boy’s chest, trying to blow air into him. Within a few minutes, I knew he was dead. I couldn’t feel a heartbeat. Yet the father kept crying, “Save him! Save him!” so I worked on the boy until the ambulance came and I could finally step away.

I felt exhausted, but I tried to console the father and finished the workshop as best I could. Everyone was traumatized, so I worked with the participants, trying to help them process and release what had happened, but, because of my teacher’s role, I couldn’t do the same thing myself. In order to respond to the father and my students, I closed myself off from what I was feeling.

After the workshop, I began to have nightmares of a broken head and a gaping mouth. Then it started happening while I was awake, too. I tried everything but couldn’t shake it. I sat with the feelings that the boy’s death had brought up for me—the helplessness and frustration. I tried to photograph all this pent-up emotion, but a part of me resisted really confronting it. This went on for almost a year, until one day I had a deep sense that I needed to go to Cape Cod to photograph. I drove to the Cape, still carrying the image of the dead boy with me.

I spent the week sitting zazen on the beach and photographing in the area. One morning, as I was doing zazen some kind of dead sea creature that had the size and appearance of a head washed ashore and came to rest at my feet. It was perfectly round with a gaping mouth. I went right up to it, and slowly began to photograph it. I stayed with it for several hours, and when I took the last photograph, as the shutter clicked, I could feel the release slowly moving through my body. After all that time, I was finally able to let go of the boy’s death, thanks to that gift from the sea that allowed my feelings to come forth and be expressed.

That experience taught me that working with barriers can’t be rushed. We have to trust our feelings, and the natural timing of the body even as we work towards that release through engaging the creative process. Time and patience are key.


Art Koans Are A Unique way of addressing our barriers, making them both visible and work-able through the creative process. In using koans, our intuitive aspect of consciousness needs to be engaged in order to reach any depth of insight into the problem we are facing.

We can actively take up our barriers as art koans. When coupled with the insight provided by the creative feedback group, the art koans become a powerful tool for moving through our barriers.

Though koans appear on the surface to be paradoxical, the fact is that there are no paradoxes. Paradox exists in language, in the words and ideas that describe the truth. Koans go beyond words and ideas to a direct and intimate experience. The answer to a koan is not a parcel of information. Rather, it’s one’s own intimate and direct experience of the universe and its infinite facets. In frustrating the intellect, koans dismantle the customary way of solving problems and open up new dimensions of human consciousness.

The teacher-student relationship is pivotal in traditional koan study. The teacher is not only a source for checking one’s understanding, but he or she also provides invaluable guidance as the process of resolving the koan evolves — not by explanations on how to see it, but rather through skillful, direct pointing. In working with art koans, the teacher is replaced by the creative feedback group. If we are able to really hear what the group is saying, we will find a tremendous source of insight into our barriers. Art koans cannot be solved intellectually. It’s important that you don’t try to rationalize them. Simply be aware of the feeling you’ll be asked to express. Sit with the barrier, be it. Sit with the question, not its solution.

From The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life. Copyright © 2004 by Dharma Communications. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Publishing Group.

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