Loving the Alien
“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”
– Japanese proverb
“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
– Often attributed to Oscar Wilde
– probably not Oscar Wilde
“…the most wonderful thing about tiggers is, I’m the only one”
Creativity is the art of solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. But many of us fail to learn how to solve problems under conditions of uncertainty because we insist on trying to remove the uncertainty from our conditions. That is to say, we try to keep things neat, tidy, and familiar with big doses of conformity all round. Because, well, being different is hard.
We’re all oppressed by forces that tell us to fit in, stay in the crowd. It begins when we first realise that other people have minds like ours, what psychologists call the Theory of Mind.
When we’re first born we don’t understand that other people see and believe things other than what we see and believe. Before about the age of three children aren’t able to reliably take the perspective of others because they don’t have a concept of other perspectives, they don’t have a Theory of Mind.
From the moment we learn that other people think and feel things other than what we think and feel we begin to seek affirmation. Children quickly learn which behaviours cause positive responses and which ones don’t. They learn how to make their parents laugh, how to get treats, how to manipulate and bargain. A necessary step on the path to full membership of the human race but one fraught with dangers.
As we learn to manipulate and to manoeuvre in a world that now contains an entirely new dimension, we also learn to hide the things that we believe other people will dislike. Social queues, our environment, the words and actions of others, teach us to be ashamed. And through our actions, we too teach other people to be ashamed. Shame is a powerful force.
Consider the struggle of members of the LGBTQ community. If you’re a straight, cis-gendered person (cis-gendered meaning that the gender you were assigned at birth matches the gender that you identify as), then it’s likely that you have never noticed how easy it is for you to express your gender identity and your sexuality. You grew up with stories about heterosexual relationships between “normal” people who identified simply as male and female. Sometimes you would be aware of girls who weren’t “real girls” who we called tomboys. But that was about it as far as gender-bending went for most of us.
Now imagine a young boy who does not feel that he is a boy. Look at the world he lives in. Where are his social queues telling him that he is accepted? What does he see when he seeks reassurance? Is it any wonder that the shame he feels is very likely to lead to mental illness and even suicide?
Like I said; shame is a powerful force. When applied to the degree that it is applied to trans people it is a deadly force. For most of us, in our everyday lives, shame is not deadly, but it is deadening.
I recall a story relayed to me by a close friend who felt the overwhelming force of social shaming in the workplace. This is a trivial example but worthy of note largely because of how mundane it is. It happened in a team meeting wherein my friend was watching a presentation about a new social media strategy from the internal communications team. The idea was to get more members of staff to use social media to champion the business. Nothing wrong with that. The plan, however, had a major flaw.
They intended to run a competition with photos involving a mascot. Staff would be asked to take pictures of the mascot in funny situations and then share them. But for some reason, they were to be shared on an internal network, not on Twitter or Facebook. Only once the best pictures were chosen would they then be shared via the official social media channels of the business.
My friend, being like me an incorrigible type, put up his hand and asked why, if the idea was to get people to use social media, they didn’t just have them share the images on social media. The answer was that management believed this would limit engagement because lots of staff members didn’t know how to use social media.
I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go further in explaining the issue. What I do need to share is what happened to my friend as a result of his open criticism. In his words:
“Everyone in the room seemed to be looking at me and I heard an audible intake of air, like the sound a mechanic looking at a badly broken car engine might make. I felt like I’d done something rude. Then my manager addressing the team and referring to the fact I was going to be presenting later about some other topic, said “don’t worry, you can get your own back on him when it’s his turn.””
This story has stayed with me since I first heard it years ago. What a great and awful example of the power of social shaming. I can only imagine that this team, that my friend is no longer a member of, is a stagnant pool when it comes to creative output. How can one be creative when questioning is a crime and management policy is mob punishment?
It’s likely you’ve been on the end of something like this, or witnessed it. Because, as I said, it is a mundane story. It happens all of the time.
While this story is a great example of the anti-creative environment which exists in many workplaces the more important point that it raises is the impact of conformity. There were friendly, like-minded people in the room. They made themselves known afterwards, but in that moment the group became a mob and spoke with one hissing voice.
So conformity and creativity don’t play nicely together and social shaming is a major tool of conformity. How do you, a creative soul, maintain your own weirdness in the face of such overwhelming pressure to fit in? You might expect me to say something here about the power of self-acceptance and I will get around to that. But first and foremost, to accept yourself you have to start accepting others.
Karma is an oft-confused subject but one way to think of it is a kind of natural balance. This can be at a cosmic level if that’s how you see the universe or, if you’re like me, a more grounded explanation will suffice. I’ll give you an example from my personal life experience.
I sometimes suffer from periods of mild depression for which I have sought occasional medication and even had therapy. Depression is complicated and I won’t try to speak for everyone when I speak of my own experience but with that said I find depression to be a mean-spirited feeling, a self-hatred. When I am in this state I am very unkind to myself and, mirroring this, I tend to find it hard to be kind to and about others; I am a dark reflection of myself and so the world is dark. Reflecting on this I realise that when I am kind to myself this always seems to come along with kindness to others. This, I think, is an example of karma – what I do to others I also do to me.
So, it follows, that the first step towards loving your own inner freak is to practice kindness to the freaks around you.The first step towards loving your own inner freak is to practice kindness to the freaks around youClick To Tweet
But how? How do we stop judging others? The first step is to notice when we are doing it. For this, I prescribe a short course of mindfulness training. You can self-administer this drug-free treatment. Ideally twice a day for two weeks.
For those of you who have practiced meditation before you can skip these bullet points. I’m just going to go over some of the basics. Because meditation isn’t complicated.
- Meditation is a practice, not a performance so how good you are at it is hardly the point
- To meditate all you need to do is stop and bring your attention deliberately to something and try to remain there for a certain amount of time
- You will get distracted and you will lose track of what you’re doing – that’s just how the mind is – so no need to judge yourself
- You don’t have to sit in any special way; just be comfortable and find somewhere quiet
This is the meditation practice that I would like you to follow.
- Sit as you feel comfortable, in a quiet space, and close your eyes
- Bring your attention to your breathing and follow your breath in and out as you count to ten (one on the in breath, two on the out breath) continue this way until you feel settled
- Begin to bring to mind a person who you know – someone close to you like a friend or family member
- Now allow your attention to rest on this person, you will begin to think and feel different things and this is natural, let your thoughts and feelings come and go without holding on to them
- Notice when you have a thought and label it “thinking”
- Notice when you have a feeling and label it “feeling”
- Notice when you make a judgement and label it “judging”
By recognising and labelling these ripples in the lake that is your mind you can begin to do two things: recognise that your thoughts and feelings are not you and become more aware of judging when it is happening.
The core of my practice, how I do things at Sabre Tooth Panda, is self-correction through awareness. I believe that if you begin to notice you are judging you will, over time, see what this judging does and begin to remedy it by your own self-directed change.
You may notice certain words that carry a feeling of judgement with them. You may notice a certain tone, or perhaps body language, that suggests to others that you are uncomfortable. You may begin to ask yourself why you feel this need to judge. Through all of this, it is vital that you remember the intent of this exercise: to accept others for who they are.
By practicing this form of mindful kindness you will be doing something wonderful for those around you but you will also be doing something wonderful for yourself.
But I must stress:
THIS. WILL. NOT. BE. EASY.
Many people have been lulled into believing that progress should always be in some way linear and smooth. This is to be expected, I suppose, since we have hammered formal education into such a shape. Why shouldn’t becoming an open minded person be as linear as progressing through the various levels of education? Progress, in real life, is lumpy. So don’t get discouraged if you feel one day that you are making progress and the next day you are worse than when you began. Persist. You aren’t being graded. You aren’t being judged. You are becoming. Always becoming.
The creative journey is like this too. Never smooth. Always lumpy. And, while we may believe that the acceptance of others is a moral judgment and thus not the same as the practical judgements made when accepting new ideas, the truth is that our initial response to anything new is largely emotional. We may think, in our analytical minds, that we don’t like an idea because it’s impractical or unreasonable, but it’s likely that our response is also powered by a simpler reaction; this is unfamiliar so I don’t like it.
When someone has a strong relationship with creativity they are familiar with this moment and have come to find some enjoyment in it. This moment of newness, of uncertainty, has a giddy feeling. Something has changed and this new thing has shifted the world around it, distorting and disturbing familiar patterns. If you can learn to see something new and engage your curiosity before you engage your defence mechanisms then you will find creativity flows more easily from you and through you.
Difference – and the acceptance of it – works both to free the self from shame and to free the mind from limiting assumptions. If you want to be able to express creativity in your work then it is necessary to bring down the barriers in the mind that cause you to judge yourself and others.Bring down the barriers in the mind that cause you to judge yourself and othersClick To Tweet
As a culture, if we can learn to accept men who like to wear lipstick, people who identify as something other than our standard male/female dichotomy, family groups that include two mums or two dads, those who believe in unfamiliar religions or philosophies, and so on, then not only can we let our own freak flag fly (try saying that three times fast) but we can also remain open to new ideas, new methods, new lives.
You can’t control the world. You can’t plan for every eventuality. You cannot outrun chaos. Nor should you try. By developing a flexible, open-minded attitude to life you won’t need to run from what life throws at you. You can face the music, no matter how improvisational, and dance.http://openforideas.org/blog/2017/03/01/loving-the-alien/https://i1.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/lovingthealien.jpg?fit=1024%2C576https://i1.wp.com/openforideas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/lovingthealien.jpg?resize=150%2C150Diversity & Divergencyacceptance,conformity,creativity,difference,judgement,karma,meditation,mind,mindfulness,shame