Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.

17 thoughts on “Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

  1. I think I lean towards the ‘freewheeling spells disaster and catastrophising’ camp. In my case, at least. I find that only when I start disciplining my freefall of thoughts, feelings, ripples and shades to transform themselves into some clear words and sentences, when I ask them to be disciplined and orderly instead of just bobbing along, that’s when I get out of the slough of despondency and stress.

  2. I feel there must be an irony somewhere in my thought that I am too busy to read these books. Not that they don’t sound interesting, just that there is so much information out there that I have to get through first.

  3. We’re a bit under the weather too. The whale with the fifty-fags- a day habit cough did crack me up. And of course the idea of you —sporting the appropriate attire — auditioing for Downtown Abbey.
    I think I’ve someone mentioned the sky in the middle of an argument I might go ballistic. It’s the type of diversion I’m allergic to.

    • The point I’m making in my book is that, in order to break a vicious circle of anger, argument or tantrum, you need to find ‘the third point’ – something outside the ping-pong to and fro of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ and the other ‘justifying themselves’ or getting more angry. You need to take the discussion, or the dynamic, to another level. It changes the perspective. I don’t mean you should trivialise the problem, just take a step back to get a wider view. Bring in another dimension – it doesn’t have to be the sky! There is always a third point – something more than is happening in moments of argument or anger, which, if you can bring it in will alter the problem. You would have to read the whole chapter of my book to see exactly what I’m saying there.

  4. I sympathise with Mr. Litlove – I’ve had a similar thing and now OH has it (not a good thing as he’s also asthmatic…) As for dancing kittens – the Internet is a boon in many ways, but boy! can it waste your time. I need to learn to turn the computer off and read more….. 🙂

  5. Aha, dancing kittens eh – well although I thought the WWW (though not the internet) was created by Berners-Lee for particle physicists like me it does primarily exist to propagate sex, music and kittens as far as I can see. As to whether reading is intrinsically more worthwhile than what I can locate on the web I’m not so sure; but then I am likely to be very much in a minority here in expressing that view! I really don’t have an obvious hierarchy in my mind which exalts books (or music or indeed cats) above all other forms of mindfulness.

    If you mention to me, in the middle of an argument, that the sky is blue then I’m likely to start telling you why 🙂 Rather more challenging (try it on your tame scientist) is why it is still blue at twilight (and not a greenish blue). You can find out the answer here:

  6. I have to say there have been moments of stress when anyone suggesting that I look at the beautiful sky would have found themselves on the other end of a conniption, although I see the sense behind it.

    Much sympathy to both you and Mr Litlove. I do hope you avoid the flying germs.

  7. I loved loved loved this: “The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.” I think more and more, we are mistaking the rummaging-around in cyberspace for productive daydreaming, and it’s not at all the same.

    I tried to picture my reaction if someone were to tell me, in the middle of an intense exchange of ideas (this is how I think of an argument; if it’s externally obvious that I’m arguing, then actually I’m homicidal, and it’s far too late to point out anything other than the location of the nearest police station) that the sky is blue, and really, I can only imagine myself saying something like, “Yes, and you’re an idiot,” and leaving the discussion.

    I do hope that Mr. Litlove is soon on the road to overthrowing household feudalism—but even more, I hope you don’t catch his flu.

  8. So that’s why those kittens are always dancing on my computer! Or, you can start conversing with a coworker about the technological ineptness of certain faculty you are forced to help and end up an hour later looking up video of rotary milking parlors on the internet while also discussing which sort of cows are friendlier Jersey or Holstein. As for stress, I don;t have much of it, thank goodness.

    I do hope Mr. Litlove feels better soon before you get up one morning to find a line up of lady walruses in front of your house hoping to make an eligible match.

  9. I don’t tend to read much non-fiction but Cracking Up sounds fascinating (and I can think of a couple of friends who would love it). I too hope Mr Litlove recovers soon – your legs could do with a rest, I’m sure!

  10. ‘The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind.’ What a beautiful insight, Litlove. The internet daydream that led me here was well-rewarded. I see an essay here, or even, dare I say it, a book?

  11. I don’t read self-help books – especially ones about de-sressing. I find them too stressful. I find too many things I need to fix, which is overwhelming. So, I just trudge onward, one baby step at a time, knowing it’s all good – or will be eventually. Anyway, good post, Litlove. As always, thought provoking.

  12. I’m always pleased to read a defence of day-dreaming, and yours is so eloquently put that I shall memorise tracts of it for future use.

    I was intrigued by this, about the internet: ‘because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people’. So beautifully put! I suppose to some extent that skipping through the internet is a sort of assemblage of others’ ideas, whereas day-dreaming is the processing and creation of your own. (Or maybe not!) Perhaps that’s why the internet can be both inspiring and creatively deadening.

    Anyway, another wonderful and thought-provoking post which could only be improved by the addition of a link to the dancing kittens… hint hint…. 🙂

  13. “We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements… ” soup, stew, stir-fried indeed. The whole concoction is our own doing often as we attempt to keep up with being alive. Litlove, I just want to send my regards to Mr. litlove, and you as well, my total empathy. As a matter of fact, The last weeks of 2014 and early part of this year I had gone through the most difficult period of my life when my dad fell ill and passed away in January. I had been away from the blogosphere for about a month since (after sending you the Shiny New Books article) until just coming back in the last few weeks. I found, yes, just withdrawing myself from blogging, twittering, writing, and even reading needs no excuses and reasons. I just stopped and restarted again when I felt ready to come back. Probably nobody would have felt my absence, but the key point being, I didn’t feel that I needed to offer any explanation at all. I do hope all will be in a more manageable mode for you soon. Take care.

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