“I understand nothing”, he said.
He hadn’t recovered from the wonders he had just seen. He never would.
“Retain your bewilderment,” said the voice, his guide. “Your bewilderment will serve you well.”
– Ben Okri, 1995, in Astonishing the Gods.
Bewilderment. In yoga and in art, bewilderment is valuable. In yoga, you’ll often hear people say things along the lines of ‘experience this with your child mind’; ‘move as if your body is new to you’; ‘come to your practice with the same curiosity you had the first time you stepped onto the mat’. Fresh eyes, clean slate. I suppose it all comes down to something I’ve been writing about a lot: openness. If you are open to coming to experiences without prejudice or expectation, you have more space in your head to discover, and a keener ability to be altered in a way that allows you to be creative.
So how can we leave our preconceptions at the door when we come to our work, so that new approaches can evolve?
Well…maybe we can’t. I studied anthropology at university, and the notion of human beings’ forever entanglement with their constructed realities and cosmological mouldings was drilled into me in a way that I can’t ever escape – perhaps that’s a little bit ironic. But it’s an important part of an anthropologists’ ability to learn about people from backgrounds different from their own: the self-awareness to recognise that no matter how hard they might try, they will always see things through the coloured lens of their own layers of life experience. A human being is never an objective being. James Clifford, talking about the shift in anthropological methods towards recognition of the influence of cultural background on each individual anthropologist’s understanding of their area of study, writes that “a conceptual shift, ‘tectonic’ in its implications, has taken place. We ground things, now, on a moving earth.” (Clifford 1986:22). Anthropologists can’t completely shed their preconceptions, but they can embrace self-reflection, and share within their work an understanding of the bias that their own backgrounds bring.
Bias and Art and Yoga
To be able to create a piece of art – in whatever form – with total freedom from prejudice is a sort of dream. To be unaffected by the years of conditioning that we’ve experienced; years of being told what is and isn’t cool, what kind of message a certain style of work connects with, which boxes we should and shouldn’t put ourselves in in order to be who we want to be or who is it acceptable for us to be. But if an artist is unable to be completely free from bias, they can at least be aware – as anthropologists these days strive to be – of their own particular biases so that they can recognise when they’re doing – or avoiding – something not because it’s what they really genuinely want to do, but because their accumulative experience is telling them to do it or not do it.
And that’s where yoga practice becomes a shimmering beacon of possibility – a way of learning and practising self-awareness and reflexivity, which you can take away from the mat and into your art practice. When you first start a physical yoga practice, one of the first things you do – often without realising you’re doing it – is begin to unwind the fixed patterns in your own movement, by noticing them. As your practice develops and you get used to its rhythms, you start to recognise your own areas of resistance. Some physical (like OOOooh I really don’t like forward folds because OWw my hamstrings) and some psychological (like avoiding lying flat on your back because it makes you feel exposed and vulnerable). As you recognise the obstacles that you come up against in yourself, you then begin to overcome them. Slowly, you can start to find balance, working on the limitations or fears that hold you back in a gradual, safe way.
In doing so, you are using your body to learn about how to learn about yourself. When you become adept at acknowledging your personal obstacles in your yoga practice, you can use this skill in your creative work. You become familiar with the signals that your body and mind give you when you’re confronting a pre-existing prejudice in yourself, and you might start to notice these signals when you’re doing whatever kind of creating it is that you do. You might notice that your posture changes when something you’re working on takes a turn that is uncomfortable to you – maybe because it looks or sounds or feels a little too much like something else you’ve seen or heard or felt before. Or you might find that when obstacles crop up in your artwork, you feel an instant aversion to it as you might do towards a part of your yoga practice – an urge to leave it and do something else.
Any kind of signals that you become aware of in your yoga practice will become obvious to you when they appear in other areas of your life, and that means that you can pause. Think about why that thing is happening – what is it that’s bothering you? And if it seems to be because your understanding of what’s happening is being smudged together with past experience, you can remind yourself to retain your bewilderment. Your bewilderment will serve you well – so come back to that. Remind yourself to be curious again, and look at what you’re making as if you’d never looked at anything like it before. When you explore it with curiosity rather than prejudice, you can figure out whether it’s real for you, or whether self-consciousness is casting shadows on your work.
Clifford, James. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.
Okri, Ben. 1995. Astonishing the Gods. Orion Publishing Group.