Posted by Peter Himmelman
You plan and you dream and you wait. It’s as though you’re on a conveyor belt that’s slowly bringing you nearer, imperceptibly nearer, to the time you must eventually deliver. I feel like I’m in a factory with a batch of Lay’s potato chips that’s ready to roll off the belt and into the bag.
Tomorrow my Big Muse team and I leave for Breckenridge, Colorado to work with wounded veterans from some of the nastiest conflicts in Iraq, to help them heal, to help them become more expressive – I just found out this morning that some of them haven’t left their bedrooms in years. These are guys with serious emotional and physical challenges. They’re coming with their wives and kids too. Whole families who’ve found themselves adrift on a sea of challenges that are unknowable to most of us.
There’s an organization called Wounded Warriors Family Adventures that hosts different kinds of events for the vets and their families. In this case, the WWFA have planned a ski week in the mountains. After four days of winter sports and counseling sessions I’m going to come in and get the families to write songs about their experiences. Am I ready? Confident? I wish I were.
The thing about writing songs is that it acts like a duck blind, behind which you can hide and feel safer to express yourself. I was watching Mike Tyson on TV last night, he’s got a one man theatrical show about his life. When asked how he was able to talk about himself in such depth and detail without breaking down emotionally – in particular, about the incident when his four year old daughter was tragically killed in a freak accident he said, “it’s not really me up there, it’s a guy playing me.”
I can relate to that. Expressing ourselves through music or poetry is safe. Because there’s a barrier to shield us when we sing a song or recite a poem – like Mike Tyson’s cloaking-device of “playing himself,” it makes the often-unbearable task of telling our stories easier. When we have this sense of being concealed from our listeners (and we always need a listener) our feelings of vulnerability are lessened and we feel safe to reveal what needs expression. The idea that our revelations are poetic or imagistic, that they’re not necessarily journalistically accurate, makes no difference at all. It doesn’t lessen the catharsis. Some feelings are so deep that they can only be expressed through abstractions and metaphors.
I’ve wanted to do this work with returning veterans for years. Maybe it’s because my Dad was a Marine and I’ve always idealized that aspect of him. It’s taken me about eight months of phone conversations, meetings and emails to garner the trust of the WWFA. It doesn’t really matter to them that I’ve made this or that recording or received this or that award. What they want to know is whether I’ve got the ability to become empathic enough to gain the trust of the soldiers and their families.
I wish I could say that I’m leaving for Colorado with full confidence, that I knew exactly what I was going to do or say. Even though you always hear that you need it, in some situations – perhaps like this one, confidence isn’t always the most important asset. Maybe a desire to help is what’s most needed. I think I’ve got that at least.
Sure, I have a vague sense that I’ll be successful in some way, but the “way,” the manner of just how this will get done, is completely unknown to me. That’s scary as hell and I’ve been losing sleep over it. But here’s one thing I do know and I’ve learned this from experience: we humans do our best work when we come well prepared for something that’s beyond all preparation.
Letting go of overly-rehearsed ways of communicating, a willingness to improvise, and a true (to the extent that we can be true) desire to bring joy to others are the best tools we can bring to any problem.
The conveyor belt is humming, the Lay’s are salted, the bag is waiting.
4.10.13 at 10:28 am | The thing about writing songs is that it acts. . .
2.1.13 at 2:11 pm | My name is Rabbi Mordechai Grossfeller and I’ve. . .
1.31.13 at 3:09 pm | Creativity isn't a skill. It isn't a tool to be. . .
11.2.12 at 5:10 pm | You see, Marv fears for your safety. He fears for. . .
10.24.12 at 8:14 pm | The stories we tell ourselves to deflect from. . .
10.17.12 at 4:58 pm | You can't create anything new, only new. . .
10.24.12 at 8:14 pm | The stories we tell ourselves to deflect from. . . (5)
9.24.12 at 3:05 pm | In 1979 there was a revolutionary new song out. . . (2)
10.17.12 at 4:58 pm | You can't create anything new, only new. . . (2)
February 1, 2013 | 2:11 pm
Posted Rabbi Mordechai Grossfeller aka: Peter Himmelman
For the audio of Peter Himmelman acting as the fictional Rabbi Mordechai Grossfeller click here.
My name is Rabbi Mordechai Grossfeller and I’ve asked you to come gather in this Beis Midrash tonight to speak about a very troubling phenomenon that is plaguing the Jewish educational system, and by extension, the future of the Mosaic tradition itself. That is, specifically, the tendency of our young people to imitate the customs and mores of ghetto society. Surely, none of us has not seen incidences of our yeshiva buchurim emulating the dubious fashion trend known as "sagging"; whereby, a youth’s trousers are worn below the hipline, oftentimes so low as to reveal the underwear, or heaven forefend, the actual buttocks themselves.
We in leadership roles shake our heads in consternation. We daven for answers and get none. Why...why, we ask ourselves. Haven’t our children been given the best of everything? The best yeshivas, the best teachers, the best chulent -veys z’meir!
It’s time we pull our heads out of the sand. Just as our forefathers coming out of Egypt had to pull their heads up - and out of slavery, so we too need to look coldly and bravely at this plague as well.
What is it that is so appealing about this - urban culture? What is it that is perceived as so lacking in our own? Let me be the first here to put forth a hypothesis.
The disenfranchisement of our youth is caused by a sense of powerlessness. We are a nation that has been living in exile, without a sovereign homeland for over two thousand years; existing as guests in host nations that have been at best, grudgingly accommodating, and at worst, the perpetrators of the most insidious mass murders to ever take place of the face of this earth.
The powerlessness that this “outsider” status conveys is too much for our boys. Look at the aggressive nature of so-called urban culture. It’s a marvelous thing in its way. To be feared and to rise up with loud garish music, threats of mortal danger and a masculine sexuality that says beware! What then does our holy Torah have to say on the matter?
In the Pirke Avos, the Ethics of our Fathers we read: Who is strong? The answer we get is shocking in it’s simplicity and it’s astute appraisal of human nature. He who controls his passions is strong we are told and only he who has attempted to contradict the will of his base nature knows how true this is.
My answer to the youth of today is to confront this dictum head-on. To look at the control of one’s selfish impulse as the “hood” and to imagine that the taming of one’s unchecked sexuality is akin to a “gang war”.
As educators, I ask each of you to consider telling the struggling youngsters that the mitzvah of respecting parents and teachers requires as much skill and bravado as “free style rapping”. Why not compare the beauty and intensity of Gemmarah study with the dreamlike sensations of smoking an “eight ball”. And shall we not suggest to our youngsters that the laying of Teffilin is as exciting as “hooking up” with “shortie.”
In other words, let’s indulge our children’s passion for the urban man’s culture of strength by applying it to Judaism. Perhaps we can refer to Shabbos observance itself as an opportunity to “sag” one’s trousers and to metaphorically reveal one’s buttocks as a meshal of strength and rebellion. It’s the selfsame strength and rebellion that the chosen people must endeavor to do on a daily basis when they rise up each morning before Hakadosh Barchu and declare before the entire world:
Hashem elokakanu Hashem echad!
And with that I wish you a Git Shabbis.
Rabbi M. Grossfeller
January 31, 2013 | 3:09 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
Creativity isn't a skill. It isn't a tool to be marketed or capitalized upon, although it's often highly prized. Think of it like breathing or blood pumping through your veins. It's more like the movement of planets or waves on the ocean then something peripheral to our collective human experience. It exists in all of us, it is a part of all of us. Of course if creativity is so native to human experience why is it in evidence in some much more than others and why does it often feel so distant?
From a neurological point of view the brain is an apparatus that's way more of a filter than a open door. Rather then take in information, it's main function is to be selective about where we focus our attention. In doing so, there is far more sensory input that is deselected or left behind than is absorbed. How else would we function if we were bombarded with the millions of sense perceptions we were given at any moment? That said, in order to foster a greater grasp of our own native creativity, we need a method to decrease the over-active filtration system that the brain provides us. We need techniques that allow a greater degree of willingness on the part of the brain to admit stimuli it might normally reject.
For instance, if you're sitting at your computer trying to write a business proposal and you've come up against a wall, and you're drawing a blank, it might be helpful to focus momentarily on things that the brain had deselected. The sound of the rain outside. The smell of the coffee in your cup. A glint of sunlight hitting your desk from a nearby window. It's not that there's any direct correlation to what you're working on. That's not the important thing. What is important, and you can consider this whole slightly odd way of looking at problem solving as an exercise, is that for a fleeting moment, by noticing things your mind has filtered out, you allow your brain to relax its propensity to stop the flow of information, to decrease its natural selective tendency and provide a brief window of increased acceptance of ideas. That's why so many of us have our most powerful revelations in the shower. The warm water on our naked skin, the smell of the soap and the sound of the water cause our analytical minds to take a break and our sensory perceptions become predominant.
The Inner Critic
The brain has another astounding function. The limbic brain, (specifically the amygdala) which has been called the primitive brain or the emotional brain is on a constant lookout for life threatening danger. If we were walking down the street and a angry dog suddenly growled at us from behind a fence, the amygdala would cause us to breathe in involuntarily. That inhalation would provide a quick burst of oxygen so we could run like hell. Interestingly, the limbic brain, reacts in a similar way to non- physical threats as well, such as criticism of our ideas or even the perception of criticism, because it perceives criticism as another life threatening danger. Here's why:
As infants and young children our capacity for absorbing knowledge and information was arguably at its peak. No one could say that our native intelligence as adults has increased since infancy and let's not confuse the accumulation of information - of which we surely have more than we did as children - as intelligence. Given that we were highly intelligent even as infants, we must have been cognizant in some way of our own fragility, our need to be taken care of, nurtured, and guarded. If there were a suspicion or a sense that we would somehow be rejected by our parents, that suspicion would lead to increased anxiety because rejection at that early stage in our lives meant death. Now whether we as infants had this reason systematicaly thought out is highly unlikely, but what is likely is that the amygdala had (and still does have) a way of intuiting this kind of danger; no different from the reaction it would have at the growling of the angry dog; both are instinctual, primal, mortal fear.
This fear of rejection is another way the brain deselects options. Out of fear, (note: as adults, this fear has refined itself into concepts of shame, humiliation, ignominy) but its all the same; there is a limiting factor which occurs when we feel we are going to be judged.
1. Judgement means possible rejection,
2. Rejection means abandonment and...
3. Abandonment means death
4. Fearing death, we limit our innate capacity toward creativity as a life saving mechanism.
Even when the actual threat of abandonment is in no way present (we'll feel embarrassment perhaps, but be sure of this - embarrassment will never lead to death) we continue to harbor the same primitive fears. So goes our limbic brain. It's there to help us but it just doesn't know when to shut up.
We at Big Muse never tell the limbic brain to shut up. We've even given it a name: Marv, and we treat it with respect. After all, Marv is our protector. We show Marv great respect. We give him a cup of coffee and a New York Times and tell him to take a break. While he's away, comfortably sipping his coffee and reading the paper, we can do our best work.
1. We express vulnerability
2. That expression creates stronger teams
3. Stronger teams create more acceptance
4. More acceptance creates less fear
5. Less fear allows natural creativity to be unleashed
I had a discussion with a friend of mine yesterday. I presented him with what I felt might be (in its most ideal sense) an axiom: Creativity is freedom - Freedom is abundance
He didn't believe that creative freedom necessarily brought about abundance. I disagreed and not only being I was being slightly disagreeable. I feel strongly that creativity surrounds us like air and it's only fear that prevents us from accessing it. The freedom I am expressing is freedom from our own perceived limitations, our own Marvs if you will. I believe (I didn't say "know" that type of certainty is annoying) that our ability to create is commensurate with our ability to overcome our fear. Once we become fully "creative" that is, in our personal lives, our spiritual lives and our occupational lives, we will naturallyl find unbounded abundance.
November 2, 2012 | 5:10 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
I never attended Columbia, Stanford or Yale; hell, I never even attended college, not even for a day. Imagine how many times I’ve been assailed with the thought that I have no right to sit down to write anything. How many times I’ve been struck by some inner voice calling me an uneducated fraud. (By the way, if you’re looking for a blog from an academic scholar now's a good time to put this one down.) What is that negative voice? Where does it come from? Where does it live and what’s its function? It must have an important one because everyone I’ve ever met has got the same voice inside.
My firm belief is that the negative voice is not an enemy as some writers have suggested or some evil demon meant to do us harm. Rather, it’s a very real and integral part of us that cares strongly about our own survival. In that sense, it’s not something to be eradicated or pushed away (as if it could be pushed away.) It’s a part of us that needs to be valued and understood. It’s funny how the needs of this internal critic are so similar to our own needs.
The similarity exists because “it” is “us.”
To humanize this internal critic, I’m going to give it a name, I’ll call it Marv. Marv is what my wife and I would call our oldest son whenever we were traveling and he would start complaining or asking ridiculous questions of the “are we there yet” variety. We’d say, “who let Marv in the car?’
Marv will give you space and allow your dreams to manifest themselves itself if you have these three ideas in mind:
Specific – Dream as big as you like but then make sure your dream is specified - broken down into small actionable pieces. Don’t think, I want to become a baseball star without also thinking: I’m going to the ballpark now to practice my swing for thirty minutes.
Present – Don’t think, I’ll start practicing sometime mid-week. Think: I’ll go to the ballpark at 10:35 this morning and then actually go.
True - Don’t pursue the dream of being a baseball star because your dad pressured you to dream of being a baseball star. He may have pressured you because he always wanted to be one –and failed. The dream itself must be self-generated and it must be something that you want to pursue for your own sake and of your own volition.
When I consider the many times my work was devalued but I moved forward anyway, I get a certain amount of pride, not necessarily for the things I’d eventually made, but for the very fact of having overcome my own critical voices. External criticism, like bad reviews or people not buying tickets to your show always generates internal criticism. People’s negative comments are like rocket fuel for Marv. He becomes hyper energized and he'll make you feel like quitting whenever he hears other people criticizing you.
You see, Marv fears for your safety. He fears for your well being. When we were infants and dependent upon our parents for our very survival, Marv was there. If a hungry lion were running after to us to devour our flesh Marv would be the force that compelled us to flee for our lives. He’s got his hand on the lever the squirts the adrenaline into our bloodstreams and the anxiety into our brains. He’s got such a one-track mind about helping us that he simply hasn’t heard the news:
Marv, our lives are not in danger any more so please fu&^ing relax!
I know there are people who insist that they’re impervious to criticism and to Marv’s warnings but please, for your own good, don’t believe them, they’re just plain lying. The image of this undaunted warrior of creativity, trudging through life unaffected by anything but his own invariably positive muse does not correlate with reality. Everyone hates rejection. The problem isn’t so much that these folks are lying -which they are- it’s that we tend to believe that such people exist and then feel horrible that we’re not like them, that we’re somehow deficient. Let me assure you again: everybody is affected by criticism. We love it when people praise our work and we abhor it when they dismiss our work. That’s human nature and it’s unchanging. The only difference is that some of us are stopped in our tracks by the critical voices and others of us keep going.
If you remember the formula: specific, present, and true - you'll have a much better chance of getting Marv to take a coffee break. When he's settled into a chair and reading the NYT, that's the time to create.
October 24, 2012 | 8:14 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
The stories we tell ourselves to deflect from doing the things we dream of doing are wonderfully written. They’ve got nuance, detail and incredible dialogue. In fact they’re masterworks of searing influence. Marv, (that's the name I give to the internal critic - that voice in our heads that keeps us afraid and unwilling to take risks) works with our imaginations and together, they're like a team of brilliant filmmakers in our minds. They are the very crew that makes all our creativity possible - let’s call them Dreamators Ltd., except in this case, they are working against our dreams. Marv get’s them riled up and says:
“Look Dreamators, I’m afraid Peter’s going to get himself into some serious trouble with these ideas of his. I need you guys to get busy coming up with a movie that we can put up on the screen of his consciousness to stop him, hell, we can even play the thing as he sleeps, but it’s got to be convincing, it’s got to make him understand that he will fail and when he does he needs to see how much harm the failure’s gonna bring him. He’s gotta understand that failure means death. There’s no other way to convince him. Peter’s a smart guy so we’ve got to put him in touch with some of his most vulnerable emotions. You know, the ones he’s carried around since childhood. He’s got to be made to feel that if he fails and makes himself look bad, he’ll be cast out, shut out, cut off, rejected, friendless, loveless, hopeless and alone. Make it look tragic. You can do it guys I know you can.”
The thing to remember is that the stories we tell ourselves are as powerful as the creativity we muster up to pursue our dreams. In truth, they are one and the same. The more creative we are, the more creative the Dreamators are. The one thing that breaks the cycle is when we recognize just what’s taking place in our minds. When we understand that the negative feelings that crop up to quell our dreams are really the products of our own fruitful imaginations, we need only begin to take the specific small actions towards our goals. When we do that, we change the Dreamators directives. Instead of working for Marv, they immediately begin working for us.
October 17, 2012 | 4:58 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
1 - Feel, don't intellectualize
2 - Don't try to be good- just be
3 - The goal is to finish within the form
4 - It doesn't have to mean anything, it just has to make you feel everything
5 - The world seems like disconnected pieces, show its unity
6 - Find freedom in structure
7 - There is no wrong answer here
8 - There's no need to be correct
9 - If what you create baffles you, that's a good thing
10 - Don't stop to analyze
11 - If you're stuck try something new
12 - Say the first thing that pops into your mind
13 - There is nothing to fear
14 - No one fails here
15 - Be brave enough to laugh at yourself
16 - You're not a bad person or a good person, you just …are
17 - Stop judgment for now
18 - You can fly here
19 - You can breath under water here
20 - You are invisible here
21 - You are- indefatigable, invulnerable, immeasurable, invincible
22 - Laugh at yourself, cry for others
23 - We are all exiles here
24 - You can't create anything new, only new combinations of pre-existing things
25 - Don't overthink
October 12, 2012 | 4:54 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
Imagine that our boundless joy, the kind we get when we’re walking around with the sense that our lives are full of endless possibilities is a gigantic Milky Way bar. I don’t care if you don’t like candy or even if you don’t like Milky Way bars -just for the moment imagine that you do. Picture that sucker. It’s huge, maybe twelve feet long, three feet wide and two feet tall. It’s laid out on some enormous picnic table and it represents the kind of joy I just described, all chocolate, caramel and pure unfettered creativity. That’s what you get immediately after you start taking the kind of small actions towards fulfilling your dreams. Not sitting around dreaming: I want to be a baseball star, but - I’m going to the ballpark to practice my swing for forty minutes.
Imagine that beside that enormous Milky Way bar is a tiny blade of grass. It’s dried up and skinny. Now take that blade of grass, which is around an inch long and cut it into ten pieces with an exacto knife. You should have ten pieces of skinny dry grass that are about a tenth of an inch long. Take nine of them and throw them away. In the palm of your hand you’ve got one tiny bit of grass. That represents the amount of pleasure you get from keeping your dream safe inside your head. It’s not a lot. In fact it’s hardly any at all but the complicating factor is that the dream-in-hiding does provide a modicum of… well, I wouldn’t, couldn’t call it joy. That would be way overstating it. It’s more like some wan, pathetic, vaguely pleasant sensation about which Marv (the nagging internal critic) says:
“Hey why risk the benefits of this great piece of grass. I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying to yourself there must be more but in fact, for you, there really isn’t more and why risk losing this? Besides, this grass is yours, no one can criticize it or take it from you. You can accomplish anything you want but just not today ok? Oh, and here’s a good thing… there’s no way you’ll ever run the potentially tragic chance of failing. Forget about the Milky Way bar alright? It’s not for you, it’s for someone else. Someone you know… better than you. You’re a grass person right? Yeah, now you’re talking!”
And that’s where most of us stay. Safe and sound with a piece of dry grass no bigger then a tenth of an inch in the palm of our hands. No possibilities, no joy, just a vague sensation that barely passes for pleasant. Oh, and here’s another thing you can do with that blade of grass:
Take the piece you have and divide it again by ten. Throw the nine other pieces away and you can do this wonderful thing that people with a nearly microscopic piece of dry grass always do- you can sit around and criticize the people who are eating the Milky Way bars. You can comment on how, if you had a chance to write a song, or act in a movie, or start a business, or get up and dance- how much better you’d be at it then them. Now it would be a lie to say that this kind of thing yields no joy at all. The truth is that it does. It gives the person a pleasure that is perfectly commensurate with a piece of thin dry grass that is exactly one twentieth of an inch long. Not a Milky Way bar, but something right?
October 4, 2012 | 10:46 am
Posted by Peter Himmelman
Why do we humans have such a strong need to create? Might identifying that need help us when we’re having trouble making a dream manifest? Perhaps our need to innovate is tied to our need to generate money for ourselves and our families. But then what about the nine-year old kid who sits and draws for hours on end like I used to do? I can tell you for sure, I never thought about making money when I was nine; my dad was doing that. I was making what was in my head come alive through crayolas and paper. At that time it was a gang of monsters called Glirches -who of course, lived in Glirchville.
There was something so fulfilling about creating this town of Glirchville. A special place wrested from my own imagination where I could be the mayor, the policeman, the banker and the jailer all in one. Even as I was busy drawing away, there was often this thought in the back of my mind that the pictures I was making might get noticed for their brilliance by someone special, most likely my mom.
That brings us two more possible motivators for creativity: One is the joy of the actual immersion in the drawing itself. The process of getting the Glirches out of our imaginations and quickly down on paper. There are no thoughts of outcomes or judgments or expectations fulfilled. It’s a much more pure process of allowing the thoughts to be made immediately manifest on the page. This is the place where we get lost for hours, where time flows freely and imperceptibly. Being in that creative space, with its freedom and possibilities is a truly magical part of our life experience.
The other side Glirch-making is being aware of outcomes even as we create. To be drawing while being simultaneously aware that our Mothers could soon be complimenting us, scotch-taping an original Glirchville on the refrigerator, or talking about how creative her son or daughter is. It’s not to say that this kind of motivation, this praised-based impetus, is without merit. Doing something for a reward does have the ability to motivate. It’s just that it’s far inferior to creating without any expectations at all. Once there’s an external factor looming in your thoughts, like a refrigerator exhibition, there’s also a corresponding:
What if it’s not good enough to go on the refrigerator?
While it’s noble to strive for the ideal of creating Glirches with no expectations, the reality is more complex. There will always be a blend of the two motivators. In our efforts to create we will continue to find ourselves going back and forth between the two. First, we’ll be drawing a scene of a Glirch swimming in the Glirch Sea, adding some glirch-birds and maybe even coloring the water Burnt Umber –just because it looks cool. Then suddenly, without us even noticing, the idea that our mothers will come in to our bedrooms and shower us with praise will come to us -followed shortly by the frightening thought that our mothers won’t shower us with praise.
The benefit of motivation number one, the purer of the two, is that it has the potential to enrich our lives in a deeper way than praise ever can. Praise after all, is contingent on outside forces. Something that is bubbling up from the wellsprings of our own imaginations and curiosity is far likelier to make us happy.