Holistic Thinking: Interconnectivity In Jewels And Practice, was presented at the 2016 SNAGnext conference, in Asheville, North Carolina on the 19th of May, 2016.
This paper was my response to the SNAGnext theme of:
Wellness and Holistic Practices – Exploring the importance of living a well rounded life to stay healthy emotionally, physically and creatively as a maker.
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Ignore the lofty title, this presentation is really about how we make magic in the studio. To get there let me start with a story about Andie.
I was back in Australia for a month last year, and while catching up with my big extended family and friends I was watching – actually she was hard to miss – my 20-month-old niece Andie. She wasn’t particularly verbal at that stage but that didn’t matter, she doesn’t need words to announce that she’s coming in a room; she’s all about giving face and energy, dahling! When she arrives, she arrives!
Right at this point Andie has learned a new word, so she’s sidling up to everyone she knows and testing it out on them. Like all the best words, it comes with an action… Andie goes up to someone and says “Body.” while lifting her shirt and pointing to her torso. She then looks inquisitively at her target, expecting a response. Unless they had already begun to mimic her action, by lifting their shirt and saying, “Body.” back to her, her hand will have reached across to their belly area and begun raising their shirt to help them out. Pretty soon she’s got everyone in on the action; my cousins, uncles, aunts, her great aunt – my auntie Gael, a very prim and properly attired woman with impeccable taste, is nervously lifting her cream silk shirt in public to say “Body.” along with Andie.
Andie has just discovered the meaning of body, and it is everything to her. She has a body! Look, you have a body?! Can you imagine anything better in the world?? Body! I’m alive! See this? This is my body! It was delightful, inspiring to watch.
Now I know y’all understand her joy. Of course you do. Y’all are mostly jewelers. You spend your lives making things for your clients, friends, yourselves even, that say “Look at me!” “Look at this? [point at hand] It’s on my body? Oh, [point at other hand] a Caitie Sellers original – on MY body! This is on my Body!” We are all here in this room because what we do is celebrate and glorify EVERY. SINGLE. BODY.
Now, to make beautiful things for and about the body, we use our bodies. And through the actions that we embody to make our work, we are making our own bodies. We know this because research into neuroplasticity in recent decades has told us that our neuronal circuits are not hard wired; that with training over time we can rewire our brains, that’s why we’re told to exercise and meditate as doing so can impact things like the volume and density of grey matter. And of course we’ve known for ages that our patterns of movement correspond to the strength of our musculoskeletal structure – so what we do sculpts our body.
So exercise and meditation improves body and brain. And they give us the endurance and ability we need to create, which is handy as our creative impulse are all packaged into the same delightful meat blanket as our physical and emotional selves. Wouldn’t it be handy if doing these things could also improve our emotional wellbeing..? Well, in the same way that nutritionists say that you are what you eat, for the creative I’d argue that you are also what you make. And eating good makes me feel well, and making good makes me happy.
Ohh, happy. Controversial! Am I really happy at the start of making a piece, when the gears are grinding and I’m wondering how I’ve ever made anything before cos it’s just so haaard. And it’s so time consuming and anxiety-inducing to think about what goes where, and worst of all, why? Why would I put that there, why do I even do this? Who the hell would use a fry pan to make jewellery and why would anyone put a used fry pan on their body? And assuming that someone does, would that make them the crazy person, or me?
Am I in fact happier when I’m in the zone, when a calm Zen-like feeling has washed over my body? When the tool in my hand is moving as an extension of my arm and my arm is the conduit of my eyes and brain, and my brain an agent of the universe at large, as if the planets themselves are spinning in order just to will me forward. At this point the work is just evolving in front of me as if by magic.
So then, maybe then, am I happy?
Well, this is something that bugged my friend here, [slide of name] Mr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-me-high-e] so much that he started researching it.
Y’all know my buddy Csikszentmihalyi? He’s written at least a dozen books on his theory of ‘flow’. Since 1990 it’s been used in schools, design, therapy – practically everywhere. It all started because Csikszentmihalyi was wondering why artists – painters especially – got so caught up in their work that they didn’t even heed their body’s need for food, water or even sleep! They were having such a great experience, one that was so deeply and intrinsically rewarding, that they wouldn’t even stop to use the loo.
Well, after a bunch of research he managed to confirm his hypothesis, that yes, these creative people are having what he likes to term, an “optimal experience.” In fact they are achieving something that he decides to call “flow.” Now, what is flow?
“[T]he state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Isn’t that just happiness? Well, as luck would have it, my unpronounceable friend here also did 25 years of research on happiness, it was the grounding for his theory, and it’s bad news bears, y’all. Happiness is much harder to achieve than we first thought.
“[H]appiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us cane come to being happy.”
Why don’t you tell it like it is, mate!? He does say that we are able to experience pleasure and enjoyment – two very different things in his book. The easy-to-come-by one is short-lived and the harder to get one can permanently alter your consciousness. Of course, because that’s our universe, right?
Pleasure has little lasting impact on our overall well-being. It comes, it goes, and it changes nothing. But enjoyment? Well, by old mate’s definition, enjoyment happens when we learn something, or change something inside ourselves, because it restructures our brain, and our brain likes it when we enrich it and especially when we create new order. Pleasure, forget it, but enjoyment? Enjoyment is what you see on the face of a little kid who is going around turning people’s T-shirts up. It’s affecting. It’s memorable to the point that this body [point at self] is half way across the world sharing that enjoyment experience with a room full of people, because enjoyment keeps on giving. Enjoyment is optimal experience.
So it’s not happiness, but it is optimal. That’s gotta be good, yeah?
“On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what live should be like.”
Hmm, interesting. Now, do you wanna know why? Well:
“[E]very flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.”
Creating order in the brain is rewarded.
Arright Asheville, you’re telling me “Melissa, you’ve sold me: so what conditions do we need to fulfill for optimal experience?”
“First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.”
Notice I highlighted skill in the summary? Will I ever to find a more skills-obsessed bunch than a room full or jewellers? You need to be really well versed (think the full 10,000 hours), and then your skills must be continually challenged so as not to become boring.
He stresses in the text that your goals have to keep pace with your skill level – to keep the bar just outside your prior experience to push yourself towards flow rather than staying at control. He also says most learning is done in the arousal stage… I have found that staying in flow requires me to push my work, to increase the complexity of the ideas I’m encapsulating, and the difficulty of construction and finding new construction techniques, to keep myself striving to reach my goals. So far I have found that the more challenging the work, the bigger the rewards. And as for those rewards, this piece, nicknamed Cannon and it’s friend, Tank, featured in my Body Politic exhibition earlier this year, have both just been purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
As you might have been able to gather, I think that striving for optimal experience in the studio has made me, and the creative people I know, do great work. I’d even say that the pursuit of ‘flow’ is the best case of what a creative career can look like, and it creates happy people. And Csikszentmihalyi agrees (or I agree with him, but who’s counting?), as he spent years defining what makes flow by studying creative professionals before he moved onto finding how different careers and cultures experience it.
So, the takeaway here is that while optimal experience creates order in the brain, your brain and body are part of that whole single meat unit, so you’re going to need to work at it. This preparation – doing all the things that every other presenter is talking about this weekend – is necessary as most of us here are creative entrepreneurs. We rarely get to be like a Picasso or a Bobby Fischer and dismiss our real world problems to bask in the glory of a continuous flow state, like some kind of addict. To get into the studio and use all of our mental bandwidth on the task at hand takes effort, one has to be #ready. But, when you are, well:
“[O]ne of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place; people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.”
“[W]hile it lasts consciousness works smoothly, action follows action seamlessly. In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. “Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?” Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward, as if by magic.”
Now, who couldn’t use some magic?
I don’t know that I can offer you any more than that. Be good to your body, and go get yourselves some flow, y’all.
““A man possess nothing certainly save a brief loan of his own body” … JB Cabell.”
All images from the slide show of Holistic Thinking: Interconnectivity In Jewels And Practice, a paper presented at the 2016 SNAGnext conference in Asheville by Melissa Cameron, with other image credits featured on the slides.
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 “Neuroplasticity,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, May 8, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Neuroplasticity&oldid=719288180.
 “Flow (Psychology),” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, April 1, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Flow_(psychology)&oldid=712964548.
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) p4.
 Ibid, p2.
 Ibid, p 03.
 Ibid, p74.
 Ibid, p49.
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, the Secret to Happiness, TED2004, 2004, https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en.
 Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, p53.
 Ibid, p54.
 Ibid, p94.