Chalk talk with erin feldman: Confront biases to make better art

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For the Gazette
Published: 5/13/2021 4:04:06 PM

Turbulent emotional states are a crucial aspect of creativity — artists thrill at the shock of inspiration when great ideas come, as much as we are sated when the balm of resolution and solution ebb upon finishing a project.

We hanker for this sine wave to curve our pens, paintbrushes, and pointe shoes because it can lead us to making art that inspires people, and even fosters others’ creativity!

Ever since humans made the first arts, we have steadily wondered how to reliably recreate the process of inspiration, and everybody has their own practice and language to describe contacting the muse for the goods.

So much of what we create art out of is unconscious, emotional and urgent. Neuroscience and cognitive psychology have proved that humans very often act and think without consciously choosing; we can trace this behavior in part to evolutionary programming (those who ran away from the saber-toothed cat usually survived, those who opted to count her stripes likely did not). Whether you look at this human pattern from the perspective of making art, teaching the writing process, or studying complicated literature: We all work from an inbuilt and indirect decision-making matrix.

Psychologists call this normal human phenomenon implicit bias, and teacher of mindfulness call it the monkey mind. Turbulent emotional states wherein the mind fluctuates untethered between feelings and thoughts might occasionally yield a poem or a sick bass line, but more reliably than not this results in messy frustration and uncertainty, a circumstance we are nauseatingly familiar with right now.

And, art aside, there is a destructive aspect to implicit bias that we can interrogate not just to advance high-impact methods in our practice, but also to do our part in arcing history toward justice.

What we consciously and unconsciously perceive is conditioned by the white supremacy upon which our national systems are built. Every impact we can trace — from whose perspective history is taught, to which artists, inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders we glorify — has been tainted by the implicit biases of our mentors and teachers, whose studies have been equally limited by their teachers.

Without our active interrogation, we will pass the same warped biases on to our audience, students and children.

Mindfulness practices show us one route through the messy challenge of untangling the exclusion and superiority resulting from our implicit biases from inspiration and the creative process. The object is to study our minds so thoroughly that not only do we become familiar with our biases, but we do so to ensure that bias is not in control of the reins — we are.

When absorbed over hours and months, mindfulness practices (such as inquiry and bare awareness) cause us to become aware of our habitual and conditioned responses to mental fluctuations that we usually label as mood, emotion and personality. Choosing a mindful mentality when we find ourselves in inevitable turbulent emotional states prepares us to experience our body and the thoughts fluctuating through our body in real time, rather than being fogged in by unconscious implicit bias.

Will studying our minds lead to a more understandable creative process? Probably. Will studying our minds also lead us to see, and course correct, our complicity in the pernicious, systemic predicament that we’re all ensnared in? Yes, I believe it will. Join me in untangling the mess. Let’s make art, not suffering!

Since the late 1990s, erin feldman has been working as a writer and poet, a classroom and outdoor educator, a writing instructor, and a yoga + mindfulness teacher. She is co-founder of Center Content, an independent marketing and content creation agency serving in the legal, education and health care spaces. erin is a teacher-consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.


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