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What lies at the heart of unlocking our creative energy? What steps can we take to transform our creative blocks into productive energy?

Creative blocks are not solely the result of a lack of ideas but are deeply intertwined with our emotional state and our surroundings. Embracing and expressing the chaotic energies of our environment can be a powerful method to unblock and harness our creative potential.

In this episode, we discuss the dynamic nature of creativity, challenging the traditional views that confine it to being either a mystical muse or a mere skill, and instead, presenting it as a flow of energy that requires understanding and nurturing.

Join me as we explore practical strategies for overcoming the blocks that hinder our creative flow, from embracing the chaos around us to confronting our deepest fears.

Topics Covered

  • The nature of creative energy and its sources
  • The impact of our environment, personal crises, and fear on creativity
  • Morning pages and their role in overcoming creative blocks
  • Creativity as a flow of energy through us
  • The relationship between internal state and creative output
  • Strategies for harnessing emotional and environmental energies for creativity
  • Embracing creative blocks as opportunities for growth
  • Understanding creativity as a form of self-expression and connection

⏱︎ Time Stamps

00:00 • Introduction to the episode

01:21 • Understanding the concept of creative energy

01:42 • Exploring the different models of creativity

04:25 • The impact of environment on creative energy

05:25 • The role of emotions in creative energy

12:01 • The dilemma of creative blocks

12:49 • Unblocking creative energy: The Artist's Way

13:36 • Practical steps to unblocking creative energy

19:25 • The power of daily practice in unblocking creative energy

25:26 • Rewriting our beliefs about creativity

26:33 • Conclusion: The importance of a daily creative practice

📄 Transcript

Welcome to the Zen Habits podcast, where we dive into how to work with uncertainty, resistance, and fear around our meaningful work. This is for anyone who wants to create an impact in the world and cares deeply enough to do the work. I'm your host, Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog.

All right, so as I record this podcast episode, there's a storm brewing outside. It's not only windy and rainy, but there's also a flood watch. There's the possibility, maybe a slight one, of hail, and I'm here in Northern California where we don't get a lot of hail. Sometimes we do, but even more bonkers to me is the idea that we might get a tornado. So, there's a tornado watch in my area. Very rare.

And as I say this, I'm not just sharing it to tell you what's going on in my life—though that is a part of it—but to let you know the environment I'm in as I record this. And it's interesting to me because, as I talk about creation, creation isn't done in a vacuum. It's done with stuff going on in our lives, a lot of energy going on in our lives. And so, I'm going to talk a little bit about that today. How the energy in our lives can affect the act of creation.

But I also want to talk about the energy of creation itself. What is the creative energy like? That's what we're going to talk about. We'll start talking about the creative energy, then we'll talk about how the energy of the world around us, how our environment affects the creative act, and then how to unblock that creative energy. So that's what we're going to talk about in this episode.

So, let's start with creative energy. It's interesting because when we think about the creative act, it's almost like the image that we might have in our minds, a lot of us—not necessarily everybody—is either it's just this mysterious thing that happens and we don't know anything about it, or we might have the idea that we are a carpenter that is building something.

So, you have materials, you have the tools, and then you have the action of taking those tools to the materials to actually make something. And the interesting thing is, if you have the first idea about creating things, which is, it's just mysterious and you have no idea, then there's really not much you can do; there's a sense of helplessness.

So it's just, "Oh, I don't know, maybe it'll come to me with my muse, or maybe it's something that other people have, and I don't have, I'm not creative." So, there's just a sense of it's mysterious, and it's unknown, and I have no idea. And that there's a helplessness to that model, or to that understanding of creativity.

But on the other side of it, the other image that I shared was a carpenter, doesn't have to be a carpenter, it could be a bricklayer, but someone who is building something with tools and materials and their own actions. And there's a very different kind of empowerment to this, which is that I can just build stuff with tools. The model breaks down when we get stuck, when we're like, "Ah, I got nothing to write about, or I've got nothing to share in my videos, or I have nothing to draw, or no music is coming from me. I just got nothing."

So when you are in that place, then it's just, "Why isn't it working? Are my tools broken? Are the materials deficient? Is my knowledge of how to build stuff deficient?" And so, if it's my knowledge of how to build something, I've got the right tools and materials, but I just don't know how to make something, then I'm going to look for more knowledge. And that doesn't actually help us. We might get more knowledge, but it doesn't actually have us creating something because it's just, "I'm dry right now. I'm blocked. I just don't know where to get the stuff."

And so, it's then maybe it's materials. So like, "Where do I get the materials? Totally clueless here." So, the carpenter and tools and materials building metaphor for creativity only works as long as you feel like you're really empowered about it, and you're just like making stuff. But as soon as you get blocked, there isn't much you can do with that model.

So, the model that I find useful is that it's an energy. It's an energy that flows through us. And I didn't make this model up. We'll talk a little bit about some of the inspiration behind it, but it's an existing model, right? So, there's just an energy that flows through us. This might sound magical or mystical, but I believe that there's something to this.

The word "energy" gets used by a lot of alternative medicines and things like that to the point where now people just distrust any discussion of energy. But I believe that then loses, if you just dismiss anything where people are talking about energy, you're missing out on something that's really powerful. So bear with me. If you're one of those skeptics, bear with me here. I'm not talking about some kind of just out in left field kind of theory. This is actually something that works. So bear with me.

So how is the creative act a flowing of creative energy? Let's imagine I want to paint. So, I've got a huge canvas, right? My dad was an artist. He painted on huge canvases, murals, or just big canvases that he would stretch out that cover a whole wall. And he's got a bunch of paint and in him, he's got some kind of inspiration, and he's got this energy that just wants to get out. This is his personal energy, the essence of who he is, and getting that energy out is an act of, not only an act of creation, it's an act of self-expression, and it's an act of love.

And so he would take the paintbrushes, and he would dip them in the paint, and he would just let that energy flow out of him through his arm, through the paintbrush onto the canvas. And sometimes it would be this wild frenetic energy. Sometimes it would be refined and thoughtful. And there was all kinds of stuff in between. It could be anger. It could be love. It could be tenderness and pain and hurt. It could be caring and just appreciation and awe. These are all energies that would flow out of him. They were who he was, something he maybe couldn't express through words, but that he would express through the act of painting.

And so, I think that could be a really visual way to see, like, he was expressing the energy of who he was, the creative energy out into a canvas. But you can see that in anyone who plays music. They're not just, by rote, whatever they've memorized, just starting to like strum on a guitar, technically playing some strings. Yes, there is some of that there, of course. My dad didn't just paint randomly. He practiced for many hours to get good technically at what he was doing, but the technical part only helps to refine the expression of the creative energy.

So when someone is playing music, you could see that they're putting their passion into it or their pain or their anger or whatever energy that they have. You can see that in musicians who are really playing, they're really getting into it. Now, they have to master some technical aspects of it, of course. You can't play music with passion and not know how to play a guitar or piano, or the trumpet or whatever it is that you're playing. You have to know some technical parts of it, but those are some of the least important parts.

There's a lot of people who can be good technically, but if they don't let their creative energy come out, then they're just copying. They're like a photocopier. That's not creativity. That is just mimicking. The creative energy comes, even if they are copying someone else's song, when they pour their creative energy into it.

And so, you can see that with musicians. I think that's really—that's a visceral way to feel someone's creative energy. But you can feel that in dance would be another really common one. You can feel that in martial arts, if someone is really allowing themselves to express themselves through the motions, through the forms. You could feel that in acting. Someone's on stage, and they're just really allowing the creative energy to come out.

Now, there's the technical parts of acting, but there's also just like what shows up for them in that moment when they are on stage. In that scene with this other actor, with that audience's energy, what shows up in that moment is going to be different each night, if they're on stage, for example, or every time they perform the same scene. We don't know what's that actor doesn't actually know what's going to show up. They're expressing something that is indefinable. It's an energy that's coming out of them, and it is who they are, at least who they are in that moment with those circumstances, with what's going on in their lives, with who, what their childhood was like.

And so, this is an expression of ourselves. And it's the same with writing too. We just don't see it as much because we don't see the writer moving with that kind of passion as much, but you can feel it in the words. These words were an expression of the writer, and of course, they have the technical side of it as well. A writer has to learn how to write, how to use the language. But beyond that, there is an expression of their, the energy of who the writer is.

Hemingway was very different than Faulkner, very different than Shakespeare, very different than Edgar Allan Poe, very different than Maya Angelou, very different than Sylvia Plath. These all are writers who had technical prowess, of course, but they were able to express the essence of who they were through the creative energy onto the page.

And you can see, like, Maya Angelou is really a great example of that. She, of course, has technical competence, a great technical writer, but what she expressed was the creative energy of who she is onto that page. And it impacts you. When you read that energy, it gets transferred to you, and you feel it in your heart. You feel the energy of who she is.

And so, I say all of this, not to say we need to be Maya Angelou or Shakespeare, whoever it is, Edgar Allan Poe, but really to say that they exemplify what creative energy is. And so does a conductor of an orchestra or someone who's writing music and lyrics. Anyone who is expressing creative energy is doing this.

And we can see this, it doesn't matter what your technical skill is. Of course, it does matter. We can see this in all levels of technical ability when we're not so caught up in the technical aspects of how do I write out these words? What does a chapter need to be structured like? And all of these things, but we just allow the creative energy to come out. Something magical happens.

Okay. So that is the creative energy and how the energy expressed in a creative act isn't always available to us, or it doesn't always feel available. You might sit down with a blank page in front of you, needing to express something, and find yourself thinking, "Ah, what do I do here?" It's not so easy. This is the dilemma: there's an expression of my creative energy, of who I am, onto this blank page, but nothing is coming. I feel blocked. I feel like I don't have anything."

When we encounter a block like this, which is very common, you might already be experiencing it—thinking, "I know I'm supposed to be drawing something right now, but I've got nothing to draw," or "I just don't know what to do." When we're up against that, what do we do?

We can call it a creative block. There are a number of ways to approach this, but the way I'm going to talk about comes from a book called The Artist's Way. Some of you might be really familiar with it. It's by an author named Julia Cameron, who I'm trying to get to come onto this podcast, by the way. We'll see if I get lucky enough to have Julia Cameron come on and talk about the creative act.

Julia does a beautiful job in the book of describing the creative energy that flows and how it can get blocked in a number of ways. Then, she introduces a practice called morning pages, which is really famous. We're going to look at that practice. I'm not going to say that you need to do exactly the practice she recommends, but we're going to use it as a model for how we can unblock our creative energy.

So, what are the ways we get blocked? We get blocked when we have fear. I talked about that blank page or the blank canvas or whatever it is that you're up against. And you're just like, "Ah, I've got nothing." What we're up against is the need to step into the unknown and pour out our soul, which is a lot of pressure. And I don't know how to do it. I don't know if it's going to succeed. I don't know if anyone's going to like it. I don't know where it's going to come from. I don't know what it's supposed to look like.

And so, all these fears start to come up. It's, "I don't know if I'm going to be judged. I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I'm going to do a good job." These are real fears. Of course, there's an "I don't know" here, which is true. You don't know. But the not knowing isn't the problem; it's the fear that comes from the not knowing. When I'm in the unknown, in the not knowing, fear shows up. The fear blocks us. It closes us down.

It's as if you have this nice open heart that is just, "I am open." And then all of a sudden, fear says, "Shut the hell down right now." And then boom, your heart closes. That is the block in your creative energy. When your heart is closed by the open blank page or the blank canvas and the fears that come up, you can't really express your creative energy much. You can't express who you are. You can't express the love that you want to get out onto that blank canvas or screen.

That is what blocks us. Now, it's not just the fear of the unknown that's right in front of us with this blank canvas. It's a lot of other things. I talked about the storm that's outside right now as I record this. The chaos of the world can close our hearts, block us. If you've got a family crisis going on, if a loved one is in the hospital, or I have to take care of an aging parent or a sick kid, or I myself am going through health problems that are shutting me down, or my sleep is really bad, or my boss has been a total dick to me, or I'm having marital problems, or I'm just feeling overwhelmed by everything that I've got going on.

All of these kind of things, there could be fighting in Palestine and Israel or Ukraine or starving somewhere else, and politics going on in my country, and the pandemic and coronavirus, and so forth. All of these things impact us, of course, and then they shut down our hearts and block our creative energy.

And we can just say that we're helpless, right? There's nothing I can do about that. But if we understand that these things—fear, chaos, overwhelm, and negative things in our life—are shutting down our hearts and blocking our creative energy, blocking the expression of who we are, blocking the expression of our love, then we can understand that maybe there's something I can do about it.

I can't do anything about everything that's going on out there, not necessarily. Maybe I can do some things with my marital problems or help my kids or my aging parents through stuff. Yeah, there are some things that I can do, but I can't stop all of this stuff from happening.

And I also don't want to stop being impacted. If I shut down the ability to be impacted, what I'm really doing is putting up walls. And sometimes walls are helpful, but I don't want to fully stop myself from being impacted by the world. That is me just hiding from the world, saying I don't ever want to be impacted.

Being an artist, being a creative type, being someone who is creating in the world means we have to be willing to have our hearts open and to be impacted by what's going on around us. So let's imagine you say, "Okay, Leo, I'm going to be impacted." And then boom. You're impacted, your heart shuts down, and then you're like, "That sucked, I didn't like it, and now I want to stop."

That's actually the problem. We do have our hearts open, we do get impacted, and then we shut down and think, "I never want to be impacted again." And that is just because we don't like being with the feeling of being impacted in that way. If we're heartbroken and disappointed by the world or by other people we trusted, we don't like heartbreak. We don't like disappointment.

If we are feeling overwhelmed and afraid, we don't like feeling those ways. If we're feeling helpless, we definitely do not like feeling helpless. I can guarantee that's true for most of us. The vast majority of us, 99.99%, do not like feeling helpless in most circumstances. Even though our actions might seem to say otherwise, you're creating helplessness in your life, but you do not like to feel it.

So we don't like feeling helpless. We don't like feeling disappointed, heartbroken, sad, angry. We don't like feeling these things, and so we try to stop ourselves from being impacted, or we just shut down and say, "I'm not doing anything. It's all done." Which is another way to not be with those feelings and not be impacted.

So, what can we do instead? First of all, when we are impacted, we can acknowledge, "This is my heart feeling something. I'm feeling sad. I'm feeling lonely. I'm feeling upset. I'm feeling angry or resentful." Just own the feelings. Your heart has been impacted. Own the feelings. And then, even see something amazing about those feelings. "Ooh, that's actually an energy. My heart being impacted. Sadness is an energy, just like creativity is an energy." In fact, I would argue that they're actually not so different.

Anger is an energy. Grief is an energy. Loneliness is an energy. Boredom is an energy. They're not always pleasant energies, but they are energies. And I am being impacted, feeling an energy, and I can just allow that energy to be in me for a little bit. It won't stay forever, we know that. None of these feelings have stayed with anyone forever. Sometimes they linger longer than others, usually when we resist feeling them.

So, we just let ourselves feel it. What we're doing is allowing energy to flow through us. "Oof, I'm being impacted by the storm around me", the political storm, the economic storm, whatever it is. Feel that. Let it be there. Let it flow through you. You might bring some love, which is also energy, "I'm just loving myself right now as I'm feeling really sad and impacted by the world. Heartbroken." Give yourself some love.

And then, as you do this, what happens is the energy starts to flow. And from that, you might start to bring that energy onto the blank canvas. "Oof, I'm feeling really hurt". Let that hurt come out. Express it. Use the blank canvas to let that energy flow out. "I'm angry." Okay. Great. Anger is an incredible energy. We don't always hold it that way. We think, "Oh, I shouldn't ever be angry, or people shouldn't be angry. Stop being angry." But actually, it's just anger.

I'm not saying you should use it to hurt someone, but you can allow yourself to feel anger and just think, "Oh, I'm so mad that this happened." And then pour that out onto the blank screen, blank canvas. Let that just pour out. Write anger onto the page. Let anger pour out into music. Rage through your creativity. You're hurt by someone? Great. Put that there. You're afraid? You're overwhelmed? Great. Put all of that there. Just let it pour out.

As we allow it to pour out, other energies will come as well. It's not just anger that's going to emerge. You might start to feel what's underneath the anger—fear, pain. All of that is under the anger. Anger is just the outermost layer, the most obvious one. But under that, we might start to feel the fear that comes under the anger, the pain, the hurt. "They hurt me. I'm going to pour that out onto the page as well."

Let's talk about Morning Pages from The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. So, this is her method. And I'm just going to summarize the method. I'd highly recommend that you read the book. And she's got a new book coming out too, which sounds really interesting, and I might interview her about it if I'm able to get her to come on this podcast.

In The Artist's Way, she talks about morning pages, which, in its most basic form, is writing two pages of something every morning. What you want to do is just write, not worrying about the form or what comes out. Just a stream of consciousness. "I'm having my coffee, and I'm tired this morning," or "I don't know what to write, and this exercise is stupid, and I'm so bored with it, and I don't want to do this anymore." Just write whatever comes to mind.

As you do this, you're starting to let some kind of creative energy flow. Energy is flowing through you onto the page. And I want to modify this by saying that, if you'd like, you can do this through drawing, painting on a canvas, playing music, or whatever it is you want to do. If you want to do that through speaking, if you're an actor, start freaking speaking, acting as if you're on stage and start speaking.

Whatever your discipline is, just start letting something come out. And, of course, do it in private. This is not a show you're doing for anyone, although that can be another way to let creative energy flow, is do it with others, in collaboration. But for this practice, just start doing something, anything, to let the creative energy flow. And as you get this going, other stuff might start to happen. Not necessarily. It doesn't always happen, but sometimes you're like, "Ooh, I've just written two pages. Instead of just checking it off as done, maybe now there's some creative energy that I can unblock. My heart has opened a bit."

The other thing about it is you're starting to work the muscle. "Every day I write two pages, every day I do five minutes of music practice or sketching practice." As you work the muscle of letting that creative energy start to come out, it becomes more accessible. You have access to creative energy. And so, when you get blocked, you can tap into that anytime now because you've worked this muscle and think, "Oh, I'm blocked right now. Let me just write some random stuff for two minutes or 10 minutes." And then something else will come. If you just start doing it, energy starts to flow.

Another thing you can do to unblock yourself is ask, "What is closing my heart? What's actually blocking me? Ah, some kind of sadness. Let me pour that sadness out onto the page." As we engage in a daily practice of morning pages or some kind of creative flow practice, we start to rewrite our beliefs, our stories. If we have some old beliefs, as Julia talks about, like "I can't be a creative person," messages passed down to us from parents, teachers, media, peers, and classmates, these messages get ingrained in us.

"I am not a creative person," or "Creative people are crazy," or "Creative people are weird." Creative people are, whatever it is that we've been told. We have these messages ingrained in us, they are our story about being creative, about the creative act. When we start to do these morning pages or some kind of creative flow practice, we are rewriting a story about creativity.

I would love for you to get into a daily practice of some kind. Morning pages would be the basic form—write two pages every day. But you can do an equivalent practice. It's a meditation, a form of therapy, a form of journaling. But don't do it with a gaining idea in mind, like "I'm going to write this, and it's going to be a great blog post." No, it's something you can throw away. Don't do this, or "This will lead to me writing the most amazing book in my life." No, just get into the practice of letting the energy flow through this. You will start to shift something for yourself—shift the energy that's been blocked, shift the story, shift the muscle of being able to do something about it when you're blocked.

Okay, that is what I wanted to share with you about the creative act and unblocking that creative energy. I hope this was helpful. I encourage you to take on a practice every day of some kind of unblocking of your creative energy. Thanks, my friends.

If you haven't already, please subscribe to this podcast in your favorite podcast app. If you found this episode useful, please share this podcast with someone you know, who cares deeply. That would be really meaningful to me. And, if you'd like to dive deeper with me into this work, please check out the blog at or get in touch at [email protected].

Thanks for listening, and I hope you'll join me every Wednesday for more episodes of the Zen Habits podcast.

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Editor: Justin Cruz

Post-production: Diana C. Guzmán Caro & Amanda Goddard