The Tyranny of Originality

The Tyranny of Originality

Some students recently wrote to me about their concern with being original in their art, their need to be original. They said that if they have a great idea that they love and then someone else mentions a similar idea, it kills the idea for them. They can no longer make that piece of art, even though they were really excited about it before.

This is one of the myriad ways, subtle and not-so-subtle, that we can block ourselves as creative beings, throwing water on our beautiful creative fire. So, I want to take a few minutes to address the question of “originality,” which can be so deadly to artists.

As I wrote to my students, their reaction to other people having similar ideas to theirs likely hides some false beliefs that don’t serve them and make the process of making art less fun, free and inspired than I believe it is meant to be. If you harbor fears of not being original, it is helpful to uncover exactly what those beliefs are and write them down. For instance, you might have a fear/false belief, “I don’t have anything original to contribute” or it could be “All the good ideas are already taken.”

Writing out our beliefs is a first step in bringing them to the light of consciousness, so we can begin to question those beliefs and see through them, no longer letting them stop us from being the joyful, creative beings we can be. In my classes and one-on-one mentoring, I guide people through a process for powerfully transforming these limiting beliefs and setting ourselves free. Begin by bringing them to light and questioning them. This can sometimes be enough to release their hold on us.

Here are some thoughts of mine on the topic of originality, which might help you give up limiting fears and beliefs about this:

ButterflyI believe that originality is a fiction. We never do anything that is not influenced and made possible by literally thousands of other beings, including ones we don’t even know about. We are so deeply interconnected in the web of all life, who can say where our ideas come from?

The whole history of art and humankind is behind each creative act we take, and a whole lot more is behind it than that. The influences and experiences of our entire life are inside of us, informing each act of creation. The movements of the wind, the stars, the trees and animals also are all speaking to us every day. Understanding this interconnected nature of life and our indebtedness to thousands of others is part of acknowledging that ultimately our creations come though us not from us.

If we can start to be willing channels of that amazing creative flow and get out of our own way, we can also trust that “just being me” in my art, and in my life, is enough. I do not have to try to pretend to be someone else. I am me, and there has never been another like me. That is originality enough, and yet I cannot take credit for that either, because I am a creation of the Divine.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” — Martha Graham

paintbrushesSo we hold this beautiful paradox, we are completely unique, yet our creations are a blend of thousands of beings. I believe it is essential to acknowledge this debt in all our art works, all our creations, all that we do—not to take the whole credit for any idea or invention. We are tuning into collective forces at work, tapping into creations that yearn to be born, opening ourselves to be available to them, and giving them life.

I like to use the metaphor of a stained glass window (and by the way, I heard this metaphor from someone else, but I can’t remember who!). As an artist I am like a stained glass window, and my creations are the colors and patterns that are created on the floor, when the sunlight comes through me. My creations look uniquely like me, the stained glass window. They unmistakably bear the mark of me, having come through my form, my experiences and personality, but the light itself that makes this art possible comes through me from a much greater source. Without it, no art.

Inspiration works like that, in my experience. It comes through us from somewhere beyond us. As it moves through us, it takes the form of us, we shape it with our craft, our abilities, our experiences as best we can. But the original source is not ours.

man_writing_journal_benchT.S. Eliot said, “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In other words, if you imitate, you have failed to truly make it your own, put your own stamp on it. Then it feels inauthentic and half-baked. When you “steal” a great idea, you integrate it into your being, your style, and modify it to meet your needs. This act of “theft” is part of art—learning from the masters and from our contemporaries, being in dialogue with them—but a transformation takes place as it comes through you.

So go on out and be your completely unique and original selves and stop worrying about being original in your art. Acknowledge your indebtedness, celebrate your interconnectedness, and let yourself be a conduit for the amazing forces of the universe creating through you.

Some Song or Something

Some Song or Something

Rumi writes of ecstasy, of being used by the Divine, being sung through, the longing to be used in such a way, to praise the Divine. I am not in ecstasy, but I long to be used nonetheless, to be sung. We all do. To feel something greater than the small, worried ego, motivating our actions, thoughts, being. To feel purposeful, inspired, part of some greatness.

This moves us to do stupid things sometimes, like joining some nationalistic cause and killing or condemning others. But it can also move us to beauty, kindness, giving, to our best selves.

The bird’s song calls us home to simplicity, joy, the music in all things. The wind in the trees reminds me of effortlessness and being danced. And, yes, I have a great longing for that.

Please, Beloved, use me for some great purpose, or better yet, just some simple, sweet song. Please make of me a song, so that my cells become notes, my bones rhythm, my nerves melodies, my blood harmony, my skin orchestration. Let me be Your song and nothing else, dissolved completely in the One Being.

I can come to you with my sadness, my hatred, my depression—and You can transform them into light or beautiful darkness, the singing void, womb from which creation comes. I don’t have to be ecstatic to reach You or be worthy of You. Take me as I am and use me. I am willing. That is enough.


This musing is a response to today’s poem in A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings, translated and assembled by Coleman Barks. I cannot print the poem here because of copyright, but you can read the poem at:

Waking Up to the Inner World

Waking Up to the Inner World

In my last essay I talked about one of the most fundamental skills for artists and for artful living, Coming Alive to the World, the skill of waking up through our five senses to the sensual, physical world around us. In that essay, I gave you a number of fun, simple practices you can do to wake up more to the sensual world. These practices will reward you greatly, while also building this fundamental skill. If you missed that post, you can read it here: Coming Alive to the World

In this essay we visit a related, essential, core skill for artists and for anyone wanting to live a full, rich life: waking up to your inner world.

If you want to make great art—whether on page, canvas or stage, or on the stage of your life, making your life your masterpiece—you need not only to open to feel the world around you deeply with all five senses, you also need to cultivate your ability to feel your inner world acutely. You need to become fluent in what is happening within, to attune your senses to your own body’s processes—the sensations in your skin, in your muscles and bones, in your head and feet—and, harder still, you need to cultivate fluency in your emotions, feeling what you are feeling moment to moment and noticing how you feel that emotion in your body, because our bodies are where emotion shows up and is experienced.

Tuning to our inner world means noticing sensation and emotion not only when it is strong but when it is subtle, noticing the layers of sensation and emotion—not just the perpetually achy shoulder but also the languid little toe and the dead spot of no feeling in the sacrum (or wherever you have trouble feeling)—not only the highs of elation or the flush of anger, but also the flickers of annoyance or boredom, the soft breath of contentment, the edgyness of excitement or nervousness, the tremor of sadness barely felt. To do this means moving through the fear we all seem to carry that our emotions will overpower us; instead we move out of habitually checking out, distracting ourselves, avoiding our feelings, keeping our focus outward rather than inward.

Why do this, when feeling our emotions feels so fraught with danger, so uncontrollable, and is so difficult to do for many of us? This deep well of emotion, when felt in the body with presence, is our treasure trove for making art that touches others and makes a difference in the world. Without the depth of emotion, art becomes cold, heady, abstracted and/or boring; it doesn’t move, touch, inspire, surprise, astonish or shock our audience. And the same is true for us in our relationships. Without being present to our emotions, there is no one home to connect with in a meaningful way. Feeling our emotions, developing emotional fluency, is also our own road to healing and well-being. There is no other road.

Feeling our sensations brings us into our aliveness, into our bodies with their extraordinary wisdom and presence, and makes us a more available conduit for inspiration to flow through. We become a more dynamic being and we open the channels through which our art and our lives can then manifest in remarkable ways.

Waking up to our inner selves means feeling not just the seemingly static sensations and emotions (which are never really static) but sensing the movements of the body, our proprioceptive sense, and noticing the ever-shifting tides of emotion within. It also means being able to observe our thoughts, without believing them, cultivating the witness, who stands apart from the thoughts, not caught in their incessant eddies, but able to hear them, notice, observe the movements of mind at a remove.

And finally, waking up to our inner world means coming alive to the invisible, but nonetheless felt, realms of the Spirit, the movements of the soul, the essential Self within, the livingness inside of things, the unseen orders. Not to take on anyone else’s belief or dogma but just to actually sense and open to what we feel or experience in our spirit and in the spirit in things, the sense of something ineffable, beyond the visible, perhaps the life force itself.

Who, if I cried out, would hear me from among the hierarchies of angels? the poet Rilke wrote, grappling with his own feelings about the spiritual realms. He also believed an angel dictated many of his poems to him. By opening himself to questing and questioning, wrestling with his angels and demons, by opening to the spiritual realms, he received creative inspiration, guidance and wisdom that his readers find extraordinary to this day. He was able to speak to those deep places within us, so hard to give voice to.

This radical aliveness on all levels is a great gift to our world as well as to the Self, and it is a necessary core skill of the artist who wishes to make exceptional art.

You can try the following practice at home to help you begin to cultivate these abilities more deeply. This is a meditation I use frequently in my classes:

Give yourself a few minutes. Get comfortable, close your eyes, and take a few deeper breaths. Invite yourself to welcome and notice how you are feeling in your body right now, just simply noticing sensation wherever and however it is present. Perhaps you notice the sensations of breathing, of sitting in the chair, of the clothes on your skin, or any tightness or relaxation of the body. Then, invite yourself to notice how you are feeling in your emotions right now, and how you feel those emotions in the body, allowing the layers of emotion, whether subtle or strong, to be felt, acknowledged. If you feel numb, that too is an emotion. Move on from there to notice your thoughts or simply the quality of your mental body at this time—very active, cloudy, distracted, anxious, peaceful. Witness the thoughts as if they were clouds floating through a sky, not attaching to any thoughts, but simply noticing them floating by. And finally, invite yourself to feel how you are feeling in your spiritual body right now, simply opening that question and sensing, allowing whatever comes in response, tuning in to the possibility and sense of Spirit in you and around you.

You can do this at any time to become more present, more available to life and to yourself. And as you do this over time, you will develop a greater fluency in waking up to your inner world. Try it and let me know how it is for you.

To your artful life, maxima

P.S. Join me for Writing Your Way Home: Connecting to the Self and the Sacred and experience profound tools for hearing your wise, inspired and playful inner voices, as well as being in deep conversation with the living world.

Coming Alive to the World

Coming Alive to the World

As a poet, as an artist, one of the core skills we need to develop and cultivate is a radical attentiveness to the world around us, an awakeness to our senses and the sense impressions all around us. We need to sharpen our senses to a keenness that hears, feels, smells, sees, tastes vividly, that notices what is happening around us and in our bodies in response to the physical world we encounter. We need to become sensually alive.

To do this, we intentionally practice opening our senses, paying attention. We take on a practice of deep seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, smelling. “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul,” the French priest and philosopher Nicolas Malebranche wrote. Or as the poet David Whyte so brilliantly puts it, in his poem “Everything is Waiting for You”:

You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

We have to counteract the numbing out, the dullness of routine, the sleepiness that is so habitual and instead invite ourselves again and again into an awakeness, awareness, attentiveness, aliveness that senses and notices deeply.

We can do this by creating small windows of attention, spending five minutes with our eyes closed listening to all the sounds we can hear, loud and soft, distant and near, staccato and sustained, noticing the varied textures, letting go of naming or identifying the sounds to simply listen and hear the symphony around us and within us.

We can spend ten minutes looking out the window or sitting on the front porch, tuning up our seeing, noticing colors, light and shadow, patterns, textures, shapes, movement, juxtaposition, composition. Or we can spend ten minutes looking at one thing only—this leaf, this rock, this chair, this shoe—seeing all that becomes available to us in this act of deep looking, of presence—and noticing too how it changes us within.

We can eat a banana as a meditation, feeling its heft and form in our hand, peeling it slowly, smelling it, inhaling deeply, slicing it into pieces, feeling the slipperyness, tasting it, paying attention to all the gradations of taste, texture and sensation as we consume it.

We can take ourselves on a poem walk and open up all the sense to observe the world vividly, noticing details, smelling and touching things, listening.

Or we can walk around our living room and notice everything we normally do not see, look for what we overlook, the tiny details, the ceiling, the floor, the walls and all the objects in the room, the light and shade, the colors and textures. We can feel the textures and shapes of things, picking up objects, listening to the sounds they make if we strike them or shake them gently, smelling them.

Deliberately practicing opening the five senses brings delight, peacefulness, pleasure and gives us a rich storehouse of imagery and sensation to draw from when it is time for us to write a poem, make a dance piece, or paint a picture.

This rich, physical detail is an essential component of great poetry and great art. We experience life through our bodies, and it is our ability, as artists, to bring that life vividly to the page that makes our poems speak and sing to the reader, that causes our poems to move the reader and not simply be a series of abstractions, interesting thoughts or sentiments with no impact, no zing. When the reader can feel—see, hear, smell, taste—along with us, we draw them into the experience of the poem. And this is true with abstract art as well, because our own deeply felt experiences, when communicated in some powerful way, are far more likely to communicate powerfully than that which we have not felt deeply in our bones and blood.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost has said. The artist has to feel it first through and through, and then feel it again as you create your art, then and only then will the reader feel it. “Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself,” Walt Whitman wrote. In other words, you can’t fake this. You have to live it, and it is your own profoundly lived experience that you transmit through your art as a gift to your audience, as an offering and invitation for them to wake up to the world too, to experience the fullness of this life completely. This is one of the core functions of art, providing a doorway to deeper being, greater aliveness—and it is the artist who must first walk through that door and then beckon the audience to follow.

So, practice waking up to the world. Fall in love with the sidewalk and the grime. Fall in love with the laundry on the line, moving in the wind. Fall in love with the roar of traffic and the whisper of your slippers on the floor. Fall in love with pots banging in the kitchen and distant laughter of children in a neighbor’s yard. Fall in love with cinnamon and moss, curry and rain. Notice the bit of white plastic among the brown leaves in the gutter as if it were a painting or sculpture, a deliberate arrangement. Notice the musical composition made by the ticking clock, overlaying the hint of distant churchbells and a car loudly rushing by, and underneath all that the sound of your own breathing. Notice how the air feels on your skin, how your own clothes feel, the tension and relaxation in your body, how your organs feel.

I will talk next time about coming alive to your inner world, another core skill of the artist.

Until then, enjoy coming alive to your world,


P.S. Join me for a 5-week teleclass called Writing Your Way Home, starting May 14. You’ll  access voices of wisdom, inspiration, humor, playfulness and love within that will astonish you:



“I can lean the flame in my heart into your life and turn all that frightens you

into holy incense ash.”

—Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky


The poem

is a prayer—

tendril, wind machine,

shimmer, plough—

how we cling


to the words, little

paupers, poor saviors.

It sputters

and burns,

touching us here,


singeing the tips

of our fingers, our


and yet

what houses us


(most deeply)

is what we don’t


what we refuse

to enclose


with our little word-


what flies out

every time.

We are most


set free

by what we can’t

catch. And where

i try to reach

and miss, where i



fall short

fall flat


You are

most radiant


there You meet

and touch



and again



my body

to ash,

to holy


– Maxima Kahn

First published in the journal Poem.

Time to Forgive

Time to Forgive

(This is one of my journal musings followed by a valuable life practice added to the end. Hence, the intimate, personal style of the beginning.)

Time to forgive the horrors of the past, the wounds I carry:  CalArts, my parents, an  unforgiving world, our sick culture. Time to love all our inadequacies, frailties, slights, wounds, mistakes, the human drama. Time to say, You were wounded, I am wounded, we are all wounded, we are blind and deaf and confused and hurt, and we don’t know what we’re doing. We make mistakes. We long for love, peace, forgiveness.

I long to forgive it all, release the past, be deeply free, be love now, be peace-not namby pamby, but truly – to truly forgive – to say to all of it, my life, the people, places, things: I love you. I am sorry for my part in it. Please forgive me. Thank you for your gifts. To start unconditionally embracing this world of horror and woe, beauty and wonder-unconditional friendliness, kindness to it all. A kind heart is at peace, and I long for peace-to be kind to the whole mess, my mess, our mess-what a mess!


In this musing above, I talk about the Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponopono (which I am NOT an expert in). My understanding of this practice is that you say to anything or anyone in your life where there is suffering, “I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.” And you keep doing this, so that you can be released of suffering, they can be released of suffering, healing and wholeness can be restored. You keep doing it so you can feel it and mean it deeply and be a part of the healing of our world.

How does it work? I’m no authority on this, but my understanding is this. You think of somewhere where there is suffering, maybe it’s something in yourself that you don’t like or struggle with, maybe it’s another person you know who is suffering that you are concerned about, maybe it’s our economic system or the ecological conditions of the world. And first you say, “I love you.” This step is about embracing of all of it, the full catastrophe, as Jon Kabat-Zinn called it, really embracing it with love. Not just accepting it, but embracing and loving it as it is and sending it love.

I believe if you can truly do this step, that is all you would ever need to do, and you would create profound healing within yourself and rippling out from you to countless other beings in your world.

But since, as humans, most of us struggle to truly love the suffering, the ugliness, the brutality, the lies and so forth, we have three more steps in this practice to help us and to deepen the healing and blessing.

The next steps are “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” They go together, as any sincere apology, needs to include a request for forgiveness, not a demand but a sincere request. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me” is about taking the radical step of acknowledging our part in the suffering, no matter how unrelated to us or distant from us it may seem, no matter how much it appears to be someone else’s fault and not our own. We take radical responsibility for our part in it, our contribution to the situation, the suffering, the lack of well-being.

For instance, if someone we love is ill, we simply say “I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” opening to the fact that we are all one, and I am somehow a part of your illness. Nothing is separate. I’m sorry for how I have consciously or unconsciously contributed to this. I’m truly sorry for my part in this. Please forgive me for anything I may have done, said, thought, however I may have contributed to this. And at the same time, we need to forgive ourselves.

And the last step is “Thank you.” What a beautiful, important step. In this step, we give thanks for any blessings, seen or unseen, any learning, any gifts whether they are hidden or obvious to us now, that have come or will come from this situation, for however it is helping us to grow or heal or shine or who knows? Thank you. Thank you for the gift of being alive, of being part of the whole mess.

Try it with something small first and then expand. Try it with someone you want to help. Try it with something in yourself you want to heal. Try it on aspects of your body you reject. Try it on world conditions you don’t like or accept, that you wish were different. Try it on everything. Also, I find it can be helpful with practices like this to decide in advance, I’m going to do this for 5 minutes or 10 minutes and then let it go, or another way I like to do this is while on a walk. See what happens and let me know.

To your inner freedom, maxima

Stopping Efforting, Finding Ease

Stopping Efforting, Finding Ease

Stopping Efforting, Finding Ease

I am exploring stopping without stopping, letting things move in me that have no name, watching the mind’s hunger for fear and control, tuning again and again to the body’s language, the quiet of the heart.

What does it mean to stop without stopping, to continue engaging with life, taking actions, doing what is needed, but from an inner place of stopping the efforting, the anxious drive, the grasping, from an inner place of resting, of pausing, of listening?

I am exploring the possibility of moving from a different place; rather than from fear, control, efforting, I am exploring leaning back in myself, listening, waiting, releasing, being moved, being danced by Life.

I am exploring the body’s wisdom, the heart’s knowing. Mostly, the mind is very loud, full of chatter, endlessly proposing new strategies, calculating numbers, marketing fear to me.

So, in this transitional place, where the despair and panic I was feeling have drained out of me and i endeavor to see through the mind’s chatter with heart, i find myself very tired, depleted by the fear-mongering and its abuses of body and soul.

I use the mind to question the mind, to find more openness, spaciousness, peace.

Meanwhile, the architecture of our contemporary way of life and my own habits within it crumbles a bit. I wait for collapse eagerly. Something crumbles and erodes inside that has been trying to hold me up too long, with damaging results, despite also the apparent accomplishments.

Today on my walk as the mind proposed one solution after another, i kept stopping each train of thought and asking, What if i simply listen and let life show me the way?

Now i take time to walk, write, pause, stop, but also to see how i can act without efforting, taking the next action that presents itself. I do my best to listen to what i can actually do with love and ease.

Can i stop efforting now? That’s my inquiry. And really staying in the now as the only moment there is.

– Maxima

The World as Art

This morning dried flowers scattered on the porch.

One yellow dandelion pokes through a hole

in the side of a metal can ­– humor irony beauty

reclaiming the world once again – so simply.


The day is cooler but has the warm dry

smell of summer. The wind an audible

exhale in the trees. And me trying

to order it all into lines –


the uncontainable. I never win.

But at times i inch a step closer

to what’s true inside of things – the crazy

disarrangement of wild grasses


a pattern so delicate and right

it could be a Japanese ink drawing

only better – the continuous

art-making of the world. I bow to it.

—© Maxima Kahn, published in The Jewish Women’s Literary Annual

The Grieving and the Dying

The grieving and the dying

just go on and on. It’s amazing

what a life they have,

this life of loss.


Neither right nor wrong,

this fucking heart.

Who knew the story

would be all about pain?


Who knew

you’d be asked

to give everything, then

give more?


How is it that the birds

singing and chirping this morning

are so unconcerned by this,

do not even know


loss’s name? How could humans

ever think they are better

than the animals, a life

of suffering superior to a life of song?


You’d do me a great kindness,

you gods, to let me come back

with flight and music as my only goals.

They are my only real goals now—


but i don’t reach them

with the ease the birds do—

and then there’s love—

that’s the one, the hook


where i am caught and the flesh

around my mouth tears,

and i bite down harder,

unwilling to let go.

—© Maxima Kahn, published in Tule Review


All night the ravens


a black crying.

They seem to hold worlds

we can never touch.

Something akin to wisdom.

Not perfection.

That doesn’t have any life in it.


It’s the woods where the breathing


where Night

well, you know.


At some point you have to come back

to your own house.

All the spells of the others

you have to leave them

even the apple

the old witch gave you.

You’re not going to wake up

to salvation.

You know that by now.


But inside

where the cupboards are filled with the familiar

where loneliness languishes in narrow beds


there is something

you can build with.


There isn’t any choice about where you start.

It’s always the beginning

small and limited as it seems.

One rose in a cup,

the mouse that’s been eating the cereal,

laundry muttering in a basket.



After that i can’t say.

The woods are dark,

here is the gate

i have not gone beyond.


Yet here too

i have whispered

i am not afraid

and it is my own amazement

crying me to sleep.


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