The Art of Waiting through the Incubation Period

by Starla J. King on January 23, 2014

“I am fooling around not doing anything, which probably means that this is a creative period, although of course you don’t know until afterward.  I think it is very important to be idle.  I mean, they always say that Shakespeare was idle between plays.” ~ Freeman Dyson (physicist)

Sometimes the hardest part is the not-writing, the not-creating, the not-producing times.

The times when you wonder if you will ever feel inspired to [ _________ ] (fill in blank) again.

The times when you start the day with fresh resolve, determined to DO STUFF TODAY, @#$%^!,  … until you look at priority #1 on your To Do list, and feel the tears welling up at the thought of what it will take to DO STUFF TODAY.

Like writing a blog post. Which has haunted me for weeks.  I just wrote a book, for heaven’s sakes, and I don’t have even one little blog post in me??  Ah, right… I did just write a book.  That’s one big huge idea — one big huge pile of me — poured out into production.

So this time right now?  This ritchy-scratchy, wandering, wondering, don’t-MAKE-me-produce time?  It’s the incubation period.

“The second phase of the creative process is a period of incubation, during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.”

“Because of its mysterious quality, incubation has often been thought the most creative part of the process.”~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, [Creativity]

Incubation: the outward “pause” (as my coach calls it) while the inner stuff sorts itself into the next phase, burning the next layer off, building up to the next creative act.

Incubation: where really important stuff is still happening even though you might not be able to see it. 

Or, as author Natalie Goldberg prefers to call it, composting:

“[Our senses] take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies.  I call this ‘composting.’ … Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil.  Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.  But this does not come all at once. It takes time.” ~ Natalie Goldberg [Writing Down the Bones]

So you can give up and fritter the time away feeling guilty for not producing, and terrified that you’ve lost your creative spark, destroy your list of goals in that industrial strength 400 x cross-cut shredder…  or … you can allow for the possibility that magic is happening underneath the surface, and begin to cultivate the art of waiting.

“Your way in will not always be the same. There are no rules, and you cannot force it, but you can show up every day and practice the art of waiting.” ~ Dani Shapiro [Still Writing]

You see, it’s not that your pilot light has gone out; it’s just that the spark hasn’t quite caught flame yet.

So what to do?  How to handle this incubation period without mindlessly (and painfully) enduring it or filling restless hours with reductive tasks?

Surrender to it.  Honor it. Welcome it.  Treat it as a treasured guest at your dinner table who will flourish within your exquisite space of love and attention.

“Whether you’re a painter, songwriter, or creative thinker of any kind, your process of creation will be the same in this important respect: It will require surrender to the uncontrollably slow, fabulous percolations of the imagination, memory, mind, soul — or, in more strictly psychological terms, surrender to the untraceable workings of the subconscious.” ~ M. Allen Cunningham [“Rethinking Restriction” article]

But isn’t surrender a form of giving up or giving in?  Oh, no.. not at all; it’s much stronger than that.

“It should be realized that one way of controlling is to relinquish control” ~Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi [Creativity]

Surrender is an allowing, a permission you choose to grant to the innermost part of you (the divine?) to do its part of this co-creation while you stay open in faith.   And I can promise you, operating from faith in the middle of an incubation period (or any time, really) is not for the faint of heart; it requires a powerful, active trust and the risk of simply (ha!) being instead of doing.

“Indeed, one must be patient.  One must allow for the slow fruition of thought, image and ideas… Rilke called this ‘being inactive with confidence.’ …  Essentially, it’s the practice of faith.  Surrender, stillness, and trust.” ~ M. Allen Cunningham

Surrender to the inner composting process.

“Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.” ~ Natalie Goldberg

Put yourself in the path of inspiration, regularly, with open arms.

“I sit down every day at around the same time and put myself in the path of inspiration.” ~ Dani Shapiro

Then one day, while you’re watching the way ice melts around a chain-link fence, or reading the Thesaurus to remind your words that you still care, or finally taking care of those energy-sucking chores you’ve avoided for the past 5 months, it happens: that little spark catches hold and the roaring fire of inspiration — the endless linking of idea to idea to idea — singes your eyebrows and another incubation period is over.

If we care about what we do, if it is real to us, and if we approach it with an appropriate mixture of discipline, patience, and surrender, it will germinate night and day — and cannot fail to blossom and surprise us.” ~ M. Allen Cunningham

 May your blossoms be bright, and the surprise come quickly. 


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