How to Get Inspired

One thing I often actively long for is inspiration. This might be something as lofty as divine inspiration; or it might be something like wanting to be inspired by a woman (not just attracted to her or interested in her); or to be inspired to make great art; or to be inspired with a brilliant new business idea; or to have an inspiration for a new blog post; or an inspiration for something witty to say at a cocktail party.

One can see as I descend the ladder of importance how the word inspiration doesn’t seem to fit any more. It is one of those words — like awesome — that gets tossed around so casually that it’s almost lost its original sense. Awesome means, well, inspiring awe. And to inspire means to breathe into with divine breath. Owen Barfield is good on this:

The meaning which inspiration possessed up to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries carries us right back to the old mythical outlook in Greece and elsewhere, when poets and prophets were understood to be the direct mouthpieces of superior beings — beings such as the Muses, who inspired or “breathed into” them the divine afflatus. Through Plato and Aristotle this conception came to England at the Renaissance and lasted as an element of aesthetic theory well on into the eighteenth century, if it can be said to have died out altogether even now. But, like so many other words, this one began in the seventeenth century to suffer that process which we have called “internalization”. Hobbes poured etymologically apposite scorn on the senseless convention “by which a man, enabled to speak wisely from the principles of Nature and his own meditation, loves rather to be thought to speak by inspiration, like a Bagpipe”. And we may suppose that from about this time inspiration … began to lose its old literal meaning and to acquire its modern and metaphorical one. Like instinct, it was now felt, whatever its real nature, to be something arising from within the human being rather than something instilled from without. 

History in English Words, emphasis mine.

[Hobbes here betrays the triumph of wit over humility, does he not? His words have bite, his bagpipe metaphor shames us momentarily. And yet, can we not sense the empty, triumphalist desperation of his attitude?]

If inspiration truly comes from without, which I do believe (my long-used self-centered habits notwithstanding), then there is little or nothing I can do to cause the inspiration to happen. It simply isn’t my choice and never will be, no matter how hard I clench my fists and squint my eyes.

But that does not therefore mean I am totally passive in the process. For in order for a body to take in air, it must have lungs and the throat must open up. And in order for the mind to be inspired it must be alive and undistracted. (I refer to distraction in the pejorative sense; many people, myself included, get intellectual inspiration when engaged in some other activity, like listening to music or doing the dishes; I don’t count these as “distractions” in this sense. Distractions that cloud the mind are, rather, mental obsessing, or filling up the mind with puzzle games or television or some other chattering noise.) Just so, in order for the soul to be inspired, it must be open and alive and willing.

Seeds grow in fertile soil, not on rocks or among the thorns. One must therefore seek to make oneself fertile soil.

What, then, must we do to become fertile soil, to become inspirable?

Well, it probably varies from person to person. But first of all, we must stop trying to force the hand of the sower. We must not try to force inspiration, as if with a bellows crammed down the gullet. An attitude of openness is necessary; impatience is useless and counterproductive.

More specifically, I think that silence is needed. One need not withdraw from social situations (though for some people at some times, this may be proper), but one must learn how to stop thinking, and stop listening to chatter. This means listening to music or to nature, or to nothing at all, and it means shutting off the radio and the television and (though it pains me to say it) even closing one’s books. Surrounding oneself with beauty is helpful too — so make sure those books when they are open and that music when it is playing are beautiful and rich and true.

Dwelling on negative emotions is counterproductive. Though we must all resist that which is evil, and let our natural revulsion to evil be felt fully and to direct our actions, we must also learn how to mentally turn the page and focus on gratitude and wonder. This is not merely being treacly. It’s a matter of pure practicality. The mind has a labyrinth-like character when we are thinking of what we hate; we follow the rusty iron thread of a dark Ariadne around and around, and never break into daylight. Gratitude and wonder are refreshing, calming, lucid. One need not “dumb it down.” In fact, true intelligence arises not from digging in the muck but from standing atop the morning mountainside.

Finally, diligence in all these things is needed. If I spend a mere afternoon “being good,” I will get an afternoon’s worth of inspiration. These things must be done for their own sake, feeding the soil of one’s life. And that diligence must spring from the first thing I mentioned, which is patience. Humility teaches us that inspiration must come from without; diligence makes us inspirable, makes us fertile; patience gives time for the two to meet, at a time and place that is not ours to choose.


10 comments on “How to Get Inspired

  1. says:

    Not everybody can be, or wants to be inspired – but it is sad, or disappointing, to see previously inspired people lose their inspiration by immersion in general ‘busyness’ – distractions like socializing, travel, engagement with the media etc.

    (Opportunities for this have, of course, never been greater).

    This happens to writers, scientists and scholars, doctors – all sorts of people who I have admired have gone this way. And it was recognized as an American disease before it spread elsewhere – the destructive consequences of ‘success’. As a rule you can be inspired OR you can be a success.

    But this happens in our own lives too. Admittedly I am especially sensitive to this. If I go for even four hours without unstructured solitude then I start getting… dysphoric.

    • outofsleep says:

      Probably a lot of people who don’t think they want to be inspired actually do. It’s not for me to say, of course, on an individual basis. But the level of distraction can be so high that people literally don’t know what they are missing.

      Of course, this is ultimately each individual’s choice. But, being prone to distraction myself, I know what an endless rut it can be.

  2. Rusty says:

    Another nice post. Maybe I’m not inspired but I am encouraged. Thank you for reminding us of these things. It makes me feel better to know someone else is thinking similar thoughts.

    On the advice of a Chinese friend, I once tried to sit still and clear my mind for an hour. I was to close my eyes and think of nothing at all. It sounds too easy to even bother trying. But those who have tried better. Try it yourself — few will make even 5 minutes.

    And by the bye, wot’s all this hating on bagpipes, Laddie?

  3. Johnny Caustic says:

    Having been inspired, literally, quite a few times, I can attest to how it feels like God opens up His hands and pours visions like sand into my head.

    And while this has happened even quite recently, it’s certainly true that too much busy-busy has cut down its frequency a lot.

    Everything you wrote matches my experience. First you must till the soil with diligent work and hard thought; then you must relax, create an opening, and wait.

  4. Kristor says:

    When all else fails, I find a long solitary walk often answers – literally, answers – quite nicely. Solutions and insights come bubbling up. Often they are not answers to the questions I have lately been most worried about. Indeed, usually they resolve questions I had shelved for consideration upon another day, or given up on altogether.

    As to whether inspiration originates inside us or from outside: the latter, obviously. An event cannot generate itself, because before it has finished becoming, it does not exist so as to exert any causal effect.

    All right then; but does the origination from outside us derive primarily from our own past – prior states of the brain, or of our mind (tace the question of whether there is a difference) – or from other parts of the world in which each of our moments comes to be? Both, again obviously, unless solipsism is true. And solipsism isn’t true; it can’t be true, because it is self-refuting.

    But then, what is the medium by which that past – the past of our selves, or the past of other parts of the world, or (of course) both – comes to influence the present moment? Why should the past, or for that matter, why should any other event, influence – flow into – another? And, how? That is, granted that there are regularities we can apprehend in such influences, why should there be those regularities? What is it, in other words, that causes the world to move in good order from one moment of its history to the next? Not, obviously, the world itself; the world is not the explanation of the world, but the item that needs explaining.

    Something other than the world, then. Some thing superior to nature; something supernatural.

    So, it is not just human creative insights that are divinely inspired. Events per se are divinely inspired.

    • outofsleep says:

      I see. If you follow the roots far enough back, you always arrive at the source. I suppose this is true of all things. Or at least true of all *true* things, if you will.

      • Kristor says:

        Yes. All our moments begin with inspiration. We just muck up the inspiration, most of the time; so that they end with frustration, discord, disease. And, thanks to the tight coherence of our causal order – a total blessing, we would not want it any other way, God Forbid any loosening in our world’s causal matrix – the mucking up we do gets passed on to subsequent events. So that each even inherits, and must take account of, a mucked up past. Sins of the Fathers, etc.

        Such is Original Sin; such also is our sheerly natural lot, according to our limited, and therefore perforce somewhat inadequate capacity to comprehend the Divine will for each of our moments. It is natural for finite creatures to fall short of the fullness of the Divine vision.

  5. zhai2nan2 says:

    @Kristor: You seriously need to start blogging. I would RSS subscribe to that.

    Regarding inspiration: The magician would claim that there is a great deal we can do to control the nature of inspiration, because the controllable elements of our life correspond, with varying degrees of comprehensibility, to the deeper levels of reality.

    Perhaps the best way to examine this is to start with your standard life-style and analyze each element in terms of magic.

    Suppose you have the habit of starting each day by lifting barbells. If you ever omit this activity, you notice that your health declines and that you lack vigor. You might decide to drastically alter your habits if you feel that you have too much vigor. You might decide to extend and embellish this habit if you feel a need to be inspired to greater feats of athleticism.

    Further, suppose that after exercise, you inevitably spend two hours each morning reading about sex on the Internet. This habit will form your thought processes. You might decide to take drastic measures if your thoughts are clouded with undesired images.

    Magicians do odd things. They change their personal habits and undertake bizarre affectations. It is *normal* to lift barbells and then read about sex for hours. It is *nonconformist* to break off such socially acceptable habits and take up different lifestyles.

    Perhaps, instead of barbells, one decides to sit in a full lotus pose and recite the name of the Amitaba Buddha for a full hour every morning. Perhaps, instead of Internet-sex, one decides to read every single poem ever written by Tennyson and Kipling. Perhaps one might check the progress of inspiration with automatic writing, or aura photography, or controlled sonnet-writing.

    A person who follows the conformist line will live an unsurprising life. For example, a normal young man might develop big biceps and then learn about the “pick-up artist” culture. He might be inspired to take up a lifestyle of promiscuous sex.

    A magician who follows a non-conformist line will live a bizarre life. Perhaps he will be inspired by the souls whose books he reads. Perhaps Kipling will appear to him and tell him that World War One was a bad idea. Perhaps one morning the magician will be found dead, because the god Mars stared at him out of the bathroom mirror,

    and in his eyes
    respect was mingled with surprise
    and the stern joy that warriors feel
    in foemen worthy of their steel.

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