Creativity, awareness and agency for emergent paths in life
6 September 2023 – Vol 1, Issue 1.
How can creativity foster openness and adaptability in a rapidly changing world? Contemporary times of crisis and change propose this question when uncertain sociopolitical, economic and geopolitical future affects our sense of safety and happiness. Our experiences of the world are shaped by how, when taking different paths in life, our body interacts with different spaces, people, and objects (Ahmed, 2006). These paths can be seen as the directions we follow in life, as part of how our human experience is built and reflected in the feeling of who we are and how we engage with the world. When individuals recognise that awareness and acting upon our feelings can shape how these paths emerge, we can talk about new possibilities to adapt to external and internal change and improve our experiences and surroundings.
Although contemporary social pressures define how people are expected to live a productive life, there are, and there have always been, spaces that inhabit the margins, where awareness and agency can be learnt, exercised, and spread. This is shown, for instance, in spaces for self and collective bodily recognition mediated by art practices, such as dancing, theatre, singing, and painting, and in spaces of collective joy and bonding, such as partying, festivals and spiritual gatherings. In this context, creativity refers to how we affect our reality and find new meanings by seeing the world from different perspectives. Embodied knowledge and artistic expression, for instance, have been proven as leading factors for social, cultural, and political change (Allen, 2012), and in the end, as ways in which we can learn more from our bodies and who we want to be in life.
This article aims to show how different bodily practices can raise creative awareness and knowledge regarding how we see our bodies situated in our local and global contexts of change, such as family, friends, the city we live in, our identity and our desires in life. Arriving at this knowledge is crucial in helping people adapt from a critical and empathetic perspective to the ever-changing world.
During the last two years, my personal experience of travelling from country to country has taught me that unexpected encounters with people, objects and spaces can open up new and exciting avenues in life. They always arrive in the most unpredictable ways. Our experience of the world is shaped by how we interact with such elements, which are placed in front of us as we take turns or different paths in life (Ahmed, 2006) that affect how we navigate the space of experience. Travelling has transformed the way I see my body and the way I interact with the world. It allowed me to understand the difference and the commonalities I share with others. More so, reflecting on what I encountered and how I reacted helped me understand my body transformation better.
In many countries, many children are taught to understand the world in specific ways and, therefore, to use their bodies and behave in normalised and accepted manners. When we grow older, those manners can be re-discovered if we have the chance to encounter experiences in life that make us think or feel otherwise, but in general, what we learn in childhood tends to be expressed in adulthood as fixed ways of seeing reality. This can make it hard to understand what people truly think and what their behaviours reflect.
Nowadays, we face destabilising socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts. Covid-19 crisis, rising inflation worldwide, migratory crisis, the popularisation of ultra-right ideologies, conservativism in different countries, and climate change. We need to act upon our bodies to make ourselves more aware of our external contexts and internal states of being in the world. In times that are characterised by these uncertainties, being open to adaptation becomes vital in helping us navigate those challenges. This can be achieved by integrating creativity into our daily life, as it allows us to think outside our boundaries. People often think in fixed patterns. Our understanding of reality is learnt; our behaviours are dictated from early childhood. Creativity can be defined as an action that involves originality and usefulness (Richardson, et al., 2016) that often involves a corporeal activity, dealing with unforeseen situations and the re-evaluations of concepts and ideas (Julmi, C., & Scherm, E, 2015). Creativity is an expressive mode and a way of being in the world that encourages rethinking our daily activities (Hwang, 2017). Creativity is, therefore, a way of thinking and acting in the world that can produce change. This becomes essential when considering a constantly transforming world; it allows us to adapt to that change.
However, being creative in life means that we must also acknowledge that our experience of the world is not only an individual process, as we are in constant relation with others. Thinking and acting creatively requires us to consider that understanding that others are different from us is part of the adaptation process, where critical awareness of everyone’s needs can enrich how we navigate the world. All conscious experience involves a certain kind of immediate awareness of itself (Montague, 2017). Awareness refers in this context to the conscious recognition of our thoughts, emotions, actions and surroundings. In our daily life, awareness is a sense that needs to be adapted to our bodies and the specifics of our lives. By recognising the role of awareness and creativity in how we follow different paths in life and interact with different people, spaces, and objects, we can discover new possibilities for adapting to external and internal changes and fostering personal growth.
Creativity can help us find new meanings and possibilities in our reality. It can enable us to shift our perceptions, challenge established norms and explore innovative solutions to complex problems. For instance, we can expect that if we are aware of how our contexts are changing, we can creatively respond to such changes. Therefore, the body becomes more flexible and open to transformation. Nonetheless, change does not mean constantly adapting to only external contexts, as our inner convictions and expectations in life also need to be an essential part of our conscious way of seeing the world. When we acknowledge the change in our environment and the paths that social, cultural, political, and economic dynamics are paving, we can act upon it, accepting or rejecting such paths in life.
Creativity, as a process of creation, change and transformation, involve agency as a way of acting upon events, and consciously deciding our responses towards life. Agency is an embedded process of engagement with decisions in the present that is informed by the past and oriented towards the future (Emirbayer and Mische 1998). When we take decisions following our inner convictions, desires and expectations, we are deciding on our life with agency. It is an active element of culture (Ratner, 2000) that emerges from reflexivity (Tuominen and Lehtonen, 2018) and that can exceed personal change towards structural change in communities (Chen et al. 2020). When we can create change in how we live our lives, we can transform even the most profound and fixated ways in which we interact with the world. This can be extremely powerful.
Embodied knowledge and art spaces for creativity
Creativity, awareness, and agency are elements that sometimes need to be experienced and learnt in specific ways. Physical and social spaces that allow a reflexive process of understanding our embodied knowledge can serve as an excellent example of pursuing creative ways to act and think differently. Although it is argued that any knowledge is embodied, as sensory information is a fundamental component of experience (Ignatow, 2007), some activities in life can distance us from rational-centred ways of thinking towards a more sensorial, haptic, and bodily way of thinking and acting in life.
Artistic expressions in painting, drawing, singing, dancing, or acting can allow us to access different experiences that can guide us towards new ways of learning, thinking and acting. These spaces can offer an arena of play where we can develop skills related to creativity. As we can share these spaces with others, we can also learn about new conscious ways of thinking about our relationship with other bodies. Shared spaces for artistic expression offer an opportunity for self and collective bodily recognition. Art reflects how we perceive our world (Voss-Andreae, 2011), and the experience we can access through art can be translated to our daily life activities and the regular ways we experience and understand our body and our position in the world. In some cases, artistic experiences can become ecstatic and cathartic moments where our meaning structures can be heavily re-interpreted, providing access to new ways of understanding our bodies. Artistic expression becomes a powerful medium through which individuals can tap into embodied knowledge and communicate their newborn thoughts and reflections involving emotions in a profound and transformative way.
Moreover, artistic and creative endeavours have historically significantly driven social, cultural and political change. Art can challenge social norms and provoke critical thought, fostering open-mindedness and empathy and changing social dynamics that might exercise negative pressures on how we exist in the world. This has been, without a doubt, one of the most substantial ways societies have changed over the years, as it involves a deep understanding of our bodies and how we socialise with each other. Art and spaces of creation produce dialogue and interconnect shared experiences, enabling individuals to find common ground despite differences or unbalanced power dynamics.
Spaces of creativity and joy: fostering connection and adaptability
Beyond individual or shared artistic expression, spaces for collective joy, such as partying, festivals, healing, and therapeutic retreats, can foster openness and adaptability. Individuals share their experiences, values, and aspirations in these spaces, creating a sense of belonging and unity. Joy in life can be understood as a virtue, a psycho-social habit that allows us to give transcendental meaning to lived experiences while accessing embodied experiences of pleasure and feeling good in the world (King and Defoy, 2020). In her essay Dancing in the Streets: the history of collective joy (2007), Barbara Ehrenreich shows how dancing has been one of humans’ tools to release social pressures. These activities have often been seen as undesirable in the eyes of those who think about human existence as a fixed way of existing in the world that need to be preserved over the years. We can still see this in contemporary times, where there is prejudice against experience and experimentation with pleasure, while in other cultures, these experiences are seen as a means for personal growth and enlightenment.
Through collective joy, individuals can cultivate empathy towards others and improve their understanding of different perspectives. This can enhance adaptation capabilities to a changing world and socialising experiences to help us see diversity not as a threat but as a way of enriching our visions of the world. Spaces of joy can strengthen social cohesion, or what Victor Turner (1969) called communitas, a feeling of heightened solidarity produced during liminal moments in social living, such as rituals, singing and dances. Joy and pleasure can be adapted to our daily lives as different ways of accessing our experience of the world. living in our bodies in new creative ways can help us get closer to well-being. In this sense, feeling good can be an expected and desired outcome from integrating creative ways of existing in the world.
A common suggestion is that we should think outside the box. This means that we are encouraged to identify those fixed walls under which we think and act and imagine what lies beyond them. This can be seen as a virtue that can be applied to anything we can do in life. If we identify which actions and thoughts have become fixed and monotonous, we can produce change as we decide to act and think differently. This holistic approach to life can be exercised at, for instance, work and study, how we relate to our peers, and how we aspire and dream our future. Furthermore, different bodily activities can inspire us to imagine and create. Putting our ideas onto paper while painting, drawing or writing; singing and exploring our voice; taking photographs or videos of our daily activities; cooking and baking different recipes; dancing and exploring the movement of our body; re-arranging the furniture at home; reading about new topics. Although some activities need, to some extent, material access, many can start with a few minutes of practice a day. This is where change and transformation can start, creating and imagining new worlds in the palm of our hands.
The transformative power of creativity, awareness and agency can allow us to foster adaptability to a changing world. It can bring us capacities to see differences and diversity as ways of enriching our experience of the world. Creativity allows us to think outside fixed patterns of thinking and behaviour, enabling us to adapt to external changes and foster personal growth. Embodied knowledge and physical and social spaces for artistic expression can open us to new ways of self and collective recognition, which is also mediated by creative ways of acting and thinking.
Artistic endeavours have historically driven social and cultural change, departing from the individual body towards collective forms of action. Creativity can lead to transformation, in our internal selves and our external world, affecting how we interact with spaces, people and objects. Spaces for collective joy are opportunities that foster openness and adaptability through cultivating empathy for others and a sense of belonging, taking into account differences and commonalities between people.
Embracing creativity, awareness, and agency can empower individuals to navigate uncertainties and actively shape their lives in a rapidly changing world. By integrating creativity into daily life, we can find new meanings, challenge norms, and respond effectively to the complex challenges we encounter in life. Creativity, awareness, and agency are essential tools for navigating the complexities of a constantly changing world, contributing to personal growth and collective well-being.
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Juan Sebastian is a Colombian cultural anthropologist, ethnochoreologist and dance practitioner with several years of experience in performing arts, ethnographic research, and cultural promotion. His work focuses on how people can transform their bodies through movement in local, material, global, and abstract ways. He takes critical approaches from queer theory and feminism, phenomenology and decoloniality to study how we socialise and create communities in a convulsed and critical contemporary moment and how collective action can generate urgent social transformation.