Getting Stuck and (hopefully) Getting Unstuck

Anne Bogart's picture

Experiencing an impasse in one’s work or personal life can feel both painful and complicated. But I also know that an impasse is a sign, a signal that attention must be paid, and something must change. Lately I have been getting stuck repeatedly, in the artistic process, in daily life, with family, with friends and with colleagues. In writing here I hope to share the strategies that I am struggling with in my attempts become unstuck. I cannot state triumphantly that I am succeeding, but I am trying. The process is awkward and time-consuming, but I know that it is necessary. In writing here I am striving personally, even in the midst of being stuck, to unpack the dilemma of being stuck. I hope that writing these reflections will help. I shall start with a fairly recent professional impasse.

Recently, while in rehearsal for an opera, the conductor, a highly experienced musician, an eminent scholar and a consummate artist, took me aside one evening after a prickly rehearsal and spoke sternly. “You are losing the singers,” she said. Her unexpected criticism arrived as a harsh blow. At first, I took her comment personally. “How dare she say this to me,” I thought.  Then came the denial and I thought. “She’s wrong, I am not losing the singers.” My body hurt and later on that evening I felt myself careening into a chasm of doubt and self-loathing. I felt stuck and miserable. But my body was telling me that I needed to pay attention in order to learn and grow from the situation.

When I am stuck, either in the midst of an artistic process or while simply striving to live life ethically, I notice that at first my ego rises up and my whole system reacts defensively.  I want to do anything in order to escape that lousy feeling. Like a heavy rusty iron barrier, my ego becomes an obstacle to any forward motion or momentum. The impasse feels simply horrible. Predictably, after the initial blow, my pride and ego wounded, thoughts arise that blame the external circumstances: “Why am I being treated this way?” “I don’t deserve this.” “I am doing the best that I can.” I clench and freeze, wanting to keep things as they are in order to avoid taking personal responsibility for the situation. Then, I start to entertain self-sabotaging thoughts: “I am a terrible director.”  “I am a terrible wife.”  “I am a terrible artistic director and a terrible artist.” 

In the case of the opera, deep down, I knew that there was truth in the Maestro’s criticism. Indeed, I had not thought carefully enough through the end of the opera. I was depending upon the inspiration of the spur of the moment and the creativity of the singers rather than preparing a back-up plan in case nothing gelled in the moment. Generally, I had not developed a sufficient overview or plan of attack. The conductor was pointing at a general weakness in my work as a director and her pointing allowed me to see the problem clearly. Now I had a choice:  I could either avoid the issue or confront it.

The most significant impasses that I have encountered have been triggered by my colleagues, my friends and my family. My first reaction is to be annoyed by their interference, but in the end, thanks to the challenge, I realize that I have been held up to higher standards. The conductor’s stern words post rehearsal served as a wake-up call, reminding me that I was not developing as an artist; as a director. But this is only one example of many. The members of SITI Company regularly confront me when I fall into assumed patterns during the creative process. My wife tells me the truth, which can be painful and raises my hackles and my ego as well as plenty of defensiveness and resistance. But, in the end, I grow to understand the value of these interventions. The truth, spoken or pointed to at the right moment, is a necessary step towards growth and forward momentum. Getting stuck is the first phase towards change. Inevitably the impasse causes me to stop, to look around and to allow for the many inevitable, unpleasant sensations of stuckness. But then I know that I must face the issues at hand and, well, get unstuck.  

When an impasse happens, there is the danger of falling into psychological ruts that can, in turn, lead to feelings of fatigue, worthlessness and even guilt. Falling asleep at night and getting out of bed in the morning can become challenging and difficult. To make a simple decision feels monumental and even impossible. Being stuck can be paralyzing and, left untreated, hazardous. According to psychologists, a condition of stuckness that persists too long can result in serious clinical depression.

When stuck, I notice that my first reaction is typically, “I cannot face this right now.” But I have learned that getting stuck is a signal that requires attention. Although uncomfortable, I also know that an impasse can be a useful state because it can act as a much-needed catalyst for meaningful metamorphosis. Arriving at an impasse is, in fact, a developmental necessity. I must try to bypass my tendency to sink into the psychic mud of self-blame and recrimination; caving into the prison of my own ego. I must try not to despair or to feel sorry for myself. I know that despair blunts thought and inhibits action. When I get stuck, I must acknowledge and feel the unpleasant sensations of being where I am, but also, keep looking for solutions. I tell myself that eventually I will have to move. If I can only recognize and own the state of the impasse, maybe I can use this state to break through circular thinking so that growth might happen.

French feminist writer Helene Cixous proposed that we face three daily enemies: laziness, impatience and distraction. The first two are internal and the third, external. Laziness, impatience and distraction also seem to be the enemies to getting unstuck and friends to the state of stuckness. All too often I feel trapped by my own torpor, or by my relentless impatience, or by my lack of sustained attention. But I have also learned that the chief impediment to getting unstuck is my own ego, which is easily offended, regularly annoyed and habitually distracted. Sometimes, my ego insists that I have no ideas worth sharing. Or that everything is unreachable or unattainable. To bypass these negative judgements, I must develop strategies for moving beyond the ego. I must tap directly into my genuine curiosity and imagination, all the while recognizing patterns and moving in a new direction.

Many psychologists and motivational speakers refer to specific steps towards getting unstuck.  In looking for useful hints, I have noticed a pattern, a series of steps that they seem to agree upon in the process of moving from stuck to unstuck:  Stop, reflect, shift gears, ask for help, move and finally, take action. Here is my experience of attempting walk upon this jagged path: 

Stop.  

Something feels desperately wrong. Something is missing. Any certainty that I once enjoyed, disappears completely. I feel stopped in my tracks, stuck in the mud. I become conscious that I am regurgitating useless, negative cyclical thinking.  My wheels are spinning, and I feel like I am sinking ever deeper into the mud. The crisis deepens.

Reflect.

Having taken the time to fully recognize what the problem is, having gone through the discomfort of being stuck, I must next realize that I cannot continue on as before. I must determine to change rather than avoid change.

Shift gears.

Having allowed the uncomfortable sensations of self-doubt and dread to penetrate my body, I have to consciously stem the protective and defensive impulses that tend to shut me off from the world. I have to try to open outwards towards new solutions, input, and creative thinking. I must look globally for inspiration, both physically and psychologically. Try to expand rather than contract. But I know that I cannot rush. I try to trust process rather than looking for quick, immediate solutions or fixes.

Ask for help.

I have found that I am the kind of person for whom articulating the predicament to sympathetic ears can become part of finding new solutions. I love that 19th century playwright Heinrich von Kleist described this action as, “the formulation of thought through speaking.” I hope that the interactions and conversations that follow can awaken my imagination and allow for fresh patterns of meaning. But I also know that it is crucial to listen closely to what comes back at me and make the new information and the new points of view that these social interactions engender useful.  

Move.

I have to move away from where I have been stuck. Literally. I have to try to move my body in ways that I have not moved before. I have to change my daily routine. I have to look for new activities to engage in and take different routes between home and work, or I find the time to visit new places.

Take action.

With the new tools that I, hopefully, have gathered, I need to start taking action. Based upon new input and novel experiences as well as fresh associative thinking, I must begin to make a plan and begin with micro-actions. These new actions can be based upon the experiences, insights and inspirations of the previous steps. 

I have also found that specific words, yes, words, can help me to climb out of the narrow confinement of my own ego and self-involvement. When stuck, I need to look for the words and ideas that can help me to move forwards. With the assistance of these precise words, I can start to forge fresh outlooks, ideas and solutions.

Recently, darshan has become such a word. Darshan is the Sanskrit word for “glimpse” or “apparition;” it means seeing the essence of something. To experience darshan is to catch a glimpse of something eternal. According to some Sanskrit scholars, darshan is not an event in space and time and cannot be translated, rather it has to be experienced. In Hinduism, darshan is beyond mere physical ‘seeing’ and refers to having a momentary connection to the divine. A brush with mystery, whether beneath the stars or before a work of art or during a religious ritual, can transform us. 

Occasionally, when the circumstances are right, and I have managed to create a state of readiness, I can catch a glimpse of the divine; a little revelation. The curtain blows back in the breeze and light shines through. In the most exquisitely beautiful and inexplicable of all moments, I come face-to-face with the divine.  Darshan can arise in the presence of a great painting, or in nature. Between the image and me or nature and me, something happens which focuses me and seems to call out to me. This auspicious moment when I am able to “catch” it becomes the moment of darshan. Like a window into the infinite, the moment occurs, and I feel lifted out of space and time. There is no technique to attaining darshan, it’s not what to “do” to find it, but “how to be.”  It must be drawn from the source by the receiver, by tuning in to the vibration.  When I am available and receptive I might get a taste, a glimpse of the formless in a way that I can understand, and it seems to be what I am longing for.

Exogeny is another new word that I am finding useful in the process of getting unstuck. Exogeny is derived from the Greek, exo, meaning outside, and gignomai, to produce. Exogeny suggests influence by external forces. At an impasse, staying stuck may seem like the most natural way to proceed because it allows me to remain with what is familiar, to persist in being who I am, or who I think I must be.  Perhaps, I think, it is easier to just stay and muscle through. Exogeny, on the other hand, may help me to transcend or to go beyond my usual systems and sources of information and inspiration. Influence by external forces is what I need to get unstuck.

Kay Larson, the critic and author of the beautifully written and insightful book on John Cage entitled, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists, recently joined SITI Company in Saratoga Springs to discuss our Cage project entitled Theater Piece No. 1. While in Saratoga she must have noticed my stress and asked me if I was experiencing some emotional difficulties. I described a particular impasse and the ensuing stuckness that I was undergoing at the moment; the emotional conflict between my commitment to be with my wife, who was suffering from medical issues in London, and my responsibilities to SITI Company in Saratoga.  She listened carefully. Before she left, she suggested that I be sure to meditate during this difficult period and find great compassion. Later she wrote me a follow-up email, “I want to say something else about Great Compassion. I have asked the universe for solutions. Keep an eye out for unexpected ideas. Stay flexible. You were asked to solve something. You do that all the time, very well, and with ongoing deep compassion. You are one of the very best listeners I have ever met. (The others are mostly Buddhist teachers.) Just listen, to everything. I have a strong feeling that a solution will arise.”

Exogenesis.

Kay, Thank you.