The Creative Impulse: What Place Does It Have in the Spiritual Life?

There is a deep-seated urge in our nature that we tend to associate more with art than spirituality: the impulse to create. Until recently, I didn’t realize how much this impulse had shaped my life, and you may not realize how much it shapes yours.

Looking back now, it seems obvious. By the age of three, I was spending a good chunk of my days drawing, at first dinosaurs and then the Beatles. I wasn’t content, though, just to copy, so by about eight or nine I was designing my own cartoon characters. By junior high, this turned into a passion for illustrating scenes from The Lord of the Rings. Some days I would get up and draw for the entire day. Once I started it was hard to stop. There was something extremely satisfying about having a finished piece of art that was born entirely from my mind and my hand.

A long time ago, this impulse to draw became the impulse to write. The two media are of course very different, but my experience of them is not as different as you might think. The main difference, I think, is that writing allows the same underlying impulse to express more fully. It lets more of me out. But aside from that, the process of an idea forming in me, followed by the urge to realize it in form, the drive to press forward until it’s done, and then the satisfaction of the finished piece, is very similar, whether we are talking about drawing then or writing now.

This impulse in me, however, isn’t confined to writing or art. It includes all kinds of things, like making food or just getting things done. There is a desire to produce, to accomplish, to bring about positive effects. Of course, this isn’t my only desire; there are lots of competing ones. But this impulse to create is as powerful as any of the rest. If at the end of each day I can’t point to something meaningful I have produced, I feel somewhat useless and empty. This, of course, is why so many men retire only to fall into depression.

I think we all have our versions of this impulse. You might want to look at your own life and see what forms the creative impulse takes in you, what kind of accomplishment is in your blood, what sorts of positive effects you feel compelled to produce in your environment.

Creativity and spirituality

As I said, we tend not to associate the impulse to create with spirituality, especially in circles influenced by Eastern religion. Rather, we spiritual seekers typically glorify the receptive over the expressive. By the receptive, in this case, I mean the ability to receive a higher awareness, to let in the experience of peace or bliss or oneness. We tend to see our job as getting out of the way, cleaning the windows of our minds, so to speak, so that divine light can flood in and fill our awareness. As such, we generally see the spiritual life as the process of becoming ever more receptive. We talk about letting go, relinquishing, surrendering, getting still, listening, ceasing to judge, etc. And we see Heaven as the ultimate receptive state, in which all impediments have been cleared away and we spend eternity in pure receptivity, basking in that oceanic experience we all long for.

All of this is absolutely valid, of course, and should never be minimized. Yet there is another side to our nature. This is the active or expressive side, and this tends to get short shrift in spiritual circles. We look with suspicion on activity, on doing, seeing it at best as a concession to earthly life and at worst as a yielding to egoic compulsion. We extol being rather than doing, and being willing rather than trying. We are especially wary of efforts to change things, smearing them with labels like “efforting” and praising instead the virtues of acceptance. We quote the Course as support, repeating lines like “seek not to change the world” and “I need do nothing.”

Yet let’s face it, the expressive side of our nature is not going to go away. It is too basic to who we are. There is a fundamental urge in us to create—to take something valuable and precious inside us and express it on the outside, thus producing effects after its own likeness, effects that make a difference, that become our contribution to the whole. That is the creative urge as I understand it—to express something important within so that it becomes something valuable without. I don’t know why we find the fulfillment of this urge so imperative, but we do. And any spirituality that leaves it out is really excluding half of our nature.

I say that with confidence because my spiritual path, A Course in Miracles, fully includes this side of our nature. This, I find, is one of the surprising things about the Course. It sets forth a theory of the mind in which the creative impulse is portrayed as fundamental to the mind’s nature. And this is not just true on earth, but in Heaven as well.

Creativity in Heaven

In fact, it is especially true in Heaven. According to the Course, what we call free will is just the tiniest remnant of an unlimited power that was given us by God, the will to create. God Himself possesses the will to create, which is how He created us. He then endowed us with the same will, so that we too could create. “Your will to create was given you by your Creator, Who was expressing the same Will in His creation” (T-2.VIII.1:3). The Course says this will had to be free: “This requires God’s endowment of the Son with free will, because all loving creation is freely given” (T-2.I.2:8). In fact, creation is the very reason we were given free will: “Your free will was given you for your joy in creating the perfect” (T-2.I.3:9-10). Imagine that—the whole reason we were given free will was so that we could create in Heaven.

We Course students typically back away from this idea of creating in Heaven. We find the whole topic extremely confusing. I can’t count how many questions I have gotten about this over the years. However, I don’t think it is inherently confusing. I think it confuses us simply because it is unfamiliar. If we had read about it in lots of spiritual teachings out there, I think it would strike us as quite natural and understandable.

The basic idea is really quite simple: we create actual beings in Heaven. We extend our own being outward to bring about other beings, whose nature is then the same as ours. In other words, we do exactly what God did in creating us. We extend our being to create new beings. These beings don’t have physical form, just as nothing in Heaven has physical form. They are formless spirit, just as everything in Heaven is. True, the idea of formless spirit is hard to wrap one’s mind around. But the basic notion of “we create beings by extending our being” is not particularly confusing. When we talk about it in relation to God, no one says “What do you mean ‘God creates beings’?” We are used to that idea. But when we talk about it in relation to us—we create beings—we get very confused. I think, however, if we heard this idea from many quarters, rather than just the Course, we wouldn’t be so puzzled. We would probably just think, “How amazing to think I have that power, too!”

The Course returns to the theme of our creations again and again. It repeatedly tells us we were actually created in order to create: “God created you to create” (T-6.II.8:4). “Child of God, you were created to create the good, the beautiful and the holy” (T-1.VII.2:1). That is quite a concept to take in. The Course also speaks of the eternal importance of this function: “You who are co-creator with Him extend His Kingdom forever and beyond limit” (T-7.I.5:4). And it speaks of our joy in fulfilling it: “Its extension is your joy” (T-7.VI.12:4). “God, Who encompasses all being, created beings who have everything individually, but who want to share it to increase their joy” (T-4.VII.5:1). Indeed, the Course goes so far as to say, “Unless you create you are unfulfilled” (T-7.IX.3:6). It is hard to imagine any teaching granting a more lofty status to the creative impulse.

Sharpening pencils without ever creating anything

It is crucial that we let in the importance the Course gives our creating. Only when we acknowledge just how central the creative impulse is to the Course’s view of Heaven can we grant it its proper place on earth. Unless we give it a status at that ultimate level, we will always be tempted to treat its forms on earth as manifestations of ego, leaving us to either minimize their importance or guard against their danger.

Our will to create in Heaven does take forms here on earth. The Course teaches that this urge is so basic to our nature that we simply cannot turn it off. It is operating all the time:

While you believe you are in a body, however, you can choose between loveless and miraculous channels of expression [originally: creativity]. You can make an empty shell, but you cannot express nothing at all. You can wait, delay, paralyze yourself, or reduce your creativity almost to nothing. But you cannot abolish it. (T-1.V.1:3-6)

The urge to create is so basic that the Urtext calls it instinctual: “His instincts for creation were given him by his own Creator, who was expressing the same instinct in His Creation.” While we cannot turn off this instinct, we can misdirect it. To use the Course’s term, we can “miscreate.” The Course says, “Miscreation is still a genuine creative act in terms of the underlying impulse, but not in terms of the content of the creation” (Urtext). And miscreation, says the Course, is most of what we do here. Examples of miscreation include all manner of attack and projection, but they also include most of what we normally call creativity. The Course’s attitude seems to be that most artistic creation, scientific invention, and intellectual ingenuity is miscreation.

The essence of the Course’s critique of conventional creativity is that we are devoting our creative abilities to things that have no real practical value. The Urtext says, “Methodologically, man’s mind has been very creative. But, as always occurs when method and content are separated, it has not been utilized for anything but an attempt to escape a fundamental and entirely inescapable impasse. This kind of thinking cannot result in a creative outcome, though it has resulted in considerable ingenuity.” In other words, while our methods have been quite creative—in the sense of ingenious and imaginative—the actual outcomes haven’t been creative—in the sense of constructive or productive. In short, our brilliance hasn’t produced anything of real value. An example from Helen’s original notes will illustrate what this means:

Jack and other very eminent methodologists have abandoned validity in favor of reliability because they have lost sight of the end and are concentrating on the means.

Remember the story about the artist who kept devoting himself to inventing better and better ways of sharpening pencils. He never created anything, but he had the sharpest pencil in town.

To understand this passage, you need to understand the terms “validity” and “reliability” in psychological testing. Reliability means that a certain test is consistently measuring something. The scores you are getting are not just random error. Validity, however, means that you are measuring the thing you were trying to measure. For example, if you conduct a study of the effect on children’s behavior of watching violent television, the measurements are valid if that effect is what they are actually measuring. On the other hand, the measurements are reliable if they consistently measure something, even if you don’t know what that something is.

Jesus is saying that what really matters is validity. After all, of what practical use is a test if you don’t know whether you’ve measured what you wanted to? Validity, therefore, is the end; reliability is only a means. To have validity, reliability is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Consequently, the statisticians who “have abandoned validity in favor of reliability” are like the artist who focused so completely on sharpening his pencils that “He never created anything, but he had the sharpest pencil in town.”

That is how Jesus sees so much of what we call creativity. We can pour an enormous amount of inventiveness and ingenuity into things that don’t actually deliver real results, that don’t truly solve our real problem. Indeed, in Jesus’ view, this seems to be how we spend virtually all of our time. The Course has many examples of us pouring our energy into what in the end is a colossal waste, so that, sadly, “time goes by without results” (W-pI.138.3:4).

The earthly reflection of heavenly creativity

What, then, counts for a valid application of our creative abilities in this world? In the strict meaning of the term, we cannot actually “create” in this world; that is reserved for Heaven. How could we possibly create infinite spirit in a world where only finite bodies exist? Yet although we cannot create here, we can perform a reflection of heavenly creation. What is that reflection? The following passage is a clue. This is miracle principle 15 as it was originally dictated to Helen:

Each day should be devoted to miracles. God created time so that man could use it creatively, and convince himself of his own ability to create.

What does it mean here to “use [time] creatively”? Clearly it is the same thing as devoting your day to giving miracles. I say “giving miracles” because the overwhelming focus throughout the Course is on miracles as acts of loving extension toward others. So the whole purpose of time, and each day in time, is so that we can give miracles. This is how we use time creatively, or as the FIP version has it, “constructively”—productively. (In the Course, “creative” almost always refers to producing something, rather than being imaginative or original.) And by being creative in this way, day in and day out, we finally become convinced of our “own ability to create.”

In other words, to be really creative here on earth, to be truly productive, to not just sharpen our pencils but to actually accomplish something, means to give miracles to others. In fact, when the word “creative” is used in the early dictation of the Course (before the term takes on its strictly heavenly connotations), it usually refers to “creating” miracles. Jesus talks about the “creative power of the miracle.” He calls the miracle a “creative act,” and also calls miracles “creative energizers” of others. The idea is that when you are giving a miracle to another, you are actually “creating” something. You are actually producing something. You are bringing into existence something of real value.

We need to pause to take in the enormity of this. Jesus is transferring the creative impulse from the artistic and scientific realms to the interpersonal realm. He is transferring it from producing forms to producing love and healing in others. This is especially clear in the following passage from Helen’s notes about sex and parenting, a continuation of the earlier discussion of reliability and validity:

Sex was intended [as] an instrument for physical creation (see previous notes), to enable Souls to embark on new chapters in their experience, and thus improve their records. The pencil was not an end in itself (See earlier section). It was an aid to the artist in his own creative endeavors. As he made new homes for Souls and guided them through the periods of their own developing readiness, he learned the role of the father himself.

As challenging as this message is to many of us, Jesus is basically saying that unless sex produces children, you are just sharpening your pencil (pun intended; Jesus said earlier that “the language here is intentional”). You are not actually creating anything. You are just spinning your wheels. To be truly creative, sex needs to be purely a means for allowing souls to come into this world and advance on their journeys. By providing them with a physical vehicle, and then by guiding them through their development, you are being so truly creative that you are learning the role of the Creator. Indeed, by producing children, you are coming about as close as you can to your heavenly role of creating beings.

Notice further that this passage overtly applies artistic creativity (“It was an aid to the artist in his own creative endeavors”) to the interpersonal realm. What is our art in this passage? It is “creating” something beautiful in the souls of our children. We can expand this, of course, to include our pupils, our patients, our colleagues, our friends, our spouses—our miracle receivers of every kind. Our true creative endeavor, then, is not to produce some lovely object; it is to produce something of God inside another person.

This will satisfy that creative impulse in us far more completely than our usual efforts at creating things. There is an adage that says, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I spent more time at work.’” The concrete things we produce will not truly satiate our urge to create. The legacy we leave behind is not something physical we can point to. It is always carried invisibly inside other people. Yet, as I think we all know, that legacy is the most meaningful and satisfying of all.

In another passage about art, the Course claims that God’s masterpiece is not any sort of physical form; rather, it is us, His Son. We are “His masterpiece” (T-25.II.5:6, 6:2, 6:6, 9:1). In the same way, our masterpiece is nothing that can be seen or touched. Rather, it is the lasting effect our miracles have produced in the minds and hearts of the people we encounter. A story told to me by a friend illustrates this idea perfectly:

I worked at a school for severely autistic children. I had a class of six children and most of them couldn’t speak, even though they were ages eight to twelve. I felt a particular closeness with the youngest boy in the class who was the most severely disabled of all of them. Some years after leaving the school I was thinking about him. So I did a meditation where in my mind I went to visit him. I found him asleep, and as I looked at him, I noticed that his aura had a pink area in it. It may have been a kind of pink oval around his heart, but I can’t remember for sure. I sensed that Jesus was telling me that was the love I had given him while I was working with him. I was told it was a permanent part of who he was now and it would help protect him through the rest of his life. It was a permanent gift, as it were.

For those of us who have a strong creative impulse in the conventional sense, this is a sea change in how to view creativity. Can we shift over to this new view? Can we see creativity as being not about things—paintings, books, meals, sales—but about using all such things as mere pencils for a deeper, holier kind of art? Can we see it as being about the light we leave behind in the souls of those we love?


[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]