Chris Zydel is an artist, psychotheraist, creativity mentor and coach with more than four decades of experience. She is devoted to providing the enthusiastic encouragement and inspiration that supports her clients in developing their full creative potential and living a vital and authentic creative life. As a creativity coach Chris has successfully mentored countless writers, painters, photographers and business owners—anyone with a creative vision trying to be born! Through her popular Wild Heart Painting workshops, she creates a sacred space where the power of intuitive painting works its magic of healing, personal growth and spiritual transformation.
CIGDEM KOBU: What does being creative mean to you? How did you find the navel of your creative power?
CHRIS ZYDEL: Being creative means claiming myself and my identity as a creator and approaching most everything in my life as an opportunity to create. It means making things up as I go along, not doing something in a certain way just because other people are doing it, questioning everything and not taking things for granted. Being a creator means living my life as an adventure because when you are committed to being creative, you’re often doing what you have never done before. So, living my life as a creator means that I have to stay awake. Alert. I can’t go to sleep and numb out on on my life.
Being creative means always trying to figure out what works for me. And allowing myself to change and transform and grow. Being creative means that I’m not the same person today that I was yesterday. It means making space for myself as a shapeshifter through embracing the process of revolution, reinvention and improvisation.
Being creative means poking at the edges of my comfort zone and making it bigger and bigger and bigger by letting old things die and inviting new things to be born. Being creative means that I’m always choosing to follow my intuition and listen to my heart before anything else.
Being creative means that I’m scared or uncomfortable a great deal of the time because I’m constantly challenging myself to stretch and grow and try new things. Being creative means diving into the unknown over and over again and being unsure about where I’m going or where I’ll end up.
Being creative means being vulnerable as I attempt to bring out what is most deeply and authentically me into the world. Being creative means risking disappointment, rejection, failure and not being seen or understood in the way that I hope to be, as well as risking having my heart broken open by experiencing being honored for my gifts and valued for my true self.
Being creative is a profound act of love. It’s channeling the love that you are and that the universe has for you and making it real and visible and tangible in the world. I also really resonate with the concept of “my navel of creative power.” The first thing I see when I hear those words is an umbilical cord that connects me to the creative forces of the earth and wind and sea and sky and cosmos and allowing myself to be a channel as those energies move through me. Knowing that those forces don’t belong to me. I’m a steward of them.
I think that the first time I really experienced that power was when I was in my early 40s and at a major crossroads in my life. I had been painting intuitively for a few years at that point, and my hunger to be creative was huge. But I hadn’t crossed the threshold into truly claiming myself as a creative person.
I was one of those ‘shadow artists” that Julia Cameron talks about in her book The Artist’s Way. I was surrounded by creative people. All of my friends were painters or musicians or writers or dancers. But I was still caught up in the belief that creativity was something that wasn’t for everyone. That you needed to have talent and I just didn’t. There were “artists” and then there were folks like me who got to appreciate the artists.
But something burst open in me at that point in my life. I think it was probably my version of a mid-life crisis! Some part of me was waking up to the fact that I wasn’t going to live forever and that if I wanted this to change I better do something about it soon.
It was as if there was a voice inside that simply said: “No more. I’m not going to choose to believe that story about not being enough any longer. I’m a creative being. I’ve always wanted to be creative and I’m going to honor that desire by giving myself whatever it takes to feed that hunger in me.”
After that my intuitive painting practice went through the roof, I began to let myself write and I started my Creative Juices Arts business. I also married an artist and have created a life with him that revolves around our mutual devotion to the creative process.
I still wake up every day in wonderment that I was actually able to make that shift from frustration and disempowerment to leading a fully engaged creative life. Where I not only get to affirm myself as a fully alive creative person but I also get to help other people do the same thing. I’ve heard it said that magic is the willingness to change your consciousness, your world view and your beliefs about what is possible. Making that shift in my own heart and mind from Creative No to Creative Yes was the biggest act of magic I have ever experienced.
“The muse shows up when we show up. I most often find the inspiration by simply beginning, not the other way around.”
CIGDEM: What do you think is the biggest illusion about the creative process?
CHRIS: I think the biggest illusion around the creative process is that we have to be in a magical state of inspiration in order to create. This is some combination of bright eyed and bushy tailed excitement, uber-confidence and feeling an unbroken connection to the creative flow. One of the saddest things that I see in my creative practice is when someone comes to my studio saying that they haven’t created in weeks, months, sometimes years. All because they have been waiting in vain to be blessed by that sweet creative elixir that they mistakenly think is the only indicator of a visit from the muse.
In my experience, you can create no matter what state you are in. You don’t even need any ideas in order to create. All you need is the intention to be creative. And the willingness to actually take some action around your creative process. When people come to my Painting From The Wild Heart classes, they discover that they can create when they’re tired, when they’re cranky, when they hate being creative, when they’re upset, when they’re convinced that they are stuck, when they’re bored or when they are feeling old, shut down or dried up.
The muse shows up when we show up. I most often find the inspiration by simply beginning, not the other way around. I might start out painting or writing or taking photos and feeling a little creaky or rusty, but if I just stick with it, before I know it, the creative juice has taken over, and I’m happily in the flow. It’s also true that the more I create the more creative I feel. It’s a use it or lose it kind of a deal. Not that we can ever truly lose our connection to our creative source. But if we’ve been ignoring our muse for a long time it might take a bit of wooing and convincing to get back in her good graces.
CIGDEM: Do you have any creative routines or rituals?
CHRIS: For as much as I try and welcome the process of creative change, I’m also very much a creature of habit and I love my creative routines. It’s really difficult for me to write any place other than on my couch in my living room with the blinds open so I can look out into my back yard at the birds and trees and flowers. I have something to drink while I write. Either herbal tea, or sparkly water or my homemade green smoothie. And I drink those things out of a huge flower covered mug or a glass goblet with a blue base.
I often listen to music and on cold days wrap myself in a soft and fluffy magenta blanket. I create an atmosphere of comfort and safety, shelter and coziness from which to write or draw or process my photos. That’s the paradox of the creative process. Being creative is often scary. So we need to be held in an atmosphere of sanctuary and refuge in order to have the courage to allow it to bloom.
CIGDEM: Is there anything in particular that drains your creativity? How do you deal with it?
CHRIS: I think that the main thing that drains my creativity is simply not being creative. And a million different things can get in the way. Chores, errands, duties, obligations, email, technological glitches, household emergencies, procrastination, fear, illness, traffic jams, bad TV, running my business. In other words, everything that comes with living a life.
What I’ve learned over the years is that the completely unsexy solution to the problem of being more creative is to make sure it gets on the list. To make time for it. And to keep my commitments to myself to be creative. I’m going to do a little getting up on a soapbox here, and this message is as much for me as it is for you because I am always teaching what I most need to learn! So here goes:
If you want to be creative, you need to create. It’s as simple as that. And you need to consciously counteract those cultural messages that are everywhere and that you have been hearing your whole life. Those voices that continue to tell you that creativity is frivolous or non-essential or only worthwhile if it’s connected to making money or getting on Oprah!
Making my creativity a priority means making myself a priority. And making it a priority also reminds me that me, and my creative expression, have value and are worthwhile. Nothing says love like spending time with your beloved. And nothing makes your muse feel as important as seeing her name in your datebook on your calendar!
CIGDEM: What is the worst thing your inner critic has ever told you? How did you respond?
CHRIS: The worst thing? I don’t know if I can choose one worst thing. And, truth be told, my inner critic is really not all that creative. It’s always nattering on with some version of “You’re not good enough. You can’t do this. Who do you think you are?” And of course it really likes to compare me to other people. “You’ll never be as popular as or talented as her!” It just says these things over and over again.
I know that the common wisdom is to treat your inner critic with kindness and compassion, but that has never worked for me all that well. What really breaks the thrall is getting mad. The inner critic is simply a manifestation of fear. And fear has a hard time existing alongside a fire breathing dragoness.
When I’m really believing that inner critic voice, I shrink inside and become small. I collapse into a place of shame and disempowerment. I know that what it wants is for me to stay safe by not ever trying anything new or forging into unknown creative territory. It would rather have me depressed and secure than fully alive and taking risks. But I have to remember that is its agenda for me. It’s not mine for myself. I want to live a bright and shining and creatively courageous life, full of all kinds of interesting twists and turns and challenges to be all of who I am. No matter how scary it gets. And I know that you do too. So I get pissed. And feisty. And remember once more who is the boss of my life.
When I feel the critic trying to take over my mind and invade my psyche, I will literally stomp around and yell. I’ll loudly and passionately tell it to get lost, to hit the road, that I’m royally tired of its crap. I will go on a full out cussing tirade. And at some point during all this hullabaloo I’ll start to laugh. That’s when I know that I’m completely out of the woods. Because the worst thing you can do in relationship to your inner critic is to take it seriously!
“I’m a huge fan of deadlines. Nothing focuses me more or allows me to get something accomplished. And deadlines generally involve other people. I’m much more likely to complete a project if I have outside accountability.”
CIGDEM: Do you ever feel paralyzed because you have too many good, creative ideas? What do you do then?
CHRIS: I don’t generally feel paralyzed by the process of having too many ideas. I love that feeling of a million different possibilities swirling around in my brain! Where I can start to feel paralyzed is not knowing how to organize those ideas in some kind of a way that feels doable. So this is what I do.
I have a notebook where I write those ideas down which includes a brief synopsis of each one. Nothing too elaborate. Just a paragraph or two. This makes them happy because writing them down makes them feel like I’m beginning to take them seriously. And it allows me to relax by getting them out of my head and down on paper which means I don’t have to worry that I’ll forget them.
Then there’s the process of deciding which project I need to work on first. I try as much as possible to begin with what has the most energy and excitement for me. An idea will work way better if it also has some juicy desire behind it. And the final part of the process is bringing these ideas to some kind of fruition. To actually get them out of the idea stage and making them into something real and tangible.
I’m actually a huge fan of deadlines. Nothing focuses me more or allows me to get something accomplished. And deadlines generally involve other people. I’m much more likely to complete a project if I have outside accountability. If the idea involves a workshop or a class, I set a date. And then put the word out in my newsletter or on my website that this thing is going to happen. Which means that I have to do it because now people are expecting it of me. And they’ve often already paid me money!
I’ve also learned the importance of doing one thing at a time. Even if I have a million different projects or people jumping up and down and clamoring “Me! Me!”, I do my best to not let anything else intrude on my chosen project. My intention is to give it my full and undivided attention until it is complete. Which means that I have to say ‘no’ to other things for a while.
I’m in an ongoing practice of learning how to have boundaries around my creative time and space. And this is a much bigger challenge than having too many ideas!
CIGDEM: What do you think about perfection paralysis? What do you recommend to those who are set back because of a constant strive for perfection?
CHRIS: Perfection paralysis is a very sad and very real thing. But the good news is that it’s not a permanent condition! The first step in dealing with it is to acknowledge and identify the paralysis for what it is. To simply name it. To bring it out of the closet.
The real problem with perfection paralysis is not the straightforward desire for perfection. That desire can be a holy beacon that points us in the right direction in relationship to our work. But perfection is by its very nature an ideal, and an ideal is something that can never be achieved.Where people get paralyzed is in believing that the ideal is attainable. That the ideal is the only thing worth having. The paralysis is connected to the fear that they can never attain the ideal. Which is actually the truth. Because the ideal is by definition impossible. So it becomes this endless loop of fear and desire with no action. No manifestation. No movement. Paralysis.
When people come to one of my classes and they are caught in that loop they will say to me something along the lines of, “I’m afraid to paint the ____________ because I’m worried that this ____________ (whatever it is) won’t come out looking like how I see it in my head.” And I very cheerfully assure them that they are absolutely right! There is no chance in heaven or hell that they will ever be able to create what they see in their minds eye. Because nobody can.
At first they look at me shocked! I have validated their worst fear. But this also seems to help them relax on some level. Because I’m also giving them the message that what they are struggling with is true for everybody. It’s a human problem. Not just their problem. Being given permission to not be perfect and maybe even a little bit human makes room for them to simply create.
One of the most common fears that people have before coming to my workshops is that they will stand in front of the blank piece of paper the whole time and never paint a thing. Which is perfection paralysis at it’s worst! I’m also very happy to be able to reassure them that this has never, ever happened in my class. Perfection paralysis can’t really take hold in an atmosphere of love and support. And relentless nudging by a pesky intuitive painting teacher!
So one recommendation I’d offer to someone who is caught in that painful cycle is to come out of isolation and begin to talk about it. To discover that you’re not alone. And to find a circle of loving creative folks to help you begin to create again.
CIGDEM: How do you deal with distractions such as email, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth?
CHRIS: First of all, I try as much as possible to be compassionate towards myself around those things! Because they are so very compelling. It’s much more of a problem when I’m writing because I’m already on the computer. When I’m painting or doing some other kinds of art, once I get started creating, the temptation isn’t as strong to go to the computer.
When I’m writing, I actually give myself permission to take social media breaks. I can only work on a particular writing project for so long before I have to do something else for a few minutes. Taking those breaks is a way to clear my head. Plus, I think I just get tired and a little lonely, and I need contact and another kind of stimulation for a little while.
CIGDEM: What do you think about the connection between creativity and spirituality? How can the creative process turn into a spiritual practice?
CHRIS: The deeper I get into making creativity central to my life, the more I realize that it already is a spiritual practice! I think that creativity and spirituality come from the same energetic source. And that what you need in order to develop yourself spiritually are the same things you need to feed yourself creatively.
Both spirituality and creativity need an open mind and an open heart to thrive. Both of them are about the willingness to trust something other than the ego/personality/judging mind/critical self. They both bloom in an atmosphere of radical acceptance and unconditional love. And they’re both about getting in touch with your authentic and essential self.
The job of a spiritual practice is to remind you that you’re always connected to the spirit. And the job of creativity is to remind you that you are always connected to your creative source. They’re both about being willing to face the unknown, to travel into uncharted territory without a map, and to learn to trust your intuition even if you don’t know where it is taking you.They’re both about freeing up stagnant energy so that you can live your life from your core being where you are naturally passionately and joyfully alive. They’re both about letting go of your attachment to what is linear, rational and logical.
They’re both about living from a place of greater authenticity and a more wholehearted relationship with what we consider to be sacred because any artist will tell you that making art is often their religion! They can both help you to tap into a larger sense of meaning as well as connect you with your inner life as you journey into the invisible worlds of soul and spirit. They both encourage you to connect with yourself on a more profound level and to develop greater self-awareness.
Spirituality and creativity are both experiential. You can’t be in your head to get the full benefit of either one. And if you allow yourself to open to them, they can provide a firsthand experience of healing and wholeness. A palpable sense of feeling less alone in the universe. And the sense of the power and safety that comes from connecting to that mysterious greater something that surrounds and holds us at all times.
CIGDEM: What do you think about the suffering artist myth?
CHRIS: I could write a book on that one! But essentially the “suffering artist” is a western conception that comes out of our ambivalent relationship to art and the creative process. In the west, artists are both denigrated and put on a pedestal. Art becomes something that is both feared and revered. You are either an art rockstar or a poor pathetic person who just can’t get their shit together. It’s kind of schizophrenic, and artists themselves get caught up in the tension between those two poles.
You won’t find any suffering artists in a place like Bali where everyone is considered to be an artist and artistic expression is woven into their day to day life. Part of what is so crazy making is the idea that an artist is someone who is godlike and special and out-of-this-world-gifted. In this worldview, you can’t be an artist and a regular person at the same time. So if you’re identified as an artist and don’t achieve that godlike status, you feel like a horrible failure. And if you do attain that pinnacle of success you feel like a fraud because you know the truth of who you are… just another human being … or worse, you believe your own press and become an over-inflated narcissist, which is its own kind of suffering.
I think, happily, that is all beginning to change. There are a number of us who are trying to heal that wound to the artist soul be reclaiming art and creativity as a human birthright, not just something reserved for the chosen and talented few. There are more and more people every day who are embracing the vision of the joyful artist. Who are recognizing that we are all special by the fact that we are alive and that we all have some creative gift and superpower to bring into the world.
“Creativity is at core a process of claiming our wholeness, our inner light and our intrinsic goodness. It’s about being and expressing all of who we are by making our inner gifts and experiences visible in some way or another.”
CIGDEM: Art is often perceived as something you need to master. Why are we always so stuck on “mastering”? What you think?
CHRIS: I think one of the reasons we get caught up in the whole mastery compulsion is that we are not allowed or encouraged to simply play. Play is not valued, play is not to be trusted, play is frivolous and a waste of time. And at heart, creativity and art are all about play. So to make art more acceptable, it needs to become more serious. Which means that it needs to be full of effort and hard work and striving and struggle. To make art and becoming an artist seem worthwhile, it has to be almost impossible to achieve and only attainable by the rare few. Which is where the drive for a certain kind of mastery comes in.
Mastery in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. I think that there are two ways to approach the idea of mastery. Mastery can be something that is very fluid and joyful or mastery can be a gun that is held to our heads.
The destructive side of needing to master our art comes from a sense of inadequacy. If we approach our creativity from a place of feeling like we are not good enough to begin with, then we are under constant pressure to be better. Mastery becomes a code for attempting to become something that we’re not.
One of the hallmarks of this attitude is that our creative life is filled with comparing ourself to others. Which means that we see ourselves as either being either better or worse. We’re on top of the heap or a loser. This type of mastery is filled with the need to be in control and is also incredibly stressful. We can never relax and just enjoy our creative life. And we can never stop striving to be other than who we truly are.
But if we can approach the desire for mastery from a place of play and of recognizing that we’re fine the way that we are but that it can be fun to gain skills and hone a craft, then mastery takes on a whole new meaning.
This approach to mastery is a way for us to continually unfold into becoming who we were always meant to be. To develop our talents and gifts in a thousand different ways for the sheer joy of it. To get better at something just because we think it would be a total gas to see how far we can actually go with it. Not because we have anything to prove to anyone else.
CIGDEM: Does creative expression also have a healing power? What do you suggest to someone who wants to turn to art as therapy?
CHRIS: I think that allowing ourselves to be creative is by its very nature healing and therapeutic. Creativity is at core a process of claiming our wholeness, our inner light and our intrinsic goodness. It’s about being and expressing all of who we are by making our inner gifts and experiences visible in some way or another. And we desperately want those gifts to be seen, valued, celebrated, applauded, recognized, responded to and ultimately loved. I don’t know about Bali, but I have yet to meet a creative person or anyone for that matter from the Western world, who isn’t struggling on some level with a sense of shame, fear or pain around who they truly are. And because those feelings can be so hard to face, many people don’t let themselves be creative.
So every time… every single time someone has the courage to express themselves creatively, it means they have had to deal with those hurt places and difficult emotions. It also means they have taken one more step in the direction of believing in themselves more than their story. Towards holding those aching places inside with tenderness and compassion.
To moving through these soul obstacles with boldness and grace. To looking the demons of inadequacy and despair in the eye and deciding not to listen. To grappling with the painful struggle and choosing to be creative anyway. Which in my book, is always a profound act of healing.
CIGDEM: Could you share a technique or exercise that comes handy during times of severe creative blocks?
CHRIS: The best technique I know for dealing with a creative block is asking yourself the question, “What is it that I don’t want to paint or write or create right now? What is the thing that is calling me to be expressed that is really risky or somehow taboo?” People think that a block arrises because there’s nothing left inside. That they’re creatively blank or empty or used up. But that’s never the case.
A very common fear that I hear expressed by my students is “What if I run out of creative ideas? Maybe I just had my last good one and now the well has run dry.” This is actually impossible! We’re always filled with more creative possibilities than we could ever begin to exhaust no matter how much time we spend creating.
When we have that experience of feeling blocked, it’s because there is something that wants to come through us and be expressed but it scares us. Maybe it’s too emotionally intense or vulnerable or revealing. Maybe we don’t feel up to it or like we can pull it off. This thing that wants to be born through us can bring up our sense of shame or inadequacy because it threatens to expose those places in us that we think we’re weird or not good enough. So, we simply shut down creatively on an unconscious level in order to protect ourselves. And then convince ourselves that nothing is there and that we are creatively broken.
When I ask the question of a blocked student in one of my classes “What do you not want to paint?” a groan goes up in the whole room. Everyone recognizes that this person is now on a precipice of something dangerous and exciting and that answering that question truthfully will be followed by both discomfort and the need for courage. But freeing up what they’re trying so hard to repress ultimately leads to a great burst of energy, aliveness and joy. As well as greatly renewed creative enthusiasm.
CIGDEM: You are a psychotherapist, astrologer, arts facilitator, coach, and artist. How do you combine your diverse experience and expertise in your current work?
CHRIS: I know it looks like I’m doing a bunch of different things, but I have an overarching, deeply passionate desire that runs like a single river through all of these professional roles.
I’m primarily interested in people, including myself, having the freedom and permission to be exactly who they are. To create a life of their own making that feeds them. To live a life that is primarily dictated by their one of a kind, never to be seen again, individuality and uniqueness. To always feel like they can explore and express the multi-faceted brilliance of who they are that includes their superpower talents, heartfelt needs, distinctive traits, and idiosyncratic qualities. To be celebrated, valued and respected for simply being real and authentic.
I’m totally and endlessly fascinated by how every living being is just so darned unlike anybody else. We’re all worlds within worlds within worlds. There is a richness inside each of us that is simply blinding once allowed to be expressed. And what causes me great pain is how seldom we get the opportunity to even know who we are much less fully bring it out in all its beauty into the light of day.
I’m on a mission to create environments where people can feel free to be wondrously and gloriously themselves. And all of my different roles help me to achieve that one goal using slightly different tools.