Finding Value in your Creative and Spiritual Endeavors

I can’t tell you how often writers hand me pages and ask, “Is this worth it?” All creative and spiritual endeavors ask of us time and energy. In our outcome-oriented way, we want some sense that our work (both the process and the product) will have value.

Ken Wilber, Buddhist and Integral Theorist, recently turned my understanding of value on its head. I suspect that, if we apply his ideas to our creativity and our spiritual practices, we’ll radically shift how we think about their worth.

Rather than thinking about value as singular, Wilber distinguishes three different kinds of value. I picture them as two ladders hovering within a brilliant sphere of light. The first ladder he calls “intrinsic value”—“the value a thing has in itself.” Intrinsic value is ranked according to its degree of inclusiveness and wholeness. Climbing up the ladder, the more “being” something has—the greater its depth, wholeness, and agency; the more levels it contains; the more of the universe it enfolds in its being—the more value it has. A cell has more intrinsic value than a molecule, a human has more intrinsic value than a plant, and a developed literary work has more intrinsic value than a journal entry. As we develop a project, each draft transcends and includes its predecessors, giving drafts a natural, intrinsic ranking—a ranking of wholeness and depth.

Strangely, the second ladder works in the exact opposite manner—we must climb down to find value. Extrinsic value “is the value a thing has by virtue of being a part in communion (and the more things it is a part of, the greater its extrinsic value).” So atoms are more extrinsically valuable to creation than molecules, and plants are more extrinsically valuable than humans. Does this mean Tolstoy’s private journal has more extrinsic value than War and Peace? Strangely, yes. Why? The answer rests in that trusty bit of writing wisdom from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” The basic building blocks of literature aren’t words; they are silence and sound and internal stirrings that give rise to emotions, ideas, observations, questions, and images. These take form in a draft and become the foundation for all that follows. The more we show up on the page, the more we muck around in our humanity, the more we write from what’s true and universal at the core of our particularity, the more vulnerable and courageous and honest we are, the more our writing is a “part in communion.” As Ken Wilber says, “It is not the object expressed, but the depth of the subject expressing it, that most defines art.”

Now for the glowing sphere that encompasses both ladders: The third measure of value is Ground value, “the value all things have by virtue of being manifestations of Spirit.” Intrinsic and extrinsic are relative values, Wilber writes, while Ground value is absolute. “All holons [units of creation] have absolutely equal Ground value: they share equal Suchness, Thusness, Isness, which is the face of Spirit as it shines in manifestation, One Taste in all its wonder.” With the decline of the great religious traditions and our culture’s disregard for spiritual practice, we’ve lost sight of Ground value. But it’s precisely what we creative types need to reclaim for our own well-being, for the sake of our work, and for our communities.

Yes, there’s a hierarchy of writing that goes from rough, immature scrawling to transcendent, lasting literature. Yes, we can and should learn and grow as artists. At the same time, a similar hierarchy uplifts raw, powerful presence in the creative act—the basic union between interior impulse and exterior expression. No bound book lauded for centuries is as wondrous as the moment when one soul puts pen to paper and finds there an epiphany.

Encompassing these hierarchies is a generous, radiant worth. Everyone who writes is a writer. The process of transformation, of creation, of loving and giving and moving and sharing, is shot through with significance, regardless of outcome. Every writer is dependent upon other writers and on readers for our well-being, for our selfhood, for our wholeness. We write within a vast web connecting those we’ve read and those who’ve come before us and our writing colleagues and our readers and all we love; this web forms the ground of our being, it moves through us and beyond us. It does not discriminate. It simply radiates life, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. But we can welcome it and cultivate it and learn to trust it. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

All quotations are from Ken Wilber’s One Taste.


Happy summer, people!  I’ve two opportunities to offer you before vacation mode sets in.  Please join me for the final Spiritual Memoir dr0p-in session at Wisdom Ways on June 8 from 1:30-3:30.  We’ll be exercising our “letting go” muscle on the page, directly experience how death and release are an essential part of creation.

On Tuesday, June 5 at 7 p.m., members of the Twin Cities Authors’ Circle will give a reading.  The public is welcome!  Please join us at 2615 Park Ave S, Minneapolis.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to sink deeply into a longer project, please join me from September 24-28 for the Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

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