1-Sentence-Summary: The Art of Aliveness is a collection of 14 ideas to let your life feed off a creative practice and vice versa, rooted in personal anecdotes, backed up with practical exercises, and full of inspiration to live a rich, well-integrated life.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
When she sat down for her first college painting class at 19 years old, Flora Bowley‘s professor walked into the room and said: “Well, we all have a thousand bad paintings in us, so let’s get going.” What a way to start a career in art!
More than 25 years later, Flora has indeed painted well over 1,000 paintings. Along the way, painting has become more than a hobby or a job. It grew into a dear friend, present for all the highs and lows of Flora’s life — and responsible for many of them.
In The Art of Aliveness: A Creative Return to What Matters Most, she explains this connection. “Aliveness,” as she defines it, is when we let what we learn from our creative practice inform our everyday lives and vice versa. The book is a collection of 14 ways to cultivate this two-way connection.
Here are 3 of Flora’s ideas to reignite your creativity and integrate your life:
- Use your “life baskets” appropriately to maintain the right balance between comfort and risk.
- “Riverbanks” are artificial limits that will give your creative practice and life the structure it needs.
- Life has as many layers as a painting — balance happens when we use rituals to actively manage them.
Let’s discover the art of aliveness!
Lesson 1: Both life and art are a dance between comfort and risk, and your “baskets” are how you keep your balance.
Bowley accomplished any passionate creative’s dream in her 30s: She could live entirely off making her own art. To her surprise, she felt lonely instead of fulfilled.
A friend prompted her to try teaching. Flora didn’t know if anyone would show up to her first workshop or even how to teach. What started as a totally improvised class including yoga and meditation later became her signature “Intuitive Painting” style.
“For the first time ever, I felt like all the parts of myself were invited to hang out in the same room,” Bowley says. But it took a step into the unknown to figure out this part of her calling.
Now, Flora uses a metaphor to keep the balance between comfort and risk: baskets. Your basket contains all the tools, techniques, and knowledge you’ve acquired throughout your career. It’s always there, ready when you need it — but it’s important to keep your basked behind you when you’re working, Flora says.
It’s easy to go back to what we’ve mastered, but if all we do is rely on familiar knowledge, habits, tools, and decisions, we’ll never learn nor create anything new. We also have “life baskets,” Flora says. Sometimes, those need to stay behind as well. “The alternative to growth is stagnation—and stagnation is the opposite of aliveness.”
How do you find the courage to let go of comfort and step into risk when it’s necessary? Ask yourself one question: “Would I rather be comfortable and stagnant or uncomfortable and alive?”
Lesson 2: Use “riverbanks” to give your life and creative practice the structure they need for you to perform without overwhelm.
Legendary dancer and author of The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp, believed that “before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” Bowley confirms this.
Flora is a free spirit, but too much freedom doesn’t lead to perfect self-expression. It just leads to “creative decision fatigue.” Having once meditated 10 hours a day at a Vipassana retreat, Flora knows restrictions can be liberating. She calls them riverbanks. “[They] can be anything, as long as they limit options and invite focus.”
One time, she decided to use Prussian blue, some sketches of trees, and a triangle-shaped potato stamp for her next painting. “With this simplified framework in place, I felt my shoulders start to relax.” Freedom is great, but it’s not a cure-all. Often, less is more. Constraints help us think and zone in on a goal.
Try the following exercise: Make a drawing or collage of a river. Write your goal inside the river. Next, draw some riverbanks around the river, and fill them with constraints that’ll help you achieve the goal.
Your goal could be practicing piano every day, improving your back strength, or starting a business. Riverbanks could be, “Repeat only these 3 songs this month,” “Don’t lift more than 10 kg,” or “Use only free tools to build my website.”
One more thing: As rivers meander, their riverbanks change. It’s okay to switch your constraints every month, week, or even day, depending on your needs. Pick whatever limitations support your goal, and stick to them until they’ve served their purpose.
Think outside the box, but never forget your box.
Lesson 3: Like a painting, life has many layers — embrace them all to move smoothly between your past, present, and future.
Years ago, Flora’s mom was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. She died just 7 weeks later. The tragedy became a season of many layers, both in Flora’s paintings and life. She translated anger, grief, and fear onto the canvas, and the paintings from that time are some of her most interesting.
Rituals can convert “grief into compassion, fear into insight, [and] anger into righteous hope,” Bowley says. Painting can be such a ritual. So can be rowing a boat across a lake, writing a journal, or attending a Burkinabe grief ceremony.
Here’s an idea for a ritual to help you break a rut:
First, remember a difficult time in your life. Write a few lines about it. Then, come up with a body position that feels like it captures the experience. Remain in that position, then draw a symbol to sum everything up. It could be a circle, a hand sign, or breaking chains.
Second, repeat the same 4 steps — reflecting, writing, posturing, drawing — for your present and your future. How do you feel right now? Where do you want to be in a few years?
Third, equipped with all 3 positions, physically shift from one into the other. How does it feel to literally go from past to present to future? Also play with your symbols. Do they align? Match? Perhaps even add up to a fourth symbol?
Whether our past will only be the hidden foundation of our future or actively peek out in our everyday lives is up to us. But one thing is for sure, Bowley believes: “Each layer and story of our life set the stage for the next chapter to unfold.”
The Art of Aliveness Review
The Art of Aliveness is an interesting book combining creativity, spirituality, philosophy, professionalism, and reflection into a unique, wholistic recipe for life. Bowley is never condescending, always encouraging. Artist or not, give her a ideas a try.
Who would I recommend our The Art of Aliveness summary to?
The 23-year-old aspiring writer who’s currently struggling through college, the 55-year-old entrepreneur going through a divorce, and anyone who’s creative practice has become stale.