Being Receptive

I began this week thinking I wanted to write about how Donald Trump has appropriated Rush Limbaugh’s rhetorical ways as a way to try to control the thought of the American public. Limbaugh’s ways are not new–versions can be found in Cicero and Quintillian. But they meet a much wider audience with radio and twitter. Pretty simple really. The aim is to create an apparent conversation that is actually a multi-voiced monologue. Begin by selecting those with whom you will “converse”–Limbaugh simply has his “screener” do this work and Trump does it buy not having press conferences and speaking only with his friends at Fox. Next, you simply repeat what you want folks to belief (true or not) repeatedly in a variety of related ways. This ensures that your followers (your “base”) eventually just restate what you say in some form–this is precisely why Limbaugh calls his followers “ditto-heads.” You would think this name might bother those who pretend to be self-reliant and conservatively libertarian, but there is no evidence that it does. Trump and Limbaugh make for an interesting study in the “practics” of rhetoric and logic. In any case, I decided that’s not what I want to talk about this week. Not only has our culture gotten used to and become numb to constant lying and misdirection, but this is ultimately a short run issue. Trump and Limbaugh, like me, will die soon enough and the news folks will be worried about some new terror in our world. And, it is a beautiful day and I prefer not to ruin it with dark thoughts of the present.

Instead, I want to say a few words about something that has fascinated me for many years–the relationship among creativity, spontaneity, and receptivity, with a decided focus on the last. I find watching other folks create or engaging in one’s own creative activity are some of the most wonderful experiences in life. And, yes, I am well aware of the historical and ongoing “critiques” among education theorists of too much emphasis on creativity. I do not buy the criticisms; I don’t think we can have too much artistic creativity in our world. On the contrary, as with the ditto-head culture, I think we do not think enough about how we might be artistically creative.

Open to the Different

Inspired by a good friend, I have been led to read the various works of Anthony Bourdain. Readable and pithy, Bourdain is also remarkably reflective. Though for purposes of provocation he often writes extremely, he also lands on experiential truths of significance. He remarks, for example, that “Eating well . . .is about submission. It’s about giving up all the vestiges of control, about entrusting your fate entirely to someone else. It’s about turning off the mean, manipulative, calculating, and shrewd person within you and slipping heedlessly into a new experience as if it were a warm bath (p. 194NB).” Let’s begin here, enabling a chef’s creativity to reach us involves, at the least, a step outside our usual egoistic modes of being. This squares closely with Waldo Emerson’s concern that “The pest of society is egotists. There are dull and bright, sacred and profane, coarse and fine egotists. ‘Tis a disease that, like influenza falls on all constitutions . . . . It is a tendency in all minds” (Culture).  So long as we are focused on ourselves and our own well being, we will not be in a position to perceive some of the beauties of the world. Moreover, if we are interested in creating, a focus on our egos, our recognition, and so on, will, most of the time, simply get in the way. A kind of submission to the moment, to the work, to the creator seems a good place to begin. However, merely submitting is, I think, not quite enough. We need to be actively receptive and attentive in our submission, In short, we are not simply being “done to” as recipients of art or a creative act, we must be actively engaged in the reception. As Emerson put it: “Always our thinking is a pious reception.” But thinking in this sense–or actively engaging in aesthetic experiences–is not easy. “What,” Emerson asked, “is the hardest task in the world? To think” (p. 183).

Emerson believes in the democracy of aesthetic experience and I agree. We all have some capacity for enjoying and appreciating art. For Emerson, this attitude of receptivity is one of which we are all capable even if we haven’t the talent to be fully constructive or productive with our ideas.  We may have to let poets speak for us, but they can only do so insofar as we recognize in their work the ideas for which we have cared.  “But if the constructive powers are rare, and it is given to few men to be poets,” wrote Emerson, “yet every man is a receiver of this descending holy ghost, and may well study the laws of its influx.” I would take a step further than Emerson and maintain that we all also have some capacity for creativity in art, and to ignore this in ourselves is to doom us to being non-creative by dogmatic assertion. Creating a receptive attitude, and thus the very possibility of creative engagement, is, however, difficult work. But the point is that it is something that we can work at–it is within our powers to be better than we are at both appreciating and creating. We need to remain awake, alert, and focused. At the same time, we cannot be dominating, controlling, and leading. We must learn patience. We must prepare ourselves, as Emerson suggests: “No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object” (p. 88).

I offer here no recipe for learning the art of receptivity, but I can provide a few traditional suggestions–suggestions that I, and many others, have found useful in life. As both Bourdain and Emerson point out, we must begin by overcoming or simply releasing our egotism and our dogmatism. But since we live in a culture that is premised on both of these -isms, this is never an easy task. We live by our habits and it is important to shift ourselves in the direction of a habit of openness–to new musics, new painting, new dance, new foods, and so forth. This does not entail that we jettison the things we love by tradition; it only means that we are willing to add to our aesthetic vocabulary. If I love and play the blues, it’s also possible I could learn to hear the beauties in both Beethoven and Tupac. Whatever my dogmas of what is “good” or “not good,” I must relinquish them until my experiences speak for themselves. If I assume there is no good food in England, I will certainly never find any even if it stares me in the face. So, it is incumbent on me to prepare myself by creating a habit or attitude of openness and receptivity that I can take with me wherever I go. But, again, this attitude is not one of “serfish” submission–it is an active way of being engaged with the world.

One of the oldest ways of beginning to create such an attitude was by taking oneself out of the habits of society–by enjoying moments of solitude. This was in part what Thoreau was up to in going to Walden Pond. He never intended to live there–his aim was to step outside the norms and the habits of Concord and to see them and himself from a new angle of vision. We needn’t become hermits–though I often find that a tempting option; we need to engage in temporary solitude in order to encounter ourselves and turn down the noise around us that would have us believe x, y, or z, is the next best thing (or worst thing) in the universe. We must, for some time, enter a world where we can be contemplative and meditative so that we can at least clear the decks of our dogmas and egotistical assertiveness. We must learnt to listen again–to see, to touch, to taste—to perceive actively and not merely as passive observers.

Another road to receptivity might begin in our encounters with nature. If we learn to experience the nature around us in its simplicity and detail, we might help create for ourselves an ability to both appreciate and to create our own human arts. Contrary to the writings of Richard Rorty, I believe nature is always speaking to us–the only question is whether we will listen. In the obvious moments, weather tells us it is on its way and certain flowers will mark the time of year. But if we are attentive, we will learn much more in the perception of natural phenomena. We might learn the social patterns of hummingbirds as they dance around a feeder or a flower. We might learn the dining habits of black bears and groundhogs simply by gazing at their spore. And since human animals are also natural phenomena, I assume one’s nature watching can occur in cities as well as in rural settings. The point is simply to learn by habit to perceive the signs of nature as they take place around us.

All of this points to something it is valuable for all of us to have more of in any case–patience. We must learn to wait for things. I am a fan of spontaneous life–the creating of a jam band out of a few unrelated traveling musicians. The ongoing creativity of a well oiled jazz or rock group–even as they play their traditional tunes, they are improvising in ways that may not even be audible to the casual and impatient observer. But spontaneity is not something to be forced or demanded–that is the point. Spontaneity requires waiting for the right moment to enter the stream. Reading great poetry often requires the patience to learn a genre or the life story of a poet. As we age, we should have the patience and openness to hear more and see more–to understand that our past passions may be outstripped by some new creativity. To travel with an attitude of receptivity is to be well armed to experience the beauties of the world–all of it, not just our little corner. As Bourdain and the American philosopher William James point out, this comes with some risk. Not always a huge risk–but some risk; at the least, we risk learning something new and having to jettison a treasured old belief.


As I think of receptivity, I have blended aesthetic perception and appreciation with artistic creativity. And that is because, I see them as experientially and inextricably entangled. I have not met great creators who are not also excellent perceivers. That is, they bring an attitude of receptivity with them. And on the other side, the best observers I have encountered seem to be able to see through to the creative process, even if it is not their own. So, for now, I leave them entangled. Perhaps on another day, I might spend more time sorting out more closely how that entanglement works. For now, I end with a little story of my own attempts to live with a receptive attitude.

Happenstance Music

Dual Harps

I almost always travel with a harmonica or two–one time I landed in Frankfurt and the harps set off a metal detector. The agent opened my bag and found the harmonicas, and then asked me to play them, presumably to ensure they weren’t something other than what they looked. So we had a nice little concert right there in the hallway of the airport. Another time in Oregon I found a nook under the bottom of a hotel stairwell and played–the sound just rang up and down the stairwell flight after flight. Would be great to record that sound! On a number of occasions I’ve just been lucky enough to fall into a night’s gig by accident. I was at a philosophy conference in Oxford staying at a little bed and breakfast with nothing to do. So, I went to the Pub at the corner and ordered a beer and just hung out by myself as I usually do–I find it easy to feel at home in bars where no one knows me. On my way into my second brew, a tall, skinny guy with long stringy hair, a sharp nose, and deep-set eyes walked in carrying and old Vox amp. He returned a few minutes later with his cream-white Strat and set up shop in the corner of the Pub. He was the solo blues act for the night. He settled down and launched into a Robert Johnson medley to open the night. I had two harps with me, but it’s tricky. There are many not so good harp players in the world, and there are really good players who don’t know when to back off, who play right over the vocals. This makes performers worry about some random harmonica player asking to sit in. So easing in is the only way to go and even that is not easy. When the skinny guy took his break, we talked about the music, his guitar style, where he heard the songs he was playing–all the usual. He asked if I played and so on, until he asked me to sit in on one tune–experimentally as it were. So I sat in on the first song of the second set–my recollection is that it was “Dust My Broom” which he played somewhere between the Johnson version and that of Elmore James. Anyway, it was cookin’ and we hit a groove pretty quickly. He then introduced me as “Doug from Pennsylvania” and that became my name for the rest of week in the Pub. We played til closing time and had a blast, good energy always begets good energy in music–hard to explain but each little bit of creative flourish, trade off on notes, follow the leader brings the music to a momentary new level. Didn’t have to buy another drink that night–just a great happenstance gig.

Happenstance Music

A few years later I was traveling round the U.S. with my son Marshall who was racing his C-1 (singles canoe) in whitewater events from Washington to North Carolina. One of the races was in a little stream in Golden Colorado–I think it may have been the finals of the Junior Olympics which he won that year. In any case, after he went to sleep in our tent at the campground, I shuffled up the street to a bar called the Buffalo Rose. There were two thirty-something guys playing Americana and blues. An interesting night. While I was sitting at a little table for one in the back corner I heard a crashing roar which was unmistakably from a Harley being started. The next thing I knew a guy with tats up and down both arms wheels his metallic blue Harley into the middle of the bar, parks it, shuts it off, and heads to the bar. Everyone there seemed to take this as business as usual. The guys just kept playing. When they took a break, they sat at the table next to me and we started talking about music. One beer led to another and they invited me up to sing a song–I think I sang Neil Young’s “Long May You Run.” Then, we played some blues tunes with guitars and harp–I remember cranking up a version of “Statesboro Blues.” The owner–turned out to be the guy with the blue Harley–loved the music, bought us drinks and got the house going crazy. Just another lucky night of music in Americana–walked back across the river to the tent and slept peacefully til sun-up.


Thanks again to Monster for the wonderful photos!


2 thoughts on “Being Receptive

  1. Especially loved the first paragraph. Also the Bourdain reference (his tragic demise still upsets me–another soul just too sensitive for this world). I think you beautifully expressed the idea of pious receptivity. Your stories about the spontaneous jam sessions in Oxford and Colorado seemed to me to be examples of cosmic synchronicity where everything fell in its right place. But your post seemed to end abruptly–I was hoping for some kind of definitive conclusion. Maybe that was the point. Thanks for sharing these, Doug. Your thoughts are really helping me to get my own receptively creative juices flowing!


  2. I forgot to mention that the solitude you suggest might help overcome egotism to enable one to be receptive to the creative play of the world can be found through meditation. But you already know this!


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