Creating Meaning

If Julia Cameron (author of the 1992 book, The Artist’s Way) is the mother of creativity coaching, Eric Maisel is surely the godfather. He published Staying Sane in the Arts in 1993, and has regularly published books on creativity, at least 15 of which are still in print.

Eric is on a blog tour right now (and I’ll be interviewing him here on May 8th) for histen-zen-seconds-lg.jpg new book Ten Zen Seconds. In a recent class on mindfulness and art, Eric had some interesting and startling ideas (at least for artists) on making meaning against all odds. I asked him for permission to use part of the lesson (it’s long, but below is an excerpt of the idea I found startling). Here’s Eric on making meaning in your creative work:

“I make my meaning—or else I don’t. All that exists until I actively and mindfully make personal meaning is the possibility of meaning and, while I wait to get started, the experience of emptiness.

We are on the threshold of really understanding a shining idea: that each life can have meaning, even if the universe has none. Although each of us comes with appetites, defenses, genetic predispositions, and everything else that “human being” connotes, we are nevertheless free to choose what meaning we intend to make. . . You get to decide what will make you feel righteous and happy. You turn the meaning that was waiting to be made into the meaning of your life.

You and you alone are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life. The second you turn to someone else and say, “What does life mean?” you have slipped into a way of thinking that courts inauthenticity and depression. The second you agree with someone simply
because of his position or reputation. . . you fall from the path of personal meaning-maker.

You let go of wondering what the universe wants of you, you let go of the fear that nothing matters, and you announce that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean. This is an amazing, glorious, and triumphant announcement.

Then, in the next second, reality sets in. How do you make meaning? Don’t the facts of existence and everyday life prove tremendous obstacles to meaning-making? How can you make meaning if you are trapped in a dull job or a caustic relationship? What if you doubt your talents or your strength? What if you don’t know what meaning to make? After that glorious, triumphant announcement you are exactly where you were the moment before. What has changed?

This is truly a new path. . . . you decide to earn your sense of meaningfulness by heroically making meaning. You answer the question “What does life mean?” with the sharp rejoinder, “Whatever I decide it should mean!” You fill your life with mindful meaning-making, deciding what you will value and what you will abjure, and make a new wager with the universe: ‘Remain mysterious: I don’t care. I intend to matter, in my own
way, as is my birthright!’ You decide to live a personally meaningful life and begin to fill your life with meaning.

This path may not sound that radical, but it is. It is an amazingly radical departure from the usual path because it blasts all received knowing out of the water. Its central tenet, that you must decide for yourself, is exactly the following announcement: that you create your universe from your best understanding of what is right, what is good, and what is valuable, and that no one gets to arbitrate meaning for you. Nothing and no one is allowed to prevent you from deciding what values you intend to manifest. . . . ”

“This is a path to make a person proud. You heroically step out into the blinding light of reality, look around, and say ‘I am going to do this and I am going to do it for these reasons.’ You make the next hour meaningful by investing it with your capital, your intentions, your energy, and your decisiveness. You make the hour after that meaningful in exactly the same way. You aren’t a god—you are far too earthbound and contingent for that. But you are the best human being you can make yourself, the one you had
always hoped to see in the mirror.”

–Quinn McDonald is a certified career coach and a student of Eric Maisel’s. See her work at