The drive to express ourselves, to create in the world, is an innate need like beauty, love, and the search for truth. It seems almost biological, like the need for food and water. In the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, deprived of nearly every- thing, many prisoners composed songs, wrote poetry, and even found ways to paint. A concentration camp survivor himself, Victor Frankl suggested that these were meaning-making activities but ones that were not so much consciously planned as spontaneous outpourings from that deep current, that creative impulse.

There has been a great hunt throughout human history. Beginning at least with Aristotle and continuing through today, people have been trying to understand the nature of the universe by tracking down the ultimate “stuff,” the primary substance that makes up the world. The discovery of atoms and the like have been benchmarks on the quest for this Holy Grail of existence. Though we’ve discovered ever-tinier bits, it turns out we may have been searching for the wrong thing.

Modern science, especially in light of quantum reality, acknowledges that “stuff ” or “substance” is an incomplete explanation for the underlying nature of the universe: Our minds, for instance, are abstract patterns formed by moving atoms. But the atoms themselves are also patterns, woven by the movement of subatomic particles. And those particles—the electrons and quarks—are patterns, too, but patterns in what? Some other force is operating that makes up minds and mountains beyond that of location of an object in space. That other force looks more like a movement, a process or aliveness that makes things go. Sure, there are atoms and quarks, but they are considered secondary physical manifestations of these underlying patterns and processes. We’re coming to recognize that the primordial stuff may not be stuff at all.

Instead, it looks more like a process—that is, a process of creativity, said philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Life is a process constantly re-creating itself in a kind of endless cosmic renewal.

In various traditions, creative force is represented as sound. Sound represents the power of manifestation, of bringing something into being. “In the beginning there was the Word . . .” that called the universe into being, or so the story goes. In another familiar creation story, another sound, the Big Bang, brought matter to life. In Indian spirituality, Nada Brahma are primal words. In Sanskrit, Nada means “sound” and is also defined as sounding, droning, roaring, or howling, while the word Brahma is the primal creative word and thus the source of the world and the fundamental element of all natural and historic things and events—everything. Essentially then, Nada Brahma means creation, the cosmos, the world is sound. The world is created from this sound, this idea, this consciousness, this process. Sound carries consciousness into being. Thus, the universe is, we might say, a great song.

Our humble human counterpart to this ultimate force is our own creative expression, as that great universal roaring takes on the timbre of our own voice, our unique creative expression in the world. Mystery becomes manifest in the moment of creation— the conception of a child, the birth of an idea or piece of art. Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth-century Dominican priest, philosopher, mystic, and big fan of an overflowing God that cannot hold back its abundance speaks of our stunning role in this creative process: “We are all meant to be mothers of God.” Eckhart says we are midwives to the divine, bringing forth the many from the one. We midwife mystery, divinity, and ourselves through our creative expression. “To be mothers of God” is not hubris, although it was no doubt heresy in Eckhart’s time. It is recognition that we, as part of creation, are infused with that current of aliveness, that word, the sound, the drive, the power to create. The remarkable thing about Eckhart’s insight is that we are both the matrix, the womb out of which life flows and evolves, and we are its manifestation, its child. We birth ourselves and the world through the creative impulse. Our personal responsibility is to be drawn forward by that aliveness and channel it as we will.

When our youngest child was little, we had a three-foot-long plastic thing called Crazy Daisy. It was basically a plastic pipe with a giant yellow and brown plastic daisy head on the top with little holes at the center of it. On a warm summer day, we attached the bottom end to the garden hose, turned on the hose, and let ’er rip. The giant daisy head would spurt out water all over the place, flopping randomly this way and that as squealing little people (and sometimes big people, too) would run about like, well, little kids. That flopping, wild gushing water is like the creative energy that the likes of Whitehead and Eckhart identify. Our creative opportunity is to take that hose and use it as we will, maybe to hold steady for a drink or maybe to water the tomato plants or maybe just letting it get us wet. That’s when we find ourselves in that current of aliveness, that elusive thing we’ve been trying to track.


As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal, “You are there in that place to testify.” Channeling this life force is about finding and using our unique creative expression in the world—our voice. This is not reserved for the artist or inventor but the way each of us expresses our abilities and creates our lives out of what we’re given. Using our own voice as we create, speaking our truth, holding ourselves to our words, being authentic—all are acts of integrity. If we speak someone else’s voice or keep our own silent, we live against ourselves and ultimately suffer. Our well-being is dependent on our ability to bring our voice to the world.

As a young boy, Native American elder Black Elk had visions that would shape his life and the life of his tribe. But in and of themselves, the visions were not enough. Black Elk reported that for a person who has a vision, you do not get the full power of that vision until you walk it out on the earth for people to see. The power and medicine comes both to us and to the world when we bring forth our authentic voice and take action in the world.

From the very beginning, we have not only a capacity to express ourselves but also the drive or push to do so. As an infant, we cry if we need something and coo if we have it satisfied. Children are usually always ready for a chance to play, whether it’s coloring, building with blocks, making up silly words and songs, or constructing a world out of a pile of sand. When my children were young, the neighbor boys would build all sorts of jumps and ramps for their skateboards out of scraps of wood and even highway debris. They would then do the thing that boys sometimes do, especially when fueled by the presence of one another, inventing all sorts of new risky, radical, and sometimes even beautiful moves on their boards. In the same creative vein, I remember one day our youngest child, with the aid of a new glue gun, started spontaneously making people, fairies, and tiny household essentials (beds, dishes, clothes, and so forth) out of sticks, flowers, and all sorts of little found objects. This natural abundance of imagination is not rationed out but overflows. This is the nature of the creative force—diverse, overflowing, endless, abundant beyond measure.

The drive to express ourselves, to create in the world, is an innate need like beauty, love, and the search for truth. It seems almost biological, like the need for food and water. In the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, deprived of nearly every- thing, many prisoners composed songs, wrote poetry, and even found ways to paint. A concentration camp survivor himself, Victor Frankl suggested that these were meaning-making activities but ones that were not so much consciously planned as spontaneous outpourings from that deep current, that creative impulse.

The drive for creative expression is so great that we can invent new ways to express our voice. Professor Ursula Bellugi discovered a form of poetry invented by people who are deaf and use American Sign Language to communicate. Instead of signing with a single hand to make certain signs, they use two, “holding one sign in the air with the left hand while the right creates an overlapping visual. The signs are altered, creating repetitions that . . . are analogous to verbal repetitions, phrasing, and meter in verbal poetry.”

Even when we have no voice whatsoever, we are waiting and working for the day when we do. Christopher Nolan, born in 1965 in a hospital near Dublin, Ireland, was brain damaged at birth, leaving him “with useless limbs, uncoordinated move- ments, and a voice that [was] generally incoherent.” Christopher could communicate only with his eyes and mainly to his mother, Bernadette. He would sit propped in his wheelchair listening to his family and their friends. At eleven years old, he was given a new drug, Lioresal, which relaxed the muscles in his neck, giving him some small measure of control for periods of time. He then painstakingly began pointing to letters on a typewriter by the use of a “unicorn” pointer attached to his head. Christopher let loose what he called a “dam-burst of dreams,” the title of his first book of poetry, which one critic called “a jubilant, lawless debut.”

What burst out was a remarkable flow of highly original inventive poetry that, in his mother’s words, from the age of three he had “spent his long days composing poetry, learning it by heart and then storing it away in individual compartments in his mind, whilst at the same time praying that someday, somehow, he would find the means to express those poems in written words.” The first poem he wrote, bowing his head with its unicorn pointer toward the typewriter, was “I Learned to Bow.” His work has been compared to that of James Joyce and John Donne, among others. His imaginative use of language, alliteration, archaic meanings, and the metaphysical continually describe the world in fresh ways.

His mother explained, “It is as though he had been playing with words all his childhood as other, able-bodied children play with toys.” In his autobiography, Under the Eye of the Clock, Nolan wrote that during the years when his voice was in bondage to an “alien, lock-jawed world,” even though he was despondent at times, that “despondency never could stop [his] mesmerized woldwaddling in ink-blue heaven’s busy mobility of secrets.” When he finally could express his thoughts and feelings, he said he “gimleted his words onto white sheets of life,” that he “felt the glow lighting glimmering candles in his . . . mind,” and that “spooned secrets hurrahed in his mind” as he expressed “hollyberried imaginings.”

White sheets of life indeed!

We may not all have Christopher Nolan’s particular talent, but we do all have the need and capacity to find and use our own voice, our unique self-expression in the world.


As we’ve noted, we live between forest and garden, between the wild, untamed, and uncertain on one hand and the known, cultivated, and predictable on the other. We need both of these. The garden is our safe home base, and the forest stimulates and challenges us to grow and learn at the edge of our understanding. This is not just so we adapt but so we have adventure.

Alfred North Whitehead emphasizes the opportunity for adventure and suggests that it is the courageous, spontaneous response to the events of our lives that grows our lives and the life of the world. Without this, civilization would fade into tameness and vapidity, toward prepackaged, reconstituted, homogenized juice boxes, rather than just being naturally juicy.

Between forest and garden is this growing edge of adventure. Every action we take exposes us in one way or another. When we speak our voice, we take a risk that we may not be heard or that if we are, someone may not like what we have to say. When we risk asking someone out for a date, risk committing to a marriage, mortgage, or move, or just risk being who we are, we enter the extraordinary field of creative energy.

The amazing thing is that every action we take actually activates the world, setting the forces of creation in motion. Just like a pebble thrown into a pond, our actions enact movement. Between forest and garden is where we tap into the stream of creation and come alive. Recognizing this remarkable process, Goethe offered this advice: “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.”

Speaking our voice also has risk, as we just don’t know how things will work out. We can avoid some of the anxiety and excitement of uncertainty by staying with our familiar responses and routines and doing our best to keep things, including our- selves, as they are. But creative expression calls for voice and action in the world. We grow through challenge; our best-learned lessons usually come from failure and our strongest motivations from discomfort and desire. The world will do its part, bringing challenges and invitations. Our job is to live up to our end of the bargain. It does not mean we all need to take up hang gliding or some other risk of that sort. It does mean that our particular ongoing adventure is unique to us and is enacted in the little moments of telling someone the truth or trusting our gut, looking within to see what is uncomfortable or locating our deepest desire, making a commitment and risking failure or perhaps walking away and seeing what comes of it. The frontier is always at hand.

The movement of our “four cardinal points,” as described in my new book, culminates in this direction. We listen for the tug of aliveness in the silence to the East (presence), feel the courage, passion, discomfort, and yearning that heats us up from the South (heart), look to the North (wisdom) for the light that helps us find direction, our steps, our commitments, and now to the West (creation) we harness the capacity to take action and bring our voice and vision into the world and create the world as we do so.

This final step brings the inner life to full contact with the outer world and, in so doing, enacts it. It cannot be done otherwise. The most recognizable line in all of literature speaks precisely to this extraordinary opportunity and responsibility, “To be or not to be. . . . Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune . . .” or, basically to go to sleep. That is the question.

This compass point (Creation) is about finding a way to bring forth that aliveness (ideas, visions, voice, and self) into the world. It involves developing the strength and clarity of Voice—meaning the capacities and courage for creative, authentic expression. It involves directing our energies and developing the power of will, that energy that moves, manifests, and makes things happen, and along with this, recognizing the willingness to allow those currents to move through us. It requires the power of imagination, celebrates difference and originality, and brings forth our calling, where our lives connect deeply with the world.

This article is adapted from Tobin Hart’s new book, The Four Virtues: Presence, Heart, Wisdom, Creation. Click here to order a copy.

Tobin Hart
Song of Creation