What do monkeys; a cat and an elephant have in common? Believe it or not, inspiration for expanding your creativity!
Actually, the animals I’m talking about are ornately carved on structures made over 400 years ago at Toshogu Shrine in the city of Nikko, Japan. The famous shrine and world heritage site is just north of Tokyo, and was built as the final resting place of ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu. He founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, the final military dynasty in Japan that lasted from 1603-1867.
Even though Japan has been a part of my life for thirteen years I can’t recall hearing about this place until this summer. My family and I visited Nikko for several days and were quite impressed with the history and colorful beauty of the area.
Not only was it lovely, there were several takeaways I discovered about the creative process just from pondering these wood carved animals at Toshogu Shrine.
1. The Sleeping Cat shows us how we can receive inspiration while at rest
Nemuri-Neko, carved by Hidari Jingoro, is of a sleeping cat surrounded by flowers. It was placed at the entrance of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grave to ward off mice and has become a famous recognizable symbol to Japanese people. What fascinates me is that the cat is sleeping and, similar to a real feline, still seems alert!
I’m reminded of how cats take frequent naps but are still aware of their surroundings and can wake quickly when approached. Just like when we’re trying to get creative inspiration for our projects, thinking hard doesn’t usually get results. It’s when we’re sleeping, taking a walk or even using the restroom that the great idea pops into our heads! If you jump right away and make a mental note or write it down, you can catch it like a little mouse.
Learn to fill your mind with images and information from research related to the project you need a great idea for. Then take a break so that it can all gel in your brain. When you let go by doing something different and turn your mind away, the answers will come!
2. The Elephant shows that if you commit to taking risks you can create something no one has ever seen before
On top of a building that was used as a warehouse called “Kamijinko” is a carving of an elephant. The artist never actually saw one in real life and I think it turned out looking pretty accurate. I assume he was going off of written descriptions of what elephants look like.
There must have been quite a bit of pressure because this was to be done to honor the emperor. Since there are no elephants in Japan and no cameras at that time, he had to use his imagination to create his own interpretation. Yes, we could say that no one else had seen real elephants back then either so he could have created whatever crazy animal he wanted, but it looks like he took it seriously.
The artist couldn’t see any references for what he needed to create but still took a risk and made it happen. I’m sure he sketched plenty of ideas early on (and probably hated all of them) but found something good eventually through continually doing the work.
When you’re coming up with a new idea or design, use what you know and have the courage to put down ideas even if they look or sound awful. Getting started is the key. Learning through continually working on and through your ideas by facing fears, taking small risks and trying styles you’ve never taken on before will create something amazing.
3. The Three Monkeys want you to train your brain and avoid evil
On the sacred horse stable or Shinkyusha are 8 carved boards along the top that depict the life of a monkey and caricature human life. One of the most famous boards illustrates the famous Buddhist teaching -if we hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil; we can live a good life.
It’s something we have to train ourselves to do. I’m sure all of us have times when we get in deep trouble for speaking evil my mistake! As we grow in life, we learn when to speak up and when to stay quiet. You can also train yourself to be more creative as long as you understand that it will take time. It will take less time if you have a purpose.
Just like the monkeys in the carving you can make a point to avoid evil but pay attention to all the inspiration that you hear, say and see in the world.
Read more and make a point to remember one detail that you feel is important. Look at the work of artists you admire or despise and study what makes their work special. Learn a new skill. Spend time with people you think of as creative and talk with them about what inspires you. Question everything! The answers will create new inventions, characters and stories.
The bottom line is to make a point to take inspiration breaks while you work, commit to consistently taking risks and exercising your creative mind with more than just your art, music or writing. Keep these ideas in your head each day and watch your creative power expand in ways you never thought possible!
Of course, you should also take a trip to Nikko, Japan. It’s pretty amazing!