Balancing What if with What is

I am sitting in my favorite local park, a place I have often frequented during this pandemic, a sanctuary outside of home, where I can feel a part of the outside world. I’ve never been much of a homebody; I used to spend half my days at cafes and my nights at movie theaters or restaurants. There was always an itch to get out, to soak in what the world has to offer, to make meaning of my life. And then of course the pandemic closed it all down and my (our) world got very small. At the beginning, this induced panic; I was afraid (or really quite certain) my mental health would not survive the isolation. In some ways, I was correct: my mental health has been the most unstable it’s ever been, catapulting from okay to definitely not okay on a daily basis. And yet not for the reasons I expected. The confinement to home resulted in reassessing my relationship to value, to how I make meaning of my days, and in doing so I had to redefine my relationship to myself. 

Some of you might be asking “What does this have to do with creativity?” This is a more personal narrative tone than I usually start my blog posts. Well if this year has taught me anything, it is the reality of a creative practice. In my last post, we redefined a creative practice as not what we produce but how we live in relationship to our values. Which as in any practice, is easier said than done. Our ideas of what is possible or expected are always different than the lived reality. To illustrate this point, I’m going to bring in an unlikely source: a conversation on the movie 10 Things I Hate About You from the podcast Why Are Dads?

“All of our ideas, they just start as ideas, right? They’re removed from us. And then when we start to embody those ideas, we find that they have their own nuance to them, and it’s not just this or that, right? And it takes that self-compassion and surrounding yourself with people who will also be compassionate towards you as you process this experiment of living out your ideas. And that’s the goal, right? That’s the goal, that we can grab onto this ideal, this idea we really want to embody and as we go, it becomes greater than what we ever thought that it could be and it serves us.”

(1) Sanpriti Ireland, Why Are Dads? Podcast

This is surprising wisdom from a discussion of a beloved teen movie, but really who knows better the trials and triumphs of becoming more than a teenager? The “coming of age” story actually maps well to my own lessons of this year, namely the need to balance what if with what is. For the equation of creativity to work, you need both imagination and action. But we can become counterbalanced, lost in the struggle of what is or obsessed with the promise of what if. Though, as Sanpriti’s quote or any hero’s journey demonstrates, we have to step into or embody our ideas to see their potential. This takes real practice, a determination to taste the fruits of our labor. But also ongoing compassion for the twists and turns of our unfolding lives. This is why I keep returning to the mantra: 

I am in process. I am process.

This year has exposed to me how often I am bound up in what if; always reaching for the future, problem-solving the present. This mantra reminds me that I am in practice with what is, that I do not need to judge or measure myself against an end goal. That while “what if” can be a great motivator, I have to stay grounded in “what is” to recognize who I am. Which brings me to another mantra or series of mantras that came out of my daily walks during the pandemic. As I got to know my neighborhood plants and birds, I started to assess what I did or did not know about myself, to find my true nature. This is what emerged:

I am not my productivity.

I am not my reputation. 

I am not my anxiety. 

I am not my potential. 

I am not even my purpose. 

I am simply a creature of this earth.

One of many.

And we are love.

Each of these statements came out of what I needed to hear in that moment. As I’ve been shifting my relationship to myself, I have found myself grasping for identity. The classic “If I am not this, then what am I?” quandary. Which is exactly what my meditation teachers always advised would come of practice. In fact, Will Kabat-Zinn (2) would say “Every awakening is rude”. We cannot predict what will come of practice, just like our imagination will always be different than the lived reality. Because creativity is not a simple equation; it is a cyclical process of committing over and over again to living in accordance with your values. To truly discover what can be possible we have to persevere, and to persevere, we have to treasure the winding journey. To allow ourselves to emerge is both an active and passive process. Just like the ferocity and acceptance of love.

Living is a creative act,
Evelyn Thorne

Everyday Creativity Tip

Part of what helped me realize I am often caught up in “what if” was a thought experiment recommended by the poet and theologian John O’Donohue (3). 

He suggested that you find the “7 thoughts” that make up your thought landscape. My meditation teachers often talk about how watching your thoughts will reveal how repetitive they are, but something about the tangible number of finding 7 core thoughts made it more possible for me to notice and identify my thought patterns. I slowly realized that a bulk of my thinking revolved around assessing every moment for its alignment and potential to my life’s goals and then immediately problem-solving the future. Essentially boiling down to thoughts: “This is it” or “This isn’t it” and then “What do I do about that?” This was an illuminating or rude awakening to why I so often feel unsatisfied with my life and why I needed to actively shift my practice towards recognizing the abundance of what is. 

Donohue also suggests that once you identify your “7 thoughts” that you can invite new thoughts and see how that shifts your understanding. I now invite you to join me on this journey and we can be in process together.


1. Why Are Dads? Podcast, “10 Things I Hate About You with Sanpriti Ireland”, Feb 10 2021,
3. On Being with Krista Tippett, “[Unedited] John O’Donohue: The Inner Landscape of Beauty”,

Originally published April 11, 2021 on the Creativity in Context Blog by Evelyn Thorne.

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Living is creative act

Published by Evelyn Thorne

Evelyn is a writer, educator, and facilitator who helps people unlearn misconceptions and limiting beliefs about their creative identities.

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