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Devotional Productivity: Name & Form
The more concretely I view the 'why' of a task, the more energy gets activated
Here’s a fork and spoon.
And here, my friends, are Marcus & Marisol.
Very minor changes between the photographs and their descriptions, but your internal sense of them are likely very different things.
This works on everything, not just cutlery. When it comes to subjective dynamics and how they affect us, the way we name and frame things can lead to very different outcomes.
In its more dramatic formulation, we can phrase the effect like this:
The moment you have a form and a personal name for an archetype, a complex, a primordial pattern—it self-animates, it comes alive, it begins to act.
I have a lot more to say about this dynamic in my article “Mythopoetic Cognition is the Engine of Mind,” but today I’m narrowing scope. Today, I’m noticing how it’s been playing out in my experiments with devotional productivity.
In my last article on these experiments, the biggest effect I mentioned was that the devotional frame forces me to figure out the why of each area of productivity.
What I’ve had to do is tap into what I’m actually devoting my actions to. The big question of Why Am I Doing This? has to be answered, even if only vaguely, in order for this to work. And not just answered intellectually, it has to be felt. I have to know in my heart why I’m doing it.
What I’ve run into since then is that even once I have a decent view of that why, the way that I treat it and relate to the why has a very strong effect on how it affects me and the work.
This is a bit preliminary, but I might phrase the overall effect like this:
the more abstractly I view the why, the more potential energy there is… but the less of that energy gets actually activated.
The more concretely I view the why, the more energy gets activated.
As an example: let’s say my core, driving why for a writing project is “creativity.” There’s something about the creative act itself that drives me, pulls me, makes me want to carry it out. If I’m directing my devotion anywhere, it is toward “creativity” itself.
The problem that emerges: “creativity” doesn’t have oomph. It’s like “Fork & Spoon.” It isn’t a name or frame that weaves itself into my bones and pulls me with the gravitational force of emergent devotion. It can tug me here and there, for sure, but the gravity is weak. It’s too abstract—all potential energy, very little realized energy.
So I try again, I zoom in further to a more concrete form of this creativity. What I might find there is something like “this book I’m writing is a living thing, and it wants to come into the world through me. I’m here to help this creature take form in words. I’m here to create its body.”
That works quite a bit better. It’s a frame that gives me something specific to direct myself towards: this disembodied creature seeking a bodily expression, an expression that is my duty to create.
It’s better, but it’s not quite enough. It also needs a name, something personal to connect with. The same way you’re not supposed to name a stray animal because then you’ll feel responsible for it—I do want to name this creature because I am responsible for it and should feel that way.
From here, the personal and individual vicissitudes of naming come in. “Are you a Carl? A Henry? No, maybe an Annaliese? Hm. The Leaf. Yes, there is is. That one fits. You are Leaf.”
Now, there’s much less potential energy than there is in “creativity,” but there’s much, much, much more specific, realized energy in “Leaf.”
Leaf is grounded but wily. He doesn’t like straight lines and direct plans, he wants to dance on the wind, take indirect routes. He never shows up on time, but he always shows up with a smile and a rush of new ideas to sort through. He loves giving people nicknames. He keeps irregular work hours and sometimes calls in the middle of the night, just as I’m about to fall asleep.
Whereas abstract devotion (“creativity”) feels ethereal, upwards, general—almost like I’m tilting my head up towards a soft white light in the sky, asking it what to do—concrete devotion (“Leaf”) feels present, practical, direct and specific. The way your dedication to your wife is different from dedication to your oldest friend is different from your dedication to the coworkers on your team. There are different asks, different boundaries, different emotional tenors to be navigated and sorted out. There’s no abstraction here, just dynamics to navigate and people to interact with.
If I hit writer’s block, it’s not always easy to consult with “Creativity” and see what wants to happen now. It’s abstract, upward facing, almost a prayer.
It’s much easier—effortless-verging-on-intrusive—to hear Leaf insisting on how the project needs to be handled, how his body needs to be built. The concreteness of the devotion creates a strong matter-of-fact connection.
Writing and creativity are just one example. This basic dynamic holds true just as well for housework, retail jobs, cooking, etc etc. Finding and strengthening a concrete anchor to the most specific object of devotion clears up a lot.
There’s a lot more to say about this, especially about how some of these muses begin to interact across projects, when you have multiple types of devotion in play, but I’ll leave it here for today.
There aren’t a lot of places in modern society where we get to practice a devotional stance, and in most of those places, the devotion has a bit of an abstract quality. It’s natural to reflexively move towards the abstract when I start up with devotional productivity. It’s even natural to find concrete devotion a bit silly, a bit strange, like calling an imaginary friend into being, or calling on a polytheistic pantheon.
But when we start to toy around with making devotion more concrete, more practical, more directly present in day-to-day life, this does seem to be the natural shape it takes. That’s why this pattern shows up again and again in culture after culture all through history—even if our culture often dismisses the pattern, to its own detriment.