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Jeremy Tattersall

Undistracted creativity

The night watchman at The Bank of England, 1925, by E.O. Hoppe The night watchman at The Bank of England, 1925, by E.O. Hoppe

My previous blog, about the pitfalls of becoming distracted and wrapped up in our own thought processes, prompted Marco to ask some rather intriguing questions:

What about creative thinking? I mean, how can you stay present when you are using your mind for creative purposes, like starting a project? For instance this blog. You needed to think creatively, plan, visualize, create a strategy etc to create and promote the blog. How can you use your mind in this way while at the same time staying present?

Well Marco, with some of your points I’m afraid I’m the wrong person to ask. You’ve done the equivalent of asking the night watchman at the Bank of England how he goes about calculating the annual national inflation rate. It is probably safe to assume that this blog was once little more than a twinkling, innocent agenda point. Was everyone participating in the miraculous conception of this blog mindful, present and aware throughout the process?

Only those involved can tell you.

 

As regards meditation, the methods we use to calm the mind make skilful use of the processes of the mind that they are designed to transform. Gradually, we learn to embrace whatever we sense, think or feel as an opportunity for meditation. Although the outcome of creative thought can undoubtedly be beneficial, in terms of meditation there’s not much difference between idle and creative thought—both can distract us and both can be transformed into non-distraction. If a creative thought leads you to a useful action, that’s wonderful. If it leads you into a labyrinth of speculation, then all the creative thought produced was distraction. So I’m not sure if there is a way of remaining undistracted that is specific to creative thought.

I do know that I find it much easier to observe a routine, pointless thought without  involvement than I do a thought that might have some constructive purpose. I get excited by good ideas and all their implications, and inevitably want to work them all out immediately. As we’re often advised, the problem with thinking is not so much the initial thought, but the endless chain of thoughts, commentaries and associations that come up in our mind in response to the initial thought. One really useful piece of advice I’ve heard is just to have pen and paper handy, so you neither lose the good idea nor need to continue investigating it for the rest of the meditation session.

In everyday life, whenever we see we are distracted, we can return to the non-distracted awareness of whatever is going on in our mind. If a good idea prompts us to do or say something, then we can be aware of our action. I can’t prove it, but I imagine that being present, aware, spacious and relaxed makes it easier to be creative.

It’s tempting at this point to ponder what ‘creative thinking’ actually is. It’s often been seen as a mysterious, and even a mystical process. The muses of ancient Greece and in many other cultures would almost certainly agree with that. They were seen as the ‘inspirers’ (i.e., ‘those who breathe into’), and the poets and artists they inspired were acknowledged not as the authors of the resulting work, but as the conduits for the creation of the muses. In his fabulous ramble of a book, The White Goddess, Robert Graves wrote that there is a mountain in Wales that was sacred to the Celtic people who lived there. Anyone who wished to become a poet would sit on its summit for the whole night, knowing that by morning they would be either dead, mad or a poet, depending on how they responded to ‘inspiration’.

In the Christian tradition, the Second Epistle of Peter says: “no prophecy of Scripture ... was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. There is also the example of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the first disciples of Christ.

Philosophers, scientists and psychologists have long since pointed to an internal source for creative activity. In his 1960’s work The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler used the example of the nineteenth century chemist August Kekule to illustrate his idea that a creative act is generated by the coming together of two separate ‘matrices’ of thought. Kekule claimed that he discovered the shape of the benzene molecule after waking from a dream of a snake forming a circle by seizing its own tail (the structure of benzene is a ring of six carbon molecules). This vision, he said, came to him after years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds. These (totally random and not necessarily at all representative) examples seem to express a sense of otherness about the creative act, an assumption that it doesn’t necessarily involve our ‘normal’, habitual thought processes.

Then there is the example of creativity expressed through the essence of the mind, rather than through any conceptual process. The great twentieth-century Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was widely respected as being an embodiment of the innermost nature of our mind. In Sogyal Rinpoche’s introduction to Brilliant Moon, the autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, it says:

 

…the teachings would pour out of him like poetry, perfect just as they were, and without ever a single superfluous phrase or interjection. They could be written out exactly as he spoke them, without the need for editing. As he would begin to teach, he would lean back slightly and seemed to become even more spacious, and then the words would just flow out of him, like a mountain stream. There was no stopping him. I remember so often we would just look on in amazement. The neurobiologist Francisco Varela once told me that he simply could not fathom how Khyentse Rinpoche’s mind or brain worked.

 

Now that’s undistracted creativity, but it’s not thinking.