This year May 2nd marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. His creative powers were entirely exceptional, in particular his capacity for original thought, thinking outside the box of what was thought at his time. On the 16th of May, the architect of the Pyramid of the Louvre, the palace that houses Leonardo’s most iconic work, passed away at the age of 102. I.M. Pei’s ideas seemed unimaginable and shocking to Parisians in the 1980’s, a Chinese-American architect putting a radical modernist icon in the middle of the Royal palace that is so much a symbol of France. Without particularly comparing these two figures it seems opportune to ask the question: what are the processes in the mind that foster fresh ideas, what are the levers of creativity? What is their significance for society as a whole and how can we foster our own creativity, through our meditation and more broadly through our way of using our mind and our lifestyle? Creativity is not just artistic creativity. What interests us is the spark of transformative freshness, an openness to new possibilities and an ability to appreciate the potential in all kinds of situations. That opening needs space, and here we pay special attention here to the moments when we let our mind breathe, without any specific purpose. Where does meditation come in? One can be creative without meditating and creativity is not the main purpose of meditation. However, since the practice of meditation puts us in deep contact with ourselves and with our life, it opens the door to new horizons of fulfillment.
Doing and Doing Nothing
Our culture has, for several hundred years, put the emphasis on work, efficiency and productivity The so-called “protestant work ethic”, the growth of scientism and materialism, the rise of capitalism and other materialistic economic systems, all emphasize acting on the outside world, progress, improvement and productivity. In many ways these philosophies have served humanity well, reducing poverty and disease and opening entirely new horizons of human endeavor. (However, they have also been instrumental in pillaging our planet’s natural resources and creating the current ecological crisis.) We live in a culture of constant stimulus. The spaces in between our activities are filled by entertainment of all sorts. The urban landscape is often dominated by the propositions of shops and billboards. At home the television invites us to fill in the space with an essentially passive experience. We may have the impression that we are having an interactive experience on the internet, making our own investigations and communications, but often we are simply allowing ourselves to be pulled by chains of distracting stimuli one after another. A recent study in Cambridge University found that some smartphone users were consulting their phones around 19,000 times a year. André Gorz, the late author of a radical Critique of Economic Reason, states:
The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact.
In my late teens I lived for a while in a little house on top of a hill in Himachal Pradesh, India. The caretaker, Chokidar Natthu, an old Pahari gentleman with his traditional homespun jacket, white turban, white moustache and gold earrings, would come by in the evening and just sit on the grassy hillock, smoking his water pipe with a gentle bubbling sound, looking into the space of the vast view over the plains. As a novice meditator, painfully aware of my own mental agitation, I was struck his effortless calm, so still, doing nothing, completely self-contained.
Meditation is a moment when we do nothing. We stop our activities and allow ourselves to just be. We take a moment to step back from the accelerating lifestyle that society imposes on us to be alone with our own mind. We have become so used to having our space constantly filled up, that when we allow ourselves to stop, to do nothing, and stop being entertained for a while we might initially find the absence of stimuli quite disconcerting, and yes, boring! Boredom is the sensation we experience when the mind is frustrated by a lack of stimulus, either when nothing is happening or when an activity is monotonous, or a conversation or event is particularly dull. That frustration can be felt acutely in meditation, particularly when we meditate for a prolonged period; the mind resists the stillness of resting on the object, and tries to break away, seeking entertainment. Often meditation teachers consider that going through the experience of intense boredom is important, as it exposes our love of distraction and opens the way to non-distraction. We feel a sense of relief when we can let go of those impulses. Historian and futurologist Yuval Harari meditates every day and withdraws to do a meditation retreat each year. He insists that it is absolutely vital for our personal freedom to offer ourselves a period of time every day without media content, phone, or internet each day, in short to allow ourselves to be in our own space. Just being has not always had a good press! In his Essay On the Vanity of Existence, Schopenhauer suggests that simply to be does not have any real meaning:
If life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us. As things are, we take no pleasure in existence except when we are striving after something…
This question of meaning, of a meaningful way of understanding our existence, or being engaged in activities which one finds meaningful, is perhaps the true antidote of boredom and the door to fulfillment. With a perspective which sees the richness and potential of one’s existence, the unoccupied spaces become areas of freedom. Matthieu Ricard often refers to the concept of eudaimonia, as an optimal state of human flourishing. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the ultimate goal of human life: to live well, to flourish, and to ultimately have a good life, a concept distinct from hedonia (mere pleasure). When we meditate, our mindfulness penetrates the experience of boredom and our very simple experience of our own awareness becomes highly meaningful. When one can engage in creative activities which subjectively have an intrinsic value for us, there is an ongoing sense of fulfilment. André Gorz sets out an exhaustive classification of the different kinds of work and accords a special place to what he calls Autonomous Activities. He defines them thus:
Autonomous activities are activities one performs freely and not from necessity, as ends in themselves. This includes all activities which are experienced as fulfilling, enriching, sources of meaning and happiness: artistic, philosophical, scientific, relational, educational, charitable and mutual-aid activities, activities of auto-production, and so on. All these activities require ‘work’ in the sense that they require effort and methodical application, but their meaning lies as much in their performance as in their product: activities such as these are the substance of life itself.
The Default Mode Network
It seems that in those spaces where we stop, when we are not focused on doing, there is in fact a lot going on. In 2001, Marcus Raichle identified “a part of the brain which became extremely active when the mind was not applied to any particular task”. He called it the Default Mode Network (DMN):
The default mode network is comprised of several areas of the cortex that are most active when no external tasks demand our attention.
It is particularly associated with random thoughts and mind-wandering, similar to dreaming, and seems to share some of dreaming’s activities for organizing our experience of the world and ourselves. There are different points of view about whether mind-wandering is just a maintenance massage of the synapses, displacing mental junk, or whether a state in which spontaneous thoughts can arise freely might be a source of the creation of new ideas and spontaneous fresh answers to problems. To quote Raichle again:
With a phenomenon like mind-wandering, it is difficult to maintain that it is of no use at all – just like dreaming. Dreaming is mind-wandering disconnected. Why do we dream? Although there is no clear scientific answer, we cannot claim that dreams are just an inconvenience… Many researchers believe that creativity is associated with daydreaming or spontaneous thoughts about interesting problems.
A detailed description of the functions of the Default Mode Network can be found in the article in Wikipedia. Is the DMN really the cradle of creativity? Research continues about how it might be part of an interaction with other factors in creative thinking, but the mysterious connections of the brain have still not revealed their secrets.
Meditation and Creativity
In an experiment at Cambridge University with students beginning mindfulness practice it was found that the Default Mode Network became less active while they were meditating. Research at the University of Toronto suggested that mindfulness practice had the effect of decoupling the “narrative focus” characteristic of the DMN and “experiential focus”, the bare experience of the present moment. Although the undercurrents of thoughts (known as “under-moving thoughts” in the Tibetan meditative tradition) are usually largely unnoticed it is nonetheless possible to be mindful of the free flow of spontaneous thoughts without blocking it, bringing the experiential focus to bear in an awareness of the events of the narrative focus. Alan Wallace proposes the following method of being mindfully aware of the undercurrents of thoughts:
In the mentally perceived let there be just the mentally perceived without the conceptual superimpositions of thoughts, labels, categories, judgements. And note the array, the diversity of mental events that arise within this field. Discursive thoughts, the mental chit-chat, mental images, not only of sights, of colors and shapes. Mental images of sounds, memories and tastes, smells, tactile sensations… We may liken the space of the mind to a stage, to a playhouse, in which actors come and go… Focus especially on the actors who appear on the stage of the mind, perform their roles, and then vanish back into the space. Attend to these distinct mental events of thoughts and images, memories and fantasies, emotions and desires. Whatever arises simply observe its nature and let it be without seeking to modify or change it in any way. To the best of your ability observe without preference and without superimposing the concepts of ‘I’ or ‘mine’. Simply observe the events as they arise from moment to moment. Always fresh, always unprecedented.
Could that freshness, where spontaneous new thoughts have space to erupt, be the cradle of creativity?
Leonardo da Vinci was a procrastinator, and quite a number of his works remained unfinished, or even unstarted. Often he was more interested in experiments with materials and techniques. We appreciate his masterpiece paintings like the Mona Lisa, but what also amazes us are his observations, his sketches, his notes, his ideas, the expression of an extraordinarily original and uninhibited creative mind. Of course we cannot know why he had that exceptional genius 500 years ago! Coming back to the present, Matthieu Ricard is an exceptionally creative person, with a particularity. Having had the chance to observe him over a number of years, I notice that he seems never to waste his time or lose his focus, to be able to constantly have new ideas and be putting them into action in a very fluid, relaxed state, which seems to not be interrupted by the doubts, anxieties and procrastination which affect many creative people. Of course, he meditates a lot, and can draw on the inspiration of the extraordinary tireless flow of his mentors, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama. Matthieu suggests that meditation where we remain in a state of “open presence” can be a catalyst for spontaneous inspiration to arise. The expression “open presence” has been used rather loosely by neuroscientists as a description of various types of meditation in which the mind is simply aware and present, without fixing on an object. It stays in a state of simplicity, relaxation and openness, which can be continued in a supple manner as a sort of readiness through the day. You can find a practical introduction to this practice in the fifth session of my course Stability and Clarity, entitled A Simple Presence. Maria João Pires meditates first thing in the morning and then brings that initial mindfulness into her daily activities, as an ongoing process of being present, “listening” to whatever situation arises. She insists on the importance of listening to the present moment, and constantly keeping a connection between mind and body. In her talk on Flow and Presence, Maria goes into some detail about the relationship between mind and body, inside and outside.
Consciousness of the body is very important. It leads to a knowledge of how to connect the body with the mind… Practicing an instrument contributes to that continuity of observation, constantly observing how things are inside, outside, inside, outside... Then there’s a moment where this connection between inside and outside is flowing and makes things so much easier. The effort becomes easy because you know how to use it.
Every day I do eight or ten kilometers of fast walking. I’m not distracted by other things while I’m walking, I’m observing the landscape and observing what my body says, how it reacts. You are walking and you see the landscape, the reaction inside goes outside and everything is one, a cycle. I observe how my heart is beating, my legs, my feet, everything. Somehow it’s as much about the body as about the mind. Yes, it’s to connect the mind and the body.
What can we learn from these people who have actualized a creative flow in their lives? We are not all creative geniuses or expert meditators. However, we can make spaces for ourselves, giving ourselves time, time for our own reflection, time to listen to our loved ones and to ourselves. Also allowing the mind to relax and trusting in its potential. Have you ever had the experience of leaving a problem till the morning, “sleeping on it,” and finding that even if you don’t have a ready made solution, everything seems clearer the next day? Even in a simple exercise like writing this article there’s a process of “breathing in” and “breathing out.” I gather information and then leave it to sit for a while and assemble itself in my mind. There’s an element of receiving, rather than doing, letting the mind do its work in its own way. Our meditation doesn’t have to be forced and mechanical. It can become relaxed and spacious, so that there is room for transformation. Gradually we can allow ourselves to trust our mind and the potential of what we receive. Could one call this moments of grace?
As Maria says:
Are you playing or is the music playing you? I think it is more that the music is playing you, if you allow it. And then if you allow it, everything is easy.
Cover photo: Michael Fousert (all photos from Unsplash).