Posts Tagged ‘the brain’

Wu Wei: The Power of Spontaneity

I’ve often written here about the concept of ‘Flow’ as it relates to creative process and our overall sense of well-being; that there is a higher intelligence at work regarding a ‘formula’ for creativity that we can trust as an organizing principle not only in the creative process, but more importantly in our day to day lives. We’ve all had that feeling of being ‘in the zone’. It’s almost an outer body experience; whether you’re an artist or an athlete, doing the dishes or working in the garden. My own experience has most certainly taught me that only when I let go of all conscious effort can I tap into real creativity, insight, maximum effectiveness and a deeper sense of connection—even though I may feel out of control and filled with uncertainty (which I often do).

In his book Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science and the Power of Spontaneity, Edward Slingerland beautifully dissects the principle of Wu Wei, or unattached action, taking the concept of ‘flow’ further. He connects our very modern preoccupation with creativity,  heightened performance and quality of being to principles put forth by early Chinese philosophers. The 5th to 3rd century BCE was a time of social and political chaos, but also a time of incredible philosophical creativity. Several religious thinkers incorporated the virtues of ‘naturalness’ and spontaneity into their writings, and although they didn’t agree on all points, they all felt that “overall success in life was linked to the charisma one radiates when completely at ease, or the effectiveness one displays when fully absorbed.” Breaking it down,

“Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei , proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures. In many respects, it resembles the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s well-known concept of “flow,” or the idea of being in the zone, but with important—and revealing—differences that we will explore.”

We all have access to this state of being, more so as we age because it involves life experience, as British philosopher and writer Alan Watts states: “to know the principles, structures and trends of human natural affairs so well that one uses the last amount of energy in dealing with them.” Legendary photographer Edward Weston expresses it another way with regard to creative process:

“One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background: learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experiencing, all this—then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment. So I can make ‘without thought’ ……but there is all the eyes have seen in my life to influence me.”

The question is then how to train ourselves to ‘shut off’ our minds (an oxymoron if there ever was one); to create space for the subconscious intelligence to creep in with its’ gifts? This is a challenge we all face with society putting so much value on productivity and efficiency. There is excessive emphasis on the power of conscious thought, on will power. Spontaneous thought and action is thought to be somehow inferior, or uninformed.

The key to enlightened Wu Wei is seeing and responding appropriately to what is in front of you. Seeing Clearly. The paradox is that it is not effortless. To the contrary, it requires tremendous energy to stay continuously attuned to shifting circumstances—focused and alert….yet relaxed. It’s about building muscle around awareness and receptivity, around ‘not knowing’—about trusting your state of inward and outward harmonization which allows you to act naturally and spontaneously…with intention. It’s a tricky balance, but without a doubt it is where the magic happens.

Here’s a tip: Photography is a wonderful tool for taking us out of our habitual patterns of overthinking and into heightened present moment awareness.  As a practice, wherever you are, commit to a half hour each day. Simply look for interesting imagery around you regardless of subject matter. Wander with intention. Don’t worry about outcomes. You’ll surprise yourself at how quickly you get into a state of receptivity and reap the benefits of spontaneity, find flow and get out of your monkey mind. You’ll feel relaxed, refreshed, and re-energized. It’s a wonderful reset. You’ll also take some pretty great photos. I promise. To see examples of my practice, click on my Instagram feed @elizabethwattny.

Ideas are the Easy Part

ideasI can’t believe I’ve only written 5 blog posts in a year here. Truth is, I do wake up every morning saying to myself  ‘I should write a blog post today‘. The closest I get most days is simply jotting down more ideas for posts. This is the thing—for many of us ideas are the easy part. They come unbidden; most often not the result of concentrated effort–spontaneously rather–usually when in the midst of some random, otherwise-engaged activity. So they pile up–countless ideas spoken into my iphone ‘notes to self’ while out on a stroll, driving, or jotted down after a shower. When I know I’ve had a particularly good idea, this gives me a sense of accomplishment—a sense of ‘siempre adelante’ as a colleague of mine here signs off on his emails: ‘always forward’. Love that. And so it goes….days, weeks, months pass. Although It’s very exciting and gratifying to have this sense of ever-evolving ideas and the sense of aliveness therein; actually acting on those ideas– making stuff happen, requires tremendous focus and discipline which seems to elude me much of the time.

What I’ve learned is that it’s all about balance, and understanding that only time, and a certain amount of intention, can allow us the fresh perspectives we need to move forward in the best possible way. It’s not always about pushing and productivity. Sometimes it’s more about allowing, stepping back, letting go, trusting the process and paying attention to the unexpected gifts given. That’s when the really good ideas present; ideas that foster change and positive growth—the ones we really need. Then, and most importantly, it’s about creating structure and routine around acting on those ideas with enough consistency to rewire around whatever evolution is taking place. Pariyatti cautions: ‘Beware the ill-directed mind’…..such a road-blocker. This takes no small amount of discipline and conscious effort.

I love how the formula for creative productivity can mirror the best way to approach living our lives on a day-to-day basis, especially when managing change. If you’re really tuned in you realize you are being guided; the trick is to have no expectations as to outcome–tricky stuff. That’s where the magic happens if you allow it…recognizing (re-cognizing) where the real opportunity is, and being comfortable with all the uncertainty therein; trusting the process. In my experience, this is where the best art comes from, and the best quality of life as well.

The ‘Good Eye’

goodeye_2Like many who have built a career around being a photographer, I’ve often been told I have a ‘good eye’. It’s more or less a necessary job skill. A question that has come up throughout my career  is whether or not having a ‘good eye’ is something that can be learned, or is it some innate ability? ‘Good’ here doesn’t mean good as we usually use the word, as in good or bad. For sure, some are gifted with a ‘good eye’ —a natural sense of the visually correct and beautiful. In my experience, some of the people with the best ‘eyes’ have not necessarily made it their life’s work to do anything with their innate ability. Democratizing social media platforms such as Instagram now offer an outlet for those amazing ‘eyes’—they abound—and humble me.

The Good Eye can be learned. On the one hand it’s very much about educating our process of Seeing— becoming more discerning observers. My eye was, and still is, honed by looking at great art-constantly, and asking myself: why does this work? We can break down and study the components of visual discernment— color, form, shape and proportion, light and shadow, contrast, texture, line, angles and curves, composition—and become more acute visual thinkers.  This is about the practice of seeing–deliberately. It’s a kind of sophisticated attentional training. By tuning in to the components of sophisticated imagery we wire our visual sense to the Good. Like anything else, the more you focus (pun intended) on a skill, the more automatic it becomes.

The second and equally important part of developing a Good Eye is the opposite of the analytical aspect above. Good here means that our mind is uncluttered by preoccupation, relaxed and open. It’s more about a letting go—of thinking, of preconceived notions, of labeling what we see. It’s about seeing clearly without filters and biases, it’s about allowing ourselves to be completely present and open to the moment, to feel the image—to re-present reality through the lens of our unique and pure perception. It’s an internal, intuitive, fearless kind of seeing. It’s a form of self-forgetting; it feels like flow. Photography approached in this way borders on spiritual practice, and images created in this space are the ones that resonate most with the viewer.

The Good Eye is a muscle we can build like any other. The fact that we have the camera now always in our pocket is an advantage if used rightly—to tune in rather than tune out—as a practice it is incredibly enlivening.

Reclaiming Beauty

bwverttulips_blogI recently came across a tagline for an interior design business which captures an idea I’ve been pondering for some time now. It read, simply, Creating beauty, Changing lives. Of course the reference to the very commercial enterprise of marketing home furnishings is blatant, but it also speaks to the idea that the presence of Beauty, in it’s purest sense, can add deep and immeasurable value in our lives—beyond the surface appearance of things. The Creation of Beauty in one sense has been a central theme in my professional life as a commercial photographer charged with beautifying everything from sanitary napkins to pet food. Then of course there was all the more obvious beauty when I had a choice of subject matter. Did I feel I was changing lives? Hardly. But the pursuit and creation of beauty as an ongoing theme in my life has been hugely enriching, something I’ve often taken for granted. Now with a little distance from the commercial aspect of it, and as I dive deeper into the study of the nature of it, I see the call to Beauty as an essential core value in all of our lives moving forward—as a way of being, as a philosophy, as a grounding principle. I’ve touched on this in previous posts here.

Huge trade-offs have been made in the unprecedented advance of technology, efficiency and productivity due to lack of attention to Beauty. With what-it-means-to-be-human being reinvented at an ever accelerating pace, we are looking for new frameworks for living our best lives, being our best selves. Our ways of approaching the world need to be informed by different values. How can Beauty be reclaimed, as per the Greeks, who held it equal to truth and goodness? How to separate and articulate the term from so many current shallow associations—where we are suffering from a poverty of discernment, where the media generates relentless images of mediocrity and ugliness, enshrining it as the norm, and where many of our built environments lack grace and spirit? The wonderful contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton speaks to this often and states: “One way evil reaches us is through ugliness”— something to ponder.

How can we apprentice ourselves to beauty?

Beauty is not a luxury. Real Beauty is not glamour per se; rather an invitation to order, coherence and unity…available to everyone in any situation. And whereas Beauty indeed is in the eyes of the beholder, there are centuries’ old standards informed and shared by cultures all over the world. We can only be enriched by integrating a certain amount of discipline around reconnecting with those standards, in large and small ways, internally and externally, daily. When we experience the beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming.

Aesthetic Arrest

lilyfaceI love this term—’Aesthetic Arrest’. It best describes the feeling we have when in the presence of a work of art, or any object of beauty, that has that ‘wow’ quality, that stops us in our tracks. We feel somehow altered by the encounter, taken outside of ourselves, elevated somehow. Robert Rye best expresses it here: “The contemplative instant at which (an artwork) is appreciated by the mind, which has been arrested by its wholeness, and fascinated by its harmony, is the luminous, silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

I’ve always pondered what, if any, is the mysterious ‘recipe’ for creating work that resonates in this way. It’s a bit of an elusive thing, very much the result of letting go and really leaning in to the process of making art. Intention is just the jumping off point. ‘Rules’ tend to get in the way. Yet there are some aspects that ‘arresting’ works share. Sir Thomas Aquinas does a pretty good job of getting close with these suggested attributes for beauty: WHOLENESS (integitas)—the unity of the whole, HARMONY (consonantia)—balance, fitness, symmetry, rhythm of structure, and RADIANCE (quidditas)—’thingness’—a unique product of your thinking. I like this framework because it doesn’t imply rules, rather useful criteria that can be applied to any creation, visual or otherwise—anything in existence, whether man, woman or nature made. It speaks to the soul of a thing; it allows for the inexplicable….yet gives us a standard to aspire to.

When was the last time you were arrested?

The Upside of Exile

exileI’ve written of the need to have ‘Fresh Eyes’ in the pursuit of any creative endeavor here in the past. I came across this essay by Costica Bradatan a couple weeks ago in the NY Times column ‘The Stone’  which beautifully validates, and expands on this idea. It speaks to the upside of exile—typically a term carrying a negative connotation—banishment from all we hold dear, from our sense of  well being and identity which are so much a function of the place we call ‘home’. And yet, with regard any sort of  renewal, refreshment, reinvention, rejuvenation—a certain amount of self-imposed ‘exile’ is essential for new perspectives……

“For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas. To live is to envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what’s under your nose. The more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free. All that heavy luggage of old “truths,” which seemed so only because they were so familiar, is to be left behind.”

“The redeeming thing about exile is that when your “old world” has vanished you are suddenly given the chance to experience another. At the very moment when you lose everything, you gain something else: new eyes. Indeed, what you eventually get is not just a “new world,” but something philosophically more consequential: the insight that the world does not simply exist, but it is something you can dismantle and piece together again, something you can play with, construct, reconstruct and deconstruct. As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways. Certainly you can find that in books, but there is no deeper knowledge than the one that comes mixed with blood and tears, the knowledge that comes from uprooting.”

So the challenge (if you choose to accept it)  is how to create that sense of exile—that eye-opening fresh view of things—without sacrificing too much. As Anais Nin famously quoted “Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” On my fridge 🙂 Not always easy, but we are infinitely richer for it….

 

 

Routine Creativity

zenstonesblogOne of the most important aspects of Creative productivity is striking a balance between disciplined daily routine and remaining open to new experiences and perspectives—flexible and adaptable—so that we can keep our eyes fresh and energy high. Too much routine can be mind numbing, uninspiring and vortex (tunnel vision) inducing; too little routine reduces the chance of flow and any significant productive creative output. While we can find evidence of creative genius unfettered by routine—the Basquiats and Jimi Hendrixes of the world—there is an unsustainable, crash-and-burn quality to those sagas. Even Toulouse Lautrec showed up everyday for his work in a very routine fashion after his nights of debauchery at the Moulin-Rouge.

I was pleased to come across a recent NY Times op-ed article where David Brooks, celebrating President Obama’s recent UN speech, links routine and hard work to Creativity and…world order. He holds up the habits of writers and artists as inspirational and exemplary, citing Mason Curry’s wonderful book on the daily rituals of artists mentioned previously here.  Brooks writes  “Order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring. Building and maintaining order—whether artistic, political or global—seems elementary, but it’s surprisingly hard”. Indeed.

Henry Miller declared “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life”. How do we find this balance? As Creatives we need to ground ourselves in a daily routine–we need to find what time of day we are most productive and build our schedules around that. We need to show up for a few hours every day, no matter what, and simply put in the time at our chosen craft. It has been my experience time and time again that the rewards come, the muses show up, and everything flows from there. It is in the routine that we find the freedom, the inspiration, and most importantly—the staying power to honor the best we have to give—every day.

 

Gaps as Creative Opportunities

EWatt_gaps_1

We all  experience ‘gaps’ in our lives—those in between times where we are not forging ahead with a strong sense of direction, where we feel a little lost, where we are in limbo. Gaps present as periods of ‘not-knowing’ large and small—the voids and upset we periodically experience as we move through life. These are the uncomfortable in-between spaces—old habits no longer serve, all momentum is gone, all certainty of what to do next evaporates. It’s like the too-long pause in a conversation—uncomfortable. The impulse is to fill the gap—either by pushing hard to move forward or falling back on what was once comfortable. We live in a culture that values certainty over all else, so there are external as well as internal pressures to move out of this space as quickly as possible.

Anyone familiar with the process of creating knows this is where real opportunity lies—in those in between or liminal spaces, the ‘gaps’—the not-knowing. This is where creative energy is found. It is only here where new information can enter, where something that has never existed before—that which is valuable and in alignment with the truth of the moment—can come into being. We are speaking about a form of creative intelligence here—‘Intelligence’–from the Latin inter and legere….which mean ‘to gather between.’ The formula for creativity I so often refer to here supports this–the incubation stage is essentially a Gap—an easing off from the knowledge acquisition stage (effortful) or saturation stage so as to allow the subconscious brain to process and make new connections. Our Eureka! moments come to us in gap spaces–on walks, in the shower, when resting. Artists and creators know how to get comfortable with the discomfort of ‘not knowing’.  

Our brains need to re-calibrate to new realities. If we short circuit this process, we never evolve or connect to our creative selves. We stay stuck. Creativity is about getting beyond what we take for granted, pushing through to new levels of awareness. It’s not easy, but we are infinitely richer for it. The good news is that it is only by slowing down, paying attention and engaging with the chaos and confusion rather than resisting it that we can truly move forward. The answers you’re looking for will emerge when you least expect it; when you think you are ‘slacking off’.

And, speaking of gaps and slacking off; I apologize for the huge space since my last posting here—lots going on. Thanks for tuning back in.

Creativity is a Habit

Mason CurryWelcome to the new look of this blog. I always feel September to be the start of a new year; a time of renewed focus and, especially today, a time for reflection. Though hardly idle, (I really wish I was better at that); I did allow myself to drift a bit for the month of August. In addition to the redesign here and re-launching my photography website (more as a visual resume than anything else), I spent some time reconnecting with my original vision for this work around facilitating creativity. One challenge of being a solo-preneur is that we’re often operating in a vacuum—pushing our agendas in isolation, showing up each day and doing the work we think we’re supposed to be doing outside of any structure or system of validation. There are therefore days where we question the rightness of our efforts, which leads to questioning the questions—is this Resistance? Fear? Procrastination?—all those things we’re supposed to push past, daily. And yet….

Any creative effort is ever-evolving and organic with a life of its own. Unpredictability and uncertainty are essential components. Whether starting a new business, writing a book, a blog—pursuing any personal project—the trick is allowing for the evolution of the thing and adjust as we go along. What is true one day may not be true the next. The challenge is to see clearly every step of the way, pay attention to our motivations—Are they still valid?—and keep our energy up. Jonathan Fields has a great post which speaks to this, with some good questions to ask ourselves periodically about any pursuit we’re invested in.

And…once we’re clear….it’s about getting back to work. Creative productivity is a discipline. Countless books have been written on the routines of creative people. One of the best and most recent I’ve read is this one by Mason Curry. He documents the work habits of 161 people—from Benjamin Franklin to Woody Allen (the shower thing!) to Twyla Tharpe. It’s a great read for all the quirky anecdotes (headstand to clear the brain) and commonalities as well—massive amounts of coffee and long walks among the most common. The one thing that was common to almost every single subject was simply showing up everyday, for a period of time, no matter what. All the varieties of methods for summoning the muse were just that–methods based on knowing what worked for them, and that was all that mattered. They knew what they had-to-do and how-to-do-it, day in and day out, whether the muse was whispering to them or not. They knew how to be prepared…just in case. They knew how to get lucky.

Tip#5: How to have Lots of Ideas

©Maria Ferrari

©Maria Ferrari


The last ‘Tips’ post spoke to the importance of having lots of ideas whenever we’re trying to solve a problem or move our lives forward in some unprecedented way, as our first ideas are most likely perpetuating old ways of thinking. There are numerous tactics floating around out there. Some are more specific than others, and have been popularized by creativity experts such as Michael Michalko, Edward De Bono and Eric Maisel. All are about shifting perception, fostering a spirit of discovery and encouraging free flowing connections. Here is a distillation, with my own take, by way of explanation.

Sharpen the focus. The more specifically you define the problem at hand, the more infinite, original, (and appropriate) the possibilities. Contrary to what many think, creativity flows more freely from constraints and parameters. This is why some artists (Jasper Johns with his flag series) limit their subject matter and concentrate on creative process: how many variations are possible here? It becomes less about the what and the why and more about the how. Begin your brainstorming with questions to laser-tune the focus as much as possible. The likelihood of ‘Flow’ is much greater here as well.

Saturate yourself with inspirationYou need what I refer to as ‘fresh eyes’. Scan the universe for information and ideas related to your issue; fill your head with relevant facts, perspectives, ideas. Be joyful and curious in your approach. Be open to ideas coming from seemingly unexpected sources; seek them out, push beyond your comfort zone (it’s called that for a reason!). It’s all about connecting things in new and different ways. You will surprise yourself.

Set an ‘idea quota’. The popular version of the idea quota, often used in brainstorming sessions in business settings, is the ‘Paperclip’ model: come up with 20 uses for a (paperclip) in 10 minutes—no editing or judging of ideas. The time pressure takes thinking and judging off the table, and can produce some wonderful fresh ideas. The next essential step for this approach to be effective requires an editing phase, or the ‘verification’ as I refer to it in the formula. Which ideas are viable and useful? The best ideas then can be pushed and further developed through mind-mapping, below. This tactic is actually the least interesting to me personally, yet one of the most popular in business settings.

Engage with the Formula.  Another approach integrates the formula for creativity I’ve put forth in previous posts here, allowing right/left brain interplay to occur. Once the problem is defined, saturate (above) then let it go . Set an idea quota, but give it time to allow for the subconscious connections to occur— maybe  5 ideas a day for 5 days in a row. The first 5 might be the hardest, because you’ll be ‘thinking’ too hard, but then ideas will start to flow more freely. Chances are they’ll come in the form of ‘mindpops’ when you’re in a relaxed or distracted mode. I could write a book (hoping to) around this one approach. You could also call this one ‘summoning the muse’.

Work Visually. A much used tool in business brainstorming and strategy sessions is mind-mapping.  Countless software versions have been developed as a result, which I find relatively useless because the real power of mind-mapping comes from the free flowing physical aspect of charting and diagramming thoughts and ideas by hand, with big juicy markers, on a huge piece of paper on a wall, table, or floor . The mind-map breaks us away from a linear way of thinking, which I find often jams my brain because there should be some logic: A precedes B precedes C—too much thinking involved. When you work with ‘idea pods’—continually breaking the thinking down, jumping to other pods, capturing ideas as they pop into consciousness. There is no editing involved, to the contrary, this is hugely stimulating, and sometimes even emotional because it connects us more with what we’re feeling. The mind-map also lets you see all your thoughts and ideas–it’s like a crazy picture of the mish-mosh of your brain. When you can visualize all the seemingly unrelated and undeveloped thoughts, patterns emerge, new connections are made and you have the benefit of this hugely therapeutic mind-dump. I use this approach for my weekly to-do lists as a way of organizing and prioritizing my thinking.

Enough for now. It’s about developing a mindset for more creative thinking and being. Back to the CS mantra: “Change is an art form and creative productivity is a muscle we can build.” Would love to hear any tricks you all may have up your sleeve. I’d be happy to feature them here with credit given 🙂

And for some fun…..A great list of very specific tools for creating ideas can be found at creatingminds.org.

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