Posts Tagged ‘the brain’

What is Your Ikigai?

cherryblossomsI first came across this term a couple years ago in a TED talk by Dan Buettner on “Blue Zones”—communities (there are 4 in the world) whose elders live with vim and vigor to record setting ages. Okinawa is one of them. Ikigai proved to be one of the core factors contributing to life expectancy. It’s one of those words, often found in other languages, that sum up an idea requiring much explanation in our own. Ikigai is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being”. Everyone, according to the Japanese, has an Ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is regarded as being very important, since it is believed that discovery of one’s Ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life—Passion, Purpose, and Fulfillment. It could be as simple as caring for a grandchild. It’s what makes us get out of bed each day.  Here in this country seems everyone’s looking for  their Ikigai. People are in search of themselves—their ‘Mojo’—unlike any previous point in history. Where did it go? Those that know their Ikigai don’t miss a beat when asked what it is—who wouldn’t want that feeling?!  Here’s the good news:  Creativity leads us there by tolerating uncertainty, opening to wonder and joy, becoming fully present, letting go, trusting the process, tuning in to intuition, allowing for the new and unexpected and opening to grace. Have you lost your Ikigai? Do you know where to find it?

Happy People Embrace Uncertainty

visualsmileThere’s a theory that true creative genius stems from a certain amount of unhappiness. Certainly there is ample evidence in the lives of many tortured artist-souls to support this. Without a doubt some unhappiness fuels the intense self-solving, searching, questioning, and re-interpreting of reality at the root of some of our great art, and certainly some of our greatest art has been produced by those at the extreme end of the spectrum. Two of my favorites, Mark Rothko and Virginia Woolf come to mind.

The link between creativity and happiness doesn’t end there however. With the relatively recent explosion of research into what makes people happy, given that globally it is ranked as the highest personal goal, new studies have shown that happiness boosts creativity, and vice-versa. Creativity as I refer to it here is not necessarily about producing works of art, rather, the ‘art’ of creating our life each day.

In the upcoming August issue of Psychology Today, well-being experts Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener (known as The Indiana Jones of positive psychology), speak to this and turn some conventional thinking on its’ head. In an article entitled ‘What Happy People Do Differently’ the authors state: “Truly happy people seem to have an intuitive grasp of the fact that sustained happiness is not just about doing things that you like. It also requires growth and adventuring beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. Happy people, it seems, engage in a wide range of counter-intuitive habits that seem well, downright unhappy. Curious people generally accept the notion that while being uncomfortable and vulnerable is not an easy path, it is the most direct route to becoming stronger and wiser….it’s worth seeking out an experience that is novel, complicated, uncertain or even upsetting, whether that means speaking in front of an audience, starting a blog, or engaging in a new sport. The happiest people opt for both activities that are comfortable and familiar as well as those that push them to evolve in new ways.”

How can you push your comfort zone? It’s about finding that sweet spot—just the right amount of challenge that you can build on to expand your possibilities.

Tip# 3: Power Your Creative Thinking with a Walk

walking“If you can’t think, walk. If you’re thinking too much, walk. If you are thinking bad thoughts, keep walking.”  —Pierre Helaine, founder of Arche shoes.

One of the biggest impediments to creative productivity is the mental block, or rut—sometimes brief, sometimes prolonged.  A great and easily-accessible-to-all way to jump-start your thinking and shift your mindset is to get out and go for a walk.  At the very least it’s a mood booster, at best it’s a creative strategy. I generally get my best ideas while walking…I build it in to my day as a tool to fuel my thinking. I now use the voice memo feature on my iphone to record these thoughts, lest they disappear (very important!). I used to have a pen and an index card in my pocket. I also have a ‘two-loop’ practice: I use the first half of the walk to de-clutter, breathe and relax my mind, and the second to forward-focus my thinking around what I want to manifest that day.

There is science to support this. Repetitive physical movements involving major muscle groups (such as walking, swimming, biking, playing tennis, etc.) influence our overall state of mind. Some claim different forms of physical activity suit different sorts of problem solving: you’ve got your ‘walking problems’ and you’ve got your ‘golf problems’. In addition to the endorphin, serotonin, and oxygenation (happy-makers) boosting effect of these activities, they plug in to the framework of creative thinking I’ve referred to here: the interplay between right and left brain activities.

Darwin constructed a sand-covered path , known as the sandwalk, at Down House, where he wrote Origin of the Species and Descent of Man. He called it his ‘thinking path’. Mozart asserted his best ideas came while walking, Einstein loved to sail regularly, scribbling notes the whole time. Many therapists, recognizing the link between exercise and shifted mindsets, are holding their sessions while walking with their clients, and business innovator Nilofer Merchant recently delivered a TED talk sharing her penchant for holding all her meetings while walking–to the tune of 20 to 30 miles a week!

So the very good news here is that getting away from our cluttered desks, our monkey-minds and being physically active is one of the most productive and creative things we can do.

 

 

 

 

Have you used up your future?

A few years ago, as I was heading into a period of sabbatical, soul searching and reinvention, I found myself feeling very lost and a little unhinged…..and yet a little excited at the same time.  I realized I had left behind so much that had identified and grounded me to that point—my career, home, friends, lifestyle—in order to create some space to explore new directions.  The words ‘lose yourself to find yourself’ resonated daily in my head. The ‘losing yourself’ part isn’t easy; much of it involves dis-identifying with so much comfort and ease….why would we choose that? In need of some guidance I reached out to an advisor of sorts–a spiritual ‘coach’ more or less. As I was grumbling about my career winding down, my empty nest, my dissatisfaction with just about everything in my life at that point—framing it all as some sort of failure on my part, he laughed. He said “Elizabeth, you haven’t failed at anything. That’s the problem…..you succeeded at all of it. You simply used up your future.”

Wow. That simple shift in perspective, that I had fulfilled my vision for my life up until that point and I simply needed a new script to follow…felt so empowering and relieving somehow. By choosing to operate from a place of abundance rather than lack changed my inner dialogue. It’s simply the ebb and flow of life. To choose to bloom again is not always the easiest choice….but it’s far richer and enlivening than staying tight within the bud.

Tip #2 Keep an Idea Journal

Keep a notebook/journal for each area of your life. Write down ideas, facts, questions, random thoughts—any information you stumble across throughout the day. There are many planners out there but it’s much more useful, fun and creative to make your own, organizing the information in a way that works best for you. I refer to mine as my ‘meaning maker’ or ‘idea bank. The more problems, thoughts and ideas that you record and review from time to time, the more complex becomes the network of information in your mind. Also keep a box of interesting advertisements, quotes, pictures, news clippings, doodles, words, swatches–anything you are drawn to that might trigger ideas by association. Chances are you’re drawn to an item for a reason; you just don’t know as yet how to apply it. By periodically reviewing the notebook you activate all the recorded information in your conscious AND subconscious mind, as a way of stimulating ‘mind-popping’. also, the practice of writing a thought or idea down embeds it in your long-term memory. Einstein was said to have 3500 notebooks which he referred to over and over again throughout his lifetime. Walt Whitman kept little pieces of paper with notes separated into envelopes by category. Charles Dickens would scan graveyards for the names of his characters (think Martin Chuzzlewit, Uriah Heep) all written in notebooks, and Thoreau kept detailed nature journals…both of which, and more, I had the privilege of photographing in the collection of the NY Public Library several years back.

My notebook of choice is a gridded paper, soft cover 5×7 Moleskine. I have tons of them going back years…I am never without one.



Creativity = Vulnerability

Creating can be scary. Creating involves risk. A true creative act produces something which never existed before. Whether it be a new relationship, a painting, a poem, a freshly baked cake, the launch of a new business or simply a new direction in our lives there is a tremendous amount of vulnerability involved in putting ourselves out into the world in new ways, with no guarantee of acceptance or approval. It is in fact within this uncertainty that the real magic happens. To lean into this calls for a certain sort of wholeheartedness, and a sense that we are enough, regardless of the outcome. If, as I believe we are all artists in the creation of our lives each day, and ART is all just perfectly imperfect….then we must cut ourselves a lot more slack and be willing to fail, miserably if need be. This involves exposure and taking emotional risks. This is the only way to be truly alive. The opposite, staying safely (we think) within our comfort zones, is stagnation and decline.

Brene Brown states: “Vulnerability is the root of all emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” If you’re one of the few who haven’t seen her viral TED talks, I highly recommend both of them. She really gets to the heart of the matter.

 

Tip #1 Avoid the Starting ‘Block’

This, the first in a series of weekly tips in the service of expanding our creative and productive selves.

There’s something about sitting down to a blank page, stepping up to a blank canvas or starting any new project that can be overwhelming….commonly known as the creative block. As a freelancer without a structured work life this can apply to any work we’re doing. We all know the feeling—the fear, resistance and paralysis behind procrastination. One of the best pieces of advice I ever was given was to consciously leave work ‘unfinished’ for the next day—it makes it much easier to start and find your way back in to the flow, picking up where you left off. This seems counter-intuitive in some ways; going against the grain of the discipline of seeing a thing through to completion, yet it sets you up for a stronger start to the next day, avoiding the ‘blank page’ syndrome. If in fact the practice is about showing up each day, and it certainly is, then let each day dovetail off the previous. The new start comes much more readily when already in the flow of the work. Try it to see if it makes a difference….and keep me posted.

A Creative Thinking Framework

So it seems there is a formula, a framework for creative thinking. Creativity is different than intelligence. With intelligence, more is better–more thinking, more information, more knowledge. To foster creativity, from the perspective of how the brain works, less is better–less thinking anyway, in the conventional sense. It’s about allowing freer interplay between different areas of the brain to allow more connectivity, more linking in unexpected ways—the source of fresh ideas and innovation.

We’ve been hearing about the ‘Right Brain Thing’ for years now, beginning with  Betty Edwards of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain fame. She came up with the formula illustrated above to describe this interplay. Her version speaks to the interplay between right and left brain functions when it comes to how we get our best ideas, or ‘mind-pops’—our Eureka” moments. More recent neuroscience speaks to a somewhat more complex formula involving down regulation of the frontal lobe (thinking/conscious aspect) known as transient hypofrontality, a term I first heard from neuropsychologist Rex Jung. We’ve all had the experience of the solution to a problem or a really cool insight coming from seemingly ‘out of the blue’. That would be our right brain, our subconscious, intuitive, spontaneous, pattern seeing brain which we can only access by shutting down our ‘thinking’ brain.  The amazing thing is that, once we really understand how and why this works, we can leverage this awareness in the service of heightened creativity. It’s simply about controlling the conversation in our heads, rather than letting it control us. It’s about allowing the interplay to happen. The really good news is all manners of doing so contribute massively to our overall state of well being and make us……happier!

Fresh Eyes

Marcel Proust wrote: “The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having fresh eyes.”

It’s a bit like rebooting your computer. What moving to a new place and/or traveling do offer is a different perspective, a shift in our thinking—new possibilities, happiness! Until….we become again habituated to our daily routines and surroundings, losing that refreshed feeling.  What was once new and exciting inevitably fades. This is why some people are addicted to change…and most of us love to travel. Neuroscience supports this. So how can we have ‘fresh eyes’ without a move or travel?

Most of us walk through our days not even paying attention to our surroundings. We are slaves to the chatter in our heads.We can make a conscious decision to see the beauty we miss, daily—faces, geometry, architecture, colors, clothing, kitsch, nature…it’s simply a choice to pay attention, differently. Have you ever thought of how many shades of green there are, or yellow, or white? Pick one color and use your iphone to record as many variations you see over the course of a couple days. See how this wakes you up and enriches the quality of your day…..or choose any visual theme that speaks to you. Try using  your iphone to tune in rather than tune out.

 

Change….Forward

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The over-arching theme of President Obama’s first campaign was the mantra ‘Change’—a powerful sound bite on which to run. Since then some feel he hasn’t lived up to the oratory; he hasn’t delivered the Change as promised. It will be a relief to see much of that clamor dying down after today.

This larger picture is a metaphor for the changes each and every one of us hope to make in our own lives. In the face of discontent, change is seductive—and powerfully motivating. Yet the real work of change is hard—doable—but far more difficult and certainly impossible in any kind of a vacuum, be it social or political.

Change doesn’t come quickly or easily, or without a certain amount of discomfort. Most importantly change involves a breaking down of existing patterns—whether the huge complexities of government, our ways of being, or the habits of mind we all carry around in our heads. When people talk about change they don’t take this into account—all the loosening up of fixed mindsets that need to take place before real transformation can occur. That part is rarely part of the dialogue, and it doesn’t happen overnight, especially in our culture of quick fixes, immediate gratification, partial attention and, in so many ways, unrealistic expectations.

President Obama ran this, his second campaign, with the mantra ‘FORWARD’— an acknowledgement of the next step in the Change process based a foundation already built and where things stand now. How apt.

Now that’s a workable example…for all of us.

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