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How to Increase Creativity

The best way to increase creativity is to understand where it comes from and then deliberately practice appropriately.

Don’t limit yourself only to thinking about producing what is new; it’s also important to develop ingenious ways to preserve that which is good and to destroy that which is bad.  The idea is to work out novel, game-changing solutions that are outside the box.

Creative geniuses can leave us dumbstruck with awe.  Think of Michelangelo and Picasso, Aeschylus and Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Plato and Aristotle, Darwin and Einstein.  The idea of emulating them seems mad.

Yet every field has its innovators.  It’s easy to see in athletics.  If you are, like me, a hockey fan, you understand how Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky changed the game.  Where would baseball be without Babe Ruth?  How thrilling it was to watch Michael Jordan play basketball!  If you don’t think Bill Belichick comes up with innovative solutions to coaching problems year after year, you simply don’t follow pro football.

Go to any department in a university and enquire about that field’s greats.  Look behind any successful business and you’ll find an inspiring story.  There are even creative captains of war from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.

Think of the people you know who are consistently creative.  How do they do it?

Creativity comes from No-Thought. What’s that?  How is it practiced?

There are two kinds of awareness (consciousness), namely, “Thought” and “No-Thought.

Thought is thinking or conceptualizing.  It’s about separating into categories (sorting, classifying, dividing, discriminating).  It’s essential to survival.  These days, its categories are solidified using written language (as I’m doing now).

The downside to Thought comes from the fact that its categories are lifeless, inert, static.  It’s easy to get stuck in Thought.  In fact, most people are stuck in Thought most of their waking lives.  Why live in a box?

As Hume pointed out, habit is the great flywheel of our lives.  Emerson noted that “it is so much easier to do what one has done before than to do a new thing, that there is a perpetual tendency to a set mode.”  It isn’t just our behaviors that are repetitive:  90% of what we think are just recycled thoughts.

As useful and comforting as this can be, isn’t there a natural antipathy to it?  In the abstract domain of Thought, everything is dead, whereas in the lively domain of Nature, as Emerson noted, “Nothing is dead.”

Think of being fully alive to the present moment.  Think of an episode when your life flowed.  It may have been while you were playing a musical instrument or a sport.  It may have been in an emergency situation when there was no time for Thought.  It may have been when you were “in a zone” acting without Thought but perfectly appropriately. That’s No-Thought, alert awareness without Thought.

I happen to believe that living well requires a balance of Thought and No-Thought.

Furthermore, I happen to believe that most people are seriously underdeveloped when it comes to No-Thought.  If so, here’s an important opportunity:  we can all become more creative by practicing No-Thought more frequently.

The good news is that there are many ways to practice No-Thought. (For half a dozen alternatives, just go to the spiritual well-being category of this blog and scroll down to the “Addiction to Thinking” post.)

The great virtue of these methods is that they are transferable.  In other words, they are different from mastering a specific skill such as passing a football or driving a golf ball or playing the flute.  Such skills are not transferable to other domains.

Nevertheless, because they are more common, specific skills are better examples of No-Thought than general skills like meditation.  Think of one that you have practiced properly so that you transitioned from the Thought characteristic of a beginner to the No-Thought characteristic of a master.

You yourself have probably done that many times!

Consider walking.  You don’t remember how long you struggled to learn how to walk, but you may be able to ask your parents.  You tried and failed and tried and failed many, many times.  With persistent practice of the right kind you eventually were able to emulate all those giants who were walking all around you.  Now you are a master walker.  You are able to do it automatically.

In fact, you do it so automatically that you are usually busy thinking of something other than your walking while you are walking, right?  (That’s an example of separation, which is the root of suffering.)

Let’s consider a case where you are only walking, in other words, walking with No-Thought.

It’s a crisp fall day and you are walking up a forested hill.  You are not following a path; you are blazing your own trail.  This hill is sufficiently steep that you are sometimes more climbing than walking.  You are fully focused on what you are doing.

You are not, however, thinking about it.  You simply feel each step underfoot.  You pay full attention to which branch to grab and how best to detour around this large rock.  You are aware of an occasional insect or rivulet of sweat trickling down your back.  You cross openings during which the sun feels warm on your face and a breeze caresses you.

Isn’t that an everyday example of creativity?  What could Thought add to that experience?

Incidentally, if you usually paid attention to each step like that, you would be practicing walking meditation.  Instead of being lost in thought imagining what will happen when you reach your future destination, you would be fully feeling each step.  Instead of assuming that the future moment will be better than the present moment, your attention would be fully engaged in the now.

Instead of thinking of the present as nothing but a momentary transition from what was to what will be, like life itself, creativity only occurs in the fullness of the present moment.

Since Thought can barely grasp the present moment, it’s not surprising that Creativity has little to do with Thought; it has a lot to do with No-Thought now.

 

[If you are interested in reading more about this, a short classic book is E. Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery.  G. Leonard’s Mastery is also helpful.  For living more fully in the present moment, the books and audio programs of Eckhart Tolle are excellent.]

 

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