“New ideas come into this world somewhat like falling meteors, with a flash and an explosion.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
On the razor’s edge of forward progress lie creative individuals who intimately know the wordless feeling that something great exists within; lingering, invisibly forming and waiting to be unleashed from the world of potential into the world of reality. In the realm of innovation, art and technology the idea reigns as supreme. Many of the most successful thinkers and pioneers of human history report a feeling that their boldest ideas, their strongest contributions to humanity were birthed in great moments of ease, in a spacious clarity which was inexplicably filled with… eureka!
After days, weeks and sometimes years of pushing and trying, the biggest breakthroughs come from a cultivated emptiness built upon long hours of effort.
Ellen Langer is a Harvard Professor who for many years has studied the applications of mindfulness in everyday life. Amongst her myriad of fascinating studies lies an example of how mindfulness leads to a more profound aesthetic mastery. In the study, Langer and her colleagues took a group of professional and accomplished orchestral musicians and asked them to play a piece of music as they always had in performance, to the best of their ability.
Then she again asked them to play the piece, but to forget the effort towards perfection and instead, ‘make it new in very subtle ways that only you would notice.’ Both renditions were recorded. Resulting from this research came the conclusion that, not only did the musicians overwhelmingly report a more fulfilling creative experience when attending to newness instead of perfection, but the large majority of subjects who were later played the recordings congruently agreed.
Langer’s estimation is that the act of infusing the music with these intangible nuances made the musicians more present in what they were doing. This presence, more than it was heard, was felt by the performers and the listeners. The artistic effort was more striking and aesthetically memorable when in tune with the detail which was born out of an open concentration. By letting go of the effort to perfect their playing, the creative product became more masterful.
The appreciation of presence, of truly staying with what one is engaged in, is as of much benefit to musicians and artists as it is to innovators and professionals. In the Zen school it is taught, ‘enlightenment is doing what you’re doing.’ In this vein, success can then defined as the ability to give one’s self fully to whatever is being undertaken.
Meditation can be described as the practice of cultivating the tools to empower one to come back to what they’re doing more effectively and more often. Instead of frequently wandering into mental disorganization or the interruption which leads to creative blockages, the neuroplastic brain is trained to stay with the objects of inquiry for longer, undistracted time periods. Productivity grows through unwavering concentration.
In the act of pushing towards the next big thing in innovation, heaps of information and ruts of habitual thinking prove problematic. Weeks are spent scouring options, researching reports and rehashing meetings in an attempt to place a finger on the…Eureka! Meditation can provide the impetus and inspiration to qualify the busy time with the hidden stillness that surrounds it, the spaciousness where that one thing which was always just out of reach finally flashes forth with brightness and unmistaken gravity.
Meditation is the attempt to gaze upon old and familiar things with new eyes. Spending time in stillness and silence allows the ordinary to be re-infused with its magic. Seemingly simple things like the act of breathing are almost instantly given a new context and new sense of connection with everything else. Meditation births the tools to appreciate things as they subtly change from moment to moment. Just as the orchestral musicians succeeded more fully when asked to mind the nuances of change, so too do idea breakthroughs surge when something that’s stuck is freshened with newness.
Working hard on a set of tasks is an undeniably important facet of creativity in any regard. But to give that work traction requires the ability to unpack it, to lay it out amongst its background and let it be reorganized by new perspectives. Trying leads to a bunch of ideas, then not trying creates the spawning ground for one or two great ideas. Trying leads to the ability to play scales, not trying gives rise to improvisation…to the real music.
Meditation is the practice of trying to not try.
It is the act of granting a sense of space to the experiences, conversations and events of the day so that connections and inferences can form on their own accord outside of effort. Accumulating data is only one part of the creative process. The other is knitting data together. As Robert Frost notes, ‘An idea is a feat of association.’ Giving space to daily effort allows the objects of that effort to fall into a partnership where innovation naturally springs forth.
Through enabling one to look for the novel in the familiar, the meditation practice sheds light on the path less taken, the new avenues pointing to infinite possibility which often times lie very close to but hidden from that which has already been accomplished. Then in the care of a passionate thinker and doer, the path less taken becomes the new shortcut in creative evolution. Momentarily letting go of the forcefulness in innovation creates the fertility out of which the next big thing blossoms.
Just as the light bulb requires a largely vacuous space to light up, so too does that which it commonly symbolizes, the great idea, need a buoyant and nourishing emptiness to rest upon.
“Great ideas come into the world as quietly as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively we shall hear, among the uproar of empires and nations, the faint fluttering of wings, the gentle stirrings of life and hope. Some will say this hope lies in a nation; others in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. Each and every one, on the foundations of their own suffering and joy builds for all.” ~ Albert Camus
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Assistant Ed. Caroline Scherer/Ed: Kate Bartolotta