Thoughts: Zen and creativity

Is the goal “no mind,” or “no I-centered mind”?

Zen creativity writing spiritual fictionWe are all creatives–authors, artists, performers, but also innovative cooks, parents, seekers. In addition, we are all writers; we cannot express our emotions and ideas, either to ourselves or others, without stringing words into sentences. As such, most of us have thoughts rattling around in our brains  nearly every waking moment. We can’t help it.

And yet, there is a clear connection between emptying the mind and becoming more creative. Everyone has a shower stall or gardening “ah ha!” story. Buddhist Geeks recently posted a fascinating interview with Gary Weber, a Zen practitioner, senior executive, and author who was able to stop his thoughts. He experiences virtually no self-referential thoughts or emotions, a Zen state called “no mind.”

Let go of I-centered stories

Weber still experiences neural responses (emotions). However, “What you lose is the desire leading up to them and then after they are over you don’t make stories about something that needs to be repeated together or something that was really done badly or something terribly. You just don’t have the storylines. So the emotions are there very quickly but then they fall away.” Weber still has plenty of thoughts, but now they are purposeful and appropriate to the situation. He has let go of “I want. . . I feel . . . I need . . . I should . . . I like . . . I hate . . .” Those self-referential thoughts don’t consume his mind the way they do for most people.

My personal “ah ha” from the interview is that, if we let go of our I-centered thoughts and stories, we make room in our minds for creativity. In other words, you don’t need to shoot for “no mind” to spur creativity, simply “no self-centered  mind.”

How do we make room for creativity?

I try to write down impersonal thoughts such as creative ideas and shopping lists; they vanish if I don’t. However, I think it’s harder for writers in particular to let go of our stories. I get hung up on crafting a thought I want to share later. My brain turns the thought over and over, sometimes for days, polishing the words and rehearsing my delivery. Sometimes I rehearse the story so often I’m not sure if I shared it or not! And if my mind is consumed by such I-centered thoughts, there’s no room for truly creative ideas to arise.

When minor events occur–say, someone cuts ahead in line–try not to spin a story with yourself as the main character so you can share your indignation later. Listen to whose stories you’re telling in your head. If they typically center around you, and in particular if they’re stories you’ve told yourself before, try to let them go.

Some stories are so personal, so deeply entrenched, they’re difficult to release. For those, self-help books abound. I’m more interested in letting go of the transient I-centered stories that clutter our brains virtually every waking moment. If we release those stories, we open our minds to creative possibilities.

Sometimes those I-centered stories are easier to release if you write them down as they arise. You can experiment with a notebook, a recorder, or whatever works for you (there’s probably an app for that). Mindfulness is an easy place to start.

As a creative, how do you let go of your personal stories to make room for creative ones?


3 thoughts on “Thoughts: Zen and creativity

  1. Very interesting, very important post. There is surely a strong connection between mindfulness and artistic creation. Insight meets practical advice here. Excellent.

  2. Pingback: Book review: Jake Fades « Fiction for a New Age

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