Creativity through Mindfulness

Over several blog posts I have explored the relationship between mindfulness and creativity.  In this post, I want to bring these ideas together to provide a more complete picture of how to develop creativity through mindfulness.

Mindfulness creates the internal environment for creativity through the following:

Stillness and silence

We discussed previously how creative people use stillness and silence to access their inner resources including their imagination.  The busyness of life and constant thinking means we are rarely still or silent.  In the process, we cut ourselves off from creative insight.  Jon Kabat-Zinn and Reg Revans also remind us that exploring what we do not know or understand is the beginning of learning and creative solutions.   As we practice mindfulness through meditation, we engage in stillness and silence and open ourselves up to what Jon Kabat-Zinn describes as “deep interior capacities” that lie within the “spaciousness” of our minds.

Turning down negative thoughts

Mindfulness can make us aware of the negative thoughts that often block creativity and constitute self-sabotage.  Creative people like David Lynch, Amanda Sinclair, Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Godin report the importance of turning down, or turning off, thoughts about potential failure or deemed personal inadequacy.  Seth even ascribes this self-sabotage to the “Lizard Brain”.  Sam Smith, singer-songwriter, during a recent interview while performing in London, spoke of the internal demons that beset him and almost prevented him from pursuing his highly successful songwriting and singing career.

Mindfulness enables us to address negative thoughts and stories and defuse their strength to release creativity.  Boy George in a recent coaching session with a very nervous performer on the TV show, The Voice, encouraged the singer to let go of preoccupation with what others might think of their performance:

I think you are someone who really thinks about what people think about you.  We do that as performers – it’s just one of those things, it’s like a default setting in out make-up.  We worry too much about what other people think of us and that can get in the way of what we do.  Don’t think about it too much is the key.

Positive anticipation instead of disabling fear

In a previous post, I discussed the research of Anna Steinhenge and her demonstration of how positive anticipation can overcome the disabling effects of fear and enable us to access clear thinking and creativity.  In this discussion, I explored the R.A.I.N. meditation process that enables us to face the fear within and conquer it so that we free ourselves for new insights and creative endeavour.   Through mindfulness meditation we learn to name our feelings in order to tame them.

Calming the busyness of our minds

Mindfulness enables us to calm our minds and free us from mental busyness or what Haruki Murakami describes as “convoluted waterways of my consciousness” that result in a “restless aquatic organism” .   Even experienced meditation practitioners will sometimes find their mind racing and being invaded with endless thoughts.  Kabat-Zin reminds us that this is part of the human condition and we will not be able to stop the thoughts.  He suggests that instead of entertaining these thoughts, we view them as bubbles in boiling water floating to the surface and bursting on reaching the extremities of the container – our minds.

Being present and grounded

Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, co-authors of The Mind of the Leader, stress the importance of leaders being present and grounded.   They argue that being present in conversations gains respect and facilitates open sharing of ideas.  Being grounded before beginning a conversation or meeting can enhance a leader’s capacity to listen, take in ideas and access their own creative potential.   Practicising somatic meditation, which incorporates many approaches to being grounded in our body, will strengthen our capacity to be present in the moment, stay grounded in the conversation and be open to creative ideas.

Acting on creative ideas with boldness and bravery

It is one thing to have creative ideas, it is another to have the necessary  boldness and bravery to implement creative ideas.  Amanda Sinclair points out in her book, Leading Mindfully, that creativity involves breaking with tradition, taking risks, trying out something new and having the self-esteem and resilience to be able to persist in the face of opposition – especially from those who have a vested interest in maintaining things the way they are.

Mindfulness helps us to maintain focus, to remain calm, build resilience in the face of opposition and setbacks, and to become braver and less fearful of the difficulties, dangers and risks involved in implementing creative ideas.

As we grow in mindfulness, we are able to access our inner resources through stillness and silence of meditation, overcome our fears, stay present and grounded, remain calm in the face of difficulties and develop boldness, bravery and resilience as we venture beyond “the tried and true”.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

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Action Learning and Mindfulness: Admitting What We Do Not Know

In the previous post, I  explained how action learning and mindfulness shared the goal of building self-awareness – drawing on the work of Professor Reg Revans and Emeritus Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn.

On the surface, mindfulness and action learning would appear antithetical – mindfulness involves being still, present in the moment and internally focused; action learning involves taking action to create future improvements in an external situation.   The more you explore the nature of mindfulness and action learning, the more you realise how much they have in common and how they are complementary, interdependent and mutually beneficial for workplace mental health.

Both action learning and mindfulness develop trust in the workplace, enable agency, build personal capacity, value honesty, engender confidence and build resilience.  A key aspect that they have in common is encouraging us to admit what we do not know – an admission that is the foundation for acquiring new knowledge.

Action learning and admitting what we do not know

Reg Revans , the father of action learning, in an interview in Brisbane in 1990, spoke about the need to develop “questioning insight” to be able to deal with the complexity of reality.  He maintained that we cannot rely on what we know, nor the knowledge of experts, but we need to admit what we do not know and ask fresh questions.  Of course, this stance attracted the ire of university professors because it questioned their position of being the fountains of knowledge.

Reg recalled his days working as a physicist in the famous Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University, before he became a Professor of Management.  At the time, they had 10 Nobel Prize winners at Cavendish.  Reg stated that these great intellectuals had a weekly seminar that you could participate in only on the condition that you were willing to share what you did not know.  Lord Rutherford, for example, would turn up and state how impressed he was with his own ignorance.

Reg suggested that admitting what you do not know, rather than trying to convince others of how much you do know, is the beginning of learning and the road to wisdom.  He argued that “expert knowledge is necessary but insufficient” and does not equip us with how to deal with new conditions that are complex, uncertain and/or ambiguous.

Reg also pointed out that action learning puts the first emphasis on “what you do not know” and then explores how to address this ignorance.  He maintained very strongly that:

If I run away with the idea that I understand everything there is because I am expertly qualified, I’m not only going to get into trouble, but people around me too.

Action learning, then, is about framing the right questions to explore arenas of new knowledge and understanding, when confronted with conditions of uncertainty.  It is about exploring ignorance, not boasting about how much we know.

Mindfulness and admitting what we do not know

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in an interview with Krista Tippett, explained that much of our learning at school is about “thinking” and ways to understand things with our minds.  Education at school often does not equip us to tap into our creative capacities because creativity requires stillness and silence, not the ferment of mental exertion- argument and counter-argument.

Jon stated that we need to balance out thinking with other capacities such as imagination and that creativity comes out of heightened awareness – preceded by not knowing or understanding.  He argued that thinking can get in the road of creativity:

So rather than just sort of keeping tabs of what we know, it’s really helpful to be aware of how much we don’t know. And when we know what we don’t know, well, then that’s the cutting edge of which all science unfolds.

Jon considered that scientists (like Reg Revans and his scientific colleagues) make great meditators because “they’re comfortable with that idea of wanting to know what they don’t know”.   He maintains that the history of science is a story of remarkable insights, ‘Eureka moments‘.

Jon stated that it is not as if these moments of insight arise by banging your head against a wall to force the insight.  It is when “you have gone as far as thought can take you” and you “rest in awareness” that the insight comes to you – it may even be that you have fallen asleep and then you wake up with the insight or solution.

When I was writing up my doctorate, I took a holiday break with my wife and children and we visited Brown Lake on Stradbroke Island one day.  I was not thinking about my doctoral study but as I watched my children playing in the water and took in the beauty of the surroundings, a theoretical model came to me that summarised the contribution of my thesis – I was able to develop this later and incorporate it in my thesis.

There were many times when I wrote a thesis chapter that I had difficulty summarising the chapter in a conclusion.  I would invariably “sleep on it” and the conclusion would be fully formed in my head the next morning.   It seems that as you stop trying to work out something from what you know already at a conscious level, your sub-conscious mind is freed to make new connections and generate insights from connecting thoughts that you have not seen as connected before.  It also seems that you have to provide the sub-conscious with some focus – what Revans describe as a “fresh question” or what Kabat-Zinn discusses as seemingly insolvable problems.

As we grow in mindfulness and action learning and acknowledge what we do not know, we become more open to the creative power that lies within us and to powerful new insights.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of americhter1975 on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Agency through Action Learning

In a previous blog post I focused on agency and mental health – highlighting the mental health benefits that accrue when an employee is given the capacity to influence their workplace environment and to have a degree of power over the way things are done.  How then does a manager create a workplace environment that is conducive to mental health through employee agency?  One way to address this issue is for the manager to adopt an action learning approach.

Action learning and agency

Agency is a defining characteristic of action learning which involves learning with and through action and reflection on the consequences of your action, both intended and unintended.  It is typically conducted in groups within a workplace where employees are collaborating to improve the work environment and the way the work is being done.

Reg Revans, the acknowledged father of action learning, argues that the best way to improve a workplace and the way the work is done, is to involve the people who have the “here and now” responsibility for the work.  He suggests that you do not get a Professor of Medicine to solve the problems of nurses having to look after dying children – you get the nurses themselves together to explore the issues they are confronting, identify what creative solutions they could adopt and take action to implement them.

In the same way, Dr. Diana Austin found that the way to address the seemingly intractable problem of midwives experiencing trauma after the death of a baby and/or mother before, during or after birth, was to have the midwives share their thoughts and their feelings after experiencing such a critical incident.

In her presentation at the Learning for Change and Innovation World Congress in Adelaide in 2016, Diana explained that her research involved working with an “action group” of affected parties who gathered information about traumatic events and reactions from each other, from interviews with other affected parties and from external health professionals.

The “action group” identified the unconscious rules of the health professionals as the major impediment to improving the midwives’ work situation. The research resulted in the creative solution of an illustrated Critical Incidents e-book that addressed and challenged the fundamental assumptions underlying the unconscious rules.  The e-book is now accessible to all health professionals throughout NZ and the world.

Diana explained that the research by the “action group” led to some key organisational outcomes:

  • the conspiracy of silence about the personal impact of trauma after a critical incident was unearthed, challenged and removed
  • destructive assumptions and unconscious rules were surfaced and challenged
  • the e-book support package was created and made accessible to all
  • new supportive processes were implemented and self-compassion was encouraged (refer: Austin et al, After the Event: Debrief to Make a Difference)
  • a collaborative ethos was established that replaced the old ethos of “going-it-alone’ when suffering trauma after a critical incident.

Clearly, the activities of Diana and the “action group” not only improved the work environment and the way the work was done but went a long way to redressing the potential, long-term effects of experiencing trauma, by providing a supportive environment conducive to positive mental health.  In the final analysis, the action learning by the group provided increased agency through the ability to change their work environment and the way trauma of health professionals was handled.

As managers and leaders grow in mindfulness, they are better able to facilitate action learning processes within their organisation, thus increasing the agency of employees and improving mental health.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Wetmount on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Be Brave, Be Creative

In the previous blog post I discussed the need for boldness to take action on a creative idea – to be willing to break with tradition and act on a different way of conceiving something, e.g. Karen Quinlan’s innovations based on a new conception of an art gallery.  I also explained how mindfulness can help us to be bold enough to initiate action on a creative idea – by helping us to build calm, clarity, focus and self-belief.

To sustain creative activity, however, also requires bravery.  It takes courage to explore new terrain, persevere despite setbacks and maintain your energy and enthusiasm when the going gets rough.

Creativity and bravery

Bravery can be defined as “having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty”.   Invariably, there will be setbacks when you set out on a creative endeavour.  For instance, Karen Quinlan found that some gallery directors she approached refused to loan her artwork for her gallery.  However, she was able to persist with her creative ideas and enlist the help of others who supported her ground-breaking ideas.

While Karen was prepared to take risks, like many successful entrepreneurs, she took only calculated risks.  This required considerable research and planning.   Amanda Sinclair explained that Karen, for example, knew that women make up 80-90% of visitors to art galleries in Australia and that very few of the male-dominated, art gallery directors made any effort to satisfy the interests and needs of this demographic group.  So, she was able to draw on her own interests, training and experience to identify these needs and develop creative ways to meet them.

When you encounter a setback, you often cannot see the way forward but you are able to persevere because of your strong belief in the creative idea, its potential contribution and your capacity to see it through to completion.  Mindfulness builds the persistence and resilience required to overcome difficulties and fears along the way even when the way ahead is becoming increasingly unclear.

As you progress your creative ideas and implement your new approach, you will encounter increased resistance from those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.  Reg Revans, the father of action learning, who met considerable opposition to his creative approach throughout his life, quoted the German philosopher Nietzsche to explain how new ideas are opposed:

If you think you have a new idea, see what happens.  Unless it is opposed by the stupid and ridiculed by the clever, it can have nothing new in it.

In the face of this kind of irrational and emotive opposition, you need support to sustain yourself and your energy.  Karen was able to gather a creative team to support the development and implementation of her ideas.  This collaboration helped her to maintain motivation, develop creative solutions to problems encountered and build external support.  Karen found, as often is the case, that local businesses came on board with her ideas with cross-promotions when they started to see the increase in tourist traffic and international acceptance and accolades for the Bendigo Art Gallery being developed by Karen.

Bravery and mindfulness

Mindfulness helps you to be more conscious of, and grateful for, the internal and external support you receive and to develop the relationships involved through awareness, empathetic listening and loving kindness.

Mindfulness develops calm and clarity in the face of stressors that would undermine confidence or cloud your vision.  It helps you to strengthen the courage of your convictions, overlook sustained opposition of fearful people, build resilience and develop new ways around roadblocks and impediments to the way forward.  As you grow in mindfulness, you become braver in the pursuit of creative ideas and less fearful of the risks, dangers and difficulties involved.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reflection and the Art of Solving Jigsaw Puzzles

Our family has had a long-standing tradition of solving a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle whenever we go away on holidays for more than a week.

The collaborative endeavour of solving the jigsaw puzzle has a relaxing effect, builds relationships and facilitates conversation.

Recently, my wife and I went on a holiday and in line with our family tradition purchased a 1,000 word WASJIG? jigsaw puzzle. These puzzles are particularly difficult because the image on the box depicts the present scenario – the jigsaw puzzle itself reflects the same scenario at some future time.  So the image you are provided with is just a guide – and sometimes intentionally misleading.

When solving the jigsaw puzzle, it was particularly important to challenge your own assumptions – to change your assumptions about shape, colour or location of a puzzle piece (or sometimes, all three aspects).  Often when you got stuck, the way forward was to challenge one or more of your assumptions.  This challenge to assumptions was particularly aided by the reflections of the other person, e.g.”Could that piece go at the top, rather than the bottom”; “This looks like becoming a car, not a shop”; “There seems to be a crowd outside the train, have you thought of that to explain the missing pieces?; “Could those two connected pieces be placed vertically rather than horizontally?; “I think that we should sort the last 100 pieces by shape rather than by colour as we have them now.”

The reality is that we have limited perception – we often see what we want to see and often fail to see what is in front of us.  We also experience perceptual bias based on our own life experiences.  So it is important to reflect with others, to be open to perceptions and perspectives of other people, if we are going to move forward in whatever endeavour we are undertaking.

How often have you worked on a jigsaw puzzle and been unable to find a particular piece and someone walks past and says “this piece looks like it should fill the gap” (and they may have had no prior involvement in the puzzle solving process).  They are able to see the puzzle with fresh eyes and have no preconceived ideas or assumptions.

I was reflecting on our processes for solving this jigsaw puzzle and was reminded of the words of Reg Revans, the father of action learning, who suggested that really effective reflection requires challenging our own assumptions.  He also maintained that this challenge to our assumptions was achieved more often by reflecting with one or more others.  He suggests that when we reflect alone we can often reinforce our existing assumptions – when we reflect with others our assumptions can be open to the challenge of others.

The process of reflection has a strong relationship to mindfulness.  As we build our ability to reflect, we become more aware of the need to be mindful in the situation as an aid to reflection (e.g. “If only I had really noticed her reaction at the time, I could have done something about it!”).  It is difficult to reflect on what you have said or done, if you lack awareness at the time.  In a similar way, when we become more mindful through mindfulness practices, we are better able to reflect-in-action, to reflect on our own words and actions while we are in the process of saying and doing.  So, in the final analysis, reflection and mindfulness are mutually reinforcing.

Image Source: Courtesy of Pixabay.com