Creativity is an important quality in the spiritual life, and one I think that is quite poorly understood. There is a categorical difference between being artistic and being creative. Making art in whatever medium is the most high profile, and generally considered to to be the most valuable manifestation of creativity. Not everyone has the talent, dexterity, or the patience to be an artist, but still, everyone is creative. In this post I want to explore some of my ideas about creativity, and to show that creativity is a universal human activity, not confined to art making.
Let's start with a definition. What is creativity? Creativity is the ability to look for, find, and realise, new possibilities. I see creativity as a process that has phases and requires different attitudes and skills in each. The process of creativity has these stages: generating, filtering, focussing, moving towards, internalising.
All of our minds are capable of drifting, of being erratic, of jumping around. The infamous monkey mind. I take two contradictory positions on this. Firstly I celebrate my monkey mind because what it is doing is generating possibilities and ideas. Most of us filter out 90% of what our mind generates as non-sense or not needing to be above the threshold of awareness. The artist however pays closer attention to the 'noise' their mind generates because in it lurk all kinds of new possibilities, new combinations of familiar things. The Buddhist position, my second viewpoint, views the monkey mind as a kind of disaster in progress and seeks to calm it down. A calm and controlled mind is free to move in any direction, and we can choose which direction it moves in. So meditation brings in a tension for me. I know that periods of my life which are difficult, chaotic even, are also the times when I can be incredibly productive in my art - which suggests heightened creativity. Too much chaos and the mind becomes incoherent of course, but equally too much calm might mean a reduction in the flow of ideas. However meditation can make me more observant, more able to sustain my gaze which is an important creative skill, but it is an aspect of the second phase of the creative process.
We always have more options than we can choose from. We are always receiving more sensory data than we can possibly process. We are usually flooded with stray thoughts and memories, each of which produces a cascade of association. So we filter what is in our awareness, sometimes through habit, or cultural conditioning, or perhaps because of personal biases, but mostly from necessity. If we were suddenly able to be aware of literally everything that is going on in our bodies and minds we would be swamped and overwhelmed. However we can always do with being a little more aware. Being creative means paying attention to our internal psycho-physical process. Paying attention to what attracts and repels us, what fascinates and what bores. Either extreme may be where the pay-off is. The tension of anticipation of change can make boredom exquisite. People who are more obviously creative are probably more aware of this process and more willing to entertain seemingly silly or ridiculous information arising from his process. They have looser criteria, or can allow the filters to be less restrictive for periods of time. Some people attempt to use drugs for this purpose, but my experience suggests that in such cases people are creative despite the drugs, not because of them.
Once I picked up the exhaust manifold from an old engine lying by the side of the road. As I turned it over I thought - "Snoopy!". It suddenly looked like a beagle sitting with his head hanging. More profoundly William Blake saw the universe in a grain of sand. Objects in our environment can be the grit in our minds to create pearls of creativity. Having seen something interesting in the stream of output from their churning mind, the artist then gives it their full attention. This is where meditation and art really start to work together because samatha (calming) meditations are excellent for aiding this process. Creativity means we can hold an idea in our thoughts and walk around it, explore it, see where it wants to go, follow it a little way into the future in our imagination. I've come to see this as an important aspect of imagination. The ideas just come, just stand out from the flotsam and jetsam of our minds, but to explore them takes imagination.
I think of imagination as my sense of the future. In memory we examine past experience, in imagination we try to predict what a future experience will be like. This is very advantageous on a practical level - it enables us to plan ahead, to try out a new experience a little to see whether we think it is worth expending energy on. When it comes to art, the artist is usually working from a mental design. When Michelangelo was asked by a child what he was doing in his workshop, he replied "there are angels trapped in these blocks of stone, and I'm trying to set them free". Imagination is not the source of creativity, it is a skill that enables us to take advantage of a natural situation. It allows us to mentally develop an idea when it occurs to us, if it gets past the filters. Imagination can be developed through use.
The next thing in the creative process is a response to our mental creation - we have had the new idea, made it stand out from the background noise, explored and navigated it, and now we must move towards it. We have to act on the idea. In art of course this usually means making some kind of object. Or we might bake a cake, plant a bulb in the garden, make a witty comment in the moment, or simply stand for a few minutes to look at a sunset. All of these seem to me to arise out of the creative process as I understand it. This phase often calls for persistence. Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying that "invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration". I'm frequently complemented on my art works. Sometimes people will say "I wish I could paint". I definitely get the sense that they wish to be able to conjure a painting out of nothing. When I have an idea for a painting I generally spend quite a bit of time thinking about it. I might look at art works, or read some books which will inspire me or give me ideas about techniques. Then I will start drawing. This can take some time because I'm not a skilled draughtsman. I struggle with proportion and line. I struggle with shading and colour. It takes a lot of work to get a drawing that will form the basis of a painting. Then I have to transfer the drawing to a canvas or board. The act painting is tedious and takes a long time. I make a lot of mistakes which must be corrected laboriously. It takes many hours, days and weeks to make a painting that I feel happy about. I most certainly do not conjure anything out of thin air.
This is the last phase of the creative process - learning or internalising. Having conceived of and executed a creative act we try to reflect on the experience. Sometimes we can reuse what we've learned, and apply it to other situations and it has a concrete practical value. Other times it's a one off and highly ephemeral. But whatever the utility of what we have learned we allow ourselves to absorb the experience.
The most obvious application of creativity in the spiritual life is the conceiving of, and pursuit of positive change. In the field of ethics for instance we can be creative by allowing for more subtle choices in complex situations - we can allow for more possibilities, explore the potential consequences, move pro-actively towards our best option, and finally to learn about the consequence of our actions. Each phase of the creative process is important and benefits us in it's own way.