In my last two posts, I’ve been exploring some key points made by Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. At the end of this post I will provide the answer to one of the word problems (Marsha and Marjorie) that researchers have used to study how the brain comes up with creative solutions to problems. (By the way, there is a hint word contained in the body of this post, just in case you did not solve the problem.)
But, first want to take a slight detour. Feedback (thank you, by the way) from some readers suggests that it might not be so obvious to everyone as to how or why creativity is relevant to either art or spiritual practices.
What Lehrer, and most others, mean by creativity is the creation of something that is new or novel. Artist, by definition, create objects of art, but these objects vary widely in terms of their creativeness, in the sense that we are talking about it here. There are a few artists, like Picasso, who, have prompted “paradigm shifts” in art. However, any particular piece of art , whether produced by beginners or masters, could be judged to be more or less creative, depending on whether its creator found ways of introducing novel features into the artwork or not.
Those who regularly surprise themselves (and others) with works that are different in some way from what has been their norm, may be said to be more creative. It should be said, however, that there is no direct correlation between an artist’s creativity, as defined above, and it’s appreciation or demand by those who view, read or listen to it.
Ok. What about the relationship between creativity and spiritual practices?
I will focus on Zen here, because that is what I know the best. Generally Zen can be described as a way of life (a set of practices) intended to minimize the suffering of the practitioner and others. The process of moving towards this goal is often described as an “awakening” or “liberating” process. Art and Zen are not the same thing, but I find it helpful to see both as involving the possibilities of becoming more creative.
Suffering in the Buddhist tradition is seen as caused by ignorance. This not does not mean the same thing as stupid. Rather it refers to the tendency for us humans to be unable to see and thus ignore the fact that we are intimately interconnected with everything else. Thus, we go throughout life with our self-centered notions of how our lives should flow and inevitably these plans and expectations clash with reality. Because of this limited perspective, we suffer. This is an oversimplified discussion but the length of this post would be tripled if I were to go into the topic with any depth.
In the arts, creativity entails finding ways of going beyond limiting old habits and perspectives. I would suggest that this is exactly what happens by practicing various spiritual disciplines. In Zen and similar Buddhist meditative practices, the goal is to go beyond the limited viewpoints bound around the notion that the self is separate from others around us.
A key component of Zen meditation is learning how to let go of the left-brain problem-solving processes that Lehrer says limits creative insights. Zen Koans like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” also entail “giving up” looking for rational solutions.
For the Zen practitioner, the goal is not to produce a new product but to produce a new self which is capable of meeting each new life situation, as it arises, by responding creatively rather than reacting through old patterns of behavior. Throughout the hundreds of years that Zen was developed in China and then Japan, Zen students have also practiced various arts. It seems likely that the general creativity developed through Zen practice could “spill over” into artistic practice as well and vice. versa.
I think this is the same idea that D.T Suzuki was trying to express in rather awkward and sexist language in this quote from his renown book Zen and Japanese Culture :
The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transnsforms his own life into a work of creation.…..” (pg. 17).
PUZZLE ANSWER: Marsha and Marjorie were triplets. Lehrer reports that the researchers using these kinds of insight problems found that indirect hints often help the subject find the solution. That’s why I included the work “tripled” above. Let us know how you worked with the problem.