This is part two of a three-part series on Creating Creativity. For Part 1, click here.
In a famous dialogue in one of the Upanishads, a sage asks his student to break a banyan seed, and tell him what’s in the seed. The student breaks the seed, and reports, “Nothing. There’s nothing in the seed!” The sage says, “Yet, in that nothing is the entire essence of the banyan tree—and out of that essence, the tree grows!” And the sage continues, in what surely must be one of the best lines in eastern philosophy, “And that subtle essence, my dear—That thou art!” (Sally Kempton, Finding Your Deep Creativity in Three Easy Steps)
In the previous section, we discussed that creativity, by definition, is making something that has never before been made. Like the seed that becomes the tree, nothing becomes something. Creativity is by definition a paradox—another key to opening the door to our creative potential.
Creativity comes as a result of hard work, but also playfulness. If you want to write a fun new song, you need to practice an instrument. It is the combination of the structured learning of what’s been with exploration of the entirely new. You must know the rules, follow many of them, and break the others. But how can you consistently break rules without knowing them? How can you step outside the box without knowing where its boundaries lie?
Creativity is the expression of paradox. The most beautiful new works of art are often a result of two opposites joining, where the sum is greater than the parts. In fact, the tension between the two is often what gives rise to something new. Like Hegel’s dialectical process, or like the female and male joining to create a baby, the result is influenced by both and clearly something entirely different.
If you want to develop your creativity, if you’re stuck in a creative funk, try playing around with opposites. How can you live them? How can you unite them? How can move seamlessly from one to another in a way that both are supported? An athlete cannot perform at their peak without rest, and they cannot raise the bar without pushing to exhaustion. They learn to embrace both.
Any polarities will do: Stamina and relaxation, playfulness and discipline, fantasy and reality, introversion and extroversion, humility and pride, individual and collective, suffering and enjoyment.
Can you be passionate yet objective? Can you be silly and serious? Courageous and detached? Honest with yourself yet making it all up as you go?
Try it Yourself—Apply it
If you’re a writer: Try blending genres, like Justin Cronin’s The Passage.
If you’re a musician: Mix styles that aren’t “supposed” to go together, like Paul Simon’s Graceland, or cover a song from a different groove like Dynamite Hack’s Boyz in the Hood.
If you’re an athlete: What happens when you apply Aikido principles to a baseball pitch? Dancing to basketball?
If you’re in business: What happens when you mix meditation/mindfulness/conscious awareness in your meetings? What happens when you “game-film” yourself, reflecting on how to improve your small day-to-day actions and conversations as if you could watch yourself on the job?
Do you see how this works? Try not to limit yourself in places of application, or sources you draw from. Amazing breakthroughs in all fields—science and business as well as art—often come from creative, open-minded synthesis of polarities. Slow and fast—like Frank Sinatra mixed with punk rock, kick-butt and enlightenment—like the Matrix, complex yet simple—like Apple.
In the last article we talked about ways of developing creativity to get through writer’s block: adopting a non-judgmental attitude, doing crazy abnormal things to adopt new perspectives, and keeping track of these in a journal. Today we talked about embracing paradox. Next, we’ll look at the importance of discipline and routine—which, when we’re talking about breaking the boundaries, is in itself a paradoxical practice.
“The magic, the real tricky bit of a life in practice, is to be so wildly passionate about something that you’re indifferent about nothing and in turn not attached to anything. Give that some thought. Then let the thoughts go, because it’s time to get busy.” (Robb Smith, Four Steps to Creative Ecstasy)