the enigma of creativity

creativity is a buzz-word
corporate executives bandy it around the boardroom
enterprising authors sell books setting out step-by-step plans for its recovery, or discovery, or development
wannabes long for it
avant-garde educators claim it to be an essential part of holistic learning
academics labor to define it, pushing it further from their grasp with every sentence they write
artists know it by its absence and call themselves ‘blocked’

Creativity is an enigma.  Trying to find it, to track it down within the landscape of the alphabetized, is as impossible as trying to locate the mirage of a ‘self’.  It’s always hiding just the other side of words, just beyond articulation, and yet – like the ‘self’ – evidence of its workings spreads out across the terrain.  Creativity is mysterious, and like all good mysteries it’s something that most people claim to be interested in.

What puzzles me is this:  If it’s true that there is such a widespread interest in creativity, why are the issues that are suffocating life on our planet – including the life of our own species – being excluded from creative scrutiny and resolution, being ignored?  Why do we continue to over breed, over feed, over exert, over kill, over fish, over pollute, over plunder?  If our creativity – our radical creativity – was acknowledged and in action in our lives, could these incoherent en masse movements of our species continue?

From long experience leading workshops and classroom teaching I have found that very often people who claim to be genuinely interested in creativity, aren’t.  They are genuinely interested in something else, which they mistake to be creativity.  What they are interested in is the perpetuation and the enhancement and the evolution of themselves, their security, and often, their spirituality – whatever they take that to mean.

A close look at this professed ‘interest’ reveals a fabric woven from the threads of many and complex concerns on a loom programmed to perpetuate the patterns of the past.  A loom that produces fabric of fascinating pattern and occasional opulence, but that nevertheless merely repeats the established orders of its programming.  We could call this the loom of self-interest, and the master weaver is, of course, oneself.  The cloth woven and wrapped around so-called creative endeavour often veils personal concerns with profits, with enhanced exam results, with adulation, with acceptance and approval – concerns whose context is the world of commerce or of academia or the studios and galleries of the art world.

This brings me to the point where I must make a dangerous foray into words and attempt to explain what I mean by creativity and why it is different in kind from the ‘everyday’ understanding of this word embraced by most people.  I do this with trepidation, for, as mentioned above, the subject of creativity has had many a pen wielded by more brawny brains than my own scoot across its surface.  Philosophers too have had their say, and I’m going to cheat a little here and offer a quote from J Krishnamurti:

Creation is the movement of the unknowable essence of the whole.

Wait a minute, you might say, K is talking here about Creation (big C – cosmic stuff!) while you are on the subject of mortal creativity.  Well here’s the gobsmacker – as far as genuine creativity is concerned there’s absolutely no difference.  And deep down we all know this to be true, for each one of us can own up to moments when that movement swept us up and out of our small selves and carried us into the flow of the mystery of creation.  We experienced the joy of being part of something so much larger than our small self, we experienced yet there was no one there experiencing.  There was mutuality.  There was participation.  There was wholeness.

In other words, we weren’t there.  Our thinking, comparing, labelling, striving self was absent.  Knowledge didn’t get a look-in.  Neither did time.  The past wasn’t there in our pocket, and neither was the future.  So what or who was there, cavorting with creativity?  Just this:  Creation was playing with Itself.  And the only word I can offer that describes the state of the participant in the play is this: innocence.

To be innocent is to be without knowledge, without so much as intention.  To be innocent is to be available to the unknowable essence of the whole.  But make no mistake, this isn’t child’s play.  Unless you happen to be a child, of course, in which case you’ll be a natural participant in the creating game.  But if you are older and wiser and the question of creativity seems important to you – for it just might shed some light on the human condition – then the notion of having to trade one’s precious self and all its acquired knowledge for a taste of the real thing is bound to be a touch scary.  The stakes are high.  To place oneself at the farthest outpost of what one knows and then to step into the unknown is to take great risks.  It takes courage.  It implies trust, trust that we can meet the encounter adequately, and trust that something to stand upon will form under our feet.

It isn’t a facile affair and naturally enough few folk consciously choose, as Joseph Campbell put it, to enter the forest at the darkest place.  Certainly there will be the few intrepid adventurers who will not hesitate, but more will be in a state of temporary terror, and more still will be a touch timid.  Could this be the reason most people seem to avoid genuine creative encounter?  Or is the problem one of not knowing what might happen in the forest, and what the outcome will be?  Perhaps it will change one’s life forever.  Perhaps it will change the world forever.

I have been preoccupied with the question of creativity for as long as I remember – a passion that has sometimes led to my being accused of unhealthy single-mindedness.  It isn’t easy to cast aside the embrace of genuine encounter with Creation, in whatever guise it may appear, and settle for a life of habitual mundane concerns.  Perhaps it’s impossible.  I couldn’t do it.  The questions were too red hot; when I wasn’t tending them at the creative hearth they smoked and demanded attention.  My being pulsed with an urgent responsibility towards that mysterious movement, that Other (which is not other at all).

When the writings of J Krishnamurti came my way many years ago, I knew I was onto something important.  He was speaking a language familiar to me.  He knew about Creation and he talked about it till the end of his life.  I imagined the schools he founded would be centres of creativity in education – and in the arts – that would hold the key to radical change in human consciousness.  So I made my way to Brockwood Park.  It didn’t take long for my utopian vision to be reality-adjusted and the limits of my understanding to be revealed.  I well remember a mind-shifting interchange with the then principal.  I was expressing my doubts about whether Brockwood, with all its demands and intensity, was a place where I could be creative.  “Then you aren’t being creative,” was his quick-fire response.  Talk about a Zen master’s sandal-slap!

I stayed.  I was too late to know, or dialogue with, Krishnamurti.  But I was immeasurably fortunate to be at the school during a time when David Bohm was a regular visitor, and it was his patient penetrating ability to question, to discuss, and to dialogue about genuine creativity that was so helpful for my unfolding understanding.  My personal research went on in three areas – in the art classroom with my students, in my on-going studio work, and in the wider arena of my life.

Creativity is radical discontinuity in a pattern of thought.
– David Bohm

That was decades ago.  Between and alongside educational activities that have taken me to far-flung corners of the planet, the stream of my own adventures at the creative edge has flowed relentlessly.  And eventually a creative project in an unfamiliar medium beckoned to me – a book began to take form.  Its subject?  Yes, naturally – creativity.

It’s a collection of visual language (art/craft) activities that at first glance might seem familiar, but in fact are undertaken in unusual ways – ways that help to change the habitual ways we perceive the world.  Ways that help seed ideas.  Ways that take us to the edge of the known and the comfortable and leave us wide-eyed and wondering in our own intimate encounter with Creation.  Over time it morphed into a series of e-books called empty canvas : wondering mind – a handy resource for anyone (including the art room teacher) who is more concerned with cavorting with creation than producing a perfect art product – whatever that might be.  It’s not another book on how to become creative; there are no steps to creativity, for creativity, like freedom, is a given – it comes at the beginning, not at the end.

Most books of this genre make use of techniques and tools in attempts to unlock or attain creativity, as though it were an object separate from our pulsing body and mind.  As far as I’m concerned this very notion acts to block the naturally flowing creative spirit.  My approach to both teaching and creating assumes, acknowledges, and affirms, that we are creative creatures from our first breath.  There is nothing to do and nowhere to go in order to be the artisan we truly are.  Innate creativity is fuelled by wonder and wondering, so the e-books offer activities that are designed to foster these attitudes.  The outcomes will remain unknown until created – for creation, by definition, cannot be prescribed or described.  So these e-books don’t talk much about art or make any prescriptive promises.  Instead they invite those willing to participate in activities designed to foster a relaxing into the wisdom of not-knowing and an allowing of sheer joy at the wonder of the world to flow through them.

In closing I’d like to refer back to the three questions posed above and add another:  Might Creation itself be beckoning to us to enter into mutual encounter in such a way that life on Earth can blossom in beauty and coherence?  I’m not claiming that we will solve the world’s problems in the art studio, but I do believe that it’s a potent place for testing our capacity to explore genuine creating.  It’s a place where everything we do exposes the conditioning we carry.  It’s a place where our habits of thinking and acting are continuously confronted.  And I have come to know that it’s through this kind of exploration, witnessing and confronting, that the mental divide separating one from full awareness of oneself as the Creative incarnate is crossed – by default, as it were.  In other words, awakening can occur quite spontaneously.

Do we not all share a longing for something larger than a life lived within the safe, the known, the habitual?  I believe that we all sense our wholly natural relationship with the movement of the “unknowable essence of the whole”, and that our longing to create is none other than the beckoning of that mystery.

I believe that the most important thing for humanity is its creativity.
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama