Creativity, The Brain, and Enlightenment

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I have been interested in the nature of creativity for a very long time.  As an artist, I have become a careful observer of its seeming motives, character, habits and nature.  I reasoned that by understanding creativity itself I could, as an artist and creative person, gain an edge for my work and my career.  I have observed that there were moments, short periods where something just opened up within me, like a mysterious iris and there would come a flood of inspiration.  When this happened, I considered what I had been eating, how I had been sleeping, what I was doing before, during, and after, these episodes would come on.  They didn’t come on of their own accord, this I knew, but I also knew that there was a symbiotic nature to how the creative state was tapped.  Some things worked while others did not.  Observing, I built a list of these things and began considering what those aspects, things, or elements were doing for me.  When I began to teach a few years ago at the university level in art, I extended my search to my students by observing them and listening very carefully to the things they were saying at all stages of their own creative process.  I wanted to be able to help them attain this often mysterious state we call inspiration.  I began doing activities with them each semester which I called “mind games” which were designed to help us each observe HOW we think and how it is we choose certain things over others in our thinking and creating process.  I had the help of a gifted teacher who was on to some of these ideas already who came for a couple of classes to do some exercises that were very illuminating.  It was loads of fun (I think it was fun for them), and I learned something in the process.

Concurrent with all of this interest in creativity was an “event” that came into my life which amounted to a kind of atom bomb going off.  Its outward signs were not visible to most people and for a long time no one every knew anything had happened.  If I had been any different from who I am, I might have thought I had a brain lesion or that there was something wrong with me.  I kept all of the symptoms of this phenomenon entirely to myself because I knew if I talked about them, most people would simply think I was sick or mentally unstable.  What I knew, though, was that what was taking place was not psychosis nor schizophrenia.  I knew enough about abnormal psychology from my own interest in creativity to know that whatever was going on, it wasn’t abnormal. But it was….different.  I learned that what had happened was I had stumbled across something that gurus and yogis seek for fervently through the use of meditation, breath work (pranayam it is called in India), and yoga.  I had triggered something that was called kundalini.  This is something that is not well understood by westerners and most of the information about it comes to us in the form of writings compiled over long periods of time by yogis and other teachers who have had experiences with it.  So rare, there are only a few people on the planet at any given time who have this thing.  Jiddu Krishnamurti was one such notable example.  What is interesting, though, is that for as rare as it has been, this is changing.  In fact, in just the last ten years alone, there has been a tide of “awakenings” in people who have not had meditation or yoga or any of the normal routes to this phenomenon that have been described as the way to cause this force to move in the body and awareness.  It is my sense that most of our new discoveries tend to come from places that we least expect them, or are not considering due to cultural or intellectual biases that we may have.  With something like awakening being so rare, we may tend to want to sweep it under the rug for the fact that we have so little experience with it.  There was, I will remind everyone, a time when we thought the world was flat, which was based on most everyone’s mistaken observations of the day.  Those who were making new observations were themselves not in the majority and were most often dismissed as cooks or worse (sorry Galileo!).

As we learn to open our minds a little more, more tends to come. With something so rare, there is naturally a lot of speculation about it and as a result there can be a lot of very unusual ideas that can surround such things.  By and large, though, once you are able o navigate the cultural implications inherent in the writings, we also know a lot.  While kundalini is thought of as a mystical force, a cosmic force that enters the body and changes those affected, its potential lies, for me, in how it seems to help rewire the brain in some important ways.  In its most essential way, I have observed that kundalini helps to balance the two hemispheres of the brain so that the more latent right brain comes into a fuller expression of itself.  Now this naturally has some important things to tell us about creativity since so much of creativity is often seen as not just a left brained activity but a right one as well.  Betty Edwards helped push this idea forward in her book Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, a book that detailed how the right brain helps artists to really see things as they are, and as a result, by following some of her exercises and methods, to also learn to draw better, or more effectively.

Now, I will be the first to admit that the right brain alone doe snot teach us much about inspiration any more than the left brain does.  It does open up a new cognitive field of awareness, though, and this is certainly important.  What most artists who are students (including myself) struggle with is how the operations of the left brain get in the way of the right brain doing its thing.  It’s as if you have this person in your left brain that wants to run the show and insists on trying to do what the right brain does better.  As a result what I find in my work and the work of my students, when we are locked in our left brains, is how we will tend to recreate something in the real world using the functions of the left brain.  This results in a reduction of visual information, a kind of abstracting effect which inhibits the artist from drawing what is there.  Instead of natural looking eyes, they will become more almond like.  Eyes then become an abstraction, an “idea” of what an eye really looks like.  The right brain, however, is able to take in all aspects of the eye in its totality all at once.  It has the ability to draw and create not in a linear fashion, which is the domain of the left, but can draw all over the place in the same way that a camera lens will bring an image into sharp focus.  What is interesting is that when I see students drawing from one corner of a drawing or a sculpture to another, I know they are locked in their left brains.  I also know to expect certain very specific results, which of course are all indicative of the left brain and how it works. Lines drawn tend to have a sharpness and angularity.  They lack a flowing sense of connection.  The world of the left brain is all about objects, individual aspects within the world that we see. Now take a jump and see how these cognitive effects or characteristics might affect how we feel or respond to the world around us.  When the right brain comes on-line more, there is a corresponding awareness of everything as interconnected.  This is compliments of the right brain.

In her well-known TED talk, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor tells the story of how she experienced a stroke in her left hemisphere one morning while getting ready to go to work.  Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist, and her experience helped her to observe how her left brain shutting down allowed her a peek into the operations of her less active right brain.  Her video is included at the end of this post.  What is so interesting is that she experienced a lot of the usual things that we have come to know as right brain activity.  She became more visual, she was unable to read numbers and letters as well (this is the domain of the left brain for most people) and she began to experience the interconnectedness of all things.  This was so powerful an experience, she cried on stage just retelling it.  For her, it was a moment that the yogis describe as Samadhi, a feeling of deep interconnected bliss that was life changing.  Instead of merely learning how to see as Betty Edwards observed in her work with artists, she was able to experience what this less active part of our brain can do for us.  And what is that, you ask? Inspiration. The right brain is able to bring us a sense of pure bliss that is simply amazing.  It is also what I was experiencing when I had this kundalini activation, or awakening.  It was as though some veil had been pulled back from my mind so that I could see a broader picture.  Instead of seeing with one mind, I was seeing with both minds.  The effect of this happening resulted in not just bursts of inspiration as had been the norm before, but what I came to call a “steady state” experience of remaining in an inspired moment all the time.  It is itself quite heady to experience, and sometimes, especially in the beginning, was actually hard to deal with.  What I learned, though, was that this was merely the result of what I was used to. As I came to learn more about this experience through others, I saw evidence of a difficulty in just dealing with the enormity of the experience.  Instead of seeing individual objects in the world suddenly the world was alive in a way where everything was interconnected, related, alive in an ambient environment where there was suddenly a LOT more information there.  And it wasn’t just visual or the result of observing.  It went way deeper than that.  It was akin to a cosmic rabbit hole.  For me, the result I experienced was that I was left unable to know where to go from there.  The whole world had changed and I was just catching up!  But new work did begin to trickle out as a result of this experience.  I realized that so much of what I had been doing had been very left-brained in how it leaned conceptually.  I was often left with a blank spot in my creative life where I felt a little at a loss.

What was that blank spot?  This awakening served to offer up the necessary awareness.  I was also gifted with someone who entered the scene in perfect timing who would help me along, a muse at the least, an inspired reminder for what I had been missing.  Through our interactions, I felt more free to begin to explore new ideas that were, not surprisingly, more connected to the right brain and how it sees things.  This itself led gradually into this steady state of inspiration where I learned how to keep this focus ongoing from day-to-day.  I noticed that it had an effect on my physiology, my mood, and even how I thought.  So radical were the changes that I actually felt fear that the old me was simply going away, that who and what I was might leak out into the night.  Instead of that happening, I remained the same old me, but with upgrades.  I learned to trust this experience, to even surrender to it.  It has resulted in new music being written, several children’s stories, a book about my awakening experience, two blogs on the topic, and now, research into the nature of creativity.  The last book is only in its most formative stages, and I am still trying to decipher whether or not what I have to offer is anything new.

The field of creativity research is itself is quite broad and there is a lot out there in the are of research into this subject.  I suspect, though, that my sense that we do not know how to teach how to be more inspired, might play into some effort in the future because this seems to be the missing link in all of this.  It may be so for the very reason that inspiration is itself, I say, not found in either of our two brains, but the result of something far more synergistic than we might have imagined.  It lies in a holistic understanding of who we are, which is greater than the sum of its parts.  Smack dab in the middle of mystery, and smack dab in the middle of what makes life so interesting to so many.  Here the questions of who am I, why am I here, what is my purpose, begin to take on illumination.  The benefits to us are huge.  We have now, I feel, a unprecendented opportunity to leverage ourselves into being all that we can be at a time when the world seems to be throwing up a lot of hurdles in regards to our freedom to be all that we can be (which is more than just an old catchy Army phrase from the 1980’s). Like Taylor, there have been many other researchers who have observed how the brain works as a result of injury, and it has been these injuries that have helped to explain better than any other method to date how the brain works by a process of elimination.  This is an area of research that cannot be induced (although there has been a method that inhibits certain areas of the brain in their function that has been created recently) but when it does, it has given researchers a peek into the window of our brain function.  What I have observed is that an experience such as an awakening does the same thing too, since before I had seen Taylors video, I had come to the same conclusion simply based on my own experiences.  Her video, though, provides tangible proof for people who need this kind of thing and also helps to bolster what we have known all along.

What the ancients described as an elusive cosmic experience may well be what I sense  it to be; an experience within consciousness that is supported by our physiology (our brain and nervous system as well as the entire body).  My observation is that we are each hardwired for this, we simply have not managed in our left-leaning world to trip the switch that would turn on all of the lights.  There is concrete evidence that something very interesting is happening, though, as people by the thousands are now awakening in exactly the wrong way than the Hindus have said you can, which is spontaneously, without a teacher, without a method or technique.  These are what is known as “spontaneous awakenings” and they buck what we seem to know about the phenomenon.  I suspect, though, that there is a very good reason for this.  It may be something about how our world is so much more interconnected that it has force us to use our right brains as we text and call and email and read about a far more vast range of stories and information than we have done before.  The internet may have helped, itself a vast interconnected web work that is the same vast sense of interconnectivity that those who awaken experience.  It could also be for other reasons, too.  The answer, though, is out there, and it need not be mythologized into being merely a cosmic effect.  I sense that when we resist doing this, we are more free to understand a given phenomenon.  For those who are less interested in the mechanics of all of this, it is simply an amazing awe-inspiring experience that need not be explained described, but simply experienced.

 

 

In the days to come I will be offering up some observations about how we each can maximize our potential creatively for a richer and happier life.

Flickr!

You may have heard of it, a site that hosts loads and loads of pictures.  It’s not Instagram, and definitely not facebook. It’s Flickr. It’s a great place to build image albums when you need high-resolution images that show well and print well.  For my money, they are a great way short of cloud computing (yuck-for many reasons-we will talk later about that sometime!!). Here are some images of my students work in sculpture as well as some of my own. For the curious-minded!

 

Parker’s Flickr Realm

 

Happy computing!

~Parker