An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

What gives rise to creative thinking?

In Education, Spirit, heart & soul on January 9, 2012 at 12:25 am

I once read a book on the psychology of creativity. The author mentioned some outstanding creative minds from Virginia Woolf, Bach, Gauss to Einstein. However, there was one individual who was said to defy the whole spectrum of creativity and described by leading theoretical Physicist, Michio Kaku, as ‘the strangest man in all of science’. He was the Indian Mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan. His outburst was truly unique – producing 4 to 5 new equations everyday. He was a person ahead of his time, born in 1888 in an India he produced equations which are being used in string theory today. He died at the age of 33 of TB and it is said during the last year of his life, the work he did on his death bed, was equivalent to the life-time work of a genius. What made him ‘strange’ was, in my opinion, two things:

a) He was self taught and couldn’t attend university because he failed in every subject accept Mathematics. He spent hours sitting crossed legged with a slate and chalk, playing with equations he learnt through an old text book, rediscovering a century or so of Western Mathematics on his own. As a result he lacked understanding of basic themes which qualified Mathematicians would take for granted such as a constructing and providing a proof. So strange were his equations however, that when presented to leading Mathematicians of his time they were dismissed or not understood. He later was invited to Cambridge by Hardy to complete his formal education.

b) The other thing that would make him strange in the scientific community is his claim as to how he produced the equations: He would say the Hindu goddess Namagiri whispered equations into his ear. He recounts a number of dreams in which streams of equations are being shown to him. He would then wake up and write down what he would remember. Ramanujan was certainly a mystic who was interested in the symbolic meanings of numbers and wound often engage his friends in deep conversation into the early hours of the morning on such topics.

Not every passionate Mathematician turns out to be a Ramanujan or necessarily makes a creative breakthrough in their field. Einstein had problems with Mathematics, which delayed his general relativity, but he did create a paradigm shift in our view of the universe (which was initially rejected by the scientific community as nonsense). So what gives rise to creativity? As Jeremy reminded us creativity at this highest level is a connection ‘with any awareness of the objective significance of universal symbols’ which would gives rise sacred art for example and at its lowest form it is, one may say, devoid of meaning, stillness and in many cases beauty. What I would like to explore is the domain between the highest and lowest modes of creative thinking.

My father was a talented teacher. Through practice and experimenting over the years, he also turned into a good cook. I wish I could say the same about his experiments with plumbing. He didn’t produce works of beauty but I would classify him as a creative thinker. He would for example go to sleep with a problem in his mind and often in the early ours of the morning he would wake up inspired, usually though a dream, with a solution. That was his method of problem solving. Medina, in her comments on ‘Is Imagination more important than knowledge’ raised an important point about silence and the need for it in our children’s lives. A deeper intelligence seems to work its way when the mind is silent either in sleep or through activity such as walking, playing music or mediating for example. This inner silence gives rise to beauty and creativity as Eckhart Tolle explains

Because we live in such a mind-dominated culture, most modern art, architecture, music, and literature are devoid of beauty, of inner essence, with very few exceptions. The reason is that the people who create those things cannot – even for a moment – free themselves from their mind. So they are never in touch with that place within where true creativity and beauty arises. The mind left to itself creates monstrosities, and not only in art galleries. Look at our urban landscapes and industrial wastelands. No civilization has ever produced so much ugliness.” He goes on to say All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness.”

Yet, for creative thought to arise, it is necessary to have a vehicle prepared for it or have as Jeremy mentioned a mastery of the subject. Having access to that inner stillness may not necessarily lead to creative breakthrough as Tolle further explains “ You can touch that place also, within, and it may not flow into creativity, because you have not developed a vehicle for it. The very same power that gives rise to creativity can also manifest itself in different ways that we would not call creativity. It could be a healing power that comes into effect the moment you enter into relationships with others. Healing in a wider sense, not just physical healing. You will not suddenly become a great musician if you have never touched an instrument, just because you touch that place within yourself. It’s not going to manifest as a great scientific discovery in my case, because the vehicle is not prepared for that. My mind is not prepared for that. It doesn’t even work that way. So for me to expect to come up with the Unified Field Theory that Einstein didn’t come up with – he tried after the theory of relativity, he tried for the rest of his life to come up with that – I am not going to come up with that. It’s very unlikely. The vehicle has not been prepared. I am not going to be a great pianist, because I don’t know how to play the piano. So no matter how deeply I go within, it’s not going to flow into that. You need to prepare the vehicle for creativity.”

One way of being still may well be through the inner energy field of the body. Some meditation technique involve a body scan using ones attention for example. Some mystics see the ascension of Jesus (and other prophets) being through the body as a pointer to the transcendent realm being accessed through inner body and not through denial of it. Budda was said to have achieved enlightenment when he gave up fasting. Other methods of accessing stillness may involve movement such as tai chi or whirling as Kabir Dede explains.

My own experience has been, as I currently understand it, when the state of consciousness rises in its vibrational frequency, new modes of thinking evolve and old thought patterns fall away. As we become more empty, something higher works it way through us. Sitting in sohbet (spiritual discourse) and opening to the the emptiness in the heart space is a beautiful example of this. What arises can often be spontaneous, inspired and a reflective mirroring of the listener’s unconscious- be they a group. The Quaran reminds us of emptiness

“And when you have been emptied strive onward,

and to your Sustainer turn with longing.

(Surah Ash Sharh, The Opening- Up of the Heart 94:1-8)

Medina, in her comment, also mentioned taking walks and touch (hugging) can encourage a sense of calm and an appreciation of silence. What else can parents do to bring stillness into the lives of children of this (digital) age?


Jeremy Henzell-Thomas on ‘Is imagination more important than knowldge?’

In Education on January 7, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Yes, the imagination is so important, and is so undervalued in our current schooling systems.

Let me add something to get us to consider what we mean when we use words like ‘imagination’ and ‘knowledge’.

Firstly, there is evidence form work on creativity that suggests we should be careful about setting up a dichotomy between knowledge and the creative imagination, as if they are in some way mutually exclusive.

“Creative Imagination” in its highest sense (and in the sense understood by Ibn ‘Arabi, the Shaykh Al-Akbar) is the capacity for symbolic understanding, the spiritual perception which unveils the hidden realities behind and beyond observable signs and ‘similitudes’ (Arabic amthal). It needs to be distinguished from the lower levels of ‘creative imagination’ associated with those forms of subjective ‘imaginative’ artistic exploration which may not be connected with any awareness of the objective significance of universal symbols. The ultimate contrast here might be between a great work of sacred art and a ‘conceptual art’ installation such as a random display of bricks on the floor of a gallery (I once tripped over such a display in the Tate Gallery many years ago, not realizing that it was the latest piece of ‘modern art’) or a more recent exhibition in Paris of a whole room full of completely blank canvases (which drew a crowd of art-lovers earnestly discussing their ‘significance’).

Jean Houston puts it well when she speaks of “the importance of teaching-learning communities in stimulating, supporting and evoking each other’s highest sensory, physical, psychological, mythic, symbolic and spiritual capacities.” In such a community, she says, “education is an adventure of the soul in which our personal themes become joined with those of universal reality.” The transcendent function of creativity is also beautifully expressed by Joseph Conrad: “All creative art…is evocation of the unseen in forms expressive, enlightening, familiar, and surprising.” (The Qur’an is, of course, “a Book for those who believe in the Unseen, Al-Ghayb). As such, the highest level of creativity is the discovery of the “due measure and proportion” in the divine imprint of the Creator (Al-Khaliq), the unveiling of the unseen, for “God is forever making hidden things manifest”.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the nature of creativity. The most common one is that there is a necessary tension between existing knowledge and creativity, that creativity is necessarily iconoclastic and based in originality or novelty, a reaction to the past. This is part of the individualistic tendency, derived from misconceptions too about the nature of genius, which seeks to divide humanity into creative or noncreative individuals, geniuses or ordinary folk, musical and unmusical people, and so on.

Some research in the field of cognitive psychology suggests that the ability to do creative and innovative work depends on deep knowledge and mastery of a chosen field, often involving an initial phase of imitation of existing models. There is an excellent section on the value of memorisation in Jean Houston’s Jump Time, which shows clearly how the genius of Shakespeare was grounded in the memorisation culture of Elizabethan England. Imitation, too, was another formative practice in that era. “One studies a great piece of writing by one of the acknowledged giants of the past, enters into a process of internalisation – an alchemising through one’s own life and experience – and then creates a poem of other work that is unique to the writer yet has similarities to the original. This practice enriches one’s ways of thinking, depends one’s ability to allude to other forms, thickens the soup of one’s mind.” The best schools will use imitation of great models this way, and not only in literature, but also in art and music. It is important to realise that this is not unthinking imitation, mere reproduction or mechanical copying. It is using a model to catalyse the creative process.

Mapping the early development of Mozart, improvisation skills in jazz musicians, and the Beatles has shown the absolute importance of rigorous practice as a prerequisite for the development of true creativity, as opposed to what I would call the “bogus creativity” based on the self-delusion that mastery can be bypassed.

Thus, one view of creative thinking is that it is the result of direct application of a body of knowledge which has been mastered and internalised. This “application” may occur after a long subconscious process has digested the material. Many are the examples of scientists who have had the experience of a new and revolutionary insight bursting into consciousness after such a period of deep internalisation. But the point is that they have done a lot of work in amassing a body of knowledge which acts as the ground of such inspiration (personal revelation).

Unsubstantiated opinions are not the same as valid inner perceptions. True knowledge is based on two sources, as the Qur’an reminds us: divine revelation (which can also be authentic inspiration) and the evidence of our own faculties. The latter serves also to validate the truth of Revelation, and strengthen our faith, which has nothing to do with ‘blind belief’.

It is only when we examine the situation from outside that we feel the necessity to postulate basic differences between creative and noncreative individuals. It may not be necessary to assume that creative individuals differ from the noncreative in any significant way, except for the knowledge they possess. The Qur’an advises us: ‘Can they who know and those who not know be deemed equal?’ At the same time, the verse continues that ‘only those who are endowed with insight keep this in mind.’ The Arabic word here translated as ‘insight’ is albab, that inner faculty of knowing centred in the heart (lubb). So the Qur’anic vision of ‘knowledge’ is of course multi-layered, and its deepest locus is indeed in the Heart.

But once again, we should not set up a dichotomy between heart and mind, as has happened in Western culture. The Arabic words fu’ad and ‘aql refer to a composite faculty of mind-heart, and also encompass an ethical and spiritual dimension. As always, Islamic spirituality is centred on Divine Unity (tawhid), on holistic capacities. That said, it may be necessary at some point in one’s life to apply a strong corrective and throw some baggage down the well, including most (or all) of one’s books! But in the case of Mevlana, it’s worth remembering that he was a great scholar when he did so. In the same way, as Saqib reminds us, Al-Ghazali had a similar crisis, realizing that direct perception (tasting, dhawq) was the only way to spiritual certitude (yaqin), but he too was a man who had gained a degree of knowledge from conventional sources.

As in all such questions, the key is to follow the guiding principle of balance (mizan). One should not give pre-eminence to either the creative imagination or knowledge, but seek always to provide a corrective when disproportionate emphasis is given to one over another. That is what I understand also by the Qur’anic statement that “we are a community of the Middle Way”. This does not mean unchallenging mediocrity or an arid compromise, but refers to the Golden Mean, that sacred point of balance.

I once had a recurring dream as a small child. I was driving a chariot through the skies, drawn by two horses, one black and one white. It was a hard job to balance the two horses, and the chariot would veer off to the left or right depending on the way I pulled on the reins. Even minute adjustments in pressure seemed to have major consequences in driving the horses off course. I persevered during many of these recurring dreams, and there came a moment when the perfect balance was achieved. The result was momentous. Suddenly a cosmic energy seemed to take over from me as ‘driver’ and the chariot swept upwards and forwards through the heavens with boundless grace and energy. I no longer needed to operate the reins.

Balancing black and white can mean many things, but perhaps for the purpose of this post, it might mean not seeing in terms of ‘black’ or ‘white’, or ‘either/or’, that polarizing and dichotomizing tendency in the human brain.