Risking Creativity

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Video here

The difficulty in understanding how [creativity] happens, even when it happens to us” says science writer Jonah Lehrer, “means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, [at least in the western world] until the [European] Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means ‘breathed upon.’) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”[1] Or as we just sang, “heaven knows where we are going.”[2]

Of course, that’s not the complete lyric. It’s “heaven knows where we are going but we know within.” And so it is with creativity. It may very well be that some power beyond us breathes our creativity upon us, but in our most creative moments, something clearly happens within us. This is the message of Lehrer’s recent book, Imagination: How Creativity Works. He looks at a broad swath of research from a variety of scientific fields and combines this look with stories of famously creative people and businesses to show that creativity is a very natural and human phenomenon. Creativity is, in short—and this may sound somewhat anti-climactic—a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts.[3] He also says “creativity is our natural state.”[4]

I find this notion very inviting. I hinted in our April newsletter that I think there is a kind of wisdom inherent in all the old creation stories, no matter what culture they’re from. For me, this wisdom is much more profound than the typical plot line of these stories which is always some version of “and so the Gods created the heavens and the earth.” The wisdom inherent in these stories says to me that the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, rather than simply having been created, are themselves inherently and continuously creative. That is, Creation itself is not passively created; it is actively creative. It’s a verb, not a noun. And since we human beings, like all living things, are intimately connected to the world and the universe and the energy and power that sustain them, doesn’t Jonah Lehrer’s statement ring true, that creativity is our natural state? Which leads me finally to the question that feels most relevant to our spiritual lives: how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are?

This question feels relevant because in our lives—in this particular, early 21st century era of human history—in this particular location in which we find ourselves (western, industrialized, technologized, capitalistic, militaristic, democratic United States of America)—there are a myriad of opportunities to become alienated from what is natural, to forget our connectedness, to grow distant from more grounded, holistic ways of living that might more readily nurture and call forth our creativity. We live in a society that doesn’t typically invite us to be creative. There are many examples of this lack of invitation, but the one that comes most quickly to mind is the high value we place on standardized testing in public schools. To be clear, I am not one who finds no value in such tests. They are useful in certain, limited ways. But I am concerned that we are now teaching our children, with unprecedented singular focus, how to comply with standards determined in bureaucratic offices. We are educating our children into a very specific kind of intelligence, into a very rigid mold. We are educating our children to think alike. We are not educating our children to think around, underneath, above, through and beyond standards. We are not educating our children to transcend standards, which is precisely what creativity is for, and precisely what we need as a society in order to solve our most pressing problems and to make advances in science and technology, business and finance, the arts, religion—any field that impacts our lives and life on the planet. Again, human creativity is a bundle of distinct mental processes that combine to give rise to new thoughts, new images, new visions, new combinations, new connections, new ways of relating, new ways of solving problems, new melodies, new harmonies, and so on. This is our natural state, but we are not currently educating our children into their natural state. If anything, we are educating them out of their natural state.

This is not to say there is no creativity in our society. The United States of America continues to be, in so many ways, one of the most creative societies on the planet. But creativity so often feels counter-cultural, even subversive. Creativity, in many settings, is risky. We might say it takes some nerve to muster one’s creative energy. And so creativity has become a phenomenon that people like Jonah Lehrer have to study in order to remind the rest of us what it actually is and why it is so important.

So, how do we return to our natural state? How do we access the creative essence at the heart of who we are? I have spoken in the past about my experience of writer’s block. I’m sitting at my computer trying to synthesize a number of different ideas into a coherent sermon, prayer, essay or article. I’m not only trying to write coherently; I’m also looking for words and sentences that sound good, that feel good to speak, that feel rhythmical and poetic. I’m trying to be creative, but I get to a point where I can’t write anymore. I can’t connect the different ideas. I know the connections are there—I can sense them—but I can’t see them; I can’t see how to put
them into language. I’ve learned in these moments to stop writing. I’ve learned to let it go for a while, to go for a run, play with the kids, take a hot shower, sleep, cook a meal, listen to music—anything to get away from the stress of writing; anything that brings relaxation. And that’s when the connections start to come. That’s when the right words, the right rhythm, the right feel comes. That’s when the creative insight happens. Not in front of the computer, but out on the road, in the shower, or after dreaming.

Lehrer says “every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer…. It’s often only…after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.”[5] I would not be surprised if the ancient Taoist Master Lao Tzu was writing about this very phenomenon 2500 years ago. Earlier we heard chapter 48 from the Tao Te Ching: “Less and less do you need to force things / until finally you arrive at non-action. / When nothing is done / nothing is left undone. / True mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way. / It can’t be gained by interfering.”[6] Lao Tzu does not link this process of letting things go their own way to any external force or divine entity breathing upon us. It is simply how life works. It is the Tao, the way. We know it within. It is our natural state. Our challenge is to live into our natural state.

Still, how to get there? Jonah Lehrer talks about alpha waves in our brains. Scientists measure electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalogram or EEG machine. Alpha waves show up on the EEG machine when we are relaxed. According to Lehrer, when we are relaxed and the alpha waves are cycling, a section of the brain called the superior inferior temporal gyrus becomes very active. In fact, when scientists measure brain activity at the moment a person is having a creative insight, the superior inferior temporal gyrus typically lights up right before the insight occurs. Though it is still somewhat mysterious, the superior inferior temporal gyrus helps us make what researchers call remote associations. It helps us find the threads of connections between distinct ideas, words, shapes, colors, notes, movements, etc. It helps us order apparently unrelated things into relationships. In this way, it gives rise to new thoughts; it gives rise to new ideas. It helps us be creative. And it functions when we are relaxed. Lehrer says: “The counter-intuitive aspect of this research is that most people assume when you get a really hard problem … that seems impossible, what we have to do is drink another espresso, pop some Ritalin, do whatever it is we need to do to really focus on the problem. But that’s actually…the worst thing we can do because then we just get the wrong answer and it loops in our head like a broken record. Instead, what we should do is [relax]. Take a warm shower, play some ping pong…take a walk in the park, do anything we can to distract ourselves from the problem we’re trying to solve, because it’s when we’re not trying to solve it that the answer will actually pop into our head.”[7]

This was precisely the point in my writing when I hit a wall and had to stop. That was Friday night. I went for a run, took a shower, made dinner, played with the kids, had a glass of wine at a birthday party for my dad, then went back to the computer. Nothing really came to me. It was nice to relax but my superior inferior temporal gyrus wasn’t lighting up the way I had hoped. The thing I couldn’t quite put words to was the feeling of risk that sometimes comes with creativity. That is, after all, the title of this sermon: “Risking Creativity.” I had lost sight of why I chose that title in the first place. What’s so risky about relaxing? What’s so risky about letting things go their own way? Generating alpha waves feels very spiritual to me in the sense that it enables me to access a deeper place within myself; it moves me towards my natural state. It feels like a relief more than a risk.

But it finally came. Our creative moments always come with some risk. I can see it more clearly when I examine the literature on group creativity in institutions, say in a corporate science lab, in a school or university faculty, in government, in congregations. In any of these settings—any place where people work together to reach certain goals—over time certain ways of thinking tend to become dominant. Certain methods of research or teaching tend to become standard. Certain business models tend to become more or less given.  The way we do things, the way we think about things, the way we talk about things, the theories we accept as most accurate, the protocols we use—all of it, over time, becomes etched as if in stone. When this is the case, the people involved become boxed in; they become creatures of habit often without recognizing they’re just repeating long-established, rote patterns. They become less and less creative, even when they’re working in traditionally creative fields. In order to have and express a truly creative insight in such a calcified context, one must become, essentially, an outsider.[8] One must raise their hand and say, “Wait a minute, there’s another way.” That’s risky. it comes with potential costs: marginalization, alienation. What if I meet resistance? What if my boss isn’t interested? What if my minister isn’t interested? What if I’m perceived to be injecting too much chaos into the system? What if I’m perceived to be a trouble-maker? What if they ignore me? Having and expressing a truly creative insight in an institution that isn’t predisposed to innovation always entails some level of risk.

This may be somewhat obvious. In response to a creative idea we often hear some version of the message, But we’ve always don’t it this way. Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Here are all the reasons why your idea won’t work. It’s classic. It’s also a sign that an institution is slowly dying.

In addition to Lehrer’s book I’ve also been looking at a book called Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society by four renowned business and management consultants. They say people and institutions tend to be governed by habit and that we revert to habit when we are fearful or anxious about the future. Although they aren’t using the language of creativity specifically, they are talking about being “present” as a way to access new ideas and possibilities, to imagine and create a more positive future. They talk about learning to be open beyond one’s preconceptions and historical ways of making sense…the importance of letting go of old identities and the need to control and…making choices to serve the evolution of life. Ultimately,” they write, “all these aspects of presence [lead] to a state of ‘letting come,’ [there’s that ancient Taoist wisdom!] of consciously participating in a larger field for change. When this happens, the field shifts, and the forces shaping a situation can move from re-creating the past to manifesting or realizing an emerging future.”[9]

We feel the risk of creativity most keenly when we are fearful and anxious about the future, when we are comfortable with and set in our habits. Creativity calls us to confront our fears and anxieties and it calls us out of our habits. In order to let a new future emerge—in order to be creative—we need to be willing to set a piece of our frightened, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside and listen deeply for new connections, new relationships, new visions. To do this we need to be able to recognize and suspend our assumptions, to hold them out in front of us so they have less influence over our thinking, so we can encounter new ideas without being judgmental towards them, without saying “No, this will never work.” Only when we set a piece of our fearful, anxious, comfortable, habitual selves aside can we create space for new ideas to take hold in us.[10] Creative insights come as we set aside some piece of who we are. There’s the risk. In our most creative moments we lose some of our self so that a new self may emerge. This is our natural state. Are we ready for a new self to emerge? Are we ready to risk creativity? I’ll leave you with that question.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) p. xvi.

[2]Amoa, et al, “Woyaya” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1020.

[3]Ibid., p. vvii. For a helpful overview of the content of Imagine, check Lehrer’s March 19, 2012 interview on National Public Radio at http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148777350/how-creativity-works-its-all-in-your-imagination.

[5]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 6-7.

[7]Lehrer, Jonah, Imagine: How Creativity Works (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012) pp. 30-31. Also view http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNVEZ5Whmk8&feature=relmfu.

[8] Lehrer offers excellent statements on the role of outsiders and the ways in which institutions become less creative over time at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ep5Ij-AfkLU and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3PBxGmCWH0.

[9] Senge, P., Scharmer, O.C., Jaworski, J., Flowers, B., Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society (New York: Doubleday, 2004) pp. 13-14.

[10] Ibid., pp. 29-33.