Nick Drake, the long lost singer-songwriter hailed by many young musicians today as a powerful influence, sings a beautiful, wistful song called Place to Be. Attention today is one of our scarcest resources, so I listened three times before I really got what he was saying. We all need a place to Be – with a capital B – where we can be still and hear our own creative voice.
Psychologists have long talked about another 3 Bs – Bed, Bus, and Bath – where famous and not so famous minds have had their intuitive flashes. For Proust, it was 14 years in bed; for C S Lewis it was a religious experience while traveling on the top of a bus in Oxford. And, of course, Archimedes had his great 'eureka' lying in a bath.
So where are you when you get your good ideas? I've asked this question of groups I've been coaching for many years, and almost invariably the response is anywhere but at work. "Not in front of my PC." "Walking the dog." "Drinking" or "sitting in the garden." It's when we stand back, relax or move to a distance from the situation or problem we're mulling over that insight comes. So what can we do practically to find this space – physical and mental – more often?
Firstly, look for the gaps in your probably over-busy, over-structured life. Great ideas come to us in the gap between one activity and another or in the silence between two thoughts. We live in a world that values Doing over Being, so silences are filled with background music, TV, or the siren call of the telephone. It's simply not considered 'productive' to just be idle or still, and so the dust clouds of busyness obscure the intuitive signals from our more silent, expanded states of mind.
To insert more of these gaps into your schedule could mean:
- Taking a lunchtime ramble in a direction you don't usually head. (It's false 'productivity' to have sandwiches at your desk while working.)
- Plan in some enjoyable diversions, especially at the times when you are busiest.
- Have a day – or even half a day – where you switch off the phone, go for walks, sit still with a journal. Don't speak to anyone. Except yourself.
You'll be pleasantly surprised at what comes up, so always have a notebook or sketchpad to hand. As writer Franz Kafka observed, "It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet."
Secondly, find the surroundings that calm you or inspire you. For me, it's a simple lean-to in the Cotswolds with a view of fields, river, and woods. A friend painted this scene for me so that I can take an image of it with me when I travel. Just looking at it conjures up at least a sense of the feeling I have when I am physically there. Where is your special space? Plan to be there more often than you are today.
Finally, don't 'rush the stillness'. Your mind will probably drift to the 20 million things (singer Lowell George's simple shorthand for our daily preoccupations) that try to crowd through your mind's door. It's only in states of timelessness when we are not driven by the tyranny of Kronos, our clock-watching mentality, that we have access to deeper, better, or different ideas.
Allow yourself the time to be timeless, for your stimulation to come from inside-out rather than external sources. There's a creative curiosity that's enlivened by turning within. This is the real meaning of recreation – as re-creation.
It's common to talk about these times of non-doing as 'time out'. I prefer to think of them as 'time in' – to be in your perfect place. We could even say 'in your right mind'. The perceptions that come to us need to be recorded to give them form, or to be a touchstone that allows us to revisit this state when we're swept up in the currents of activity. (Today even the word 'speed' isn't fast enough – now it's 'velocity'!)
Otherwise, it will be like the way we treat our dreams. It's possible to go through a whole lifetime kidding ourselves that 'I'll remember it in the morning'. Write, sketch, or doodle your thoughts when and as they come to you with as little censorship as possible. This means don't even try to make sense of them – creativity or different ideas are often non-sense to the logical planning mind. This is re-thinking – thinking as unusual.
You could do worse than download Nick Drake's song. Often music can direct us from the straight-ahead, tramline thinking that fills our days and worries us at night. Then find your place to be and ban the guilt that you are not doing anything from its door. In these gaps we will most fully find ourselves and are able to overhear ourselves thinking things we didn't know we knew. As poet Derek Walcott says, "Sit. Feast on your life."
Originally published: Mon 05 Jun 2006