Since completing my doctorate in 2018, I have been developing a practice-based program promoting a new approach to creativity and cognition. Rather than writing academic papers, I’ve been giving lectures and workshops at colleges, schools and other places where people are interested in how to become more creative in their personal and professional life. Although journal articles disseminate your hard-earned findings amongst your academic peers, they are not much use reaching the wider public. For one, the language is virtually impenetrable to anyone outside of your field, even if the average person could access them. So it seems more useful to speak directly.
My program uses a blend of drawing exercises drawn from the creative arts, contemplative practices and Goethean phenomenology. It can be adapted to suit the needs of a range of professions and interests, including contemplative pedagogy, creative arts, learning and teaching or to address the problems of memory and cognitive flexibility that afflict the ageing mind.
This program was originally inspired by the work of water scientist and Goethean phenomenologist, Theodor Schwenk. In Theodor Schwenk’s definitive book, Sensitive Chaos, on the unifying forces that underlie all living things, he describes thinking as a dynamic, continually recursive, multi-stranded interplay of two opposing forces, with the qualities of flow and of resistance that naturally generates new ideas. However, for our thinking to embody such dynamic qualities requires us to overcome our natural tendency to think in habitual and routinised patterns of thought.
For example, simply reading about self or spiritual development is not enough to bring this about if you still bring your old habitual thinking patterns to the way you process the knowledge. After all, other people’s knowledge is just information to us. We must change our way of thinking if we want it to become knowledge.. And if we want to be creative, dynamic, innovative thinkers, we must change our way of thinking at the source, upstream of the reflective process that fixes and categorises our experiences into pre-defined concepts. For these fixed ways of approaching any new knowledge, and new experience, inhibit us from dynamic, generative, enlivened thinking.
To do this is not easy – breaking habits set down in childhood requires inner transformation in our way of seeing and being. Practicing cognitive dissonance and Goethean observation are two ways we can overcome habitual patterns and enliven our thinking process. But this process can be further enhanced by using a particular form of drawing, called metamorphic drawing. Based on the natural water and air forms described by Schwenk, metamorphic drawing can bring flexibility and mobility into our cognitive processing patterns, bringing the dynamic ebb and flow that allows for deep and emergent thinking where new ideas can arise.
The workshops are purely practice-based and use a Goethean-inspired form of contemplation called beholding, cognitive breathing techniques and three different types of drawing: experiential, metamorphic and observational.
In my doctoral research into creativity and cognition, I identified three kinds of creativity that arise from the interweaving of process and experience – the first pertaining more to productive creativity, the other others to generative creativity:
- The creative ideation that arises out the continual and recursive interplay between the forces of flow and resistance, the type of creativity inherent in deep thinking. This is the type of creativity that Schwenk is referring to when he compares the activity of thinking with the intrinsic ebb and flow of moving water. I use surface drawing with charcoal to simulate this experience very effectively.
- The potentiality space that arises out of the breaks and discontinuities in the process, an opening that allows for original insights and moments of intuition appear. This type of creativity the pure potentiality of ex nihilo and has been noted more by philosophers than by artists or scientists. For instance, Simone Weil associated the “grace” that enters into empty spaces with original insights or moments of creativity, but a void must already be there to receive them. This void can be cultivated to appear during meditation, but it sometimes appear less consciously when we have had a very intense experience, been very actively engaged in this experience and then have let it go – and not rushed on to something else! Then, a receptive space can emerge in our awareness, similar to a void that allows something outside of ourselves to enter in. People often refer to this a light-bulb or eureka moment and think it comes out of nowhere. Actually, it comes out of somewhere – the space you have created after intense endeavour. Exercises that use cognitive dissonance or contemplation of oppositions can be used to develop the capacity to engender such spaces.
- The emergent space, where creativity emerges by relinquishing control of the process. The emergent space is not experienced as a space, as much as place a person might enter without conscious awareness of entering it, when engaged in creative work. One emerges into it unknowingly, even though the self is aware of being there. People might then say: ‘I found myself’ – “I found I had created something” or “I found I was working in another space. The mind wasn’t judging, but rather wondering”, as one of the participants in my research said. When the self gives itself over to the world or to the material it is working with, then these is something of a fusion of self and world, and something new arises out of the space. I use different types of experiential drawing for this type of creativity.
My work here concerns the challenge our image of what it means to be truly human by exploring what it means to be truly creative – in the generative sense. With this understanding, we see we are not as creative as we might think we are, but could become.