Surrendering to Creativity; the Psychology of Remembering to Breathe (Part 1 of 3)

The author's dad, Yogaman Bill, letting go of anxiety and creating beauty on the beach.
The author's dad, Yogaman Bill, letting go of anxiety and creating beauty on the beach.

“Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender…” ~ The Bhagavad-Gita, p. 41

            I stumbled upon this quote earlier this week, as I prepared data for analysis and fretted about whether I should submit a poster for a Graduate Student award.  The words of the Bhagavad-Gita echoed over the underlying buzz I had picked up from my undergraduates; approaching Week 5 and “Midterm Season” at UCLA, most of my collegiate mentees could be seen frantically scribbling on notecards or furiously highlighting text book pages in between meetings.  As a third-year graduate student, I can confidently say I do not miss midterms.  The words of the Bhagvad-Gita reminded me though, as I tried to caffeinate myself awake from a night of less-than-ideal-REM-sleep caused by too much data and too little time, that the psychology of stress is often counterproductive to the goals of creation and insight we seek as scholars and scientists.  Being the most productive during the busiest times of our semester may actually involve the counter-intuitive task of slowing down.  How can we be creative if we leave no time for creativity?  This post marks the first in a series about the psychology of creativity and what we can do to produce for the future while living in the present.

I first read about the Bhagavad-Gita during my senior year of college, during an existential what-am-I-doing-with-my-life stage at a Yoga retreat.  Written twenty-five hundred years ago, the sacred text has become a moral compass for Hindus.  Seeming to delineate one man’s duties as warrior and prince, the Bhagavad-Gita, Sanskrit for “Song of God,” presents universal Yogic approaches to acquiring wisdom, mindful meditation and “Divine Glories.”  Acknowledging anxiety’s inhibitory powers, it advises followers to overcome creative blocks through sensory detachment.  It struck me, reading the prophetic verse for the first time, how, even with changes in technology and job demands, ancient and modern readers converge on the same problem: the relationship between creativity and anxiety.  Most of the twentieth century’s major inventions required creative insight; thanks to novel thinking, we can peruse the Interwebs, drive environment-conscious cars, and prevent previously fatal diseases.  They have also caused more anxiety-producing headaches: near-miss accidents on the busy 405, being connected to work emails 24/7 or the nagging voice mailbox that people insist you check.  Creativity, ironically, seems to breed tools for increasing anxiety; unfortunately, anxiety does not tend to breed creativity.  Gaining international consideration, the question of whether anxiety inhibits or provokes creativity has had mixed findings (e.g. Okebukola, 1986 and Carlsson, 2002); empirical results suggest the relationship between creativity and anxiety may not manifest directly.  Instead, individual differences in coping mechanisms may moderate the role of anxiety on creativity.  Highly creative individuals, for example, may engage in a creative act to transcend their anxiety, developing their own coping mechanism to lower inner tension; redefining a stressful event through creativity, they can then focus on producing novelty without anxiety interfering.In addition to lowering my undergraduates’ cholesterol levels, knowing how to reduce anxieties and increase creativity could lead to important breakthroughs, expediting the finding of a cure for cancer or the development of more affordable renewable energy.

Yeah, you might ask, but how do you know if you’re “highly creative” individual? Doesn’t it take a special person to be able to cope with adversity by overcoming it through creativity?  Ask any graduate student if having their dissertation committee sitting constantly in the same room as them watching them type would lead to better scientific insight; somehow, I think not.  So what can we do for those of us who are not the Vincent Van Goghs or the Marie Curies of the world?  How do we channel creativity in times of high anxiety?

Defining creativity and mindfulness

To increase creativity, we have to first come to a common understanding of what it is.  Psychology has yet to devise a single recognized measurement encapsulating all the qualities of creativity, making it much harder to arrive at a common operational definition.  Numerous tests attempt to quantify a creative aspect; the Remote Association Tests (Mednick & Mednick, 1962) measures creative thinking style, for example, while the Creative Personality Scale (Gough, Lazzari & Fioravanti, 1978), an adjective checklist, uses the character traits espoused by highly creative people to identify creative personalities.  Most definitions of creativity integrate the individual and the creative product, acknowledging novel ideas often go unrecognized unless exhibiting some societal benefit; under this definition, creative insight must be both original and useful within its cultural context (S. Carson, personal communication, September 15, 2008).   Studying the relationship between intellect and creativity from the yogic tradition, Horan (2007) portrayed creativity as the “play of consciousness.”  He noted an individual need not compose a completely novel idea or performance; rather, Horan emphasizes the importance of the intention to break free from the known world’s limitations.  Adopting Horn’s definition, creative merit derives from recognizing and attempting to push traditional standards.   In establishing it as an acted upon desire to bring about original, useful change, creativity becomes process-oriented.

Creativity would not exist, however, without the ability to question and defy conventions.  To tap into Shakti, the creative power, Horan (2007) notes the mind’s focus needs to remain unfocused or mindful.  One must stay alert to the conditions of the external world but not buy into them; only after identifying a potential problem can a creative individual begin structuring a solution.  Ignorant to societal plights, however, one will not know what venture to take on.  Defining mindfulness as the ability to remain “aware of [an] ongoing situation,” Grant, Langer, Falk and Capodilupo (2004) note it has positive physical and psychological effects.  Mindfulness as defined here derives from a passive acknowledgement of internal and external states; recognizing negative feelings as they come, a person engaged in mindfulness would not allow the negativity to affect his measured actions.  While potentially enabling creative enlightenment, mindfulness does not have to result in novel production; many current Yoga practices call on participants to focus on the present, tuning into the hour session intending only to attain relaxation or mood-enhancement (e.g. Net & Lidor, 2003; Khalsa, 2004).  While not inherently bolstering creativity, mindfulness can provide a channel expediting the process to free thinking and a liberated consciousness.

Although empirical discrepancies exist regarding anxiety’s impact on creativity, highly creative individuals appear to experience more stressful life events.  In the next part in the series, we will look at how highly creative individuals experience anxiety and the ways in which anxiety impedes creativity.  Until then, be mindful as you prepare for your midterms, work deadlines or whatever other anxiety-provoking trials come your way; instead of succumbing to the fury of possible failure, try to find the calm of self-surrender.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series, coming next week.