Everyday Creativity: Why is it So Dangerous (and So Healthy)? - part one

Ruth Richards – USA

a chapter for a book with seven chapters

“When I am creating I am more…”


Can we be programmed to look beyond the marvels of
life? We need our conscious awareness for creativity.
True, we miss much we don’t want to see. But what
about beauty and wonder? This is where we shall start.
If tomorrow we see a new daisy that just bloomed by our
front path, this may not seem very important — never
mind the herald of a dangerous transformation in our
entire lifestyle. But it could be. Because once we learn
to see, we learn to see what we have been missing.

We can live in a world of Aha’s!, a world of wonders. If we choose, we can see marvels around each corner. Yet how often we miss this completely. You may not believe it now, but much of our reality is effectively invisible. We look right past it—as if it weren’t even there.
Yet we can open our eyes and regain this invisible world. The goal of the first chapter is precisely this: to begin to see more, and to see with fresh vision. Now we can truly be creative.

Our first step is to become more consciously aware. And then to be more aware of this awareness—more self-aware— to decide what we are doing, what we want to change, want to keep, and even make part of our lifestyle.

If you, the good reader, are willing to take a little risk and try three experiences later on, here is betting you will see a difference! Even if you’re super-perceptive right now, you should see something. After all, says the Zen student, it can take aeons truly to learn to see. But, let us add, only a microsecond to reframe our reality. And to open our minds to whole new vistas.

Not so sure about this? Here’s a moment that stopped me cold.

Missing Town—Missing World

I’m rather good at maps. I’m also good at using a GPS device. But I forgot the maps and here we were, late afternoon, last day of vacation, my daughter my cousin and I, driving along a two-lane highway in midstate Oregon. No other car in sight, and the sun had just gone down. Where was that charming little village? It was supposed to be right along this river. The road followed the river, almost exactly. I for one was set on taking the little ferry that goes across the river from the town. If we just followed this road we should get there. Plus my cousin had been there before. Yet now we’d driven almost an hour and a half, and even the GPS had drawn a blank. It had never heard of the little town—too small, we decided.

We drove on, farther and farther into the unknown, river always at left as our guide. We kept passing farms and fields and scattered houses and now a few lights were coming out.
My cousin was getting bossy, insisting, “We should have taken that right turn back there.” She kept saying it, over and over.

No way, I told her, I’m sticking with the river; the town is on the river after all. In my head, though, I was doing something else, a litany of self-criticism: Why didn’t we start earlier, leave more time, have lunch sooner, save dessert for the little town, bring the map, and on and on and on, a list of all we did wrong—reliving it as if that could help us now. My cousin and I were both impatient and stressed. My daughter, at least, was happy in the back seat, text messaging a friend. I pull up on the shoulder of the road to think.

WOW! Amazing! A new scene had appeared. A new slide projected on a screen. Where did it come from? Look! LOOK! I insisted. Even my daughter looked up.

Right there, out of nowhere: a magical misty landscape. Fields moving off to infinity in muted purples and pastels, fuzzy in the haze, with clusters of tall lush tress, darkening and receding in the dusk. I turned the car engine off. All was silent in the hot summer air. Beside us a plum-colored river barely moved between a border of trees, its dark lazy water reflecting the last light of day.

How breathtaking! This landscape had cast a spell. We sat in the silence of an indrawn breath. Where had it been? If I had seen even a trace of this beauty while driving along, not a neuron had registered it, no mental bell had rung so that the conscious mind could stop and take a look. I had missed it all.

We had all missed it. We’d been driving off to “see the sights,” yet here they were, in front of us. How foolish—us humans, so many times—placing our lives on hold, until we reach our so-called “destination.” I had put my observing mind on hold, noticing only signs and oncoming traffic, and the endless stretches of farmland as signposts which only told me—alas!— we were still lost. Still making mistakes, I thought. I should have done this, and this, and that. I was back in my memory again, back in the past, and beating myself up. Oh yes, and chastising my poor cousin, who was only trying to help.

It was late and we decided to turn around. Too dark to enjoy the town, or take the ferry, even if we found them. It was disappointing, I admit, after all that driving and anxiety and expectation. But something else had happened, and the trip was far from a loss. This startling, mysterious, gorgeous landscape—it was all worth it.

Wake-Up Call

More important to me was the wake up call. Open our eyes! Take a look! Be present in our lives! Here we are, so often, off looking for some sight or photo-op, or destination, while missing the magic that surrounds us, at that very moment.

It is not, I will confess, as if I had never had this thought before. You have probably had it too. “Wake up and smell the roses,” we tell the busy workaholic who never notices the flowers by the driveway on his last minute dash to work. What is more, for decades, actually, I have taught courses in creativity studies. As creators, we cherish the magic of the present moment, and especially its openings to intuition. Beyond that, I am a meditator—although clearly one who still has work to do. But don’t we always need to keep on learning?

I was grateful to fate for unveiling this marvel, which was right in my face, but invisible. I got the message. Stop! Stop missing the best parts of life. Stop bypassing joy, beauty, wonder. And missing it for what? A little dance in the past, or the future, in one’s head, or in the present, but with blinders on (looking only for road-signs). I had been single-mindedly grasping at something I thought we must have (the town, the ferry, and nothing else will do), and obsessing about what I should have done to find it better or sooner (rewriting the past). I even got annoyed at someone I love. Dragged down and distracted from the present moment, for me, beauty became invisible.

Finally, out on this two-lane Oregon road, we turned around and started back. This time, though, we looked. Here was Mother Nature’s best, now fading into night. Purples to greys to blacks with occasional pinpoint lights, a lonely lamppost, a farmhouse window. These sights weren’t found in the guidebook—yet they were very much with us, very much “the sights.”

The bigger question in my mind became: if we take off our blinders and are present with life, will beauty appear everywhere? Can every moment “count”?

What is Everyday Creativity and Who Has It?

We miss a lot in our world, almost everything, in fact. Our task-focused filters take care of that, selecting only what we need. We need to get to work. To have some lunch. To find that report. Water the garden. Go on a date. We see what we need to see, first for purposes of survival—or survival of the species. Now we are no longer talking about beauty. Who has time for that? It’s about seeing the tiger before it pounces.

We will keep having our fight-or-flight responses. A good thing, too. The car that almost hits us. The manhole in the middle of the street. Luckily we saw them in time. And we have other needs, expectations, habits, and programs. For instance, we need to get to work on time. But do these needs have to take over? Must we miss everything on the way?

Gregory Bateson, speaking of beauty, said aesthetic judgment is selection of a fact. We create the sight even as we become conscious of it. There are many other possibilities we could see. Yet we simply do not see them. Who or what is doing the selecting? Is it our past, our experiences, our future expectations? In view of our agenda, is our past selecting what our future experience should be? Bringing in, let us add, our biases and fears? Are we trapped in a conceptual-perceptual web? Can we—in the present moment—have a say in this? 

Can we enhance our senses, thoughts, and feelings toward a broader and heightened awareness? Might we even see a world we never noticed? It is worth a try. And—you must decide for yourself. To orient in this direction, the chapter first asks six questions of the reader. These are linked to discussion of three subareas. Along the way, you, the reader, are also asked to try three activities, each one taking only 3-5 minutes. (That could be less than 10 minutes for the whole chapter! References are given if you want more of these exercises later.)

The activities are by way of illustrating the material—yet unlike the usual illustration this picture is worth much more than one thousand words. When pondering creativity, there is nothing to replace personal experience. Here it is very much about how we experience each moment, and how we know, record, and use our outer and inner experience. This can be far from automatic.

What is This Creativity?

Everyday creativity, or our “originality of everyday life,” as product or outcome, is defined by only two criteria: (a) originality (it involves something new or very unusual), and (b) meaningfulness (it makes sense, and communicates to another). That is it. Hence the definition can apply to most anything at work and leisure, from how we drive to work to writing a report at the office, to making dinner when we get home. Or to how we observe the woods as we walk along a hiking trait. Everyday creativity is less about what people do than how they do it. One person I studied with Dr. Dennis Kinney and associates at Harvard
Medical School was an ingenious auto mechanic who created his own tools.

Some people think creativity is only about doing art, or perhaps scientific research—a common stereotype. I often hear people say, “I can’t draw a portrait—I’m not creative!” Or alternatively, “I can’t sing…” or “I can’t write a poem.” And then they go off about their business—sadly imagining they are living in a noncreative way.

Meanwhile our everyday creativity can be about just about anything, including how we counsel a friend, make dinner, teach a class, write a report, or raise a child. We couldn’t get through our day without our creativity.

And guess what? We all can do it.


Everyday creativity

Another stereotype is that creativity is only for special and celebrated people—at least if it is to be taken seriously. The famous playwright, prize-winning novelist, celebrated artist, entrepreneur, politician, laboratory scientist, or cultural leader, are the ones whose work “counts.” If we ourselves do something creative, and if it isn’t in the papers or shown down at city hall, then it can’t be all that important. The real creativity, they think, is what get recognized.

Not so—a thousand times no. Without our everyday creativity, we would not even be alive! Our creativity is first of all, a survival capability. It helps us find our missing child, escape from a dangerous situation, get out of the woods when lost, find something to eat when starving. Everyday creativity is about our human ingenuity, our flexible improvisations, our capacity to come up with different ideas, when one doesn’t work, to try this and try that.

Creative girl

Plus, our creativity is the birthright of every one of us, and a defining feature of our humanness. We homo sapiens are not creatures of instinct who all build our nests the same way. We adapt with endless variety to new conditions and environments, and even shape those environments to suit us. Evolutionary biologists talk about our phenotypic plasticity, our human ability within the limits of our genetic potential, to bloom in many diverse ways. Look at all we human beings have done. Around the world, in every clime and condition, and every geographic setting, we have manifested a stunning variety of lifestyles and cultures, neighborhoods and families, and individual ways of life.

All the more tragic when our vital and universal creativity goes under-recognized, underdeveloped, and under-rewarded—the three U’s. Our human creativity serves not only our survival, but our overall involvement and pleasure in life. It fuels coping and resilience and, beyond that, the proactive steps each of us can make, to change the world and change ourselves. It helps fuel the seeking of greater life meaning—including explorations of why we humans are on this earth in the first place.

Creativity is not just about a widget or new idea—not only about the creative product. It is also about our lives—about the creative person, process, and press of the environment, the other three of the “Four P’s of Creativity.” It is important what may call to each of us, as a person, if we stress creativity in our lives. And we should definitely care about the environmental press. A setting can help or hurt our creativity—a lot—and a hostile environment (or boss, or teacher) has shut down many a creative talent.

Finally, the biggest focus of this book: The fourth P or creative process. Here, in real time, is what we creatively do, as well as how this affects us, and affects our world. This can change us personally, and positively, and we can get even more of these benefits. Taking a longer term view of process, our creativity can even affect our adult development, for instance, helping move us toward what humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow has called self-actualization. And the related self-actualizing creativity. Much more to say about this later.

Is it surprising that our everyday creativity is often good for us? Oddly, perhaps, some people think our creativity can hurt us—even make some people “weird, odd, or misfit.” We shall deal with these false stereotypes, later. It is revealing where they came from. Yet the evidence is clear. Everyday creativity can lead to greater psychological wellbeing, physical health and, even, surprising to many, increased immune function.

Hard to believe? That creativity could, for instance, lower the risk of illness? What a message for us about our mind-body continuum, and our personal ability to affect our own health. Even our T-cells, our multitudes of circulating immune cells, in our circulatory system, moving through every part of our bodies, somehow know we are being creative. Surprising? I’ve met real skeptics about creativity and health until they learned of these findings. Hard to argue with the laboratory data.

One sees increasingly, with creativity, that we are not talking about something light and fluffy, an optional leisure-time activity for a rainy afternoon. We are concerned with the essence of life itself, our ability to work and thrive and contribute within the flow of life. Here are life enhancing qualities so important that Mother Nature favors them with improved health and wellbeing. Might our creativity even help us live longer? The question arises naturally. Later chapters will say more about these healthy benefits—as well as what might get in the way.

Knowing Creativity as Process and Way of Life

We thus turn to process, to a creative lifestyle and its effects. Step one is about noticing, how we encounter the world and ourselves. Not only what we notice, but whether we mentally show up to begin with.

Is it more fun when we notice, is life more vivid and exciting? If so, why can it sometimes seem so hard to do? How often are we, the would-be creators, consciously aware, and creatively present? There is a discipline here, and we shall be working with this.

Creative thinking

This is not, by the way, about doing this every moment. It is about living consciously and having a choice. About knowing our many options. It does take some effort—but it’s our chance to come alive in the world.

The alternative we also know. The mindless following of routine, or giving in to impulses, can lead to deadness of our days, sensed lack of control, and despair about our lives. All the more so, if we mindlessly persist, most of the time, down through the months and years, following habit and routine. Surely we have all done a bit of this.

What then gives life meaning? On and on we drive through the fields of our life, on an Oregon road, or on our usual ride home, seeing only what we must. We are exhausted after a hard day of the same old tasks, following without thought the roads and signs and habitual turns, on our way to dinner and relaxation. Consumed by the imagined taste of our meal, and our plan to flop in a chair, we mindlessly drive right past our creativity, missing endless beauty, endless variety, unlimited opportunities, and life itself.

Expanding Our Experience—Some Questions

Later we may find new choices, and decision points. But the goal of this chapter is not to change our day, but to come alive into the day we already have. To see and to reflect, to enjoy and to savour. To focus on the positives, often overlooked—the beauty, the grace, the wonder.

Later, with more conscious awareness, we can look at the broader picture (remember all we veto that we don’t want to see). We can make changes if we like. Should we make this new friend? Sweep our partner off her or his feet? Or, more seriously, still be in this dead end job? There are times to kick ourselves off automatic pilot, and take a new look.

This practice is, first of all, about showing up in the here and now—being present. Enjoying the view. And then, seeing the creative possibilities, so as to embrace life more actively—in a conscious and mindful way.

Let’s start with experiences we may, at least occasionally, have had. These are questions for a quick first response, and different people may relate to these differently. Make a quick note of whatever comes to mind.

Have you ever noticed something astonishing or beautiful that had been right in front of you but that you’d missed the moment before?

When fully attentive to something or someone have you ever found colors are brighter, or sounds are sweeter? Do you remember your feelings at that time?

Can you think of a time you’ve labeled something and that’s it? You saw a “car” and noticed nothing else about it? Where, you thought, are they going to park it?

Can you recall a time you discovered the depth and richness of something or someone, far beyond the name or label. What was that like? Were there surprises?

Remember what you were doing yesterday. Are you seeing this in pictures—using sight more than any other sense? How clearly? What about hearing? Body sensations?

Recall a time when you were thinking about thinking. Example, “Why do I feel so cheerful,” or “I am really confused today.” Are you focused on thoughts, or on feelings? Or both together?

Presence and Mindfulness

Let us stop and define presence and mindfulness, which are both relevant. Presence can be defined as “bare awareness of the receptive spaciousness of our minds”. Thus, we are truly open to our processes and the fullness of the present moment. Presence is involved in the practice of mindfulness, defined as “the awareness that emerges through the paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience, moment by moment”.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is perhaps the best known advocate of mindfulness meditation to help patients deal with stress and illness. Here the training of consciousness may be done apart from a spiritual practice. Yet it surely can yield great benefits across faiths, on a spiritual path.

Picture yourself being present, and broadly aware, in the here and now. Right now. What is it like? We bring, after all, our full receptivity. This is not a narrow beam of attention focused down by some specific goal, driven by our wishes, fears, and need to survive, while the rest of life falls by the wayside. Very much the opposite. Think, for example, of when another person is truly and unconditionally present and “there for us.” The “honeymoon” phase of a relationship often has this openness and receptivity. Why do we let this fade? If we are present with everything, then everything will be there for us. Even if this is not exactly the realization of Eastern philosophies, it can still be glorious.

There is a catch of course. These qualities—as with creativity—take practice and discipline. But we surely knew this. And the payoff is worth it. Please keep your responses to the above questions in mind, and we shall return to them shortly.

Three Ways to Expand Our Experience

1. LOOKING FOR THE FIRST TIME Seeing the invisible
2. LOOKING AGAIN Seeing beyond names and labels
3. LOOKING WITHIN Seeing/ hearing/ feeling —our creative paintbox

These experiences are both about being more consciously aware of what is in front of us, and how we are processing this—being aware and self-aware. They can be done any time, any place. Again, they are presented to let the reader experience the chapter content more directly.

1—LOOKING FOR THE FIRST TIME: Seeing the invisible.

If you’re inside a house or building right now, look out a window. Any window. Find something you’ve never seen before. Make a quick mental note of it, or use a piece of paper to write this down.

Now keep on looking, looking more fully, without an agenda, just with interest and curiosity, looking all around to see what’s there. Note a few other things, large or small, static or moving, you may never have noticed before—or at least not have fully focused upon. It’s useful to make a mental note, a scribble, write a word, whatever works for you. How interesting if this is a window you look out of every day. This time, is it happening differently?

Keep going, if you will, and find ten things that are new, and even more if you want to keep going. It may be surprising how easy this can be. There is so very much we habitually screen out and fail to notice at all. All of us. It is almost as if we had been blind.

Take 3-5 minutes now to do this looking. And remember to make some kind of note about what appears new in your experience!

Did you have some surprises? Perhaps you have lived in the same place for 10 years and still, out the window, saw something new? Frederick Franck, author of the Zen of Seeing, and related books, once said “I draw so that I can see before I die.”  Good idea. We do, after all, usually miss almost everything.

Too often we have an agenda—whether we know it or not. What’s the weather? Should I take my coat? Where on the street did I park the car? We may not even see the new daffodils in the front of our place until the puppy tries to eat them (true story).

Whoa!—where did that beige house come from, the one with the skylight? And that tree that lost all its leaves. Over there, a garage door was left open, and they have some firewood in there. That bush has leaves that are really shiny, pretty, don’t you think? But no rhododendrons yet. Faded wooden shutters on this neighbor’s house, and maybe some water streaks, but they’re rather pretty if you look at the patterns, the different shades of browns and greys. Never noticed that before.

When I did it myself, as above, I found a whole new house I hadn’t noticed. Just think of what else can be out there.

Look again at what you yourself noted. Was it interesting or pleasant in some way to see these? If surprising, just how surprising was it? When so much awaits, why are we OK to let whole worlds of experience pass us by? This is not just about curiosity, or the missing content, either. It is also about us. Many people feel joyful, present, keenly aware, and much more alive, at such times of awareness. The world looks more vivid, rich, and inviting.

Finding the joy of awareness. In your own reflection, on Question #1, had you had any surprise awarenesses, or moments of stunning beauty? As per the second question, how did this awareness feel? Was there pleasure, even joy, were colors brighter?

I am personally interested in whether the pull of beauty—or the sublime—is, at times, precisely there to draw us to awareness, and I have written about this. This pull ensures we all, across time and culture, consciously notice certain things, most especially in nature.
Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has proposed that we have a biophilia, a need to be in and to appreciate nature. Whatever the case, nature seems to be very big with most people.

If you, like Frederick Franck (who said he wanted to “see before I die”) do paint or draw, this is actually a very good way to open one’s own eyes. In drawing, you encompass a scene, you block out the whole, and look broadly at a great many details, so as to capture the totality. The artist has a larger aesthetic purpose, and can leave the usual utilitarian agendas behind.

Perhaps the joy of seeing anew also helps explain why we go on vacation. To see something anew! Just to see—period! In a first-time setting almost everything is fresh. We don’t have to look so hard for it. Plus our work agendas are left far behind. We can relax, enjoy, look more spaciously, be present. Take Yosemite Park. Looming cliffs, and grassy meadow. We hike up to a waterfall, tired and happy. We hear the birds, feel the spring air, take a sip of cold spring water. A deer scampers away.

Creative nature

Do you wonder why going on vacation is called RE-Creation? Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel notes the linkage to play, and that recreation, most deeply, “re-creates” a “playful state of presence.”  “Re-creates,” he says, because young children have it already—this receptivity and “playfulness of being.” It is we the adults who have lost it, who have narrowed down our lives and eliminated much of the wonder and creative openness of childhood. Do you remember the almost unbelievable amazement of the early years, the total magic even, of the smallest thing, a dog, a bridge, a circus, or a shadow on the ceiling? Do we want to return to that capacity—or at least, to have that choice?

When we keep our eyes open, a shortcut though the park is not just a way to get to work. Here is a lake where people are rowing boats. A playground nearby has kids squealing and whooping with joy. Magic abounds in this separate little world. Yet if we continue our usual beeline to work, maybe rushing a bit with our mind on our first meeting of the day, all this richness may become invisible. Our habits, well engraved in our minds, kick in automatically, echoing our past and what we have always done. Once again, and without a thought, we do just what is expected, and we see exactly what we expect to see.

Well, at least, we think, we made it to that darned meeting on time. But oops we forgot to Xerox the agenda.

Let us consider, instead, just three times a day, breaking with the usual, and doing this noticing exercise: Looking for things that are new. What if we did this after every meal, using mealtimes as a reminder? Appreciation can be our agenda (if any). Might we start noticing more that is pleasing in our world, and not just around mealtimes, either? Might we also, at the same time, begin to notice some of the priorities and patterns that usually direct our attention—and how our limited consciousness will take just a narrow and seemingly self-serving slice from a vastly greater reality?

To be continued



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