This piece first appeared on my blog at Soulseeds, where I post several times a week.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring some of the key features of intention; whether it relates to a relationship, career, goal or vision. This is the third in the series.
First I wrote about the power of intention, where you visualize an end point and work backwards, best described by Michelangelo who said about his masterpiece the Statue of David: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” The second week I spoke about perseverance, intention’s close companion. When you are truly jazzed by your vision of the future, you hustle to make it happen. You do what it takes, trying things, being willing to fall down, get back up and push through any number of obstacles to get where you want to be.
I had a vague idea where I wanted to take this next, but it wasn’t clear and I struggled to find clarity. If I had been been using a typewriter there would have been scrunched up paper flying around the room, the pile of paper rubble a reminder of my frustrating cognitive cul de sac. My stream of consciousness had dried to a trickle. All I had was the one word “creativity” but no idea why this word was significant. Finally, after struggling for several days, it all fell into place like the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle while I was riding my bike. Eureka! The third topic is inspiration, the counterpart to perseverance. Alongside the need for effort, I add the role of effortless effort. Suddenly all my ideas fell into place easily. I completed the piece in about 30 minutes.
Here’s a question as it relates to the theme? How long did it take to write this article- 30 minutes or 3 days? When did the preparation begin- 3 days before or a lifetime ago? Maybe everything that has ever happened leads to this moment and falls together in this theme. And who wrote the article? Well I put the pieces together but whole networks of people conspired to make it possible. That is the awesome power of inspiration. You are not alone. You don’t have to do it all yourself. All you need to do is tap into the limitless power that is within and around you all the time, and let it flow.
Inspiration- Where Does It Come From?
On the one hand, most of life’s great achievements come about through determined, hard work. For example, world famous Cellist, Pablo Casals practiced every day for 4 hours. Someone once asked him, 'Mister Casals, you are a master, you have accomplished so much. Why do you keep practicing four hours a day even though you are 93 years old?' He said, 'Well, I'm finally beginning to notice some improvement.' Legend has it that he even completed his daily regimen of scales on the morning that he died. So on the one hand, Casals is an example of the truth of persistent, hard work.
On the other hand, some of life’s great achievements appear effortless. You hear of people who sit down and write whole books in a matter of days or weeks as if the words are dropping straight from the sky into their brains and from there to their fingers and screen. The great composer, Handel, composed The Messiah in three weeks without leaving his house. Another composer, Mozart, said that his music often presented itself to his imagination as if from nowhere. He had no choice but to stop what he was doing and write the music down. It was as if something beyond his own consciousness was writing his symphonies.
So which is it? Is true inspiration effortless or hard work? Maybe it’s both at the same time. The playwright, Arthur Miller was once asked in an interview, “Are you writing another play?" His answer was brilliant. He said, "I don't know, but I probably am."
Are you working on something brilliant and inspirational right now? Probably. When did it start? At the beginning of time. Who are you working with? All the creative energy that exists. The philosopher Daniel Dennett once posed the question,
How long did it take Bach to create the St Matthew’s Passion? An early version was performed in 1727 but the version we listen to today dates from ten years later and includes many revisions. How long did it take to create Bach? He had the benefit of 42 years of living when the first version was heard and more than half a century when the later version was completed. How long did it take to create Christianity without which St Matthews Passion by Back or anyone else would be inconceivable? About two millennia. How long did it take to create the social and cultural context in which Christianity could be born? Somewhere between a hundred millennia and 3 million years depending on when we decide to date the birth of human culture. And how long did it take to create homo sapiens? Between three and four billion years, roughly the same length of time it took to create daisies and snail darters, blue whales and spotted owls. Billions of years of irreplaceable design work.
The counterpart to attaining your intentions through perseverance is to tap into the energy of inspiration that is already there and just waiting for you. You just haven’t connected to it yet. You can understand that in a very logical and systematic way like Daniel Dennett because everything is constantly being created whether you realize it or not, or you can think of it in more of a synchronistic way like Wayne Dyer who said, “It's the difference between motivation and inspiration. Motivation is when you get hold of an idea and don't let go of it until you make it a reality. Inspiration is the reverse- when an idea gets hold of you and you feel compelled to let that impulse or energy carry you along. You get to a point where you realize that you're no longer in charge, that there's a driving force inside you that can't be stopped.”
You know this experience. It happens at moments of surrender, maybe after some resistance or struggle. You stop the struggle and move with intuition. Maybe you surrender to new love or a new opportunity. It doesn’t necessarily make logical sense at the time, but you jump anyway. It’s inspired. It feels fateful, like it was meant to be and all you do is hold on for the ride.
Creative Energy is Playful
One of the ways to remind yourself that there is a field of intention, or collective genius, or however you describe the latent powers around you, is to remember that creative energy is playful. One of my favorite comedians, Ricky Gervais, does a satire on reading the Genesis creation story literally and in particular the creation of light.
God created the heaven and the earth….. IN THE DARK. How good is that? I would have created a little bit of light, then taken a look and said, “Right, I need some planets.”
He went, “Zap. That’s everything. Now let’s have a look. Brilliant! Then He made man out of dust…. just because he could.”
Compared to a lot of violent creation myths, the Genesis creation story has a certain playfulness about it. For a start it all happens out of God’s nostrils. If you look at your nostrils in the mirror for long enough, you have to laugh. They are funny looking things, not the most dignified part of the human anatomy and not the first part of the body you associate with the creation of the universe. Yet the story says that all of life emanated from the nostrils of God. Psalm 104 described the creator “stretching out the heavens like a tent.” You have to have a sense of fun to parallel the creation of the universe with pitching a tent. All I can say is that we’re very lucky that I wasn’t the creator. If you had seen some of the tents I’ve pitched in my time. The universe would be collapsing back in on all of us in the middle of a rainy night. Creative energy manifests intentions out of raw imagination and whatever resources are available at the time. Inspiration doesn’t have to be grand. It can be real and fun.
The value in bringing playfulness into your intentions is captured in the Chinese phrase Wu Wei. I think of it as “get out of wu wei, or get out of your own way.” Wu Wei means effortless effort.
Blossoms like a flower, flows like a river, reaches like a tree.
Wu wei is like water. You get in the flow, get out of the way of your own limiting voice of doubt, and enjoy the journey. This is an important principle in setting intentions. You want to keep your eyes open, and keep looking around, but you don’t want to overlook your intuitive insight.
I learnt this lesson when I was in England for my brother’s wedding. In good English tradition we shot clay pigeons on the morning of the wedding. It turns out that when it comes to shooting, I’m about as accurate as Dick Cheney. The instructor kept saying, “Don’t think about it. Just shoot.” He was right. See it and shoot. Don’t think about. See it and shoot. It’s tempting to second guess yourself and shoot where you think its going. Every time I second guessed myself and waited, I missed. Every time I followed my instincts and shot immediately I hit it.
How does clay pigeon shooting relate to inspiration? Combine the two big ideas of this article. You are ALWAYS preparing for each moment, and DON’T over think, then you come to a beautiful balance for setting intentions. Everything that happens in your life is building your wisdom and resources. At the same time, everything you need is available right now for whatever act of creation is required. It is both hard work, perseverance AND inspiration all at the same time.
The famous scientists, Watson and Crick, are great examples of the principle of minimal effort. You might imagine they worked around the clock in their ground breaking discovery of DNA. In fact, Watson played hours of tennis every afternoon, and apparently went to Cambridge parties every night. Crick rarely turned up to work before 10am and then took a coffee break within an hour. They apparently lost interest in their study of DNA at various points and made some of their most significant discoveries standing in line at the Lab’s Cafeteria. This is often the way with inspired intention.
Whether it’s riding your bike, goofing around at parties or walking the dog, some of your most creative moments happen when your mind is open and receptive but not stressed and strained. Fun is not just fun. It also reminds you to surrender control of the outcomes and join in the thrill of creative interchange. This leaves you open and ready to receive the inspiration you need and want.
Creativity and Inspiration
Break the idea down a little further. Where is the mind- is it contained in the brain, or does it extend further than your own brain? What is the relationship between the individual mind and its environment? Think about this classic thought experiment. Two people are travelling to a museum at the same time. One of them is of sound mind and the other one has Alzheimer’s. One knows the way to the museum by memory. The other one with Alzheimer’s Disease has the directions to the museum written in a notebook. They both arrive at the museum at the same time. Which one is using their mind? We more easily equate memory with mind but they are both clearly using their minds. The mind of the second person extends to include the notebook. His notebook is part of his mind. He created the system, trusts it and uses it to inform his memory.
Technology takes the idea of an extended mind even further than a notebook. Do you remember when TiVo first came out? It records television shows based on past choices. There was a famous case in the early 2000s about the guy who complained that TiVo thought he was gay because it kept recording shows with gay themes. He tried to correct TiVo’s assumption by overcompensating and recording lots of violent war movies and wrestling shows. TiVo then decided he was an insane Nazi and recorded documentaries on the Third Reich. His story ended up as an episode on the comedy show The King of Queens.
It’s clearly not always right, but TiVo is an example of technology where you extend your mind to interact with your environment. Now Amazon will send you suggestions based on patterns in your purchases. Google is an even more sophisticated form of technology that extends your mind. The more strategic you are with the wording of your search, the more helpful the answers will be. I found a site called Funny Google, which puts your own name in place of the Google logo, making the experience even more personalized. Now your google search is a literal extension of your mind and identity.
Whether it’s a notebook, a slide rule, TiVo or Google, these are all ways of taking your mind out into the world and letting your environment help you think.
Beyond technology, conversation is a way of putting people together and bouncing ideas off each other, to the point where you might say “Whose idea was that anyway?”
When you think of DNA, you most likely think of Watson and Crick. But very few people have heard of Rosalind Franklin who was instrumental in Watson and Crick’s discoveries. In 2003, Dr. Raymond Damadian spent $300,000 to place ads in major newspapers claiming that he should have been included in the Nobel Prize for the invention of the MRI, and not the two scientists who were given credit for the invention in the early 1970s.
Creative energy is like that. It is a process and a network. You can’t always tell who is responsible and you can’t always tell when discoveries are made because many people and many energies collaborate in new advances and they are happening all the time.
It’s the same with intentions. You have to believe them to see them. Picture a bold intention for your life or the world. Hold it steady in your mind with detail and clarity. Add in a burst of perseverance to the image, something that signifies a never say die attitude. Then add in a large dose of surrender to the latent powers of inspiration.
There is nothing you can’t achieve if you partner with the creative energy of the universe that wants you to succeed, and will support your efforts if you have good intent.
You are making a difference, and having fun doing it. In the immortal words of Sinatra, “do it wu wei” and get in the flow of life.