Where Does Creativity Come From?

Although creative breakthroughs can be spontaneous, it helps if we open the door and assist the process.
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My online dictionary says that "create" means to bring into existence something that is new, something that did not exist before. We often imagine creators as solitary individuals struggling against great odds, trying mightily to craft new inventions, music, or art that is novel, fresh, unique. We assume that prior training and skills are crucial in the creative process. Someone who doesn't know arithmetic will never be a great mathematician. A tone-deaf person will never compose majestic music. Someone who is not grounded in the classics can never be a great philosopher.

So much for logic.

When developmental psychologist Joseph Chilton Pearce was in his early 30s, teaching humanities in a college, he was engrossed in theology and the psychology of Carl Jung. Pearce describes himself as "obsessed" by the nature of the God-human relationship, and his reading on the subject was extensive. One morning as he was preparing for an early class, his 5-year-old son came into his room, sat down on the edge of the bed, and launched into a 20-minute discourse on the nature of God and man.

"He spoke in perfect, publishable sentences," Pearce writes, "without pause or haste, and in a flat monotone. He used complex theological terminology and told me, it seemed, everything there was to know. As I listened, astonished, the hair rose on my neck; I felt goose bumps, and, finally, tears streamed down my face. I was in the midst of the uncanny, the inexplicable. My son's ride to kindergarten arrived, horn blowing, and he got up and left. I was unnerved and arrived late to my class. What I had heard was awesome, but too vast and far beyond any concept I had had to that point. The gap was so great I could remember almost no details and little of the broad panorama he had presented ... He wasn't picking up his materials from me. I hadn't acquired anything like what he described and would, in fact, be in my mid-50s and involved in meditation before I did ... My son had no recollection of the event."

Events like this pose deep questions for creativity. Where does the wisdom come from that makes creativity possible?

Baron Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, the renowned German physicist who was a contemporary of legendary physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, thought deeply about creativity in science. In any great scientific discovery, he said, "We find the often disturbing and happy experience: 'It is not I; I have not done this.' Still, in a certain way it is I -- yet not the ego ... but ... a more comprehensive self."

What is this "more comprehensive self"? I propose that it is a domain of consciousness that is nonlocal or infinite in space and time, in which all information resides. Throughout history it has been called many names -- the Source, the Absolute, God, Goddess, Allah, Universe. My favorite term is the One Mind, in which all individual minds come together.

It's an ancient idea, this universal, unitary consciousness. The premise surfaced dramatically in America during the nineteenth century in the philosophy of transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leading proponent, wrote:

There is one mind common to all individual men ... What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.

Emerson called this single, universal mind the Over-soul.

Many great scientists have agreed in principle with Emerson. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger recognized, "the unification of minds or consciousness. Their multiplicity is only apparent, in truth there is only one mind." The eminent physicist David Bohm agreed, saying, "Deep down the consciousness of mankind is one. This is a virtual certainty ... and if we don't see this it's because we are blinding ourselves to it."

Systems theorist Ervin Laszlo, who is a classical pianist and author of 75 books and over 400 articles, knows a thing or two about creativity. He says:

We raise the possibility that the minds of exceptionally creative people would be in spontaneous, direct, though not necessarily conscious, interaction with other minds within the creative process itself.

In this perspective, the One Mind can function as the Source of all the ingredients anyone could ever need to formulate a new idea, compose a sonata, or paint or sculpt a work of art.

Tapping into the Source is the goal of most creative individuals. As John Briggs says in his admirable book about creativity, Fire in the Crucible:

For the creative genius, the ancient perception that it is possible to invoke an identity between the universal and particular, between the personal and the vast impersonal, the part and the whole, is pervasive. It burgeons at all levels of the creative process and dominates creative vision. [In their] many moods and meanings, [creative individuals are involved in] a search for wholeness and a personal/universal identity...

They are seeking the Source, the One Mind.

Many who treasure uniqueness, individuality, and ownership are not thrilled with this scenario. The problem is that, if all minds are in contact and share information, who gets credit? If ideas cannot be assigned to specific persons, what then of originality and individual achievement? Who gets honored? Should the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes be put on hold? Should those already awarded be returned?

Others aren't troubled. Novelist Joseph Conrad saw his connection with the whole. He wrote about, "the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation -- and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts." Painter Piet Mondrian spoke of the artist's communion with something greater than the individual self, noting that, "Art has shown that universal expression can only be created by a real equation of the universal and the individual."

Artist Paul Klee saw that the whole speaks through the part, saying, "[The artist's] position is humble. He is merely a channel." Psychologist Erich Fromm sanctioned Klee's view. Fromm said that the creator:

... has to give up holding on to himself as a thing and begin to experience himself only in the process of creative response; paradoxically enough, if he can experience himself in the process, he loses himself. He transcends the boundaries of his own person, and at the very moment when he feels 'I am' he also feels 'I am you,' I am one with the whole world.

Pearce's 5-year-old son seems to have entered the One Mind and dipped from the cosmic soup the information that fulfilled a need at the time. The information arrived spontaneously, unasked, as a grace. But this does not mean that preparation and skills are not important in the creative process. Although creative breakthroughs can be spontaneous, it helps if we open the door and assist the process. The Fulani, a tribe in West Africa, extend this insight into a general principle: "God will not drive flies away from a tailless cow."

The door to creativity is often opened during meditation, reverie, or dreams, in which time is perceived as an eternal present in which the divisions of past, present, and future meld into an all-encompassing now. In this state, it is not just the separations in time that disappear, but also separations between people and things. This experience is amazingly common. It often erupts spontaneously, as when we are transfixed by a plangent musical note, the smell of fresh-baked bread, or a coyote's midnight howl. During these moments, if fortune smiles, we can become as Pearce's 5-year-old son who knew, for a while, "everything there was to know."

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