By VN Narayanan
Creativity is nothing peculiar to genius. Nor is suffering a precondition for it. All happy persons can be positively creative. It is not the hope of achieving fame or amassing wealth that drives the creatives, rather it is the opportunity to do the things they enjoy most
When time hangs on you, as it does with every person occasionally, you begin to indulge in lugubrious rumination. My thoughts this time wandered around human creativity and the seemingly incestuous relationship between creative geniuses and unhappiness. Why is it that history’s most creative people, the Mozarts, the Van Goghs, the Oscar Wildes and the like, always seem to have miserable personal lives? Does genius have to go with eccentric and bizarre behavior always? Or, is it that unhappiness is universal but the geniuses get their lives written about and we ordinary mortals think that their conduct is unique because they were unique humans?
The train of thought got derailed around here, and apropos of nothing imagined so far, I recalled a ballad sung by the Adi-Gallong tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, India, stuck in my mind for its happy rhythm. What the words of the song meant I never tried to find out, except that it was built around the motif of cotton picking in Arunachal Pradesh. I am now informed that the ballad is called Oyo Hoi Ya, describing the life of ‘Mother Village’ and its women in mundane but musically eloquent idioms of the cotton-picking activity.
Thanks to a fellow scribe, the translation of the song has reached me. The song starts:
Come, let us cheer her who toils for us all
night and day of whom we exploit endlessly.
Let us make her life more colorful;
let’s show her we care.
We all come from our mother’s heart,
spring from her bosom like sprouts
The pods of sesame burst and
The seeds are scattered far,
Arrows fly out of view
In diverse directions shot
From the old stem
From the old stock
As new leaves grow,
We too spring from old stock
I suddenly realized that creativity is nothing peculiar to genius. Contrariwise, genius is not exclusive but everywhere. All organisms, not merely humans, are creative. The very survival of the species—the mosquito outliving DDT and pests surviving strong man-made pesticides, the cockroach cocking a snook at killer sprays—all are based on creativity.
According to a Yale University computer scientist, David Gelerntner, all human beings ‘slide along a spectrum of thought processes’ on an average day and this could begin with ‘high-focus’ thinking where ‘we can sandwich many memories and pieces of knowledge and quickly extract the thing they all have in common’. It is not so much creative ability as assimilative expertise aiding swift decisions and quick action. Slide along the spectrum to ‘low focus’ and we become less good at homing in on details but our memories are more vivid, concrete and detailed’. The linking of memories and knowledge is more by emotion than by reason. When we are at the work place we are in ‘high-focus'; when we are in love, in ‘low-focus’. It is when people are in ‘middle-focus’ that they are at their most creative.
This is because the mind is free from both obligatory, occupational concerns and mind-numbing, un-reasoning emotions. In ‘middle-focus’, people make unusual connections—Newton and the apple, Archimedes and the bath tub, Kekule and the two snakes, Gandhi and the railway booking in South Africa—and they acquire insights which change the course of science, art and history. Gelerntner calls this mode ‘unconcentration’, which provides a person the right insight into things that already are in high-focus.
Creativity involves more than moments of ‘unconcentration’, relaxation and free association of unconnected thoughts. Human imagination, indeed all imagination, follows rules and thrives on constraints to provide clear-cut definitions to problems for which one seeks creative solutions. Creativity itself is undefinable. It is not originality. One of the easiest things in life is to be original and foolish. For long, creativity remained a mystery better left to poets, artists and the like. It always conjured up the messy, unverifiable world of muses, inspiration and intuition.
Today science has taken over these very traits—unverifiability (the theories of Freud or Hawking), inspirational (Einstein or Planck) and messy (DNA and Darwinism)—and so, things are scientifically expoundable even if not explainable. French mathematician Poincare identified four stages of creativity, which must have inspired the spectrum of high, middle and low focus mentioned above. The stages are: preparation (you try to solve a problem by available, normal means), incubation (when these don’t work and in frustration you move to other matters), illumination (the answer comes in a flash, when you are not looking for it), and verification (your reasoning powers re-assert and you are on the way to finding a solution). Most of us give up at the stage of incubation and miss the illumination and, consequently, the experience of creative joy. Mark Twain put it nicely: Happiness, he said, ‘is like the Swedish sunset. It’s always there. Only, people look the other way and miss it’.
There’s thus a correlation between creativity and happiness. All creative persons are not happy, but all happy persons can be positively creative. They all love what they do. It is not the hope of achieving fame or amassing wealth that drives them; rather, it is the opportunity to do the things they enjoy most. They feel an inner glow and they exude it. Many people do the work they do, and many do it better, but most of them either do not enjoy it or do it as a painful duty expected of them. Or, the spur is fame, power, money, publicity, awards and honors.
All my life, I have been on the lookout for persons with that inner glow. I found it in the late Kanchi Paramacharya; I found it in Mata Amritanandamayi, Bhagat Puran Singh of Pingalwara, late Dattatreya Bendre of Dharwar, and a number of middle-focus persons in all walks of life.
We all tend to talk about happiness as if it is a mythological creature that lives outside us—up above or over there. It is elusive and uncooperative. It doesn’t come when we want it. Like a key, or one’s spectacles, we often misplace it. People who give it to you—parents, employers, lovers, children, friends… God—seem to retain the power to take it away and the only place you are likely to hold on to it is in your memories. Little wonder that so many of us spend so much time of our life making ourselves unhappy. We often forget that happiness is not an elixir, but a state of mind that must be earned.
A Chicago-based mind scientist with an unpronounceable name—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—has employed verifiable scientific techniques to prove that ‘happiness is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated and defended privately by each person’. You won’t find happiness (or creativity) if you consciously search for it. It’s something of a bonus—the fruits of good karma, as per the Gita—that you get when you are immersed in tasks that you find engaging and challenging. He calls this optimal state of mind as ‘flow’—when our minds and bodies are stretched to their limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something worthwhile and difficult. A higher stage of this flow is ‘autotelic self’ when a person is able to ‘translate potential threats into enjoyable challenges’. He or she is able to maintain ‘inner harmony and so is never bored, seldom anxious and spends most waking hours experiencing flow’.
The opposite of ‘flow’ is psychic entropy. How you feel when you are running your child’s birthday party and the phone rings and someone gruffly tells you that you owe the power board six months’ unpaid bills and they are going to disconnect the power lines. You explain that you have paid all dues, there must be a mistake, etc., lose your temper, shout and spoil your mood, spoil the party and try as you might you cannot get back ‘on top of things’. Any bad thing happening makes you unravel a little more.
We live in a world that induces psychic entropy rather than flow. People with the inner glow are getting fewer and fewer and people who can’t see the inner glow even when they come across it are growing in number. It’s good to find oneself in the inspirational minority, as did Wordsworth:
And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of thought,
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