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Lions Roar : September 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2012 81 wherever it wants. And you know what? This is where I have all my best ideas.” Recent studies at Schooler’s laboratory in California confirm that those who consistently engage in more daydreaming do indeed score higher on measures of creativity. At the company 3M, which is based in Minnesota, employees are encouraged to practice “flexible attention.” Instead of being required to sit at their desks for eight long hours each day, they are free to go for walks across campus, to play a game of pinball with a friend, to lie down on a couch by a sunny window. They practice what is called “the 15 percent rule,” which is to say they can spend up to 15 percent of their time “pursuing speculative new ideas.” Such speculation (aka daydreaming) is understood as a valuable activity in and of itself. As Lehrer explains, it initiates an “elaborate electrical conversation” between the front and back parts of the brain, so that the prefrontal lobes (located just behind the eyes) fire in sync with the posterior cingulate, medial temporal lobe, and precuneus, something they do not ordinarily do. There is no question that it can also pay off handsomely, in terms of the all-important bottom line. Fascinated as I am by these inside stories, I enjoy Lehrer’s writ- ing most when he puts creative chaos front and center. I think, for example, of his account of Bob Dylan’s songwriting break- through after his long, exhausting British tour in 1965. Dylan emerged from that tour determined to quit the music business. “I realized I was very drained,” he later said. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.” As soon as he got back to New York, he sped to Woodstock on his Triumph motorbike. He was going to spend some time alone. He was going to start work on a novel. But then, all of a sudden, he felt what Lehrer describes as “the itch of insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down.” And once he started, he simply couldn’t stop. “I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,” Dylan said. “I’d never written any- thing like that before.” The piece, which was to become the debut single on High- way 61 Revisited, was angry and incoherent, what the literary critic Christopher Ricks has called an “unlove song.” But it had its own confidence, its own astonishing momentum. Its very chaos allowed Dylan to bring together all his multifarious influ- ences, from Arthur Rimbaud to Bertolt Brecht to Delta Blues, from Fellini to The Beatles. It was, as Lehrer says, “modernist and premodern, avant-garde and country-western.” Dylan was delighted by it. For him, it was his first “completely free song.” That same year, 1965, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones had a parallel breakthrough, though in his case it took place in his sleep. One night in May, he passed out early, his tape recorder set close beside his bed. When he woke up the next morning, he discovered that he’d apparently pressed the record button dur- ing the night and the tape had run to the very end. At first he thought nothing had been recorded. But when he went back to the beginning and pressed play, “there, in some sort of ghostly version, [was] the opening of a song.” It was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” followed, as he explained to Terry Gross in a 2010 interview, “by forty minutes of me snoring.” Making time for a long daydreaming walk, “vomiting out” long incoherent screeds, singing in our sleep—such tactics will not turn the rest of us into celebrity scientists or world-class musicians. Those who pore over Lehrer’s book as if it were a blueprint, a recipe book of cru- cial revelations, a fast shortcut to their own creative processes, are going to be disappointed. Understanding the neuroscience of creativity is not the same as being able to generate such brain- waves for ourselves, or indeed, to surf those waves. Buddhist teachings make a distinction between the dharma as it is taught and the dharma as it is practiced and experienced. The graphic designer Milton Glaser, now in his eighties, says, “People need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process.” That said, Jonah Lehrer makes a gallant attempt to provide his readers with some form of useful “take away.” He advises us, for example, to accept “Getting Stumped”—as Dylan was— since in the very act of feeling frustrated, the brain will shift from the left side to the more creative right side, which in turn can lead to moments of insight. He also advises grit and perse- verance (“Stick With It”), though he is keen too, like Jonathan Schooler and the 3M employees, that we should remember to “Take a Break.” Finally, he suggests that we “Become Outsiders,” whether through actual travel or simply through “sleeping on it” (as Keith Richards did), and that we allow ourselves to recon- nect with our own childhood inventiveness as we “Channel Our Inner Seven-Year-Old.” Buddhist practitioners will translate this advice into their own experience on the cushion and find, perhaps, some interesting parallels. Meditation, contemplation, chaos, creativity. In the end, they all return us to the same calm place: the shifting beauty of the present moment, the small flies buzzing round the empty glass, the sheer astonishment of being alive. ♦