So, another retreat, another series of creative ideas. This time, the main one came on the first day as such a simple storyline that I almost ignored it. Also, it was quite different to what I have been working on recently. Not least because it announced itself as a screenplay: a series of images or scenes. By the end of the 11 days, I had plot, characters, beginning and ending, and passages of dialogue.
I’ve written before about the challenge of whether to pursue a creative idea on a retreat or do what you’re supposed to do and keep returning to the object of meditation. In a way, it was easier on this one as the theme was mindfulness itself. So the focus was receptivity rather than concentration. My creative ideas could be treated as ‘mind objects’ to be observed as they came in and out of being.
Being a regular issue for me, I raised it in the discussion and had two interesting responses.
The first was that this is just what the mind does. In Buddhist terms, objects arise in the mind on the basis of conditions. Though you can never be quite sure what those conditions are. We tend to think, ‘I am thinking x or y,’ but the thoughts come of their own volition. At best, ‘I’ (let’s not go there) can just observe the process.
It just so happens that two of the conditions for me are almost certainly a) the fact that I’ve been trying to write fiction for the last nine years, and b) that I’m always looking for new ideas. To expect this process to stop would be a little like expecting a driverless bulldozer to stop at the steps of the retreat centre.
The second observation came from a woman who had, in a number of early retreats, found herself writing letters of gratitude in her head during sits and trying to remember them afterwards. She said she had learnt to ignore the content and bring awareness to the quality of gratitude. In doing so she had created a sense of confidence that it could occur outside the meditation. She suggested I could do the same with creativity.
I would understand ‘quality’ as the physical sensation that accompanies such moments, one which often prompts further images and words.
Trying this out, I found two types. The first was a sort of patient confidence. Like sitting by a pool waiting for fish to come to the surface (like that illustration of the different pools in The Magician’s Nephew). Ideas did, and always have, come when they were ready to come. If I started splashing around in the water trying to find them it all got a bit confusing. But I could ask questions or make observations. A response would (or would not) then come of its own accord. For example, an idea that I thought was hackneyed was followed two days later by the same idea but turned into something more surprising.
The second kind of quality was similar to the sensation of coming up with the punchline to a joke. There is a set-up of thought, a vacuum, and the punchline appears inside it. The quality is a little like an open hand being held aloft or like torchlight being shone on the back of a cave.
I certainly found that I could extend the physical sensation by bringing awareness to it. Which was often quite pleasant, and a nice contrast to the usual state of slump or ruminative resentment. How it will affect the writing process I have yet to find out.
There is an interesting afterthought to this. I was discussing the ‘quality’ comment with another attendee who said that she agreed, but for a different reason. For her, it was about the willingness of the meditator to ‘let go’ of desired experience. She had once been on a retreat where they were asked to alternate twenty-minute sessions of mindfulness of breathing and walking. At the end of one breathing session she found herself in a heightened state of mind and did not want to give it up. And she could have stayed with it, it was the final session before a break. But, perhaps because of the routine established, she stopped. To her surprise the quality that she had established then stayed with her for about three weeks. She attributes this to her willingness to give it up. As I say, interesting. And maybe there is an application to creativity in meditation.
By the way, that was my last retreat for a while, in case you’re wondering how I seem to be able to go so often.