Tag Archives: Consciousness

Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 4

Rollo May thought we all have experiences similar to that of the scientist who brainstormed his Nobel prize-winning formula while he slept. While our dreams may not be as dramatic, May said we all experience “processes of forming, making, building…even if we are not consciously aware of them at the time.” Yesterday, my post focused on the physiological effects of intense creative encounters. Continuing where I left off in May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” we now switch our focus to the relationship between will and purpose in regard to creativity. It is clear that creativity “goes on in varying degrees of intensity on levels not directly under the control of conscious willing,” according to May. Yet, heightened awareness does not mean “increased self-consciousness,” he clarified. Instead, it correlates with abandoning ourselves to the creative process, becoming absorbed in it and this “involves a heightening of awareness in the whole personality.” Unconscious answers and insights to our problems that come “in review” are not hit or miss, though. They occur when we’re relaxing, fantasizing, or alternating play with work, he said. I know he’s not talking about creativity in the workplace, but what he said did make me think of it. Setting the mood for such creative breakthroughs is hardly the modus operandi of a typical workplace. However, it is likely that workplaces that do encourage high levels of creativity have playgrounds little different from the one in Tom Hanks’ “Big.” Radical Entertainment, a computer game company in Vancouver, has just such a play area for its employees. Still, it is very clear that intense creative encounters, wrote May, “pertain to those areas in which the person consciously has, worked laboriously and with dedication.” The phenomenon of purpose in human beings is so much more complex than what used to be termed will power. “Purpose involves all levels of experience. We cannot will to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity of dedication and commitment.” There is a relationship here, May said. “The deeper aspects of awareness are activated to the extent that the person is committed to the encounter.” Many years later, Julia Cameron would write about such a relationship in her groundbreaking book, The Artist’s Way, about kick starting creativity. I have followed her program several times when I found myself at a dead-end. We have all needed a push sometime or other. Standing on the edge of the diving board is much different from taking the plunge. I remember a very specific instance in my own life during my late teens. I was in charge of recruiting a model at the art school I attended and I chose my lovely friend, Cynthia. On the day she modeled, she wore a vintage dress and looked beautiful. Our teacher, Ken Spiering, and Cynthia were in the middle of the room, surrounded by a little circle of budding artists. I remember looking at the canvas in front of me, a canvas I’d made and gessoed. A fairly large one. As I stood before it, the whiteness loomed. I don’t know if I felt some type of self-consciousness over painting a friend, but the whiteness of the canvas in front of me kept growing larger and I could not put brush to canvas. My heart started pounding and, finally, I tore myself away, running out of the room, out of the building, and down the block till I got a grip on myself. In retrospect, it sounds like I had a panic attack. Regardless, I had to come back to the canvas. And I did. I could not will creativity, but I willed myself back into that studio.

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Rollo May’s “The Nature of Creativity,” Part 3

What exactly happens to us when we become full absorbed in creativity? It affects more than we may realize. Yesterday, we looked at the portion of Rollo May‘s writings on the creative process. Today, we move on to the Intensity of the Encounter, what May calls the the second element of the creative act. “Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved, and so on, are used commonly to describe the State of the artist or scientist when creating or even the child at play,” explains May. No matter what we call it, “genuine creativity is characterized by intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness.” He claims we all, artists included,”in moments of intensive encounter,” experience very clear neurological changes. May said these include

  • quickened heart beat;
  • higher blood pressure;
  • increased intensity and constriction of vision, with eyelids narrowed so that we can see more vividly the scene we are painting;
  • we become oblivious to things around us (as well as to the passage of time).”

The part about losing track of time explains a lot to me. Time ‘curves’ when I’m intently working on a project or work. I can even relate to the narrowing of the eyes; however, as yet, I cannot relate to the next aspect. “We experience a lessening of appetite — persons engaged in a creative act lose interest in eating at the moment,” according to May, “and may work right through mealtime without noticing it.” Maybe it differs with ceramics! After all, some of it is exercise, like wedging a big hunk of clay or working against centrifugal force on a wheel; it adds up! I will have to conduct my own scientific experiment and see if my appetite wanes with painting and drawing… May goes on to say that all of the reactions he listed inhibit the parasympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system, “which has to do with care, comfort, nourishment” and activate the sympathetic portion of our nervous system. When this occurs, it engages our fight or flight mechanism.  Ordinarily, such information, he says, neurologically

"I love the high from painting. The intense concentration and discovery, pushing my limits. Motivation isn't a problem - it would be much harder not to paint." — David Ladmore

correlates with fear and anxiety. However, though the fighting or fleeing mechanism is triggered, May states that “what the artist or creative scientist feels is not anxiety or fear; it is joy.” May said he used the word ‘joy’ as a contrast to pleasure or happiness. He explains that at the very “moment of creating,” the artist doesn’t feel satisfied or gratified, even though they might feel that way later. “Rather, it is joy, joy defined as the emotion that goes with heightened consciousness, the mood that accompanies the experience of actualizing one’s own potentialities.” I am astounded…May was so very insightful and wise. He continues, saying that “this intensity of awareness is not necessarily connected with conscious purpose or willing. It may occur in reverie or in dreams, or from so-called unconscious levels.” He then gives the example of a professor who for some time had been unsuccessful in figuring out a chemical formula. Suddenly, the very formula he sought came to him wholesale in a dream, after which he awoke and scribbled it on a piece of tissue in the dark. However, the next day, he couldn’t read his writing. Compelled, from then on, he thought about the dream intently before retiring. He recalled the formula, after a fashion, and wrote it down clearly. May said, “It was the formula he had sought and for which he received the Nobel prize.”

(Next: continuation of May’s the Intensity of the Encounter…covering will power and creativity and ecstatic Dionysian states, which May does not advocate as a vehicle for creativity.)

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