As a musician, I spend a lot of my time theorising about what it means to be creative, to find fulfilment from creativity and to find ways to increase my creative output. But as a person - without the label of 'musician' - I also try to find better ways to understand the suffering and joys of life in a world where compassion has become somewhat ignored in place of competitiveness, fear and self-deprecation. Here are just some of the things I would like to share with you about my understanding of creativity and compassion and how we can use the two in combination to enrich our lives. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, more an introduction into what it means to be creative and compassionate.
I recently read a book called 'Creativity - the psychology of discovery and invention' (1996) by Mihay Csikszentmihalyi (the psychologist who coined the term 'flow'), which inspired me to share some of the insights I discovered within the pages and to compile them alongside my own interpretations and thoughts.
WARNING - Some physics references may materialise out of nowhere.
As you can imagine, being creative, or presenting novel ideas does not just manifest itself within the confines of an individual's mind without external influences. It is a holistic phenomenon, the sum of the parts of both the physical (your surroundings, upbringing, relationships etc.) and metaphysical (the nature of your reality emanating from the relationship between potentiality and actuality - mind and matter) world's. Therefore, as Csikszentmihalyi has so well documented, it is impossible to present a hypothesis or guide on what it objectively means to be creative or how to become a creator of unique ideas.
Compassion on the other hand is 'hard wired' into most, if not all of us - in our genes - and manifests itself through the simple acts of caring for others' well-being, as Paul Gilbert so elegantly puts it in his book 'Compassionate Mind' (2009). Compassion is an evolutionary advantage that is not unique to humans. For many mammals for example, when compassion is shown to an infant by a parent or caregiver, it elicits a response and the activation of the soothing/contentment area of the brain. The area that is responsible for the release of 'happy hormones' which, in turn, reduce anxiety and create feelings of safety and content happiness. This feeling of 'safety' allows mammals (such as humans) to then focus their other goals - aside from only survival - such as strengthening communities and relationships, discovering novel ideas (such as the advancement of technology) and consequently caring and showing compassion to others.
Modern society - especially in the west - teaches most of us to be competitive over compassionate, and ruthless instead of creative. It is often a culture designed to sell better, bigger and more desirable things to people by telling them that what they have is not good enough. Physical beauty is lauded as the pinnacle of all achievements. School is organised in a way that students are trained to pass standardised tests, not to think creatively and uniquely. Promotions and larger salaries are seen in employment as the primary measures of success, to the detriment of being content with working towards shared values.
It is clear to see then, that expressing creativity and compassion - however beneficial it may be to our minds and well-being - is becoming increasingly difficult (Gilbert, 2009). Showing compassion for others and ourselves, and engaging with our creative skills are interlinked by causality, but we need to train these systems and actively encourage ourselves to do so.
It Is Not The Baseline
In the physical and the metaphysical self contained systems, such as a star in space or our own minds, when left devoid of intentional and purposeful interference, they naturally gravitate to a state of disorder - entropy (the second law of thermodynamics) - which naturally increases over time. You can cook toast bread but you can't un-toast it, you can crack an egg but you can't un-crack it. It is the reason why stars burn and in my opinion, it is the same reason why when left idle and unfocused for too long, our minds conjure random, chaotic and scattered thoughts, often leading to depression, anxiety or other unfavourable deviations from a balanced, fulfilled and rewarding existence. Without creativity and compassion, the baseline is suffering.
To continue the comparison, a human mind is made up of connections which are strengthened and developed over a lifetime of experiences and sensing/reacting to the surrounding environment - constantly altering expectations and assumptions. This is how we learn things and then struggle to forget what we have learned (a person wearing an angry expression promotes a fear reaction because of the potential threat of violence & once you learn to ride a bike it is difficult to forget how). A star on the other hand is made of atoms drawn together through minute variations in the domain of the early universe (theoretically), creating nuclear furnaces which burn for billions of years through a chain reaction underpinned by entropy.
Although entropy is a very difficult to oppose in the case of the star, we can do something to help alleviate the baseline suffering of life in the entropy of our minds. We can learn to practice being compassionate to ourselves and others, and to express creativity, thus re-enforcing the soothing/contentment areas of our brains and learning new brain patterns and associations. Therefore giving us the mental space to focus on the things which are important, such as creativity and working towards our values, which in turn increase our desire to be compassionate through further activation of our soothed brains. Compassion leads to creativity and creativity inspires compassion.
Ulysses Contracts' as Self-Protective Measures
We set ourselves Ulysses Contracts' to ensure that we do not fall into traps from which we know we will be powerless to escape - 'Ulysses must sail past the sirens without being drawn to his death'. This can be articulated in an example whereby someone (the receiver) has been emotionally and/or physically abandoned or betrayed by a care giver(s) (parent, partner, close friend), for extra potency, the hurt inflicted is seemingly out of the blue. The receiver of the feelings of abandonment/betrayal may learn a cognitive pattern that follows the internal narrative of 'when I feel close to someone, they will leave me and hurt me without any notice'. In this way, the receiver may then develop strategies whereby they will avoid falling into the trap of being betrayed/abandoned by those whom they hold dearest by avoiding the closeness and love of these caring relationships, or if the receiver is aware of these 'contracts' that they have developed as self-protective strategies, may try to overcome the avoidant behaviour and still seek out close relationships of trust and love, but are often still haunted by anxieties and fear that this yet again is the 'trap' they have promised themselves never to fall into again.
These feelings and actions are all too normal and do not suggest defectiveness, but instead are a learned pattern (both physiologically and psychologically) of self preservation. No one wants to be betrayed or hurt, especially unexpectedly by those whom you love the most.
By creating these self-protective measures - which are often subconscious - we often act from a place of primal fear and anxiety, in a way that these perceived threats to self activate the innate responses of 'fight or flight' within us. Acting out of fear and anxiety then in turn leads to feelings (for ourselves and for others) of disgust, resentment and hate, all of which are in opposition to acts of compassion (Gilbert, 2009).
Csikszentmihalyi (1996) showed that of all the individuals he studied, to be creative required compassion in some form, for others, for nature, for animals or for the self. Often the compassion to or from family or a spouse was the reason a person could continue their work and often compassion for the cause was again a driving factor in following such goals. Gilbert (2009) explains that having compassion for ourselves and others allows us the psychological space to live a more balanced life and appreciate things which we are blind to when in a state of high mental entropy (disorder) and when suffering chronically from anxiety and depression. This space allows us to more easily express our creativity and therefore show compassion more fluidly. It is the best example of cause and effect with equal and opposite reactions to actions.
Practice compassion every day if you can, for the benefit of yourself and everyone around you. Practice compassion to allow your creativity to flourish. Allow your creativity in turn to inspire your compassion.
Thank you for reading.
Click the links below to purchase either of the books which inspired this article.