According to legend, the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor, Archimedes, was taking a relaxing bath when he discovered his displacement principle: A submerged object displaces a volume of fluid equal to the volume of the object. If the legend is to be believed, the math wiz was so energised and excited by his inspired discovery that he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse exclaiming, ‘Eureka!’
A similar story is attached to science star, Sir Isaac Newton, who was said to be relaxing under an apple tree when a falling apple inspired a question (why do apples always fall straight down to the ground?) that ultimately led to Newton’s law of universal gravitation.
This idea that inspiration often strikes while we are relaxing is partially captured in an aphorism by the celebrated author, Idries Shah, who writes: ‘Trying to force something is the best way to stop it happening.’ Past effort might help us recognise inspiration when it arrives, but we cannot heroically will a game-changing idea into existence. Inspiration visits us when we’re busy doing nothing.
Being in a relaxed state is frequently associated with inspiration and creativity. Even, sleep, that most extreme state of relaxation, inactivity and inattentiveness, is occasionally associated with inspired ideas. Examples of great things inspired by dreams include Einstein’s theory of relativity, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and The Beatles’ song, ‘Yesterday’.
Even Google, the number that became a household name, was inspired by a dream. Back in 1996, Larry Page, co-founder of Google, had an irrational fear that he would be kicked out of college due to an administrative error. Page’s anxiety fuelled a dream about downloading the whole internet and storing it on individual PCs. The waking-state exploration of this possibility then led to the creation of Google.
But we don’t need to go to sleep to enjoy the benefits of creative mind states. John Teasdale, Clinical Psychologist and recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientist Award, describes two modes of mind – being and doing. In the doing-mode, we give narrowly focused attention to tasks or problems that are to be solved or avoided. However, when we are in being-mode, our attention is more broadly focused, surveying experience with an attitude of kindly curiosity and acceptance. This broad focus- the big picture being-mode- is associated with mindfulness meditation and also with creativity.
Recent psychological interest in the neurocognitive and psychological effects of mindfulness meditation have further explored these links between relaxation (non-doing states) and creativity.
In one study, published in Cognitive Therapy Research, participants who attended a 10-day intensive mindfulness meditation course demonstrated superior performance on an insight problem-solving task compared to a control group. Typically, Insight problem solving depends on creativity, intuition and inspiration for solutions.
Another study, published in the journal Mindfulness, looked at the effect of meditation on divergent creativity – the ability to come up with lots of ideas – and found that, in seasoned meditators and novices alike, certain forms of meditation significantly improved performance on tasks designed to measure divergent creativity.
Meditation is too frequently depicted as sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat. If you search the term ‘meditation’ on Google Images, you will get lots of examples of this. But meditation, ultimately, is about where we choose to put our attention and the quality of that attention. Meditation can be walking along a deserted beach listening to the waves, meditation can be exploring the new sights sounds and smells of an exotic holiday location, meditation can be sitting underneath an apple tree or luxuriating in a bubble bath.
If we are fortunate enough to get a summer vacation, then that is a great time to cultivate creativity and invite inspiration. However, inspiration (إلهام – Ilhaam) is a fickle friend; don’t be too surprised if she’s a no-show. ‘Trying to force something is the best way to stop it happening.’
Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.