Creative Focus

Today I am asking you to pay attention. Not to this blog post, though we should begin here, but rather to something else of your own choosing. And not any old attention. A special kind that many of you won’t be accustomed to.

We all think we know what that means to focus but in my experience we tend not to pay attention to things in a neutral way, we pay attention in a way which is analytical, judgemental, preconditioned by various assumptions and aims.

Consider a conversation with a friend. When you pay attention to your friend, are you paying attention in a neutral way or are you on the lookout for a specific thing? Waiting to see if they mention the thing you expected them to say, looking for an opportunity to tell the story you’ve had queued up or silently correcting their grammar? Or should that be correcting their grammar silently?

The problem with this sort of focus is that we’re only ever really looking for one thing and in looking for that one thing we miss everything else. I’m reminded of a time when I was a child. My dad asked me to go get his lawn trimmer from the shed. I went in, looked, looked and looked and couldn’t see it. I came out to tell my dad it was not in the shed. We went back in together and he found it instantly, right there by the door. Why didn’t I see it?

It turns out that I didn’t see it because it didn’t look like what I was expecting to see. In my mind I pictured something orange because I’d been exposed to so many adverts from Flymo. But this trimmer was green. Attention, when conditioned by incorrect or unhelpful assumptions, is often worse than useless. Instead of focusing us and making us better at what we do, it can ensure we miss the very thing we’re looking for.

Creativity is dependent on insights. In a very real sense, when we express creativity we don’t make anything, all we do is see things that others haven’t seen yet and understand them, find a connection or a meaning that others don’t notice and then find a way to express that. Seeing things we aren’t expecting to see requires a special kind of focus, a focus based on the three fundamentals of mindfulness:

  1. Concentration
  2. Clarity
  3. Acceptance

In this sense, to concentrate, means not to direct attention at a narrow question but just to place attention on something and follow that thing. To ask questions but not allow those questions to become the focus of attention. Concentration takes time. Depending on how you ask the question you might find that you need between 15 minutes and half an hour to properly get going in any given task. How long do we usually allow ourselves to concentrate on any given thing before we give up or tick off the task as complete?

Clarity is what we develop when we allow our focus to seep into the object of attention without judgement and without precondition. When humans look at the world we make quick judgements about what we see. Once we have placed something into a box, labelled it and stacked it in the appropriate section of our consciousness, we stop noticing anything new about that thing. In many ways we replace the thing with our labels. The thing is no longer the object of attention. In mindfulness attention must remain on the object, not on the questions or the labels.

Acceptance is the final piece of the puzzle without which we cannot gain real insights. Most of us like to see what we expected to see. Seeing something unexpected is mentally harder work. Depending on the subject it may be emotionally challenging too. Without acceptance, without openness to seeing and hearing, feeling and perceiving whatever comes, we quickly begin to devote energies to rejecting things we don’t want to know about. Before too long we aren’t really concentrating on the object anymore, we’re more concerned with avoiding the things we find uncomfortable or upsetting.

When I coach teams and individuals to help them overcome creative blockers, self limiting assumptions and anticreative beliefs, the hardest part is often to help them develop the level of concentration, clarity and acceptance necessary to find the insights that will direct the creative flow.

So that is what I want you to try to do today. Think about the object of your creativity, examine it, without judgement and without preconditions, without expectations and without the desire to conclude or take anything away other than simply a deeper level of clarity.

Choose an object, place your focus on it, and just rest with that. Watch as your focus deepens, clarity emerges and then accept what you perceive. Do this often enough and insight is inevitable. You have begun the creative process.

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