My friend Pauline was trying Zentangles—doodling exercises that promise to pull your concentration into drawing in a way that frees the rest of your mind to come up with creative ideas. Since I’d been stuck in a creative block for months, I decided to follow her lead.
As I waited for my workbook to show up, I thought about how creative longtime practitioners of Buddhism tend to be.
When I was in South Korea on a pilgrimage 14 years ago, it felt like every third monk was a gifted artist of some form: an illustrator, a renowned potter, a poet. The sutras, or teachings, of the Buddha could have something to do with this.
The Diamond Sutra, for example, is an ancient story that manifests creativity through and through. It starts out slowly and carefully. Shakyamuni Buddha gets up one morning, puts on his robes, goes on a begging round, comes back, eats, washes his feet to freshen up, straightens out his robes, and sits down. No big deal.
Then one of his longtime followers, Subhuti, speaking for the 1,200 people sitting around Buddha, asks him a simple question: “How can a person be of service to the world?” With that, the gathering explodes into a dance of questions and answers that is so vital and juicy and impactful that Subhuti literally has to stop at one point to weep with joy. Embedded in the teachings are countless ideas for how we can each be of service.
When Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was teaching in the 20th century, he would admonish his students to use their innate creative energy to “shine one corner” and make the world a better place in some small way.
At Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit, we took his instructions pretty literally, picking up the trash in the street around our block every day. Once we decided to hold a “scavenger hunt” cleanup of the two vacant lots across the street from the temple. The winner, a little girl, got a miniature treasure box filled with M&M’s for her find: a tiny doll in an old glass bottle.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, we strung a huge banner along the front fence: “Hate never dispels hate. Only love dispels hate.” For years after, neighborhood people would come up and sit on the abbey’s front porch, savoring the quiet during a period of great unrest in the world.
It seemed strange to me at the time that the ideas for each of these projects popped up during meditation retreats. Out of the stillness, idea after idea would come. After one long retreat several years ago, I went home and started writing nonstop. It felt like this book had been waiting years for me to quiet down enough to hear what wanted to be written. The entire first draft wrote itself in about six weeks; sometimes it felt like I couldn’t write fast enough.
There are a thousand different ways to access creativity.
In my experience, each one, at its bottom, is about tapping into the stillness of each of us—call it grace, God, or big mind—where all things are possible. All the time. It is a bottomless treasure trove of creative ideas, each one waving at us and crying out, “Pick me! Pick me!”
I’ve trusted stillness as the place to find ideas ever since I wrote that book—which eventually became Stumbling Toward Enlightenment. Whenever I have a problem or feel the need to start a new project, I simply sit and meditate for a while, maybe 30 minutes, maybe a bit longer. I don’t even think of the problem or project while I do. Instead I simply sit and watch my breathing. Invariably, when I finish and ask myself, “So what is the answer?” I have an idea.
Most recently, I decided to take my own advice and sit quietly with the question of what to write about for my next book. As soon as I got up, I had it: Making Molehills out of Mountains. For chapters, I’ll tap an ancient, tried-and-true collection of teachings called the Flower Ornament Sutra that just happens to be chock-full of advice on how to stop worrying about every little thing and live our lives with great compassionate fearlessness. I can’t wait to get started. —S&H