Letting Go in Mastering Creativity

Understanding the fractal process of creativity and how it allows us to master it in an ever increasing context, even allowing us to let go of our constructed Self.

I mentioned in my last post a personal “altered state” experience from many years back. Why I decided to fully share this experience now is because I noticed similarities to how this experience was so extremely difficult to replicate for myself (that I was never able to do so again) and how it mirrors the extreme difficulty in achieving aspects of the triple-loop learning process as described by Markus F. Peschl in his paper entitled Triple-Loop Learning as Foundation for Profound Change, Individual Cultivation, and Radical Innovation.

As I mentioned in trying to replicate my experience, my greatest fear was in not being able to return to my sense of self and identity because I had to let go of my sense of self and identity and fall into this space of both emptiness and everything (extreme darkness and light). The following excerpt from the paper is what caught my attention, as it seems to mirror this same very thing on an existential level.

The Fear of Letting Go

Letting go. In order to reach this state of emergence it is – at first – necessary to let go what one has discovered in this process of redirection and exploration of one’s own premises, assumptions, etc. “ […] you have to change from voluntarily turning your attention from the exterior to the interior, to simply accepting and listening. In other words, […] you go from “looking for something” to “letting something come to you,” to “letting something be revealed.” What is difficult here is that you have to get through an empty time, a time of silence, and not grab onto whatever data is immediately available, for that’s already been rendered conscious, and what you’re after is what is still unconscious at the start.” (Depraz, Varela, and Vermersch 2003, p. 31) Of course, this process can cause existential fear in some cases, because one loses the (epistemological) ground on which one is standing and which normally provides a rather stable cognitive framework. This is a well-known state in the constructivist framework (if it is adopted in a reflected manner). Being in a state of receptivity always means being in a relatively passive role which brings about a higher chance of being (epistemologically and existentially) hurt. However, surrendering into this rather receptive and open state does not imply that one is completely passive; rather, the contrary is the case: in a way one finds oneself in an active state of extremely high attention towards what is coming up without trying to project one’s own expectations, plans, knowledge, etc. It is a slightly paradoxical situation: on the one hand one is waiting seemingly passively for what is going to happen and on the other hand this is a highly active state concerning one’s attention and receptiveness. These processes of trying to get empty and at the same time to be attentive towards what is going on “out there” are well known from art and religious traditions as well as from Husserl’s phenomenological approach (e.g., the concept of epoche).

This is the closest description I’ve seen to describing the moment just before I’m ready to try to cross over into this altered-state. Experientially I’m cocooned in this rhythmic experience of deep breathing and visually seeing “waves” of something (or nothingness) drifting across my eyes, even though they are closed. As I said, it is in this in between space where I am neither where I am nor where I want to be. I’m just letting go, letting things happen, and letting things emerge. Again I’m totally passive, letting things emerge but at the same time very awake, attentive, and receptive to what is trying to happen. I believe this may mirror what is also known as “holding space” for others but on a different lower level of being.

But of course, again at the point where this “portal” of feeling emerges, as though I am being pulled through into an altered state that is greater than my Self, that’s where the “existential fear” strikes. The fear that if I let this happen, I will lose my self and identity and not be able to return to my Self. In effect, “I” will be lost forever within this in between space.

The Process of Creativity

One can describe that process as a U-shaped curve that is realized in a series of states: the left branch going down the “U” focuses on issues of observation, perception, sensing, discovery of patterns of thought and cognition, and on how to leave these patterns behind oneself in order to be cognitively and emotionally “prepared” for profound change. At the bottom one finds him-/herself in the state of presencing: it can be characterized as a condition of high receptivity and openness and as a state where radically new knowledge/ change can emerge. The upward branch deals with issues concerning the realization, prototyping, and embodying these changes in the (external or internal) environment.

Going beyond the excitement of seeing words that describe this altered-state experience I had decades ago are seeing words, like the ones above, that also closely mirror what I’ve been trying to articulate as the process of creativity for past five years or more. In effect, the three “branches” of this U-Theory (or as Peter Senge refers to it as “presencing”) are what I refer to as the Connecting, Empowering, and Inspiring stages of the creative process.

The Fractal Universality of the Creative Process

Finally, it has to be mentioned that this way of looking at profound change processes can not only be applied on an individual level (“individual cultivation”), but also in the collective domain of organizations, social systems, etc.

What’s even more remarkable is seeing the above words which I’ve reiterated time and again that the process of creativity is mirrored universally at both the individual and collective level. In effect, it is a fractal process. That’s why it’s not so much a linear process as it is a cyclic and spiral one. When one begins to see the “multitude” of themselves individually (and later how this actually leads to the Future of Work with multi-potential people working in a completely new context), one begins to understand this.

Learning to Master Creativity in New Ways & Contexts

If these methods were combined with approaches from other fields (such as phenomenology), a highly sophisticated and powerful paradigm for radical/profound change could emerge. This paradigm would not only have a deep impact on the process of how profound change can be brought about, but could also trigger a new understanding of science that is compatible with the constructivist approach and that has a broader perspective on knowledge, its dynamics, and its permanent renewal and innovation.

This closing paragraph really surprised me though because when I read the words “a new understanding of science”, I immediately thought of Dave Gray using the scientific method for his Lab of the Possible. And when I thought of that, I immediately realized I was seeing a bigger fractal pattern here, one that I was able to step back from and see it rippling outward at a broader and broader scale.

You see I have been realizing more and more that while the process of creativity has this universality to it, at the same time there are these differences with it as one evolves and grows through the stages of human development (ie Cook-Greuter, Frédéric Laloux, etc). In effect, yes everyone is obviously creative but obviously not all in the same way. What I’m referring to here is how a person learns to master creativity. In effect, like everything else (even understanding your passion and purpose in life), it’s not an off or on state but rather a process of learning, articulating, and mastering it over time and, more importantly, applying this creative capacity in new ways and in new contexts.

And if you look at and understand the evolution of moving from single-loop learning to double-loop learning to triple-loop learning, this same fractal pattern of changing creative context can be seen. In working towards mastering single-loop learning, one realizes and learns that the things within our reality are creatively constructed. In working towards mastering double-loop learning, one realizes and learns that the reality around them is creatively constructed. In working towards triple-loop learning, one realizes and learns that their very sense of Self is creatively constructed. So again collectively, one is learning to master creativity in an ever increasingly greater context.

My Experience

In light of some recent research that has verified a higher level perspective of the creative process that I’ve been intuiting for some time, I thought it important to relay an experience that occurred to me back in the early 1990s. Why it is important to do so is because aspects of this experience seem to closely mirror the descriptions I’ve recently read in a research paper. In effect, my life seems to be coming full circle and this experience seems to be a foundational moment to it.

Back in the early 1990s, I was living with my wife in Vancouver, having been together at least two or three years. While going to sleep one night, I feel asleep in an unusual sort of way compared to normal. I was lying on my back with my arms crossed in front of me and my legs and feet next to each other touching firmly. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought to myself that I felt like I was lying like an ancient Egyptian pharaoh being buried and passing on to the afterlife. 

As I drifted off to sleep though, I also noticed my breathing was very deep and rhythmic. The blankets on the bed had been pulled up enough that they were close to my face and mouth but not close enough to be touching. So there was this gap, a space, where my breathing was channeled and focused, making it more noticeable. As I breathed and listened to myself breathing, this sense of being in between this space amplified. So I was not thinking of myself in bed, nor thinking of the room around me. I was in a sort of in between empty space between both.

When I finally drifted off to sleep, the locations within my dream seemed very apocalyptic. I was on an abandoned highway that was climbing higher and higher into the hills and into a mountain range (reminiscent of the California hills used in the TV series MASH). Destroyed cars and school buses lay strewn alongside the roadside. In front of me, an overpass lay broken and crumbled on the roadway, as I continued to slowly climb up and up. 

Eventually I neared the top of the hilly mountain range and stepped up and onto its peak. When I did, something shifted profoundly in the experience. It’s like I was no longer in a dream but what was happening to me was now very real and vivid. As I stepped up onto the top of the hilly mountain range, my body just lifted up into the air and I began to float forward off the edge of the mountain. My gaze shifted to what was in front of me and what I felt was so vivid it is hard to describe. 

Imagine being able to feel every single atom in your body and every single atom floating around you. That’s what it felt like. I felt completely naked, being able to feel everything at the tiniest detail. I could feel the air around me…the space, the emptiness, the environment, the flow (reminiscent of the Amy Adams scene in Arrival shown above, where her hair is flowing as she floats). In the background, I could still hear my breathing but it became a rhythmic part of the breath of this space. Small chimes could be heard in the distance as well. 

After the feeling of the space, I looked up and experienced the visual grandeur of it. It was like seeing nothing and everything at the same time. Around me, the black emptiness of space engulfed me. It was enormous, beyond comprehension. And yet in front of me in the far distance was a light, so great it was blinding. So there I floated, between a space of infinite emptiness and infinite light. I remember someone telling me it must have been scary, yet I felt completely safe, like I was floating within my mother’s womb. 

And then I “awoke”, if it can be called that. I opened my eyes and I felt like I was both back in my bed but also still in the space I envisioned at the same time. I could feel every cell in my body, hear the rhythmic breathing and chimes fading as I slowly looked around my bed room. 

I can’t remember if I told my wife of the experience after it happened the next day. I don’t think I did until years later. Where it gets really interesting though is that I tried to replicate entering this “altered state” again later, lying and breathing in the same way. I always came close to it, to the edge of it, but failed to fully cross over though because of one primary thing. A fear of losing myself in the crossover.

It was like when I opened this space in between spaces, I felt like the stability of who I was started to vanish. In effect, to enter into this space, this state, I had to fully let go of who I was. I had to be nothing and everything at the same time. The fear that arose in doing this was never the fear of letting go, which I thought it was at first, but the fear of never coming back to what I was. So this fear of being lost in this void with no sense of self, no solid, stable sense of identity. That was the fear that prevented me from crossing over and experiencing this experience again.