I purposefully choose to drive 800 miles on Wednesday. Purists have scoffed when I say washing dishes, long-distance running, and long commutes are my meditation.
Still I wondered that morning as I looked out at the dreary foreboding sky why I was coming to Utah. And what possessed me to drive instead of fly as I started out the journey in dreary drizzling rain.
But I persevered and drove through the rain, the snow, the fog, and the clearing skies. I drove by ribbons and swaths of evergreen forest blanketed by the first snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The most intricate of snowflakes gingerly trickled down the windshield as I crested Donner Pass.
No radio out of choice. Practically non-existent cell phone coverage. No laptop. No Internet. Nothing but what's in front of me. An uninterruptible twelve-hour respite. Including a break from my own thoughts for a change. These "incubation" periods are part of my creative process.
I watched rolling low clouds tumble over hills and mountains on the high desert plateu like children at play. This was day two of the rains. When a good rain is over, you know how the air is ultra-crisp and electrically charged? It was like that. The sky was more mysterious than I've ever seen it on this drive.
And it was autumn. You miss the markers of the passing of time in California. The coarse grasses and scraggly bush were painted hues of dusty sage, rustic red and tawny gold. The last rays of sunshine were muffled by the low clouds crowning the hills ahead and cast a heart-stoppingly surreal baby blue glow.
I knew why I'd driven.
I was could have gotten out of the car at any moment to kiss the ground. I was so grateful to see the 360 degree horizon. Thankful for the land that stretched as far as the eye could imagine. The West is Big Sky country. I missed it so much.
For centuries, European artists have drawn inspiration from the sky, reading allegorical meanings and allusions in its inexhaustible expanse, its endless play of color, light and shape. But for nineteenth-century Romantics, the empyrean realm took on a near-religious importance, symbolizing pure spirit, creative genius, and endless flights of imaginative fancy. - Pilgrimage: The Spirit of Place
I don't want to over-romanticize this stretch of highway. They say it is stark, desolate and god-forsaken. In the book Traveler's Tales Ireland (I think), there's a story of a hitchhiker feeling the need to punctuate the silence and he remarks to his host, This sure is god-forsaken country. Yes, the driver nods, it's God's country.
We can all have our own theories as to why Ireland ranks #1 in percentage of creative class workers by population - 33.5% to the U.S.'s 23.6% (from October's Harvard Business Review, America's Looming Creativity Crisis). My theory is the country has an ancient and cherished heritage of music, dance, and yarn-spinning (also known as story-telling and writing).
And it doesn't take very long to be in the middle of nowhere from the center of Dublin. In no time at all you can be nestled in the heather of the mountains of Wicklow in the very caves where St. Kevin escaped to live his life as a hermit. The endless verdant pastures and vast sea evoke the same big sky feel for me there.
When all is said and done, though, it's not about a specific place so much. Big sky country just brings back a recollection of and a taste of Big Mind.
In the spell of such places, there is no need to think and analyze, hesitate and argue, deny and challenge, or question the path. The place shows the way. You follow. You don't even try to put it into words. - Pilgrimage: The Spirit of Place
This week I've had two people ask me where my ideas come from. There are many ways to answer this question. Let me start with the most unrational. Or more precisely, the transrational.
Frans Johansson 's Harvard Business Working Knowledge excerpt of The Medici Effect (finally a business book that is a pleasure to read) unravels the mystery behind a culinary enigma. It poses questions such as "What enables him to so freely connect disparate concepts, ideas, ingredients, and styles? ":
In early January of 1995, Jan Sandel, the executive chef at the Swedish restaurant Aquavit in New York City, unexpectedly died of a heart attack. The owner, Hakan Swahn, immediately had to find someone to head up the kitchen. He decided to place newly hired Marcus Samuelsson in charge while he searched for a permanent replacement...
...Aquavit had become a well-respected Manhattan restaurant, with one star from the New York Times. But something strange started happening only weeks after Samuelsson headed up the kitchen. New dishes based on unique combinations of food from all over the world began showing up on the menu. The new items, such as oysters with mango curry sorbet, didn't always seem to make sense, but they tickled both the imagination and the palate. They were unlike anything the guests had ever tasted before.
Only three months later Ruth Reichl of the New York Times gave the restaurant a rare three-star review because of its innovative and tasty food...
Where do ideas come from? So what allows for what Johansson refers to as "low associative barriers"? This I'll share from my perspective but it's much more than a single post.
The source of ideas is what Taoists call the inexhaustible...
Do not repeat the means of victory,
But respond to form from the inexhaustible. - translated from Sun Tzu
This third kind of knowing is inaccessible even to the elite [warriors]. It is profoundly generative - from within it one is able to create new forms...The corollary of formlessness is utter flexibility. - The Art of War: The Denma Translation
And the source of ideas is what the Zen Buddhists call 'Big Mind'...
Says Kenneth Kraft, a Buddhist scholar at Lehigh University who has spent many years in Japan, "In Zen the word 'mind' is also a symbol for the consciousness of the universe itself. In fact, the mind of the individual and the mind of the universe are regarded ultimately as one. So by emptying oneself of one's smaller, individual mind, and by losing the intense self-consciousness, we are able to tap into this larger, more creative mind... "A master calligrapher, for example, is working in a no-minded way." - The Art of Creativity, Psychology Today
There is a wisdom in the silence that I forget in the day-to-day bustle. It takes strength in a sensory overload world buzzing with beta waves to resist from turning on the radio and distracting myself instead of sinking into this larger, more creative mind.
In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness. - Mahatma Gandhi
Somewhere between the heavens
The murky borders of eternity
Dissolve into perfection -
Places so ephemeral,
Yet real enough to confound us,
- Christopher Di Lascia, The Spirit of Place