I read recently that the conscious mind perceives about two-tenths of a second more slowly than the
unconscious mind. In other words, conscious perception and thinking lags behind unconscious perception and thinking just enough that whenever you’re barreling along with full throttle on a conscious level, unconscious insights do not have a chance to break through to your attention. And that brings me to the fourth ingredient of inspiration, gaining access to what your unconscious mind knows.
Jeannie Lindheim, an acting teacher, says that when someone in one of her acting workshops asks a “Why” or “How” question out of deep puzzlement, she’ll often tell them that they already know the answer. Most people don’t like to hear that, and when they protest that they don’t know, she tosses the question back to them again as, “If you did know, what would the answer be?” And sure enough, many times an answer does well up that surprises them.
In her book A Possible Human, Jean Houston tells of going with her father, a comedy writer, to visit Edgar Bergen, a ventriloquist who was famous for the comic dialogues he carried on with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. As they entered Bergen’s hotel room, Houston and her father heard him speaking with Charlie McCarthy, and he wasn’t rehearsing. He was asking questions like, “What is the nature of love? What is the meaning of life truly lived?”
According to Houston, Charlie was “pouring out pungent, beautifully crafted statements of deep wisdom.” After several minutes of this, her father coughed. A little embarrassed, Bergen admitted that it was his voice and his mind coming out of the dummy. He paused. “And yet, when he answers me, it’s so much more than I know.”
If you like, try this exercise the way Bergen did it, with a dummy or a doll or stuffed animal giving the answers. Or set up two chairs and sit in one for the questions and move to the other for the answers. Gestalt psychologists came up with that method of alternating. You can get the same effect by writing questions in crayon with the hand you normally use to write and switching the crayon to your other hand to write the answers. If you get sloppily crafted statements of deep nonsense, go with it. Have fun!
I especially recommend these techniques when you find yourself procrastinating. In my observation, procrastination is a symptom of some other problem, not a phenomenon in and of itself. When you’re delaying getting started on or finishing a piece of writing, assume that your unconscious mind is trying to tell you something – about your fears, your lack of readiness, an inner conflict. Asking questions of your unconscious mind can help you get the message about what that something is.
Another way to access your inner wisdom is to relax and visualize an inner teacher who knows you very well and has your best interests at heart. Pose your question to your inner teacher and listen, watch or feel your teacher’s answer.
Your dreams sometimes provide answers in symbolic form as well. If you awaken from a dream, try drawing it, adding and embellishing details as you draw. Some people pose difficult questions to themselves just before they go to sleep and receive answers in their dreams. Images are the native language of the unconscious mind, many psychologists believe, but don’t analyze them with a dictionary of symbols, expecting that sun always means illumination and a butterfly transformation. Approach them in a gentle spirit of curiosity and you might have an “Aha” experience.
There’s a crucial aspect of the creative process called incubation. Researchers who have studied breakthrough writers, artists, and scientists have isolated a common creative rhythm involving four stages. First, these masters will typically immerse themselves in the problem for an extended period of time, studying, trying hard to find a solution, or to put things together in a new way. Then they set the problem aside and do something completely unrelated to their work. This sets the process of incubation going.
Then they have an “Aha” experience, a moment of insight when they are not working on their problem. An answer pops into their conscious awareness, seemingly from nowhere, but actually from their unconscious mind, which has been brewing a solution for them all that time. Finally comes the stage of verification, when thinkers use their conscious abilities to check the validity of the inspiration.
This research suggests that creative progress occurs when you work hard at something, then clearly take a break and engage in activities that don’t tax you mentally. For Henri Poincaré, a French scientist, the moment of insight happened as he was raising his foot to get on a bus. Archimedes, the mathematician in ancient Greece who made the expression “Eureka” famous, had his breakthrough moment getting into the bath. “Eureka” means “I have found it.”
Countless writers get their “Ahas” while jogging or driving or washing dishes. From what I’ve read and observed, activities involving a regular rhythm often work best to surface the revelation.
Join me in the next lesson for the fifth and final element of inspiration, the fact that you can find it anywhere.