The ability to tolerate high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty has been noted as a trait common to creative people. If we are able to remain open in the midst of chaos, ambiguity and at the edge of the unknown, creative breakthroughs can emerge.
Take for example, the practice of mindfulness meditation. Meditators learn to make space for all manner of inner experiences, pleasant, neutral and unpleasant. Through cultivating equanimity, openness and experiential curiosity, the mind becomes progressively uncluttered by involvement with analytical thinking, welcoming whatever arises in the space of awareness. Staying present in this way, discoveries and insights can occur spontaneously.
A more active engagement takes place in the psychological method of Focusing developed by Gene Gendlin. Focusing involves paying attention to a bodily ‘felt sense’ of ‘something’ at the ‘edge of awareness’, something that can’t quite yet be expressed. Each focusing session is a miniature inquiry into the felt sense, staying with it in a friendly and curious manner, and allowing new information and understanding to arise directly from the meeting of awareness and experience. When people focus they don’t control the process, they stay with the unknowing and uncertainty, allowing it to proceed as it will, moving back and forth between feeling (the experiential), and thinking (the conceptual).
In “On Not Being Able to Paint”, author and art therapist Marion Milner describes the need to suspend judgments and interpretations to allow for insight and new meaning to emerge from spontaneous scribbles on paper.
“One thing I noticed about certain of my free drawings was that they were somehow bogus… in which the scribble turned into a recognizable object too soon… the lines drawn would suggest some object and at once I would develop them to make it look like that object. It seemed almost as if, at these moments, one could not bear the chaos and uncertainty about what was emerging long enough, as if one had to turn the scribble into some recognizable whole when in fact the thought or mood seeking expression had not yet reached that stage. And the result was a sense of false certainty, a compulsive and deceptive sanity, a tyrannical victory of the common sense view… at the cost of something else that was seeking recognition, something more to do with imagination than common sense reality.”
On Not Being Able to Paint ( pp.75-76)
Mindfulness meditation, focusing and Marion Milner’s approach to art can all be understood as expressions of an adventurous attitude of openness to the unknown.
“Dealing with complex and ambiguous situations, there’s a tendency to want premature closure, to get an answer, a solution, and get it over with. Its stressful not to know what’s going on, not know what to do, and to stick with that not knowing. But you just have to stick with it, not give in to the need to be in control, allow for periods of not knowing, and navigate the turbulence for a while.”
Creative Inquiry and Discovering the Unseen ( p.253)
Sometimes surrender and “having to stick with it” are thrust upon us by illness, relationship breakdown or serious loss. Immersion in chaos and loss of control are features of the shamanic initiation: a kind of psychological dismemberment out of which a reconfigured being emerges, wiser, with firsthand experience of navigating the turbulent waters of life.
As I said in the opening paragraph, If we can stay open in the midst of chaos, ambiguity and at the edge of the unknown, creative breakthroughs can emerge.