When I was in my early 20s I traveled to Ojai, California to attend a public lecture by the spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Seemingly through the luck of the draw, I had become unexpectedly successful selling profitable airplane hardware to the U.S. Military, and I found myself plagued, as many financially successful people are, with the recurring question, “Is THIS all there is?” I was hoping Krishnamurti would answer that question in inspiring, heartful ways.
What mostly drove my interest was what K had to say in his transcribed public talks about fear. As a Point Six on the Enneagram, fear is my primary “Vice” and one of my central life drivers, and so I was looking for some way out of that seemingly perpetual, internal discomfort. Krishnamurti seemed to have the answer:
The action of fear and the effects of fear and its action is based on past memories – such actions are destructive, contradictory, paralyzing. Right? Do we see that?…That when you are afraid you are completely isolated and any action that takes place from that isolation must be fragmentary and therefore contradictory, therefore there is struggle, pain and all the rest of it. Now, an action of awareness of fear without all the responses of memory is a complete action. You try it! Do it. Become aware, as you are walking along, going home, your old fears will come up. Then watch, watch, be aware whether those fears are actually projected by thought as memory.
It turned out that I didn’t really resonate with K, the man much. I found him to be overly severe, rigid and authoritarian. He seemed to be exasperated that the folks in attendance could not clearly understand what he was claiming was a very straightforward and simple notion: Thought, unmonitored, produces fear. Stop letting yourself become emotionally high-jacked by your fearful thoughts.
The Curse of Knowledge
Well, easy for him to declare. His 40 years of meditation centered around a sheltered, protected life turns out to have changed connections in his brain so that being effortlessly able to observe fearful thoughts and dismiss them easily was mostly a result of his robustly connected Executive Function circuitry. And that circuitry was constructed in part with the great help of the community that operated around him for decades (he never mentions that part in his talks, even though Buddha clearly identified spiritual community as an essential element of developmental practice). Richie Davidson’s whole neuroscience research career at the University of Wisconsin has repeatedly found evidence for such unique neuro-developmental change in the brain, and Dan Siegel’s book, Mindsight details much of that contemplative practice research and how it neuro-physiologically changes the brain as well.
Thought-monitoring is an essential requirement if we are going to spend any great degree of creative, unstructured time in the present moment. Anytime we wander unsupervised away from the present moment however, there’s a high probability that we’ll end up in … Confabulation Land. Confabulation is a great word. Kids do it all the time, and it’s fascinating to witness both their earnestness and their certainty. And it seems to be a necessary part of their organic, developmental unfolding. But confabulation doesn’t just stop when we’re no longer kids. Confabulation seems to be essential for creativity.
Here’s the definition from Webster’s: Confabulation – memory distortion, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive. Confabulation is distinguished from lying as there is no intent to deceive and the confabulator is unaware the information is false. I think of confabulation as “creative ignorant innocence.”
By its very nature then, any kind of creativity that imagines something interesting and/or novel and/or complex about the future, takes us away from self-awareness in the present moment. We forget ourselves in service to our creativity. Almost. Except for the part about how the body’s neuro-muscular memory remembers so much more than our explicit memory-mind does.
Essentially, if you plan to live the creative life, a requirement is that you must spend a lot of time with your thoughts – all those creative stirrings that repeatedly motivate, inspire and invite you to bring them into full artistic expression. Because both creativity and trauma take up residence primarily in the memory circuits of the right hemisphere, it’s not uncommon for trauma-based, fearful feelings to find their way to conscious awareness in the course of any artistic exploration. But without a network sufficiently strong enough to easily switch into witness or Mindsight Mode, we can find our body repeatedly flooded with stress hormones. Stressful, disorganizing dissociation can then begin to have its way with us. Fear, sometimes experienced as undifferentiated or free-floating anxiety, permeates our creative experience. In trying to make sense of this somatic ordeal, we often tell ourselves a story – we now confabulate in service to stress management.
The good news/bad news is that neuroscience is potentially removing the dark, downside of creativity by developing increasingly effective interventions that can remedy these distressing experiences. The drug propranolol has been available for quite some time, and seems to be an effective remedy for some people. But before too long, as scientists at MIT have demonstrated, we will be able to use optogenetics – a “Breakthrough of the Decade” – to physically disconnect the specific trauma “wiring” which joins the emotional centers in the amygdala and the memory centers in the hippocampus. Which, I suspect, is essentially what happens when we successfully “work through” the traumas of our lives using things like therapy and intimate, interpersonal relationships. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is within our reach. Will we reach for it? Unless our traumatic history is overwhelming and debilitating, I suspect most of us won’t.