The naming of things is a wonderful thing to witness in a young child. First words: mummy, daddy, car (even poppadum, in the case of one of my friends’ kids). Early on, a child learns the boundaries between Me and Not-Me, Self and Others. Later in life, language can define our thinking.
“Looking and seeing both start with sense perception, but there the similarity ends. When I ‘look’ at the world and label its phenomena, I make immediate choices, instant appraisals – I like or I dislike, I accept or reject, what I look at, according to its usefulness to the “Me” … this me that I imagine myself to be, and that I try to impose on others … When, on the other hand, I see – suddenly I am all eyes, I forget this Me, am liberated from it and dive into the reality of what confronts me, become part of it, participate in it. I no longer label, no longer choose. (“Choosing is the sickness of the mind,” says a sixth-century Chinese sage.)” Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing
Categorise, define, sort. It’s what language does best, most efficiently. Umberto Eco tells how a stuffed duckbilled platypus was sent to the British Museum in 1798. It remained uncategorised for nearly 90 years, as a category simply didn’t exist for such an animal at that point.
Novel experiences throw us off balance. We (literally) have no words. We are speechless. Particularly where the emotions are involved. Until perhaps a poet comes along, or we see a piece of art that expresses what we have only mutely felt until that point. That’s it, we recognise it, that feeling. But it has taken a creative mind to forge new ways of using language or colour and line.
In everyday life, we filter the world in binary mode into relevant/irrelevant, urgent/non-urgent, good/bad, right/wrong, dangerous/harmless. It is pretty much what has helped us to survive as a species. ‘Will it eat me or will I eat it?’ is not a bad way to get through the day as a cave-dweller.
But often it’s hard to switch off the binary switch. Hard to stop doing either/or.
One of the key steps in thinking creatively is to learn to shut down all the labelling and sorting and judging and choosing. Creativity is about seeing things afresh, as if for the first time. Really seeing, not just looking in order to label something and put it away neatly in its box. Creative thinking happens when we connect , associate and synthesise rather than separate, divide and analyse. And yes, it takes time and a relaxed mind. The process can’t be hurried. (You may have seen the Scott Adams’ cartoon of a boss yelling at his subordinate “Now get back in that cubicle and start thinking out of the box.”) First there is an un-learning of all our taken-for-granted labelling to be done. One way to do that is to draw, as Franck recommends. Drawing makes us slow down and see what we have only looked at (and labelled) before.