Paul Klee: “Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void”

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Paul Klee, 1927, photo by Hugo Erfurth

Paul Klee, the famous Swiss/German expressionist painter, may seem to be making an almost mystical claim here — that creativity comes from beyond the conscious mind. I think you’d be right in assuming that creative impulses come from unconscious parts of the mind, but not that this is an exclusively mystical state. In fact, all action ultimately has this quality of coming from “beyond,” but we simply fail to notice this most of the time, because we’re in the grip of the illusion that the conscious mind is “us,” that it owns our actions, and that it’s in control.

When I speak, I’m often aware that my words come from what Klee calls “the void.” Words appear as if from nowhere, without conscious intervention. It’s not that my conscious mind is in some way “queueing up” words internally so that I can deliver them a few moments later. Now I used to assume that that’s exactly what did happen, but more and more I’ve realize that that assumption arose because of the conscious mind’s ongoing habit of plagiarism. Let me explain what I mean, using some examples that I cite in my recent book, Living as a River.

Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void … My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.

Back in the 1970s, a researcher called Ben Libet asked people to flex their wrist at random times of their own choosing. They were to flex the wrist the very moment that the impulse to do so arose. At the same time, he monitored their brains, and found that the motor cortex of the brain (the part that controls movement) fizzed and popped with electrical activity a full half second before the subjects moved their wrists. That meant that Libet knew, half a second before the subjects did, that they were going to flex their wrists. Now the subjects thought that they were making these movements at exactly the time the impulse arose. But what seems to have gone on is that the conscious mind claimed responsibility for an action that had been initiated outside of consciousness.

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Libet’s findings were controversial, because they seem to undermine our notion of free will. Some said that his equipment was simply picking up on static in the brain. So, fast-forward to today, and to Berlin, Germany, where John-Dylan Haynes, at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, used much more sensitive functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to do a similar experiment. fMRI is able to observe, in real time, activity deep in the brain. This time, Haynes asked subjects to randomly press a button either with their right or left hands. And this time, Haynes found that he could predict, six seconds before the subjects were conscious of the desire to act, which button they would press. That’s astonishing, if you think about it. Haynes can tell, six seconds before you do, what you’re going to do. In this experiment, as in life, the conscious mind thinks it’s just made a decision, when in fact it’s more like it’s just become aware of a decision having been made elsewhere, and has claimed responsibility for it.

Now this is all really weird. In fact I’m reminded of a time I had a young man, who I suspect suffered from schizophrenia, come to a meditation class. I was talking to him just before he left the class, and in mid-conversation a house-fly buzzed in between us and smacked into the class door we were standing beside. “I did that,” he said, in an effort to convince me that he not only was sane, but had special powers. Now to you or me, this young man’s inability to distinguish between his own intentions and outside actions is a sign of mental illness. He saw the fly thud against the glass and thought he’d made that event happen. But Libet and Haynes have shown that we ourselves do something similar all the time. Our conscious minds observe an action taking place, and immediately say “I did that.” It’s not that different from what the young man with schizophrenia did. The conscious mind it is a plagiarist, claiming authorship of actions it’s not actually responsible for.

Our sense of self is, in fact, largely to do with this false sense of ownership. We observe thoughts, emotions, and actions emerge into consciousness, and immediately assume, “I did that.” But in the meditation practice I explore in Living as a River — The Six Element Practice — we counteract this tendency to “possess” our actions by noting thoughts, feelings, etc as they pass through the mind, and by repeating “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this” as we note each one. Eventually, the sense of ownership begins to fade away — or suddenly vanishes. The conscious mind ceases to plagiarize, and we find ourselves simply witnessing our experience coming into being.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have free will, incidentally. It’s just that free will is not something that’s entirely the result of conscious activity. When you “consciously” decide to do something, you are actually making a choice, it’s just that your conscious mind doesn’t seem to do much more than observe the event taking place and claim responsibility for it. If that.

So all the time, our thoughts, emotions, and actions are arising from “the void.” But Klee is talking about the special case where we notice that this is what’s happening, and when we’ve let go of the act of clinging to, and identifying with, our own actions. This is quite a special state. It’s a state of effortless creativity, because there’s nothing standing between your creative energies and their expression. And the plagiaristic conscious mind frequently gets in the way.

Everyone who has experience of writing knows the sheer terror of the blank sheet of paper (or screen). The conscious mind looks at the pristine field in front of it and simply can’t come up with anything that’s good enough to commit to writing. Any thought that emerges is judged to be unsuitable — as a reflection of our own inadequacy. The thing is that the conscious mind is trying to create, which is something it’s incapable of doing. It’s actually standing between our creative energies and their expression. What we need to do, in order to let our creative energies flow freely, is to get ourselves (or the conscious mind) out of the way. We need to set aside judgement, and to allow the conscious mind to have the role only of being an observer, allowing the “remote will” to express itself. Many writing coaches use this approach to “unblock” creativity, for example by setting rules that say that you have to write for a set period of time, without going back and editing.

Through meditation we train ourselves to do something similar. In life we end up proliferating thoughts, so that the mind is jammed with inner talk. In such a state there’s no way for creative impulses to express themselves, because the mind’s “bandwidth” is already being fully used. If a creative impulse were to try to communicate itself, it would get a metaphorical “busy signal.” In meditation we learn to let go of unnecessary thoughts (and 99% of them are not necessary) and this creates a “space” in the mind, opening up channels of communication with our deeper, and more creative impulses.

How does this manifest in real life? It shows up as more authentic, wise, and compassionate communication. Instead of second-guessing ourselves, constantly worrying about what people think of us, we can simply respond to others on a human level. We find that we’re more intuitive. That we’re more playful. That we’re more insightful. We get the conscious mind out of the way, and find we can be more ourselves.

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