Not-knowing and creative insight

Many thanks to Heather Dyer for this insightful blog. If you wish to comment below, or ask questions, please do so and I will ensure Heather receives them. Enjoy!

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I’m not interested in contemplative pedagogy because I want students to become more compassionate or self-aware. I just want to help them finish their theses – I want to show them how to generate creative insights. But increasingly, the more I urge students to ‘trust the process’, ‘drop egoic desire’ and be ‘open, receptive and unattached to outcomes’, the more I suspect that what I’m really asking them to do is love.  


The state of mind in which creative insights arise is a place of not-knowing. The poet Keats called it ‘negative capability’, and it requires a high tolerance for uncertainty. This can be difficult for clever, overachieving, anxious people who like to be quick, right and certain. But it’s only by letting go of certainties that we can grow.

‘Forget memory. Kill desire. Open up in the moment to unleash creativity, intuition, and even political transformation’ says the tagline of Paul Tritschler’s wonderful article Negative Capability’. Life-enhancing ideas can surface, says Tritschler, when the mind is ‘adrift in unconscious reverie’. It is also on the cusp of knowing and not-knowing that we must seek the locus of personal transformation and change.

What seems to happen during these moments of not-knowing is that we momentarily escape our conditioned thinking. I imagine my conditioned thinking to be an established network of neural connections, electricity speeding up and down familiar tracks. But if I can slow my thinking and encourage the electrical activity to spread outwards and touch the periphery of my skull like static in a plasma ball, I tend to remember things I forgot to do, or recall forgotten dreams – or have new insights. And, once we can stand outside our conditioned thinking we can witness it rather than being it. ‘From this angle,’ says Tritschler, ‘negative capability is a tool for activists: it is not only a means of self-realization and a key to awakening the imagination, but also a means of resisting the imagined realities of exploitation and social hierarchy in favour of radical alternatives.’ 

Cultivating ‘not-knowing’

As a consultant fellow with the Royal Literary Fund (RLF), I begin writing workshops by asking participants what they’re doing when they get their ideas. They usually describe activities in which they are (unintentionally) contemplative. Maybe they’re walking, or on the bus, or just waking up. I invite them to intentionally cultivate this mindset, starting with short guided mindfulness meditations in which they alternate between narrow focus (on an object or the breath) and wide focus, which is receptive to whatever arises.

Freewriting is another great way to facilitate negative capability, and is a revelation to students who feel crippled by overthinking and perfectionism. I might ask participants to think of a problem or situation they’re wrestling with then freewrite for three minutes on what they think the answer isn’t. Or I’ll ask them to imagine that their thesis or situation is a plant, and write for several minutes about what sort of plant would it be – and why.

Divergent thinking exercises throw us off our beaten tracks, too. To help students make new connections within their theses I might ask them to write 12 words relating to their thesis across a blank piece of paper. Then I’ll ask them to link pairs of words and freewrite on the relationships between them. At a recent workshop a dance student linked the words ‘dance’ and ‘movement’ and said for the first time she saw clearly the difference between them. A student writing about a poet linked ‘line’ and ‘shadow’ and saw a new way to describe how each line of the poet’s work casts a shadow, and the poet’s oeuvre also casts a shadow.

A wandering mind can be facilitated simply by asking students to stroll in pairs to discuss a given topic, or wander outside with a question in mind while looking for things that might present insights as metaphors or symbols. It can also be useful to discuss work habits that allow gaps in which insights can enter, such as making notes about a topic even before starting research and thereby priming the unconscious, or working on two or more projects at once to give each project time to rest, or leaving work to grow cold before revising.

Sometimes, asking students to simply sit and contemplate can be effective. At a workshop called ‘How to Write Convincingly About Your Art’, I guided artists through a relaxation meditation then dropped questions into the stillness: ‘Who’s it for?’ and ‘How does it help?’ and ‘Why now?’ Exercises like these may not yield results all the time for all participants; creative insight is a flighty little bird. But in every workshop several students tell me afterwards that they’ve had transformative ideas.

Embracing ‘bafflement’

Yesterday, on my way to deliver a workshop about creativity for the RLF, I got lost in the basement of the conference hotel and came across the following quote by the poet Wendell Berry, etched into a frosted glass window: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”

Learning to be baffled instead of irritably reaching after fact and reason is not only conducive to creativity but to realizing our potential as people. In the words of Paul Tritschler, ‘Whether our starting point is poetry, political philosophy or the process of psychoanalysis, negative capability is about personal discovery. Imagine what we might achieve if that discovery was unconditional love for all sentient life.’

Heather Dyer

Consultant Fellow, Royal Literary Fund

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One thought on “Not-knowing and creative insight

  1. What an excellent article, thank you.

    The idea of not-knowing gets me thinking of Zen practice. Like other Eastern ways (it is a practice rather than a philosophy) the essence is very much about stepping outside and being in a mode of consciousness beyond the conventional (Western) rational way of thinking. I’ve found that exploring Zen (and the Tao) really helps the creative process.

    You might find this recent blog of interest and relevance:



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