Disrupting assumptions with everyday presence

“In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.” writes Poet Mary Oliver in Upstream.

What is that outlook? What are those priorities for making the world go forward?

One of those much talked about qualities is “presence.”

What is presence? Is it simply being here and now? Is it linked to charisma, something we see from the outside, a physical state of alertness? Is it a state of peak performance, linked to poise? In her book “Presence” Amy Cutty, social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor, writes about presence in the context of being in high-pressure situations and not faltering. It’s great research, and confirms the truth of the body-mind connection.

These could all be elements of presence, but what I’m referring to in relation to the creative mindset is everyday presence, and it comes from the inside out. It comes from being unified with the situation, from dropping our stories and having a moment of equanimity and true openness, not needing to control things. Out of this presence, spontaneous ideas arise, insight and intuition. When we are present, we can’t not pay attention. It is indeed being here, now.

Though presence is something performers and artists spend hours practicing and refining, anyone can learn it. Mindfulness and awareness arise out of it.

In relation to training our creative mindset, we aren’t waiting for the high-stakes moment. Besides, presence is in constant flux. It’s not a fixed state. When concerned with moving the world forward, the question might be how can we be more present in everyday life? It’s all about disrupting assumptions.

Zooming In

There’s a technique I’ve often seen good conductors use in orchestra rehearsals to bring presence to the whole group, to bring a fresh approach to familiar material, and to efficiently “teach” the orchestra how to approach the work as a whole-- I call it “zooming in.”

Let’s say it’s the first rehearsal of a familiar work, like a Beethoven symphony. The conductor steps onto the podium, and asks everyone to turn to somewhere in the middle of the piece. Bar 192. The conductor raises the baton. After a half a bar, he or she stops. “More accent in the cellos.” Again, play. After half bar, stop again. “More vibrato after the attack.” Again, play a couple of bars. Again, stop. “Lighter in the 2nd violins, and connect your arrival on third beat to the violas line, don’t chop the end of the note.” Etc, etc.

For about 15 minutes, the conductor may work on no more than two phrases of music. Then everyone is awake, and is learning the principles of the approach to apply to the whole.

You don’t have time to rehearse a whole work like this phrase by phrase, but by “zooming in” and focusing on details with a lot of attention, you get the key principles to apply to the whole. This is not the same as micro-managing. Without this detail, things can stay very superficial, possibly fragmented and uncoordinated, and even cynicism can set it. Cynicism is the feeling that things will never change, a feeling that there is no point to effort. This is the opposite of engagement. Cynicism is a creativity killer. Zooming in has the opposite effect. Time stands still. Spontaneity and lust for life arise out of this kind of presence. The senses are sharpened. Assumptions are broken, or irrelevant.

“Zooming in” can be applied in all kinds of situations. A client of mine, a management consultant, applied this principle in a large-scale implementation where his team had to learn a whole new methodology. One member of the team was overwhelmed with the details and analytical complexity and was getting mentally and emotionally blocked from understanding certain processes. My client had limited time to teach the methodology. He used the zooming in technique to get his team member to understand the principle to apply to the whole, and he did this with a curious mindset himself. Presence gave him clarity as a leader, and multiple approaches.

Presence puts us in a mindful state that frees us from a singular understanding of a situation or information, and gives us more choice. Zooming into detail can help us wake up again and to identify the essence of what we want to bring out.

This post is the third in the series Where Do Good Ideas Come From? by creativity coach Laura Carmichael. Sign up here to receive a link to this series directly in your in box.

Laura Carmichael