Have you ever had a sublime idea pop into your head while doing chores? If so, you are not so different from the Zen student Hsiang-yen, who, struggling with a koan, retreated to the shrine of the 6th patriarch Huineng (regarded as the founder of the “Sudden Enlightenment” school of Zen), in order to diligently maintain it. One day while sweeping, a pebble shot out from his broom and struck a piece of bamboo and—aha!—the sound resulted in Hsiang-yen’s instant awakening.

Aha moments, in which understanding arrives suddenly and with shocking clarity, are the holy grail for creatives, intellectuals, and Buddhists alike. As we struggle with a koan, math problem, or work of art, understanding can feel distant and obscure, like a destination to which we’d like to arrive though we lack directions or even a sense of what the terrain looks like. Desperate for a breakthrough, we grasp at solutions to no avail, bang our heads against the wall, grapple with writer’s block, and cast about desperately for answers. Then, having exhausted our capacity for contemplation and while engaging in a seemingly unrelated task, wisdom benevolently strikes. 

In his seminal work The Gift, the scholar Lewis Hyde examined the seemingly random nature of inspiration. “An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received,” wrote Hyde. He offered numerous examples of artists citing this receptive rather than productive quality. For example, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, who stated, “I felt very strongly that nothing depended on my will, that everything I might accomplish in life would be not won by my own efforts but given as a gift.” 

Interestingly, modern neuroscience has shown that the experiences of Hsiang-yen and Czeslaw Milosz are consistently borne out by others. Jonathan Schooler, a professor in the University of California’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, researches this nexus of mindfulness, creativity, and the brain. In a couple of studies involving almost two hundred professional writers and physicists, he found that twenty percent of their ideas occurred when engaging in “spontaneous task-independent mind wandering.”

When I connected with Schooler he made sure to clarify that the writers and physicists weren’t more creative when mind wandering versus when they were on task. “The ideas that they had in the shower were as good as the ideas that they had while they were actively trying to solve the problem,” he noted. But the shower ideas often had more of a breakthrough quality to them. “We found that the ideas that they had in this context, that is when they’re not actively pursuing the problem, and when they’re not at work, are more likely to involve overcoming impasses,” explained Schooler. “So it seems like mind wandering may be particularly useful for the kind of problem that you need to sleep on, where you’re sort of stuck, and you need a different kind of approach or solution.”

In a 2015 paper, aptly titled “Mind Wandering ‘Ahas’ Versus Mindful Reasoning: Alternative Routes to Creative Solutions,” Schooler’s team actually found a negative relationship between mindfulness and problem-solving. Mind wandering, noted Schooler, involves a perceptual decoupling, in which attention to external stimuli is dampened. Mindfulness involves greater attention to such stimuli. “But a big part of meditation ends up being mind wandering,” said Schooler. “Mindfulness is really the practice of learning to notice your self mind wandering, and then releasing that mind wandering.” 

When the research was further parsed, there was actually a positive relationship between mindfulness and problem-solving that required analytic strategy. Other research by Schooler’s team has shown that when people are not just ruminating but curiously and playfully questioning they tend to be more creative and happier, a type of mind wandering that Schooler labels “mind wondering.” Professional writers are more likely to engage in this type of thinking than the general public. One might posit that Zen students pondering a koan are as well, even when they are sweeping pebbles.

Schooler has a favorite analogy that he believes works well for explaining the phenomenon of spontaneous insight. “If you look out at the sky and notice a faint star, and then stare right at it, that star will disappear,” he explained. “That’s because the cones in the center of your retina are less light-sensitive than the rods on the periphery. When you think, ‘I’ve got to be creative right now’—when you stare right at it—it disappears. If you keep an eye out in the periphery for those ideas to pop up, that might be the best opportunity to catch them.”

Perhaps this is what is meant when practice is referred to as “the long gradual path to sudden enlightenment.” It would be much easier if we could one-two-skip-a-few our way to wisdom and spend less time struggling. All that consternation can feel like a pretty frustrating and useless part of the process. And yet there is something about it that may be integral. It orients us in the right direction, though we may spend too much time attempting to stare right at the star rather than explore the periphery. 

The Developmental Psychologist Alison Gopnik, also of the University of California, has shown how children can sometimes outwit adults at certain problem-solving tasks that involve creative thinking because they tend to be more open-minded about potential solutions. When we grapple with a problem it is often the very framework in which we’re working that entraps us. Yet sublime ideas don’t strike the populace completely at random. Someone watching Friends reruns rarely has earth-shattering insights. One has to be playing in the insight sandbox, so to speak, and become captivated by the sun glinting off a shovel, when, aha! 

“Without the imagination we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present; we will never be led into new life because we can work only from the known,” wrote Lewis Hyde. When it comes to aha moments, perhaps the best course of action is to abandon any action whatsoever, and to foster the playful, questioning spirit of the wonderer. After all, the periphery between the known and the unknown, the visible and the invisible, is precisely where the mystery abides.

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