Incubating Ideas: The Essence of Creativity
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“We do not know until the shell breaks
what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”
~ T.S. Eliot
June 2, 2021
Typical reading time: 3 minutes
T.S. Eliot understood about incubating ideas. He knew that there’s a certain amount of mystery and patience involved in the creative process. The hatching part, or incubation period, is the idea-generating and development part of the process of creativity. It’s filled with the unknown.
There are two parts to creativity, at least for the purposes of this article.
One is the nuts-and-bolts part—the writing or painting or practicing part of creativity: doing the work. It needs structure and routine in order to be effective.
The other part of creative work is the idea-generating part—the essence of creativity, you might say—and that happens in a non-linear, non-routine fashion.
You need both sides of the creative coin. And the two parts require different approaches.
A polite invitation. Creative artists need creative ideas; that’s their primary tool, and the first step in the creative process. And they need to weave those creative ideas together uniquely.
A creative project starts with a spark, an initial idea. And once you have your idea—your germ of a creative project—you can help it develop!
Creative ideas don’t blossom on command—or demand. They need a polite invitation. They need time and space to incubate. They need tender loving care.
Patience. Most of all, remember that incubating creative ideas requires patience.
Zen master Adyashanti says: “Creative geniuses almost always have a much more prolonged ability to stay in places that are not resolved. They get to that edge—and they’ll stay at that edge for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime—they will stay there until they find, or until a door opens.”
Let the unconscious do the driving. Incubating creative ideas is primarily an unconscious process, but one which is nurtured and given framework by the conscious mind.
To put it another way, in hatching creative ideas, you can provide the wheels and the road, but don’t try to drive the car yourself; let the unconscious do the driving.
And while you can’t demand that a creative idea present itself, you can let your unconscious know that there’s a deadline, for example, and it will help you reach it. (Probably.)
So, if your idea creator and developer is unconscious, how do you work with it?
Develop a relationship with your unconscious. Remember first that your unconscious is your friend. It’s important that you develop a good relationship with it, in the same way that you would want to do with any friend.
Your unconscious will work with you if you treat it as a friend.
There’s a voice that speaks within us, mostly a continuous stream of thoughts and comments. We don’t usually pay much attention to these random thoughts and comments beyond the moment.
But that voice speaks in another way, too, which is to respond to our conscious intentions and to provide us with creative material.
We want to cultivate communicating with that voice in a certain way, giving it suggestions or encouragement, and then listening to what it has to say.
How the unconscious speaks. The unconscious often speaks in images or sounds or phrases. Don’t try to make sense of these things or figure them out immediately. That part comes later on in the creative process. Just watch as things unfold.
Once you “turn on” creativity this way and choose it as your default setting, you’ll begin to notice when your creative ideas flow best. Is it when you’re walking in nature, in the shower, in meditation …. ?
Techniques to help the unconscious. You can enhance your ability to listen in this way through techniques that help you relax and focus, such as meditation or yoga. And make sure to allow plenty of time for daydreaming, resting, and doing nothing, as they provide a fertile field for creativity.
Focus on developing awareness. Learn how the important creative thoughts look and feel to you so that you can quickly distinguish them from the other thoughts that pass through your mind. Also maintain a curiosity and openness about the creative ideas that arise.
Again, it’s not that you do any of these things with the purpose of forcing your unconscious, but simply by allowing your unconscious to do its work, and providing the most conducive conditions for that to happen.
Record your ideas. Make sure that you always have easy-to-use tools at hand to capture the ideas, images and creative bits that come to you when you’re incubating an idea, whether using an app on your computer or phone, or with a pad and pencil. That way, you can weave these bits of creative stuff together consciously and easily in the “nuts and bolts” working period that comes later. Allow and encourage your unconscious to keep “cooking” at every moment of your life.
Incubating ideas: here’s how. So, to sum up, here’s how you incubate ideas.
1. Question/idea. Start with a question or a vague idea or image or sound that you want to pursue creatively. You don’t have a concrete plan or a clear idea yet. It’s still just a kernel of a creative idea. In the wheels and road analogy, this is the road.
2. Parameters. This is the time to let your unconscious know if there’s a deadline or any other parameter around your project.
3. Befriend/invite your unconscious. Next, set the wheels in motion by consciously inviting ideas and answers in. Remember, you’re the wheels, and you’re waiting patiently for the driver—which is creativity—to drive the car.
4. Hold your intention. Go about your daily life, keeping the idea at the front and back of your attention. Hold the intention for that idea to be working all the time.
5. Record ideas. Record the ideas or images as they unfold. This is really important! And remember, they don’t have to make sense yet.
6. Put it together! Finally, when the time comes to put the project together, first, you’ll have all these ideas in concrete form to work with—the notes and drawings and recordings you made. Second, your unconscious is now primed to create and complete the project.
Try these steps, and you might find that your project practically creates itself by the time you sit down to bring it to life!