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Jan Birchfield, Ph.D Headshot

Innovation and the Quiet Mind

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Buzzwords rise and fall in the world of business, and at their highest, serve as flags marking a place where we need to drill down. For some time, the need to "innovate" has been creeping into the lexicon of my clients, reflecting the fact that old paradigms on so many fronts are breaking down.

When my daughter was in third grade, I had the pleasure of watching a creative little boy shift the paradigm of his art assignment. He, along with his classmates, was given scraps of paper to paint and paste onto a large sheet of paper. His classmates dutifully painted and pasted within the confines of their pages. However, this child asked for a pair of scissors. He began by reshaping his rectangular paper. As he glued his fragments of paper onto his redesigned template, none stayed within the margins -- curly cues, concentric circles and folded accordions spilled over the edges redefining the boundaries. What began as one-dimensional became two. It was a paradigm shift in motion.

Too often, when there is a call for innovation we tackle whatever problem we face through the same mind that was shaped by the previous paradigm. We look at the problem from the confines of the past or the confines of expectation. How do we escape this paradox of the mind and its repetitive subversion of creative thought? Most of us make the assumption that consciousness itself emanates from, and is bounded by, the mind. However, when we quiet the mind through contemplative practices such as meditation, we eventually discover that awareness or consciousness exists beyond it. True innovation, along with any act of creativity, draws from this infinite field of intelligent awareness that exists beyond the mind. This is sometimes called pure awareness. And this state is directly accessible to all. How?

Highly creative people often have a specific ritual that allows them to access this state, such as running, listening to music or shooting a game of pool. These rituals turn the mind away from the problem to be solved or the actual act of creation. Conversely, there are times when people are simply seized by this creative stream, prompting them to take action. In this way, creativity can both be evoked by us or can inadvertently take hold of us.

If we are asking, on demand, that our employees become more "innovative," the knowledge that this capacity does not arise from the busy, chattering mind is helpful. As noted, in acts of creation we usually find that the mind obstructs our capacity to consistently access this creative field. That is why we often come up empty-handed if we attempt to create something new through a logical, step-by-step exploration of the problem. On the contrary, unstructured brainstorming sessions can be highly effective; by design, the pace of these sessions keeps the evaluative mind at bay, encouraging people to draw from a deeper creative impulse.

For those who want to strengthen their relationship to the creative, nothing is more potent than cultivating silence, accessing the quieter, more subtle voice within. The practice of silence is equally powerful for those attempting to brainstorm together, shifting the group consciousness from the surface -- which mirrors the collection of egos that are gathered together -- to the collective creative pool underneath the surface.

Given the frenetic pace in the business world, cultivating silence in this context is a radical act. Perhaps the necessity to rethink our organizations, thus putting a premium on truly paradigm-shifting innovation, will help us reconnect to this simple and profound gesture. In return, we will find inspiration and greater access to true vision, along with the revitalization of our hearts and minds.