Listen | Steps on the Path, part 2

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: Alex E. Proimos *

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic fantasy tale ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ the young hero is given a powerful piece of advice by his early mentor and teacher: “To hear, one must be silent…” And so he cultivates silence, so that he can listen. And that is, in the end, the main reason we have taken the time to get Clear – so that we can Listen, which is the next step in the process. It’s when we start to actually tune back into the flow of ideas, but from our non-attached, quiet state, as opposed to the usual hectic cacophony of judgments and desires.

We should have allowed all the mundane thoughts of what we need to buy for dinner and so on to flow away. Now, with quiet mind, we start to tune into the quieter, subtler thoughts normally hidden behind more ‘important’ things. Or more ‘urgent’, or more ‘pressing’ – in any case, as St-Exupery’s Little Prince so compellingly put it, ‘matters of consequence’.

Strange, yet Familiar

We are listening for something new, something novel, and yet something that ‘feels right’. In my experience, the best ideas always have an unmistakable combination of qualities: they are Strange, yet Familiar. The creative  ideas that stay with me, the ones I can’t get out of my head once I’ve allowed them to form there, and therefore the ones I want to work with and develop, always have this quality. It’s also the essential common element in most art, music or creative work by others that I find lastingly compelling.

It’s essential to try to stay in the listening zone for a while; don’t pounce on the first idea that comes along – but don’t reject it out of hand either. We are looking for an idea that is Insistent, that Wants To Become, that has a certain inevitability about it. And one that is strange, yet familiar. We are trying not to be desperate, hurried, grasping at the first idea of any kind that floats by. We’re looking for something that looks back at us.

Like getting Clear, attaining this highly attuned state takes practice – so my advice is to practice it, without pressure to create, just practice being in the receptive listening state, every day. It gets easier to find it, easier to stay there, the more you do it.

A dime a dozen

Let ideas go. Don’t worry about writing everything down, because: there are Plenty Of Ideas. Having ideas is actually nothing special, and you don’t need to cling to every one. Let them come and go for a while. The really important ones will stick around.

We have to get out of the mindset that good ideas are scarce and difficult to come by. Instead, get used to the idea that there is an endless supply of wonderful ideas that we need only tune into. This substrate of the conscious mind is constantly churning up potentially wonderful ideas – the challenge is only to listen to it, in an attentive, unhurried, non-desperate way. To hear, one must be silent.

What is important is to be in the listening state so that when an idea comes that is Strange, yet Familiar, and that you Can’t Get Out Of Your Head, you’ll recognize it quickly. Like getting clear, this comes with practice. It becomes a familiar feeling of recognition – oh, yes, there it is. That’s the one.

Ideally, we want to learn to be in this state whenever we are at our work. Easier said than done, but the more you practise it, and the more conscious you are of seeking that state, the easier it is to find it. We learn to keep it close at hand. It’s a nice place to be, in fact!

Within and without

We’ve mostly been talking up to now about ‘internal listening’, tuning in to the inner flow of ideas and creative possibilities. The other aspect of Listening is, of course, external – listening to others. This can be in a collaborative sense, or in the sense of influence, taking inspiration and instruction from a mentor or from great work that has gone before. Either way, this means using the ears as much as the hands (to continue with our musical example, but you can adjust the metaphor to your chosen field), perhaps more.

In my experience of collaborative creative work (which is mainly in the context of jazz and other improvisational music) no skill is as important, or as frequently overlooked and undervalued, as listening. We are so often in such a hurry to make our statement, to say our bit or show off our chops, that we forget to listen to what’s really going on around us, and the result is a cacophony.

So what I try to remind myself is, don’t be in too much of a hurry to contribute to the flow. It’s OK to listen without contributing for a while – we have nothing to prove, remember? we’re unattached. We can afford to be silent, and listen, and connect and tune in – and wait for the quieter, subtler, strange-yet-familiar ideas to emerge.

There will be a time for action, for taking that leap of faith into the unknown, and that time is fast approaching…

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with IMPULSE

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license: