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A Delightful Conversation on Creativity

By Matthieu Ricard on October 23, 2009

During the recent Peace Summit in Vancouver, which was organized around His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was fortunate to moderate a dialogue on creativity.

Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel price laureate of physics who discovered the quarks, described how mathematician or physicists may try in vain for a long time to formulate and solve a particular problem. At some point they would give up and let go of all discursive thinking. On many occasions, the solution would then suddenly arise in their mind from a non-conceptual state in a very creative and unexpected way. The French mathematician Henri Poincaré tells in his memoirs of a famous example of this. After haveing pondered for months upon a mathematical question, one day as he was on a geological expedition, when coming down the steps of a bus, the solution to the problem sprung in his mind in a flash of evidence.

He recounted how, one day, during a football game, a player suddenly picked up the ball with his hands and started running with it. Rugby was born. So, he added, creativity often comes not from playing according to the rules but from playing with the rules.

The spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle then told us that he had not seen a soccer game in 20 years, but had heard that research had shown that when shooting penalty kicks, under the eyes of a whole nation, players who will shoot immediately after the referee had blown the whistle, were less successful than those who would pose for a moment, collect their thoughts, then shooting without hesitation. ‟What happens in that moment of waiting is the player goes within,” Tolle told, ‟It's a rudimentary expression of the creative process. It's deep, intensely alive stillness.”

But then Tolle added that if he, lacking 10,000 hours of training in maths or football, would wait for the solution of a mathematical problem, no solution would ever arise in his mind and that he would surely miss the penalty
kick. So effortless, non-conceptual creativity certainly required a deep, long term process of maturation and training.

With some nice conversational interplay on the nature of creative change, famed British educator Sir Ken Robinson wryly responded that he ‟was trying to shake off this image of Eckhart Tolle on a soccer pitch, taking 10,000 hours to take his penalty kick. ‟And he still misses.”
It brought the house down in laughter.