Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #144 Awakening Your Magician
About this episode

In this episode of The Gathering Room: Awakening Your Magician, Martha talks about how we can activate our highly creative right hemispheres, so we can solve the problems in our lives—and in the world. And the best part is, reawakening your own creative genius can actually be a lot of fun! 

Awakening Your Magician

Martha Beck:

I am so honored by all of you. I really, really truly am. And I hope that we all feel honored to be together as a group. And I didn’t put up my promo because I was writing. I’ve been writing and writing and writing. And today, I was writing and doing some research or reviewing some research that is especially interesting to me, and I wanted to tell you all about it. And the title of today’s whatever is Awakening the Magician, because I believe that each of us has, well, I know that each of us has a right hemisphere that is doing some kind of weird and crazy parallel processing like a supercomputer all the time. And most of the work that’s going on in there doesn’t ever make it to our verbal consciousness because that’s on the left hemisphere, right? So I call this part of the right hemisphere the magician because, given certain circumstances, it comes up with the most amazing, brilliant solutions to very difficult problems.

And we’ve all got a lot of very difficult problems in the world around us that we have to look at. So let’s get our magicians going. The thing that really revved my engines was that, it’s a study from the sixties, but it’s been replicated and it proved solid. NASA actually commissioned a scientist to create a test that would pick out creative geniuses because they wanted to hire creative geniuses, so they had to identify them. So this guy named George Land and his assistant, or maybe co-author, Beth Jarman, they made a test. And when they gave people this test, 98% of five-year-olds tested as creative geniuses. You may have heard me mention the spaghetti challenge, which is about, it’s a test of creativity where teams try to build something out of raw spaghetti and a marshmallow. And it turns out that five-year-olds perform better than any other group at those tasks as well, including engineers, business school students, lawyers, all kinds of people.

So that same group, okay, so they found 98% of these kids were creative geniuses. So they followed them and kept re-giving them the test. By the time they were 10, only 30% were creative geniuses. By the time they were 15, it was just 12%. And by the time they were adults, that number had dropped to 2% testing in as creative geniuses. Somewhere in there, 96% of the people they were testing had gone from creative geniuses to nada. And George Land, the author of the test, blamed the educational system. He said we are systematically trained out of our creativity, which I think is absolutely true. But I would add that there’s a whole social system around the school that helped create the school that is also training us all day, every day to be less creative. How does it do that? It switches the focus of our energy from our curiosity to our fear.

We learn to be afraid of doing things wrong. We learn to be afraid of getting demerits. We learn to be afraid of doing too well and inspiring people’s envy. We learn to show our work and do everything procedurally and rationally, which is awesome, nothing against it. The left hemisphere of the brain is super good at it. But the way we’re socialized shuts down 96% of us, keeping us away from creative genius that you had when you were five. I don’t know what happened to the 2% of kids that at five were not creative geniuses, but maybe they came from circumstances where they’d had it scared out of them. Clearly, what we can see is that it is normal for a human being to be a creative genius. It’s just that we have to be trained out of it and our culture does an incredibly good job.

So I have been thinking, how do you get people to recover their creativity? How do we awaken the genius inside each of us? And there are three, well, four, four conditions that I came up with, and they all start with the same letter. And that’s why I’m a life coach and not a psychologist. I get excited when things start with the same letter more than the technical scientific language. So here’s what you have to be if you’re going to reawaken the creative genius that is hiding inside the right hemisphere of your brain. First thing is calm. We talk and talk and talk and talk on the gathering room about the epidemic of anxiety that’s affecting the world and different ways of soothing, kind internal self-talk, being gentle and compassionate to yourself. I’ve done lots of gathering rooms on how to bring it down a little, be compassionate, be kind to yourself, and start to come out of a state of anxiety.

The way you know you’re coming out of a state of anxiety is that you start to feel curious. I saw something else that I haven’t been able to find this study, but I read it in a book by someone I really trust. She’s talking about something that is well-known, and that is the implicit bias that a lot of people get from our socialization. We’re prejudiced against certain things. And some of us, even if we are in the group that is seen negatively by society, on tests of implicit bias, we actually choose against our own group. Like women who are feminist would be hesitant to fly on a plane with a female pilot as opposed to a male pilot, things like that. Even if you’re in the group that’s being unfairly stigmatized, you’re still going to inherit society’s biases. But if you stay and start asking questions, you shift from a fear reaction, which is borrowing from society’s fears, to your own genuine curiosity.

So in this case, she was talking about how people who are looking at others of different races could overcome their socialized prejudice by asking themselves, “What is it like for that person to have dinner?” Such a simple question, right? A question a child would ask. And it brings us out of anxiety and into curiosity. And those two things, they’re really close together. That’s why we rubberneck at accidents. Whoa, that’s scary. Whoa, that’s interesting. They’re sort of right next to each other. But if you turn toward fear, you go away from creativity. And if you turn toward curiosity, you go into your creativity. So calm is the first thing you have to be to reawaken your inner magician. The second thing is curious, just talked about that.

The third thing is courageous. You have to be brave. Now, we can talk and talk and talk about how to soothe our anxiety. The fact is, we have anxious brains for a good reason. We live in a dangerous world. And there’s a point where, if you’re going to follow your curiosity and really, really connect with all kinds of things that make you curious, there will be times when you break with norms or you do something you’ve never done before, and that will be scary. And at that point, you can’t soothe someone enough to make them not afraid of something they’ve never done before. They have to go do it. We’ve talked about this before too. So going into the space where you can satisfy your curiosity, even though you’re doing something new, that takes courage. And if we have that courage, you will be surprised at the last thing we need to reawaken the magician. And that is we need to be cornered. We need to be calm, curious, courageous, and cornered.

There comes a point when creativity goes to the very edges of what we know when we feel stumped. And that feeling of being stumped is actually the thing that activates the truly creative, brand new kind of thinking in the right hemisphere of the brain. So the example I’m using in my book is this guy who was fighting a fire and, a forest fire, and he was leading a team. He was the foreman of a team of men and they were hacking away, creating a fire break. And the fire jumped a gulch and came racing toward them too fast to run away. Now, all of it, he screamed to his men. They dropped their tools and started running up the hill. And he realized the fire was going much, much faster than they could. So he was completely stumped. And I like to think for a moment he just stopped thinking, his brain just stopped.

And it’s into that place of just the brain shutting down, it’s where the zen student sees through a [inaudible 00:09:14]. It’s at that moment of enlightenment where the brain jumps ahead. And what he did was pulled a match out of his equipment, lit the grass on fire in a circle around himself, and he’s screaming to his men, “Come back, come back.” But they’re caught in fear, so they keep running and he couldn’t get them to come back in time. So he just threw himself into the middle of this burned, smoldering circle, covered himself with a wool blanket. This was in 1949. They didn’t have fancy gear. And the fire went past him. 13 other guys died. He lived.

And the reason he lived was, I think, that he was so cornered, he wasn’t just physically cornered, but psychologically he was cornered because he was the foreman. There was no one to pass the buck to. He had nowhere to go, and so he just stopped. And boom, in came the inspiration. I don’t need you to go to forest fires. But this has happened to me so many times writing all my books that it just makes me laugh because you get to a place where I can’t see my way forward, everything’s a tangle. I don’t know what sense it makes. Stumped, stumped, stumped. And when I get into that corner, I hate it. And then I go, “All right, I know what’s coming next,” and I get away. Here’s what you do when you’re cornered. This is Steve Jobs. He said, “Zoom out, then focus in, then get away.” So I call it get out, get in, get away.

Look at your problem from the widest possible lens, go down to the most possible detail, and then just go have a salad or a shower or play a game of backgammon with your buddies, whatever it takes to completely distract you. And it’s when the mind is relaxed and you go into that calm state, bam, all the stuff you know gets tossed into the right hemisphere along with all the stuff that’s happening to you. And the magician comes up with the answer and chucks it into the verbal part of your brain absolutely whole and clear, wham. It’s called the eureka effect, eureka meaning I found it. Aha moments, Oprah calls them. So that’s what you need. You need to get calm, curious, courageous, and cornered. And then instead of saying, “Oh, crap. Oh, no, I am stuck,” say, “Aha, my curiosity has taken me to a corner, and here I feel stuck. And now I know the magician will show up.”

This is where the fairy godmother shows up and gives Cinderella a ticket to the ball. And it comes from inside our own brains, which is even more fun. So before we go to questions, what I’d love to do is our space stillness and silence meditation, because this is going to get us, if you need to get calm, if you’re facing problems and you’re using your curiosity and you’re trying to be courageous, this will get you to calm even when you’re in the corner. And I do it every night before I go to sleep and every morning when I wake up, and that’s when the magician delivers the payload. So get your hands and feet uncrossed if you can. Get yourself loosened up, take a few deep breaths, long exhale, and then ask yourself our key question. Can I imagine the distance between my eyes?

Doesn’t have to make sense, but it’s a curious question. Can I imagine the distance between the top of my head and the base of my neck? Can I imagine the space inside the atoms that make up my whole neck? Can I imagine the space in all my atoms through my entire body, which is mostly space? It’s tiny, tiny, tiny bits of energy and matter floating in empty space, which holds even the air. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the space inside your own body and the space inside the earth itself and the space that connects us all? Can you imagine the silence beneath the sounds? Listen for it. Can you imagine the stillness underneath all activity? Can you imagine space, silence, and stillness as alive, conscious, filled with love? Okay, that is a strong sensation over here. So let’s talk about some questions here.

All right. City Lotus says, “How can we create conditions of being cornered for those of us living lives that are too comfortable and cushy?” I love this question. One of the most fascinating things to me about this is that if you’re born super privileged and given everything you ever wanted, you don’t have the capacity to tap your creative genius as much as somebody who has faced real, real serious problems. I have a friend named Norman Kuntz who was a consultant to businesses that needed brilliant creative solutions. And I knew him years and years ago. He was seriously affected by cerebral palsy, and it meant that he had to creatively solve problems every single time he walked into a building or went down the street or did anything. And at one point, surgeons told him they might be able to put a pacemaker in his brain and change his cerebral palsy.

And he said, “No, that is the source of my creativity.” So the first thing is that, yeah, I’m not saying you should be fortunate you’re so unfortunate. But if you don’t have a privileged life, there are ways you can cause that to be part of awakening your own magic. So if you want to create the conditions, you have to live a life that accords with your true feeling of purpose, meaning, and curiosity. You won’t be equally curious about everything in the world. You’ll be curious about the things that lead you to your mission, your purpose. And if you get into them deeply enough, there will come a time when you say, “I want to do that. I’ve read a ton of self-help books. Maybe I could write one. Wow, I really love so-and-so’s podcast. Maybe I could make a podcast.” Whatever it is, if you become creative, you’re going to end up doing things that feel risky, and they are risky.

And you could say that every effort is equally important, and they are equally important, but not every product or creativity gets equal responses. It doesn’t always satisfy you. When I sit down to try to make a painting that’s really going to push me past my limits, I’m afraid, and just a little tiny bit, but that’s what I’m saying. If you start to get creative, not just in the arts, but with you’re going to throw a party and you’re going to be really creative about making it an awesome party where people learn and grow or something, make friends, that’s going to be frightening at a certain point. You’re going to send out those invitations and you have to wait to see how it’s received. If you ever do write a book, believe me, it is freaking terrifying at every phase. No matter how many times you’ve done it, it’s terrifying.

So live in a creative way that is meant to design and build the life you will love most. And that will take you to decisions that are genuine. You will want something from those. You will want something to succeed. And that is terrifying. That’s a corner. And you will want it to be like things other people have enjoyed, and yet somehow fresh and new and completely different. And when you do something fresh and new and completely different, that is terrifying. You don’t know if it’ll work. So creativity is kind of the key to getting cornered and then getting out of it. So Jessica says, “Can we get past worrying about getting cornered and learn to welcome it? Or do you still feel like you resist it every time?”

I don’t resist it nearly as much. You can really get to the point where you welcome the corners, you know they’re coming. And you’re like, yes, the feeling makes you want to grit your teeth. Sometimes I just want to chew my paint brushes from the back end like a beaver because I get so frustrated. But I know that that comes right before a great leap forward. I know that that comes because my brain is trying to put together something that is a level I’ve never hit before. And that’s the feeling that goes right before it. It’s always irritating, but it’s always productive. So every time I had a child, it was, I mean, out of my own body. I knew it was going to hurt when it came out, but each time you do it, you’re like, “I’ve been here before. And look at what comes from it, something amazing and brand new and precious.” So yeah, you can get used to the corner, but it’s not a comfortable place.

Tracy says, “How do we determine when to be curious and when to accept what is?” Oh, I think we can be curious all the time. You can accept what is and still be intensely curious. Oh, my gosh. The people I know who I think are really awake and are very much in the present moment are like, well, they’re like five-year-olds, right? Creative geniuses. Oh, look at that, look at that, look at that. I mean, right now there’s a sunset going on behind my computer that is just like, my little ADD self is just like, “Ah, it’s getting prettier and prettier.” And the more grounded and calm I get, the more I’m struck by the beauty of the world around me and the fascinating nature of things. I mean, did you know, this is my favorite new factoid, that alligators will play with otters, and sometimes the otters get on their backs and the alligators swim around with their backs out of the water so that the otters can have a boat ride?

What? How can we not be filled with curiosity? It’s incredible. The world is incredible, and I think we can be more curious when we accept what is. That’s the calm, that’s what turns on the curiosity spigot. And that’s what makes us creative geniuses, because we just have this ability in the brain that no other creature has. So May Elizabeth says, “I have a four and a 1.5-year-old. What is the best school system to help maintain their curiosity and creativity? Do you recommend homeschooling or private schooling over public schooling?”

There’s so many different kinds of public schools, private schools, and home schools. Now that I have a three-year-old, and I was just apologizing to my oldest child for sending them to the public schools. Because in my twenties, my early twenties, I never questioned it. Kids go to school, that’s what… But I think you have to be as curious and creative about finding schooling for your child as you do about building your own life. And you have to enlist the child as part of that equation by being very observant of what makes them curious and making sure I was… Oh, my gosh. I really, really credit my parents for allowing me to have the tools that made me curious. I was given tremendous amounts of freedom. I was the seventh of eight children. Nobody really cared where I was. And if I wanted to draw all day, they were fine with that.

And if I wanted to… I wouldn’t suggest this, but my sixth grade teacher came to see me once and she said, “Remember how you used to just wander into school halfway through the day?” And I was like, “I think I’ve repressed it.” And she’s like, “Yeah, you’re just like nobody cared what time you went to school.” And they didn’t, and it was amazing. And I’d get to school, I’d be super curious about something. I had wonderful public school teachers that let me be curious. But the thing was that at home I was not controlled or [inaudible 00:22:38] very much at all. I was allowed to just be out in nature or whatever. And I was with parents who were very curious and read constantly. And I would just really develop your own curiosity, invite your children to join you in doing the things you’re curious about, and then watch them, be curious about them, and see what they love. And that’s just double bounty.

Okay, Tuckamore Homestead says, “Our homestead is named,” so it’s not actually the homestead talking, it’s a person who has a homestead. Important correction. Anyway, “Our homestead is named after the Tuckamore trees found growing on the harsh Canadian coastline. They learned to grow with where the wind is blowing, and in doing so, form strong little communities. It is not in spite of the adversity that they survive, but it is because of it that they thrive.” That is so true. And one of the things that happened when they tried to make complete ecosystems inside [inaudible 00:23:38] domes, they had the world project. Some people went into this biosphere and they were going to grow everything they needed. Well, they planted a bunch of trees, and the trees were growing, they were well cared for, and then they would fall down. By the time they were getting to be young adult trees, they would just collapse.

And what they found was that those trees were never exposed to wind. And it takes pushing to make a tree strong enough to keep growing. And I’m looking at the giants of the forest outside my window, and they’re 300-feet tall, and the wind here will rip the skin off your face. I wonder that they can survive it, and then I realize it makes them giants. So again, I’m not saying you should be grateful for adversity, but I am kind of. I’m grateful for my own adversity. And we certainly can turn it into something beautiful and wonderful and awakening our magician. And I love the image of those trees in little communities that support each other because we can do that for each other as well. And I think this is part of that.

We all face the headwinds that come at us in the world every day. And then we come together here and we imagine the space that connects us all and we’re together and standing there around each other so that the wind isn’t too fierce. We’re not alone in this Reinhardt Photography, such a great name, says… Is it your first name or your last? “What do you do when you’re cornered by two parts of yourself that want two opposite things?” Ooh, one of the best of things, yes. Well, we always talk in our family about avoid the tyranny of or for the bounty of and. See if there’s a way that you can, any way that you can have both the things you want. And sometimes, the society polarizes. The society always polarizes anything because it’s a left hemisphere-based society. So when I did my PhD on American women, they were polarized into very liberal feminists and very traditional.

This was in the eighties. So there were aspects of a feminist life that I wanted to lead and aspects of a traditional life that I wanted to lead, and they did not match in the culture. So I did my PhD on this. And what I found was that, faced with the tension between going left and going right, there were some women who went up, who just added a whole new dimension and found a way to build their lives based not on any social triggers, but on their own internal inspiration. They were freeing the magicians in their own lives. Then what you make is a crazy quilt grab bag of wonderful things you want. You stitch those together and you make a sort of patchwork life, which looks like no other life. But the method you’re using, which is to go to the inner genius, to your inner creative genius, that you share in common. And that creates really, really interesting communities.

So yes, if you’re in the corner, go up. Look for inspiration, wait for something divine, a spark of inspiration. Ann Donna says, “Is there a way to help someone who you know is cornered and wants to give up?” You can say, “I’m cheering for you. I know you can do this.” I have learned by very sad experience that wedging them out of the corner with whatever I have at my disposal makes them fall down in high winds. So the places where we’re cornered are gifts, they really are.

And if we can find our calm place and get curious about what’s going on, and then bring our courage and say, “I’m not giving up on what I want, even though I’m scared, even though it seems impossible. I am so pulled forward by my own heart’s desire that I am going to trust the magician in my mind to give me an answer.” And the way you do that is zoom out, zoom in, zoom away. So right now we’re going to zoom away from each other again, but we’ll see each other in a week on the next gathering room. I’m so grateful for you all. I love you. Go get some sleep, go have a jog. Whatever time it is in your time zone, go do something joyful. And may you feel the magician waking up all day and all week long. Bye.

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