creativity and concentration

Written by  rav rafael

art-blueprintIf you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do. – Lucille Ball

I can’t tell you how many times someone has said that to me when they’ve asked me to get involved in another project. I’m a husband and father of 3 teenagers, work a full-time job, lead a synagogue community, and am involved in a dozen or so other small projects on the side (including Riverton Mussar). This keeps me busy and out of trouble. What’s the secret to being able to do a lot of things? I think the secret is being able to summon up spurts of creativity and concentration.

From a Biblical perspective, I draw the most inspiration from a young man who was put in charge of building the Tabernacle. His name was Betzalel, which means “shadow of God.” He had very unique qualities which allowed him to lead the complex and holy effort of constructing Hashem’s earthly abode. He helped create a Temple which the author of Hebrews tells us was a shadow of the real Temple of Heaven.

Moses said to the children of Israel: "See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship to do master weaving, to work with gold, silver, and copper, with the craft of stones for setting and with the craft of wood, to work with every [manner of] thoughtful work.

And He put into his heart [the ability] to teach, both him and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He imbued them with wisdom of the heart, to do all sorts of work of a craftsman and a master worker and an embroiderer with blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen and [of] weavers, those who do every [manner of] work, and master weavers.  – Exodus 35:30-35

Betzalel took divine inspiration and the blueprint Hashem gave within Torah to create God’s House. It is the Chassidic understanding of the qualities of chochma (wisdom), bina (insight), and daat (knowledge) that have helped me understand the process of creativity.   I think these qualities extend to any kind of project we might be involved in. Let’s see how they might help us.

Chochma – The Flash of Intellect

This is the inspirational stage of creativity. It’s the “ah-hah” moment, a total perspective vortex that brings everything into focus. In that moment of chochma, everything will make sense. It will provide you the activation energy to get the project started. This moment can happen at different times. It can happen while you’re thinking of something else or doing a somewhat mindless task (called “cold thinking” by some). The flash emanates from your intuition. It is pure intellectual revelation, and often a gift from God. Your mind is in problem solving mode behind the scenes and suddenly the inspiration jumps to the top of your mind and you’ve got your starting point. Other times you are intensely concentrating on the problem with “hot thinking” and a new revelation hits you. Make notes. Write down the idea. Draw a picture. Often the flash will fade, so this might be your only chance to get the idea out of your head.   You don’t need to record it in detail enough to explain to someone else, just a note for you to remind yourself of the details of this special moment.

Binah – Understanding the Details

Now is the time to develop the details of your idea. This is the blueprint drawing and plan making phase of creativity. Take the intuitive revelation that you received and break it down into its constituent parts. Project in your mind the high-level steps to your project and then fill in the details of each step. Write it down somehow, on a whiteboard, or paper, or on your computer.   This is when you brainstorm the process and do the high level problem solving to aid your plan development. Keep focused and get all the ideas you’ve had written down so you don’t need to worry about remembering them. You can structure and reorganize the ideas later if they come out in a chaotic manner. Just record them somehow.

I’ve found that a lot of people underestimate the importance of this step. Few people like planning or thinking about the details. This is the stage when you will likely try to distract yourself. Chochma is exciting, it’s pure revelation. Binah often is a grim reminder that a lot of work has just been made for you with your new bright idea.   Believe it or not, doing some planning and detail work ahead of time will help you in the long run. Trust me. I’ve tried to jump right from inspiration to action, and I get stopped by simple things because I don’t have an adequate plan.

Daat – Immersed Knowledge

This is the stage of creativity when you start doing.   All your creativity and planning come together and you start executing your plan. This stage is called “daat” because here is where true knowledge is formed. Even though you have the big idea and a plan, the act of doing will teach you even more. True knowledge is not just theoretical, it is experiential. We learn by doing. At this stage you might learn that your initial blueprints and plans have problems. Go back and revise them based on your experience. Immerse yourself in the creative experience and watch your flash of inspiration become a reality.

Staying on track

Although it looks like I’m a person who can get things done, at times my head is swimming and I have a hard time focusing on the task at hand. How do I get back on track? It works best when I plan out my work and eliminate distractions. I am almost always doing my work with a computer, and I have a smart phone in my pocket or nearby. These are the tools of my trade, but they also are the chief source of distractions. I take breaks periodically to check the news, email, Facebook, or favorite web sites. But if I let those things distract me too often during the above creative stages, I can easily lose grip on the project at hand and become very ineffective.

Whether you’re a student working on a research paper, a high-tech worker, a teacher, a hewer of wood, a drawer of water, or designer of God’s House, you’ll need to concentrate on the work at hand. If you employ the lessons of Chochma, Binah, and Daat, you’ll be using the divine pattern of creativity. Stay focused and use them wisely like Betzalel.

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