Can People Learn to Think?

Can People Learn to ThinkSince we teach structural thinking, our answer is a definitive YES.

For more than thirty years, we have been teaching structural thinking. In one way, it is a simple process to learn. Structural thinking has to do with understanding structural relationship, how elements combine in a structure to give rise to consistent patterns of behavior. For example, hunger gives rise to the behavior of eating. What causes hunger is the contrast or difference between the actual amount of food in the body and the amount of food the body desires. The difference creates a tension, and tensions seek resolution. When you eat, you resolve the tension of the difference between the desired state and the actual state. The desired state and the actual state are now equal to each other.

The tension we are talking about is not a metaphor. Rather it is dynamic; a force in play both in the physical and non-physical world. For example, a jet airliner is able to fly because of something called the Bernoulli effect. This is when there is a difference between the air pressure on one side of the wing and the other side of the wing. To resolve the tension, the airplane is lifted up into the air.

Back to thinking. Most people do not think structurally. They think situationally. We have learned to react or respond to the situations we find ourselves in. We have little understanding of what causes these situations because of our usual explanation of how and why things turn out the way they do. This is called “event causes event” thinking. Why did you do that? because of what happened before that. Why did that happen? Because of the situation that came before that one. And back and back it goes.

Some people see the overall patterns that these situations cause, and that is a step forward. But while that is a better vantage point with which to view reality, we don’t have a clue about cause and effect from a structural point of view.

It is critical to know that tension will always seek resolution. This is because of physics, the principle being that structure seeks equilibrium. Whenever there is a state of “non-equilibrium,” the dynamic within that structure will change and move until equilibrium is established. But not all structures are able to accomplish equilibrium.

For example, if you are hungry the tendency of behavior is to eat. This is a simple tension-resolution system. Sometimes, the structure is more complex. There are two competing tension-resolution systems that create an oscillating pattern. You are hungry, so you eat. But, let’s say you are overweight, and another tension is formed by the difference between your desired and actual weight.

Here is how that structure works:

You are hungry, so you eat. But then you become overweight, go on a diet and eat less then your body desires. Once that tension is resolved and you lose the weight, you begin to eat again, and gain the weight back. There is more to this structural dynamic, but this example should illustrate the point. Sometimes, in this structure, it is easier to eat, and sometimes it is easier to diet. In fact, more than 80% of people who go on diets end up weighing more AFTER the diet than they did before they went on the diet.

Most people who have such patterns think they are weak-willed or have a character flaw. But what is going on is that they are up against an oscillating pattern caused by an oscillating structure. Like a rocking chair, movement in one direction induces movement in the other direction.

If you think situationally, you will never understand the structural dynamic in play. You are left with speculative theories, some about your relationship with your parents, some about how you think you don’t deserve love and so you keep love interests away by adding on the pounds, some about your birth trauma (if you happen to have had one.)

Your mind likes to resolve tension ASAP. Any question will demand an answer. However, your mind is a sucker for any pretty answer that comes along. It doesn’t matter if it is true or false. Any old speculation will do the job. And that lack of rigor, precision, accuracy, and quest for the truth will provide a sense of easy resolution for your mind’s bad habit.

There is a group of prefabricated answers that people carry around with them at all times. These are their concepts and beliefs. Think of concepts and beliefs as your personal thesaurus of answers designed for the mind to quickly and synthetically resolve unanswered questions, mysteries, puzzles, or any other types of tensions it experiences. Remember, tension always seeks resolution, and your concepts and beliefs can be plugged in at a moment’s notice to do the job. This doesn’t mean you have the right answer, but structurally, any answer will make you feel better, and give you the impression that you actually know something. The so-called “Ah-ha” experience is usually people thinking they have THE answer. Trouble is, THE answer is almost always consistent with their preconceived concepts and beliefs. Another way of describing the “Ah-ha” experience is that you “discover” what you thought was true, was true after all. Well, not usually actually true, but it sure feels that way.

Substituting one set of concepts with another does not change how people think one bit. That’s just a new database with which to compare reality. While new conclusions may be reached, the process of “thinking” is still a matter of comparison. People free associate, bias their viewpoints, insist that they are right, fight with each other about it, all the while trapped in a thought process that is incapable of new, accurate and original thought.

Changing your way of thinking takes training. Like all disciplines, it is not natural. It is counter-intuitive and counter-instinctive. But so are so many other disciplines we value. Reading, writing, playing the cello, and making a soufflé are also counter-intuitive and counter-instinctive.

Structural thinking is a very special realm. Very few traditions demand it, so very few have it built into the thought process. The traditions that do require structural thinking are music, architecture, screenwriting, mathematics, and some forms of engineering. Yet, even if you were raised in those traditions, you seldom think structurally, except when addressing those specific areas.

Thinking is one of THE most critical abilities you have. It is the major factor in how you make decisions. Your decisions will determine most of your life’s path. And yet, most people make their most important decisions without knowing and understanding the structural forces in play that will make the difference between success and failure.

Since we all think, we assume we know how. That is a faulty assumption. Know there is something to know that you have not learned in your education. Know that your mind, without proper guidance and discipline, will run wild with theories, conjecture, speculation, and walks down memory lane of past experience. Your mind is filled with clutter, so naturally clarity is a rare commodity.

For more information about structural thinking, read about the FST (fundamentals of structural thinking) in Vermont, June 2-5

For the Artist: The Art of the creative process

This August, from the 9th to the 13th, I am leading a workshop titled THE ART OF THE CREATIVE PROCESS. This will be at the famous Kripalu Center in Stockbridge Massachusetts in the beauty of the Berkshires. This is the second time I’m leading this workshop at Kripalu, and, mostly likely, the last time because of my schedule. So, if you are an artist, and want to take The Art of the Creative Process, this may be your only chance. Last year it was one of the highlights of my year, great students, great class, fantastic results, and great friendships that we all formed.

I wanted to lead this workshop because there have been countless principles I’ve developed over the years that, in many ways, I think of as great secrets of the creative process, first as applied to the making of various forms of art, and secondly, as applied to how one can create the life he or she wants to live. I love working with other artists, and love to share a good thing.

I have a BM and MM in composition from the Boston Conservatory of Music. It was a fantastic educational experience. But there is a difference between what I learned as a student, and, later, learned in professional life. Sometimes, even now, there will be something I “discover” that was taught to me by one of my great teachers way back then. And I find myself saying, “Oh, that’s what they meant!” And there is a well-considered pride one can take in being a true professional. Amateurs can do it when they are in the mood, or in the “zone,” or under some spell or other. But professionals can make it happen no matter what the circumstances. Therefore, to be a professional, one needs a reliable creative process.

This is one reason I so admire the work of Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg. The methods they developed had the purpose of developing a reliable creative process for actors. And while there is often controversy about this or that approach to acting, that isn’t the point. Before Stanislavski, there was, what was called, the trick of the muse. The artist had to rely on inspiration hitting just at the right time. The muse could not be relied on. Strasberg writes in his book A Dream Of Passion, that one night he was impressed by the performance of an actor on Broadway. The next night he brought many of his friends to the theater only to be disappointed by the very same actor. He was told, “That is the actor’s problem. The muse may or may not be with you.” Then Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater came to New York. Strasberg came night after night, and night after night every actor was superb from the leading roles to the minor roles. That is was the start of his experiments in acting techniques, all with the goal of a reliable creative process.

That has been my quest as well, although I have approached it structurally. That was a natural path for me because of my compositional background.

There comes a point, and most artists often come to this point, that your vision and aesthetic aspiration far outpaces your ability, capacity, instinct, or technique. Those are golden moments. They can be frustrating as hell. But they usually are exhilarating because something new is about to be born, something that you hadn’t considered, something that may be so simple that you scratch your head and say to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that before?” Or, it may be something not obvious, and you think, “Wow!”

The creative process is not the same subject as “creativity.” When I wrote my book Creating, I was booked for a lot of conferences on “creativity.” I found little in common with those who talked and wrote about it. First of all, most of them were not from the arts, didn’t create anything other than books on creativity, and had little understanding of what it takes to produce high quality work within a deadline and budget. They didn’t understand structure, counterpoint, contrasts, tension-resolutions systems, color balances, value studies, poetry, song structure, etc. Mostly they came from the field of psychology, or neuroscience. They never had to get a painting to work, or build momentum in act 2, or develop a theme throughout a symphony. They reminded me of people who may witness something going on before their eyes, but not understand what it takes to produce it themselves. A little like a music critic watching Glen Gould play Bach. He can’t quite tell how he is doing it, and certainly can’t do it himself. So, in light of not knowing, it is easy to invent theories about how it works. There is no shortage of theories in the creativity business.

Creativity is concerned with producing the unusual. The creative process is concerned with producing the artist’s vision, usual or unusual. As a process, it is consistent, predictable, reliable, practical, and productive. It is a process for professionals who know what they are doing and, from that, have track records. This is so different from what the creativity people appreciate. One of the major differences between the two fields is this: Freeing the mind Vs Focusing the mind.

Creativity people think that we were all so creative as children because we were non-judgmental and imaginative. This is the glorification of childhood creativity. But, let’s state the obvious; children are not as creative as adults. Most children do not build buildings, or create great films, or write symphonies (with the exception of Mozart and Mendelssohn, both of whom became more accomplished when they got older,) or create software, and so on. Creativity people think that if we got out of our own way, free-associate, generate lots of ideas, and think laterally, we’d be very creative. Professional creators don’t use any of these techniques. Instead, they use structural tension, focusing the mind on the desired outcome and the current reality as it relates to the outcome. This focus gives the mind a job, to generate a path from the starting point to the accomplishment of the goal. If you can’t get there conventional ways, the mind, creative as it is, will invent new ways to get to the goal. That is the real foundation for creativity. But, for the artist, creativity is never an end unto itself, but a process toward an artistic results.

Artists know about the creative process because that is their stock-in-trade. Too few write about it, and when they do, it is always worth reading. One of my favorites is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Another is Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. One of the best documentaries on music is Paul Simons Graceland, where Simon discusses just how he made such an incredible album. On Writing by Steven King is excellent.

Artists are told by non-artists what their job is. They are supposed to have social purpose, or be political, or be showing something about humanity, or carry a message. It is important that each artist find his or her own way, and reject the opinion of those who do not create. Too often, the artist becomes confused about direction, meaning, purpose, and reason to create art in the first place. To often, the artist tries to be too many things to too many people, loosing what we could think of as an artistic compass.

Also, too often, artists get into ruts with themselves. This is NOT creative block as it has been described. Instead, it is this simple, they are bored with themselves. They have done what they know how to do, and now, they have become stale, unable to move ahead. These moments challenge the artist to do something different. This is the time for experimentation, throwing out all the usual techniques, rethinking the approach and orientation, and finding a new, fresh way to create something different than before. These moments are golden for the artist to reinvent him or herself as a creator. Almost always something good comes out of these moments.

Creating is a skill, and it is an orientation, and a way of thinking, and a way of approaching life, and, for some, a calling. It is not raw talent as evidenced by many talented people who never developed their skill. Mastery of the creative process happens over years of experience in which you grow, develop, learn, and deepen your understanding of just what it is you are doing. And it happens to be one of the very best things in the world.

To find out more about The Art of the Creative Process:

Freedom of the Individual

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 2.30.12 AMSo, here is Bruce Jenner who feels he is a woman, and transforms himself into herself: Caitlyn Jenner.

And done SO publicly, it challenges the notion of freedom of the individual. Are people free to live their lives as they want, or do they have some hidden obligation to conform to how others, or society as a whole, would decide for them?

This is not an unsubstantial question. Because it puts the value of freedom of the individual against the ideal of social conformity.

Now, we are not talking about sovereignty. We are not talking about “are people free to throw their garbage on my lawn?” That is not a question of freedom, but of private ownership, and the rights that go along with that ownership. People who get a little nervous about issues of freedom often slip into issues of sovereignty, which then, allows them to avoid thinking more deeply about freedom.

So, is Jenner, according to your values, rather than the type of choices you might make for yourself, free to live his/her life the way he/she sees fit?

Most people favor the value of freedom. But, too often, the issue is abstract. One can favor it in theory, but when it comes to their own parents or adult children, suddenly the issue is not so clear. We all have opinions of others, and often we think we know better about how they should live their lives than they do. Very human, indeed.

But living consistently with your values is a test for most people. And here is Jenner, unapologetic about her choices in life, against a sea of criticism, disparagement, and even worse, ridicule from people, some of whom claim to be all for freedom.

I have no idea what it must feel like to be transgender. The closest maybe that I’ve always felt like a Catholic but wasn’t raised to be a Catholic. When I finally converted to Catholicism, it was no big deal to society, or even to the people who knew me. Maybe it’s like that. A private matter.

But, you may say, Jenner made it a public matter, and for that, I am all admiration for her. Good for you, Caitlyn! Do what you want, live your life the way you want, be as public or private as you want! More power to you.

And for those who would choose for Jenner over her own wishes, you are free to have your opinion. Just never claim you are for freedom.

The Power of Impossibilities

Olivier MessiaenI’ve always hated the New Age movement slogan “nothing is impossible.” First of all, that is wrong. Second, for those who preach the motto, they often aren’t doing much real creating in their lives. For those of you who have adopted this adage, you are missing the great advantages of being in touch with reality.

Before we hear a chorus of my truth and your truth, my reality and your reality, here is an experiment you can conduct. Choose a meal you ate yesterday, and try to eat it again today. I mean, the very same meal, not just a version of the same menu. This will help you understand that some things, even seemly simple things, are not always possible.

I suppose the phrase “nothing is impossible” is meant to give people hope, courage, and fortify what must be assumed to be their terribly weak will-power. Dumbo’s magic feather comes to mind. Hold this feather and you can fly. Hold on to this notion and you can accomplish great things.

I began to understand the power of impossibilities when I was a student at the Boston Conservatory. One of the composers we studied was the great Twentieth Century French composer Olivier Messiaen. I read his Technique De Mon Language Musical (“Technique of my musical language”) several times. I still pick it up to this day to get a touch of his wisdom. One of his central ideas was that, and this is how he put it, there is magic in impossibilities.

He wasn’t being abstract. His book reveals how certain music scales and rhythms cannot be transposed or inverted. Before I completely lose you, think of the name Bob. If you try to spell it backwards, you still get Bob. It is impossible to spell some words backwards and get something different like you can with the name David. Backwards it’s Divad. Totally different.

Messiaen was a Catholic mystic and loved creating compositions that had natural mysteries built into the structure of his music. Some impossibilities are pretty cool. Just to have a little fun thought experiment, if suddenly it became true that nothing is impossible, then suddenly most of Messiaen’s music would disappear. So would my nickname. The irony is that if nothing was impossible, Messiaen’s music would become impossible, contradicting the claim. Hussein Nishah said, “If you think nothing is impossible, try slamming a revolving door.”

Time, at least in this time-space dimension, only moves in one direction – forward. You don’t get younger and younger, go back into your mother’s womb, then separate into sperm and egg.

It is impossible to get back to the past. Time is non-retrogradable. The past is over, and that’s just how it is. This fact can bring you a new burst of creative energy. You will not longer feel the need to make the past right, resolve it, fix it, relive it, or change it in any way.

Your mind can have the bad habit of being fixated on the past. But, you can change the channel. Even for those who “live in the past,” it only in the present that they can think they are somewhere else.

Nice to have had a past. All that learning, all those skills we get to use. Knowing now what we didn’t know in high school. But it is the ability to be focused on the present that enables us to reach and create the future.

Impossibilities often lead to hierarchical choices. Because it is impossible to be in two places at once, one may have to choose which place to be. What if your son is the starting pitcher for the high school baseball team, and your daughter is playing the lead role in the elementary school play, and what if they were happening at the very same time? There are limited choices available because of the impossibilities. You could watch your son play, or you could watch your daughter perform, or you could miss them both. But you can’t see them both, because it is impossible to in our physical world to be in two places at the same time. You might think, “Hey, nowadays, we can Skype.” But that’s not being in two places at the same time. It is being in one place, and electronically viewing another.

Impossibilities are part of our world. Many things are impossible. Sometimes we know that, and sometimes we do not know that simple fact. Some things seem impossible, but as it turns out, they are possible. Sometimes we don’t know. To proclaim everything is possible is folly. But when it is asserted, it comes from the idea of having a positive attitude, that by holding that belief, you will do better, that the subconscious mind will attract and manifest what you want. This is the old “Thought is creative.” Think and grow rich, the power of positive thinking, and all of the latest variations of this old chestnut of an idea.

In the creative process, THE most successful process for accomplishment in history, you need to know where you are in relationship to where you want to be. You have to develop a clear eye, open mind, and truthful awareness if you are to adjust your actions successfully. But, those who know little about the real creative process, who think it is a matter of mind tricks, say wonderful sounding platitudes that are designed to hide reality by imposing a positive spin on it:

“With love and patience, nothing is impossible.”
Daisaku Ikeda

“Virtually nothing is impossible in this world if you just put your mind to it and maintain a positive attitude.”
Lou Holtz

“Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”
Mary McLeod Bethune

“Nothing is impossible in this world. Firm determination, it is said, can move heaven and earth. Things appear far beyond one’s power, because one cannot set his heart on any arduous project due to want of strong will.”
Yamamoto Tsunetomo

“Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible.”
Francois de la Rochefoucauld

“Nothing is impossible to a willing heart.”
John Heywood

“Future orientation is combined with a notion and expectation of progress, and nothing is impossible.”
Alan Dundes

And before Waterloo Napoleon Bonaparte said, “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.”

Before he died in his early 30s and wasn’t around to see his empire fall apart, Alexander the Great said, “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.”

If you thought that the key to success was to think nothing is impossible, you would try to impose that idea on yourself and to do that you must ignore reality as it is. You will be disappointed when things don’t work out. You might think you didn’t have the right attitude, faith, or courage. Instead of learning how to do better next time, you will try to increase the intensity of your belief. Yet in the creative process, what you belief makes no difference at all. What you do, what you learn, what you experience over time, what you master, how well you create does matter. And you don’t need slogans to hide the truth of the universe we live in, in which some things are impossible and we are enriched by the magic of that fact.