« Ignorance and Real Peace | Start | The Purpose of Meditation »

January 09, 2009

Freedom and Creativity

The Dalai Lama

Freedom is the real source of human happiness and creativity. Irrespective of whether you are a believer or nonbeliever, whether Buddhist, Christian, or Jew, the important thing is to be a good human being.

 -- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

Is freedom necessary for creativity, or does freedom in fact inhibit creativity? The question is often asked personally by writers, graphic artists, musicians, and other artists. Professional creative generalists Arun Verma, Krishna Moorthy, and others debate the observation of novelist Willa Cather that there is no true freedom in art, and through the links on that page, wrestle with their own balance of freedom and creativity.

Creativity and freedom are a binary star around which all human intellectual activity orbits, not only brainstorming or the creative arts. Bruce Jilk, probably the world's most insightful educational facility designer, has worked in dozens of nations planning single room schools, entire campuses, and forming some of the most practical yet holistic theory used therefor. In this personal account and his other writing, he connects his experiences with national cultural freedom to the design of spaces meant to inspire freedom and creativity in education.

Bernard Bailyn of Harvard University reflected in 1976 on the year 1776, the first 200 years of the United States, and the emergence of modern democratic society. He showed that the de facto personal and cultural liberty enjoyed by Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and many others enabled them to understand, secure, and govern freedom for millions more -- see “1776: A Year of Challenge -- A World Transformed” in The Journal of Law and Economics. The strained freedom they enjoyed and their creativity in nationalizing it have led us to here and now, when the large majority of humankind enjoys democratic liberty, though still not all.

The detachment of government from religion begun by nonreligious American founders like Thomas Jefferson also allowed for unprecedented cultural creativity, a melting pot with room for personal freedom. The Dalai Lama's words today could seem like two disconnected sentences without this context: "Freedom is the real source of human happiness and creativity. Irrespective of whether you are a believer or nonbeliever, whether Buddhist, Christian, or Jew, the important thing is to be a good human being." The separation of church and state is both derived of and fundamental to governmental protection and service of personal freedom, creativity, and pursuit of happiness.

CompassionRise is itself a working balance between freedom and creativity. For every page on the site to load quickly, both technically speaking and visually or psychologically for easier reading, there is a target size for each page's data. These requirements primarily limit graphics. The creative limitation grants freedom though, too, in less effort spent preparing graphics and less effort for visitors interpreting graphics.

Another deliberate creative limitation at CompassionRise: this is a daily blog. There may be more than one article on some days, but there will be one article every day; i.e., compassion rising like the Sun. Only so much can be written in a daily article. The format might stretch as far as "essay." This limitation is also license, freedom, good reason to work things through quickly to points, draw conclusions, and exhale. Work must begin and end daily, and each day must be different from every other.

This is not to avoid depth and editors, but to avoid the combination thereof that keeps too much work behind the curtain. Writing long form is an investment which may never come to market. CompassionRise is an open invitation to conversation, not a memoir and not even a Sunday morning paper account of the week's work and weekend's events. Before the Seeds of Compassion gathering in Seattle in 2008, CompassionRise began in earnest as research for a thesis on universal, secular ethics and civil society. Almost one year later, that work was too earnest to fly the coop. To focus, limit, and constrain creativity can also be to set it free.

What is it about people that we must limit ourselves to unlimit ourselves? There is a simple answer, not sourced by scientific studies if supported by them: evolution. We have evolved in significantly more difficult circumstances than those in which we typically, modernly live. Our biological selves are primed for creativity under limitation. With creative sparks and intrepid will, our species survived and emerged from an Ice Age which killed most of what lived on Earth.

Here on our computers and devices, at home on a couch, in the office at a desk, and even while actively in competition, having it too easy bothers us, annoys us, can drive us to insanity. We are suspicious if anything seems too simple and we resent others who seem to have it easier. Having achieved what people have longed for over millions of years -- to sit idle, safe, happy, in control, and simply be entertained -- we revel briefly, then suffer boredom. Having everything is not enough.

Evolutionary theory can reveal a lot about our common motivations and abilities, and can also help engineer our improvement. One of the world's most insightful popular science writers, Alan Boyle published another thoughtful article today about evolutionary theory -- and its evolution. With his daily science blog, Alan shepherds loose knit readers whose comments are also pragmatic and entertaining. In his scientifically casual but socially serious book The Dragons of Eden -- Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence, popular scientist Carl Sagan used personal observations and evolutionary theory to derive insight on our creativity and freedom. From Dragons of Eden:

When I leave my office and get into my car, I find that, unless I make a specific effort of will, I will drive myself home. When I leave home and get into my car, unless I make a similar conscious effort, there is a part of my brain that arranges events so that I end up at my office. If I change my home or my office, after a short period of learning, the new locales supplant the old ones, and whatever brain mechanism controls such behavior has readily adapted to the new coordinates.

CompassionRise would appeal to scientific analysis and not only logical hypotheses based on scientific theory; observation is only the first step, and hypotheses only a middle step in the scientific method. For today, taking permission from Professor Sagan, we will close with a rule of thumb for freedom and creativity and a plausible idea of what in our nature may be our nemesis. Considering the creative limitations of this daily article, today's summary advice on creative limitation should be: apply as needed.