In the final part of this compelling conversation with Dr. Martyn Newman, Sir Ken Robinson – the most watched speaker in TED’s history – explains the role of Mindfulness in the creative process.
Dr. Martyn Newman: I’m wondering, Ken, about your views on mindfulness as a technology. I think about mindfulness as a technology, because at the heart of it, it’s about being able to develop a stable and clear, non-judgmental attention, which really enables you to monitor your own feelings and emotions, which really lie at the heart of the creative process.
What’s interesting, was in my discussion with Susan (Baroness Susan Greenfield), when she said that there are three essential factors that are often overlooked in current education, which I found surprising. She said, firstly, we have to have a strong sense of our own individual identity and respect it in others. Secondly, she said we have to have a sense of individual fulfilment. And thirdly, to be useful to society.
She went on to suggest that these rather abstract goals were realised primarily through creativity. It reminded me of a number of the things that you developed in your book. In your view, could you just give us a quick sense of how you imagine emotional intelligence and say the recent discovery in the west, in particular of mindfulness, as skills which contribute to and foster the creative process in people.
Sir Ken Robinson: Well, thankfully mindfulness has been having a positive press of late. I say that because there’s so much evidence around that people are in distress, that depression is on the rise in all areas, suicides are at appallingly high levels among all sectors, particularly among young men. It isn’t that there is not a crisis feeling. Patently there is.
Susan’s right that these issues originate within the individual. One of the distinctions that Robert Witkin made in ‘The Intelligence of Feeling’ is that we live not in one world but two. There’s the world around us and the world within us. Feelings of stress and distress originate within us in response to the world around us.
“We live not in one world but two. There’s the world around us and the world within us”
We can hardly take it on ourselves always to sort out all external factors in the world around us that cause us stress. What we can do is take more control of the world within us so that we respond differently to them and have a more settled relationship with them.
Mindfulness is a current iteration of that. It’s related to the broader idea of well-being, which, among other things, has come out of the work of people like Martin Selligman. For years psychology was about emotional illness and disturbance. As R. D. Lang once put it, we have a negative psychology of affect. He meant that psychologists have largely been focused on mental illness, not mental well-being. The positive psychology movement is an attempt to counter that and recognize that we don’t just need to deal with illness, we need to create the conditions of emotional health. Well-being is a larger concept wrapped around this idea of emotional health.
“The positive psychology movement is an attempt to counter that and recognize that we don’t just need to deal with illness, we need to create the conditions of emotional health.”
In many spiritual practices, there have long been techniques that are focused on the very same thing. It’s what meditation in Buddhism is about – it’s what yoga is about. They’re ways of calming your mind by reconnecting it with your physicality. We too often think that consciousness is something that happens between our ears, in our skull. For a very long time holistic practices in all fields have told us that we are embodied creatures. Our bodies are not incidental to our sense of well-being. If our bodies are in distress, or if we’re out of kilter with them, then our life of feeling is also disturbed.
These techniques are not an instant fix. They have to be practiced and refined. It’s like learning to drive a car. You can just get into a car and crash it into a wall, but there are ways of making the car do what you want it to do by understanding how it works and what the dynamics are between the car and the environment you’re driving through. Similarly, the practises of mindfulness have to be learnt and controlled. They have evolved over a very long time in human experience and are all focused on becoming more centred, more balanced internally, and more connected to ourselves and the world around us.
“There are practises which we evolved over a very long time in the human experience which are focused on becoming more centred, more balanced internally, and more holistically connected to ourselves and the world around us.”
In schools, where these practises have been introduced, there is often a remarkable shift in behaviour, in empathy and compassion within the school community. You see reductions in violence. You see children becoming more focused on the joy of learning rather than on the drudgery of testing. It’s what lies behind some of the practise you see in companies like Google. Some people may think these are just fashionable, trendy things that happen mainly California. But these principles aren’t local to any place or time. They are timeless principles of becoming centred in yourself and calming the noise of the world around you so you can feel the energy of the world within you.
Dr. Martyn Newman: Ken, we’re almost out of time. I know you’re a very busy man. You receive lots of invitations. So, we’re really glad to have you at this year’s summit. We’ve got some extraordinary people coming along this year, some big thinkers, and everybody in the room will be a very busy person.
They’re really looking to take away something that will stimulate their thinking, that will give them some fresh insights, I guess, and re-energize them in many ways. What are some of the big questions that you think that our summit on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and creativity needs to address and discuss that might have a lasting value for years to come – some of the themes that are exercising you at the moment that you’d like to see addressed?
Sir Ken Robinson: I’ve been pressing for a long time for forms of education that are based on principles of human growth and development, which are humane and humanistic. I think the issues in education are desperately important, because education is the way in which we aim to cultivate the talents and sensibilities, compassion and citizenship of each rising generation. For a whole range of reasons and in various ways, we have applied a set of ideologies and practises to schools, which are antipathetic to the ways in which people flourish. I think it’s a very big deal because of the complexities of the world that we now live in and the challenges that we’ve collectively generated and have to overcome.
But it’s not only about schools. It’s about companies, organisations and business practises. It’s not just a matter of the bottom line for companies to understand why so many people are disinterested in the work they do. It’s not an incidental issue to think collectively about how businesses function in the lives of our communities and their roles in the long-term sustainability of our existence on the planet.
I think it’s as big as that. Our economic activities are central to the conditions of our own continuing survival and success as a species. Education has been cloaked in the linear ideology of industrialism and output for too long. I’m arguing that we need to change that metaphor and apply more organic principles.
“Our economic activities are central to the conditions of our own continuing survival and success as a species.”
Most of our businesses are still focused on a narrow conception of profit and shareholder value. I’m not saying those things aren’t important, but companies have a major role in the life of the people they employ and in the communities they inhabit. We have a very linear model of business at the moment. We take resources out of the ground and we make things that are dispensed with and have a limited life. But there are other ways to do business. There’s a movement called Conscious Capitalism that came out of John Mackey’s work with Whole Foods and is now a network of organisations that are looking for more socially responsible, environmentally engaged ways of being profitable.
Dame Ellen MacArthur was one of the world’s first round-the-women yachtswomen. She’s now set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is committed to the idea of the circular economy and the need to have sustainable economic practises in the interests of the planet and our own well-being on it. It’s urgent that we look at how these principles of human flourishing can be applied more widely in how our communities live and work and that they are practised in and promoted by businesses everywhere.
Dr. Martyn Newman: Ken, I think you’re going to find the EQ Summit this year in London a wonderful forum where you’ll be among a lot of friends who will very much enjoy your company, because these are the issues which are central to all of us in this movement of EQ Summit. So we’re very much looking forward to your company.
I really thank you for your time today. You’ve given us a little teaser and a number of very deep perspectives, really, on some of the quite revolutionary ideas you’ll address. I have to say that your latest book ‘Creative Schools’ is quite a manifesto. You certainly don’t confine yourself to talking about chalk and talk in the classroom. You really do discuss some of the revolutionary changes that are going on in the world around us that need addressing, in very, very practical and insightful ways. In that book ‘Creative Schools’, you really pushed the envelope and call for organisations to be based on a wholly different set of principles. We’re really looking forward to hearing some of the details around that. Thanks for your time today.
Sir Ken Robinson: My pleasure, Martyn. Thanks so much, by the way. I enjoyed it.