One day in my creative writing workshop we were discussing creativity and the mind. The main point I wanted to make was that the mind is a wonderful tool but elusive and fickle. The mind doesn't like to be coerced into being creative on demand. When a problem comes up in writing, a writer has
to learn to trust that the mind is working on an answer even when we're not consciously trying. Those wonderful ideas that seem to come out of "nowhere" actually come from nowhere else but our minds, when we get out of their way and let them do their job.
How well do we really know our own minds? I asked. Then I thought it would be a useful exercise to have the students try some meditation, to spend a few minutes paying close attention to their own minds. I wanted them to see how hard it is to get the mind to concentrate on one thing for any
length of time. I wanted them to see how alive the mind is, how hard it is to tame.
Sit up straight, hands in your lap, eyes closed or looking downward, I told them. Take three slow deep breaths and then do nothing but stay in the present moment. When a thought comes up, let it pass and continue holding your attention on the here and now. If you notice yourself going
off on a train of thought, gently drop it and return to the present moment.
And off they went. A hush, which is usually a terrible thing in teaching, descended over the room. At the end of 5 very long minutes I called a halt.
Okay, I said, expecting sheepish laughter and lots of head-shaking, how many people were able to stay completely focused on the present moment for the full five minutes?
Every hand in the room went up.
Nobody caught themselves drifting off, daydreaming, not even for a second?
It was astonishing. It seemed that I had before me a room of unacknowledged young Zen masters. I realized later that what I had before me was a room of keen, competitive students, none of whom wanted to look like they hadn't been able to complete the assignment.