Photo by EspartaWhat do the following people have in common?
The Priestess of Apollo – Greece, 403 BC
She has fasted for several days prior to the 7th of the month, which is sacred to her God. She washes in the Castalian Spring, then drinks the waters of the Kassotis which confer the gift of inspiration. Clutching laurel leaves and a cauldron of water, she descends into a chamber beneath the temple and mounts a high tripod seat. Alone in the darkness, she waits.
Minutes later, the famous Spartan general Lysander is led into the temple above. Like the priestess, he has undergone rituals of purification and arrives clutching a laurel branch. On entering the temple, he brought a black ram as a gift for Apollo. The ram was showered with water and closely watched to make sure that it shivered from the hooves upward. The animal was then sacrificed and its organs examined for auspicious signs.
The voice that comes up to Lysander from the darkness is sluggish, as if the speaker were entranced or waking from sleep. Some of the words are unintelligible to him, but a chill runs though him when the voice hisses: “Beware the earthborn serpent, in craftiness coming behind thee!”
Eight years later Lysander is killed in battle – stabbed from behind by a warrior with a serpent painted on his shield.
Friedrich Schiller – Germany, 18th Century
The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visits the house of his friend and fellow writer Friedrich Schiller. While waiting for Schiller to return home, he notices a terrible smell coming from the writing desk. When he comments on it, Schiller’s wife laughs in embarrassment and explains that her husband always keeps rotten apples in the desk, claiming he is unable to write without the smell wafting into his nostrils. Frau Schiller shakes her head as she adds that when writing at his desk, her husband also immerses his feet in a tub of iced water.
Knife fighter – Philippines, 20th Century
A middle-aged man prepares for a machete duel. The knife he clutches has had the poison of deadly spiders beaten into its blade during the forging process. Around his neck is an amulet, around his waist an apron inscribed with a prayer, which he recites with utmost seriousness, certain that these preparations will make the difference between life and death.
The England rugby team – UK, 21st Century
Jason Robinson keeps an eye on the clock in the buildup to kick off. He has a strict routine of bandaging his arm and leg joints in a particular order, at specific times before the game. His teammate Mark Cueto, having eaten his usual pre-match meal of beans on toast, is careful to put his left boot on before his right. As usual Cueto was last off the team bus, but he will be jostling with Mark Regan when the teams are called out, as both players like to be last out of the changing room for every game. Other players will make a point of touching the ceiling as they leave the room or putting on their mouth guards at the precise moment they step across the touchline onto the pitch.
Steven Pressfield – USA, 21st Century
The novelist puts on his lucky boots, ties up their lucky laces and heads for his office where he finds his lucky hooded sweatshirt, lucky gypsy charm and lucky nametag. On his shelf is a lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. A lucky model cannon sits on top of his thesaurus. He points the cannon towards his chair then recites a prayer to the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey. Only then does he start to write.
So what’s your answer?
If you’re a hard-core rationalist you will probably dismiss such antics as ‘superstition’.
Even if you’re not wedded to scientific materialism, you may find this kind of behaviour pretty weird.
But if you are an artist, athlete, actor or another kind of performer, you may well have similar warm-up rituals of your own. You might feel slightly embarrassed by such ‘illogical’ behaviour – but not enough to change it. In my coaching work with professional creators, performers and sports players, I’ve often heard clients say “You’ll think it’s silly but …” before telling me about their pre-work ritual.
I’m going to suggest that this kind of ritual is far from silly or irrational. In fact, if you’re a creative professional, it may be the most important thing you do all day.
You may know from your own experience that such rituals ‘work’. If so, then you probably have your own explanation as to why. While respecting your explanation, I’m going to offer another perspective based on my original professional training, in hypnotherapy.
State Dependent Performance
Looked at through the lens of hypnosis, each of these people is engaged in a ritual that helps them enter an altered state of consciousness that is essential for enhanced performance. If any of these people were prevented from carrying out their ritual beforehand, the chances are they would fail to perform to their usual high standard.
Dr Ernest Rossi is a leading hypnotherapist and investigator into the connections between mind and body. A few years ago I had the privilege of attending a residential therapists’ retreat with Dr Rossi, and I can testify to his deep understanding of states of consciousness and their effect on performance. Central to his work is the concept of state dependent memory, learning and behaviour (SDMLB), which means that as we learn skills and knowledge they become associated with a particular mental, emotional and physiological state.
For example: right now you’re reading this blog post so you’re probably in ‘reading mode’ which makes it easy to absorb these words and relate them to other things you’ve read – whether in books, blogs, journals or other sources. But you don’t spend your whole life reading blogs (do you?). At other times you exercise or play sports, work in the garden, around the house or workshop, run around with your kids or do some other kind of physically engaging activity. There’s a whole lot of skills and knowledge tied up in those activities, but right now it probably seems a bit vague and far away, because you’re not in the ‘active zone’.
Next time you’re engaged in energetic activity, fully absorbed in whatever you’re doing, I wonder how vivid the world of blogging will seem to you. You probably won’t give it a thought – and if you were suddently interrupted and asked to recall the details of this article, you would probably struggle to remember at first.
The more complex the task, the more important SDMLB becomes. Dr Barry Gordon, a neuropsychologist, uses the term ‘minimind’ to describe such automatic, state-dependent abilities:
Driving a car is a good example of mental skills that have become automatic.
When you were learning to drive, you had to learn to pay attention. You watched your hands on the steering wheel, the hood of the car, each sign and traffic light, the other cars on the road, and every pedestrian. You also had to think about what to do in special situations: the stop sign or the yield sign, a car getting too close, a pothole. But as you practiced driving and became better, your ability to detect what was happening on the road as well as your reactions became automatic. You didn’t have to consciously look for a stop sign or a red light in order to notice it and automatically respond the right way. And if a pothole suddenly appeared, you immediately saw it and not only swerved but checked your mirrors for other cars nearby.
What you did through all this practice and attention was create automatic mental abilities. You used your conscious mind and deliberate intention to instruct your brain on what to attend to, what decisions to make, and what to be done. Your conscious mind programmed the necessary circuits in your brain. It instructed your vision to pay attention to the color red. Your mind established a network of override circuits so that the need to stop took precedence over almost everything else. It also set up a watchdog circuit, so you would not stop too quickly if a car was on your tail. Finally, it programmed what you have to do to stop: take your foot off the gas and push the brake pedal. All these mental processes were practiced to the point that they became instinctive, like a separate intelligence or “minimind” operating on its own.
All of your thinking, all of your decisions, all of your creativity comes from the same kind of miniminds you apply to skillful driving.
Dr Barry Gordon, The Neuroscience Behind Intelligent Memory
When it comes to creative work, your state of mind is critical. You’ve probably tasted the deep pleasure and satisfaction that comes from being absorbed in creative flow. And if you’re like most creators, you’ve also experienced the maddening frustration that comes of not being able to get into the creative zone. Most of the clients who have consulted me about creative blocks over the years have been looking for ways to access the SDMLB or ‘minimind’ of their creativity.
Rituals Are Triggers for High Performance States
Rituals are important for creativity because they can unlock the state of mind in which you do your most inspired work. They may seem silly or irrational but they are powerful precisely because they are so different to the kind of activities you engage in in other areas of your life.
When I trained in hypnotherapy one of the first things we were taught was the power of a unique stimulus to trigger a state of consciousness. Three of the most important factors that affect the power of a trigger are:
- Emotional intensity – the stronger the original emotional state associated with the trigger, the stronger the emotional response whenever the same trigger is encountered in future.
- Distinctiveness – the more unusual the trigger, the less diluted the emotion will be with other associations.
- Repetition – the more often the intense emotion is experienced in combination with the distinctive trigger, the more powerful the trigger becomes.
For most of us a coffee cup doesn’t act as a powerful trigger – we’ve drunk so many cups of coffee in so many different situations that the object is not particularly distinctive or emotionally charged. But I have a very special coffee cup – a beautiful china one covered in Japanese calligraphy (distinctive) that I bought when I visited Kyoto to get married (emotional intensity) and which I only drink from first thing in the morning as I’m sitting down to write (repetition + more distinctiveness + emotional intensity). Over the past three years it’s become a kind of touchstone for me, connecting me with what’s most important before I start writing.
Note that the trigger itself is not necessarily possessed of magical properties. Its power comes from unlocking an ability you acquire through sustained practice. In the driving example, it takes many hours of driving before the triggers (the steering wheel and other controls; a red stop sign) become associated with automatic behaviours (controlling the car’s movements; stopping quickly and safely). Similarly, you could run through exactly the same routine with exactly the same objects as Steven Pressfield, without producing a decent novel. But the ritual has become magically charged for him because it gives him access to skills he has developed through thousands of hours of practice.
Have another look at the examples at the top of this post. Can you see how each of the rituals combines emotional intensity with a distinctive set of circumstances and actions that are repeated over many occasions? So far from being illogical or silly, they are vitally important to the performers’ preparations.
Isn’t it about time you took such ‘superstitions’ a little more seriously?
Your Creative Rituals
Do you have a ‘lucky’ object that you like to have near you while you work?
Do you have any rituals that are part of your creative process?
What kind of triggers are most effective at getting you in the creative zone?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.