Image by treehouse1977
Once upon a time there was a boy named Milton H. Erickson, who lived on a farm in Wisconsin. Walking home from school one day, he and his friends were overtaken by a runaway horse with a bridle on, covered in sweat, that bolted into a farmer’s yard.
The farmer didn’t recognise the horse, and there was nothing on the saddle and bridle to identify it. The others were at a loss for what to do, but Milton took the lead, asking them to corner the horse so that he could mount it. Once in the saddle he shouted “Giddy up!” but held the reins loosely, so that the horse, not the rider, decided which way to go.
The horse trotted and galloped along, only pausing from time to time when it was distracted by a new farmyard or field. Each time, Milton pulled on the reins and encouraged him to keep moving. They took several turnings, all decided by the horse.
After about four miles, the horse turned into a farmyard and stopped. The farmer came out and stared in amazement.
“So that’s how that critter came back. Where did you find him?” I said, “About four miles from here.” “How did you know you should come here?” I said, “I didn’t know. The horse knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road.”
(Phoenix: Therapeutic Patterns of Milton H. Erickson, by David Gordon)
Years later, when Milton Erickson had achieved fame as a psychotherapist, he liked to tell this story to his students, telling them that doing therapy was a lot like riding that horse. Whatever ideas you might have about the best path for the client to follow, you stood more chance of success by tapping into the wisdom of the unconscious mind – both yours and the client’s. “You can trust the unconscious,” he used to say.
Erickson’s faith in the power of the unconscious mind led him to make extensive use of hypnosis in psychotherapy. He was also very alert to subtleties of body language and to the strange logic behind his clients’ symptoms. He saw the unconscious not as a storehouse of repressed memories and negative emotions, but a treasure-house of creativity and potential waiting to be released.
Over and over again, he encouraged his students to let go of their preconceptions – about clients, about therapy, about human nature – and to trust their unconscious mind to help clients come up with creative solutions to their problems. In this, he resembles a long line of teachers and mentors, from ancient yogis and Zen masters to the gurus of modern popular culture, such as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, Yoda in Star Wars and Tyler Durden in Fight Club.
The Buddha compared our situation to a puny rider (the conscious mind) perched on a mighty elephant (the unconscious mind); an inexperienced rider can coax and cajole, but if the elephant decides he wants to go in a different direction, there’s only going to be one winner.
I’m sure you’ve already started to connect the dots with the creative process – so often, we start off with certain ideas about how a piece of work is going to turn out. But if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves ignoring the promptings of our unconscious mind – or inspiration, instinct, Muse, bodymind or whatever else you call it – and the work suffers as a result.
If you’re too wedded to your original plotline, you may miss the dramatic opportunities that emerge as the story unfolds.
If you keep plugging away at a realistic portrait of your subject, you may not spot the dynamic patterns of colour and form you are creating, glimpses of the abstract masterpiece struggling to appear.
If you keep trying to play the character the way you’ve seen her played in other productions, you may not realise that all those ‘mistakes’ are actually nudging you towards a startlingly original interpretation of the part.
And it’s not only artists who are susceptible to this kind of ‘creative blindness’.
If you’re a business owner, you may be so convinced of the value of your current product that you fail to spot the market opportunity in the objections raised by your prospects.
If you’re a teacher, you may not realise that that ‘difficult’ student isn’t failing on purpose, she just has a different learning style to the others in your class.
If you’re an athlete, you can try so hard overcome your limitations at one sport, that you don’t see the killer advantage these very limitations could give you at a different sport.
I’m not saying there’s no value in making plans and applying what you know. You have to start somewhere.
But whenever you set out to do something extraordinary, there comes a point where, like Erickson on the horse, you have to choose between trying to control everything – or letting go and getting carried away by something bigger and more powerful than yourself.
Over to You
Have you ever succeeded by letting go of your preconceptions and allowing your instincts to take over? What happened?
Have you ever screwed something up by clinging too tightly to your original ideas?
Any tips for letting go of your conscious mind and allowing your creative instincts to take over?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.