What would life look like with out time? If it were never invented. Endless… depthless… now… So much we could do and accomplish. So many pressures and anxieties would disappear.
But it does exist and it’s always getting in the way. We are all susceptible to what sometimes is referred to as ‘mental time travel.’ This endless unhealthy rumination with “I wonder what if…?” or “Why did I have to go and do that…?”
Sure a thoughtful contemplation of lessons learned or principles to be applied is great. But what I’m talking about with mental time travel, is at its worst, thoughts that lead to anxiety (future) and resentment (past). At their best these thoughts still steal our attention from the here and now.
Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events. So says wikipedia. Consider how artificial that is. Time is more often than not viewed as a thing, a tangible part of life. Something we have, or don’t have and are running out of… But it really only exists in so far as we are looking at it. Using it to sequence something.
It’s interesting to note that in Einstein’s theories of relativity, time was not fixed. It was the physical world that was fixed and time adjusted to it, not the other way around. I think this space vs time dichotomy is interesting because of what it means for us. Whether we are chasing flow, more creativity or pursuing mastery, time has a way of getting in the way.
This dichotomy of time and space is more than just physics, it seems to extend to our heads.
There is a school of thought that learning styles of children can be divided between auditory/sequential( sequencing is essentially a time based linear activity) and visual/spatial. Dr Linda Silverman, who pioneered the concept, has outlined some of the differences. In her book she shows parents and teachers practical ways to recognize, reach, and develop visual-spatial abilities in children.
I bring it up here only show the validity of this dichotomy: spatial/visual vs temporal/sequential. Dr Silverman goes into detail about the differences, but the evidence doesn’t end with her. Roger Sperry, a neuropyscologist, even won a Nobel prize for his work in brain laterilization which coincides, interestingly enough, with a spatial vs sequential dichotomy.
Any right brain vs left brain discussion (which is what Sperry pioneered) is usually frowned upon in today’s findings on whole brain networks etc… But the dichotomy is still there in how we mentally process information. As seen in a more recent study:
No doubt most of us, even if we have a dominant mode, use both spatial and temporal reasoning and thinking. But notice this quote from Betty Edwards famous book: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain:
On creative thought and unverbalized solutions: “That in all these sudden illuminations my ideas took shape in a primarily visual-spatial form without, so far as I can introspect, any verbal interventions, is in accordance with what has always been my preferred mode of thinking… Many of my happiest hours since childhood have been spent absorbed in drawing, in tinkering, or in exercises of purely mental visualizations. ~ Roger N Shepherd ~
Sounds a lot like a flow experience doesn’t it? Visual spatial processing is key. I think that as a visual creative we have a tendency to think that visual spatial processing is there by default. But is it? Are there things we’re doing to sabotage our deep now process? Time intrudes on most everything we do.
Before we go into the way time may negatively influence our visual creative experience we should acknowledge, as Alan Watts so eloquently put it:
“You cant have use of the inside of a cup without the outside.
Time, artificial as it may be, is part of life. In terms of flow experience, we see in sports that time plays a huge factor (eg: basket ball player driving for the hoop as time is expiring and feels as if time slows down).
It’s an interesting relationship but it seems time(or any kind of sequential process) needs to be made to take a back seat to the visual spatial experience.
One notable surefire example of this is risk. Albert Heim, a Swiss geologist of the 19th century, fell over 60 feet in a climbing accident. Fortunately he survived but the experience of time dilation and peace while falling affected him so profoundly he went on to study the effect in other survivors of near death experiences. For a modern day parallel check out Steven Kotler’s book: Rise of Superman. It goes in depth on high risk activities and how they induce flow states.
Flow is a scalable experience. I have personally experienced a variety of flow experiences from trail running to triple diamond snowboarding to painting. I’ve narrowed down the biggest factors regarding how deep into flow I can hit, and they are time and how many aleatory elements I can build into the experience. I’ll cover aleatory elements in a future post.
The connection between linear auditory, sequential and temporal seem to form a group that I handle very deliberately when planning my painting sessions. Words just have to be set aside while painting. Both internal and external, I don’t want any verbal influences. Noise canceling headphones are great for this of course.
I do listen to music, but absolutely no lyrics. Rhythm trumps harmony on my playlist (but I’m still exploring this). But considering musics large effect on arousal I try to engineer tempo to the equivalent mood of my painting process at the moment. So I can’t go too fast on tempo or it’s distracting. Too slow and my flow is not as deep.
Playlists are incredibly helpful if your working in a window. Looking at the clock is death to flow. But if I’m worried about being somewhere on time I can’t ignore the clock either, it’ll nag at me. Hence the beauty of the playlist. Set up 2 hours music and your done. Nothing nagging and pulling you out of flow. If for some reason you’re so deep in the now that the music ends and you don’t realize it, that’s OK too. At least for me. If I’m deep in a session, enjoying the now, it’s probably more important than anything I’m late for anyways (and you can always just set an alarm if it’s your wedding or something monumental).
Now time and any step by step sequential process’s seem to work together. How we handle these aspects is extremely important as they want to pull us out of flow. Another definition of flow is transient implicit-explicit synchronization. Implicit being unconscious/intuitive and explicit more conscious top down activities. We need to relegate time and sequencing to bottom up, unconscious implicit systems.
Like that basket ball player driving for the basket. Dribbling and footwork is all implicit. He’s trained it and burned it in so deep it takes no conscious thought. His conscious mind is free to handle the fluid and dynamic qualities of the other players on the court. Explicit, top-down.
As a visual creative we need to do the same. Personally as an oil painter, I sequence as much before hand as I can. Brushes,knives, and pigments same place every time. Always limit your options when possible (we can talk about the principle of scarcity in a future post). I premix piles of major colors. Once I’m painting I constantly keep adjusting my base mixtures, but if I have to keep digging and come up dry or I struggle for a color match (mental or in the real), I lose the flow. Plan ahead and prepare. Anticipate points of resistance and prepare around them.
The prep work is no fun, especially the long hours of skill acquisition and mastery. But the pay off is huge, as so many have noted:
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song! ~ Maya Angelou ~
Forget time and really bite down on the Deep Now.