How To Solve Problems Creatively Using The Zen Moment At Work

Both Zen and creative thinking emphasize the intuitive, rather than rational thinking, and some elements of Zen can be applied to enhance creative thinking.

In “Zen Culture,” Thomas Hoover describes how Zen has affected swordsmanship, archery, ink painting, and Haiku poetry in Japan. Each activity involves learning technique and craft over long periods of time until one performs them without conscious thought. Each involves moments of creative action in which the person merges with the surrounding world. The swordsman merges with his sword and opponent; the archer with his bow and arrow and target; the ink artist with his brush, ink, paper, and subject; and the Haiku poet with his subject, all creatively. Finally, each involves a mental state where the conscious mind loses control of the process so it takes place spontaneously and intuitively and creatively within the subconscious mind. I call this state the “Zen moment.” Some people refer to it as “the zone.”

For example, Ray Bradbury in “Zen in the Art of Writing” describes the Zen moment in his creative writing even before he ever learned about Zen. He summarizes it with the words WORK, RELAX, and DON’T THINK. Work for twenty years to develop your craft. Work so quantity gives way to quality. Work to contact the natural thing that is you, the part of you that is truly original. Fall in love with an idea, let the work develop a rhythm, allow the mechanical to fall away, let the body take over, drop your guard, RELAX, and DON’T THINK. Let your subconscious take over. The result is more relaxation, more absence of thinking, and more creativity. Bradbury is describing the “Zen moment.”

Assume that creativity comes from the natural creative self, a part of ourselves that is much like the natural self that Zen describes as unselfconscious, spontaneous, intuitive, non-thinking, and totally involved with the moment of doing. This natural state disappears during training while the swordsman, archer, artist, and poet absorb techniques. The natural self appears again at the end of training, when technique takes place without conscious thought.

We can apply this concept to creative thinking. Children exhibit the untutored natural creative self best. It diminishes as pressures mount in school, and as parents and friends expect more from the developing child. Vestiges of the untutored natural creative self last throughout life, and adults display it as daily creativity. Natural creativity seems low in most adults, but it is merely hibernating.

Training in creative thinking starts with learning to discard creativity-spoiling habits, to create a creative atmosphere in your mind, and to use creativity triggers–in short, learning how to be creative again.

Then practice creativity using creativity triggers until no conscious thought is required to use them effectively. When their use becomes automatic, your mind is free to focus on the problem and its solution; evaluation has disappeared. You intuitively discover the basic elements underlying each creativity trigger and the boundaries between triggers become indistinct. You easily create new triggers that are intuitively correct.

Finally, you no longer depend on creativity triggers. You exhibit natural creativity again. You use creativity triggers intuitively. The “Zen moment” occurs frequently. Unexpected ideas appear spontaneously, the product of your prepared, trained mind that has learned how to turn parts of itself off to allow the “Zen moment” to occur.

Is this a way to enhance creative thinking?  Will this work for you? That’s up to you to find out for yourself. Looking back on my own creativity development leads me to think that this is how the process worked for me. That is, I made a shift from mechanical usage to intuitive use of creativity triggers. This greatly enhanced my creative thinking. I’m looking forward to the time when my “Zen moments” occur more frequently.

Paradigm Shifts and the Sound of One Hand Clapping

An old Zen riddle asks, “How do you get through a gateless gate?” Do you mean how do you accomplish the impossible (a paradigm shift?) Well, you start by defining the problem creatively and shifting paradigms, by listing many ideas, and by combining them innovatively into trigger-ideas and workable solutions. Committed action plans and the real work follow.

At the beginning of my creative thinking workshop, I often ask “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Most people give no answer. Some answer the “sound is silence,” a breakthrough in realizing that the answer does not have to be clever.

When I ask children this question many look puzzled. Sometimes they wave one hand through the air listening for the answer. Actually, the waving of one hand is one answer to the question. This is hard for some people to understand.

In some Zen training, this riddle of the “sound of one hand clapping” is given to novices starting to master Zen. The novice meditates on the meaning of the riddle, and makes daily visits to the Zen master for about three years to absorb the riddle’s teachings.

According to Yoel Hoffman in “The Sound of One Hand: 281 Koans with Answers,” the acceptable answer is for the novice to face the Zen master, take a correct posture, and silently extend one hand forward. This answer embodies much of Zen philosophy. It is immediate, nonverbal, spontaneous, and intuitive, and so is creative thinking.

The Zen answer has many nuances that we need not pursue here. Suffice to say that three years of meditating on the “sound of one hand clapping” produces a paradigm shift in the novice’s view of reality.

Paradigm shifts help creative thinking. A paradigm is a belief structure within which you think and act. The paradigms within which you operate affect your creativity. Usually they box you in and produce brain ‘channels’ and tunnel vision.

A paradigm shift is a change in your belief structure that changes your perspective and allows you to see things differently. My purpose in using the riddle about the “sound of one hand clapping” is to produce a quick paradigm shift to help creative thinking.

I want to jolt people into realizing that the way we perceive a problem limits our thinking. Almost immediately, some participants discover some creativity spoiling habits that block their creative thinking. This discovery prompts a change in perception of creativity, and how to enhance it. These people discover that ideas can be expressed nonverbally, as well as in writing. They see the value in being spontaneous and intuitive, as well as rational. They see the need to be immediate, as well as reflective. They see that creative thinking can be helped by changes in perception.

All this is triggered by a Zen riddle. This blog is also like a Zen riddle in that it is intended to change your perceptions, produce paradigm shifts, and enhance your creative thinking with advanced creativity triggers.

WHAT IS THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING? Well, it’s like the sound of one brain thinking creatively (a paradigm shift). Oh, you mean it is a silent explosion in the universe.

Apply this to your workplace. Explore the paradigms that shackle your creativity and box you in. Find and shift one inhibiting paradigm each day. Devise new answers to the Zen riddle presented above.

In addition, list creativity-spoiling habits of other people that stifle your creativity. Resolve not to do them to other people. Assert to people who interfere with your creativity.

Make action plans to do these things on a systematic basis this week.

And checkout my 2016 book:


How To Be More Creative Than You Think You Are.” 


©2017 by Edward Glassman


Ed Glassman, Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded the Program For Team Excellence And Creativity at the university. He led scores of problem-solving creativity meetings and creative thinking workshops-seminars for many large and small companies. He was a ‘Guggenheim Foundation Fellow’ at Stanford University, a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at the ‘Center For Creative Leadership’ in Greensboro, NC, a Visiting Professor at the University Of California at Irvine, and a Visiting Scientist at SRI International in Palo Alto, California.

His book: Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best,” is available: CLICK here AND HERE.

Another book:R&D CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION HANDBOOK: A Practical Guide To Improve Creative Thinking and Innovation Success At Work” is also available.   CLICK here  AND HERE

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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