“The Real Man, the Imagination” William Blake


In a letter to Benedetto Varchi, Michelangelo described his art: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo also said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” In a way, each person is like that block of stone; we have a unique creative, problem solving psyche yet it is locked within stone—within the rational, thinking mind. In creative endeavors and in everyday life, releasing the imagination is key to finding your way out of a stuck situation. Finding a pause in the hustle and bustle of everyday life allows you to see the angel in the stone; the rest of the work is freeing it. When we are stuck in life it feels like we are dealing with a heavy, featureless block of stone. Part of us may actually become invested in being stuck and if we use the mind and will power to dig our way out we only dig deeper; rational, conscious solutions may actually be creating the problem. “The thing to realize is that the unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you normally function” writes Dorothea Brande (1981, p. 150).

Leonardo da Vinci used to stare at the walls in his studio until the damp patches formed scenes and figures he wanted to paint. In a similar way, writing teacher Dorothea Brande, in her book Becoming a Writer, teaches students to hitch their writing arm to their unconscious in order to accomplish writing tasks. Brande writes of the artistic coma as being essential, like da Vinci’s staring at the wall, to finding creative solutions to life impasses.

One way to do help the creative faculty take the lead is to first formulate a general idea of the problem, without blame on yourself or another for being stuck. Then, engage physically. Brande writes of walking until you are mildly tired, arriving back at your starting place before becoming too tired. A smooth and easy walk is best, neither too athletic nor too slow. As you find your pace, think about the issue; it should naturally fill your thoughts. The key is to let thoughts arise, without trying to solve the problem by will power. Stillness at the surface (the mind) is needed to access deeper resources—this is what the walk can help with as your body engages, keeping the mind settled. Once back at home after the walk, bathe; the issue will still be in your mind.

In a dimly lit room, lie down on your back, or, if that is too drowsy, sit in an easy chair. Quiet your mind, watching your breath for instance. In a few minutes ideas should arise naturally. These are the ideas you are waiting for—not consciously willed ideas but naturally arising ones. You can then write these ideas down and work with them, like rewriting a draft, as applied to your relationship issue, writing block, or other task at hand. There are many variations of this exercise but the process is the same—quiet the mind, allow creative thoughts to arise, and then work on the ideas. Cultivating a sense of gratitude for creative ideas, for the imagination, can make it easier the next time you engage in this exercise.