Creative Process

The Three Minds

by Sonya Shannon on November 18, 2011

Don’t believe everything you think.

One day my yoga teacher introduced me to an idea I have found very helpful in understanding creative thought processes. The idea is that each person has three different minds: the negative mind, the positive mind, and the neutral mind. These three minds inform our creative work-in-progress. They also affect our self-image as artists or creators. Since our view of ourselves influences everything we do—either supporting or impeding us—it is important to look at each of the three minds in turn, to understand its role in creative manifestation.

The Negative or Protective Mind

The negative mind has a protective function. It warns us of danger, harm, or risk in our undertakings. The voice of the inner skeptic that says, “Watch out!” or “That idea will never work,” or “Are you sure?” illustrates the negative mind at work. The purpose of this mind is to help us achieve goals by steering clear of obstacles. At its essence, the negative mind developed as a protective mechanism necessary for survival, while in our creative processes it serves as an asset, safely shielding us from difficulties the way a parent guides a toddler away from hazards.

John Vassos Phobia of Dirt

The Fear of Dirt and Contamination by John Vassos, 1931

Healthy use of the protective mind warns us of pitfalls and gives us a “reality check.” The protective mind has a grounding effect, bursting our overly idealistic bubbles and keeping us on track with time, money, and pragmatic concerns. Helpful thoughts from the negative mind allow us to be self-critical so that we can improve our efforts. Applied to others, the negative mind helps us discern our allies from our enemies and take criticism with a grain of salt.

If the negative mind runs rampant, it tends to get very biased. Left unchecked, it soon becomes the eternal pessimist, the Chicken Little who says, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” If we look at life only through the lens of the negative mind, everything is doom and gloom, hellfire and brimstone, the cup half-empty—in other words, the black of black-and-white. For example, if we have a rough patch financially, the untempered negative mind convinces us we’ll be living under the bridge in no time, standing around a trash-can fire eating a can of tuna with our fingers!

Bosch Detail

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1500

For many people, it is easy to get trapped inside the negative mind because, in addition to its protective function, it is the dumping grounds for every hurtful word ever said to us since childhood. Internalized voices of criticism get lodged inside the negative mind and echo over and over, often without us being aware. The negative mind is like a magnetic pole with a strong pull where “like attracts like.” If we start down the course of negative thinking, one negative message follows another until pretty soon all our problems—past, present, and future—glom together and blot out everything else. This tendency to wallow in negative thinking is an example of an unhelpful thought pattern that impedes creative flow.

Regarding self-image, staying too long in the negative mind is sure to cause symptoms of low self-esteem, an inferiority complex, shaken confidence, loss of hope and faith, self-hatred, and ultimately, suicidal feelings. Ironically, the negative aspect of the mind is supposed to help protect us! But like any abused thing, misuse of our negative mind causes serious wreckage, thwarts our creative efforts, and leaves us spiritually bereft.

The Positive or Projective Mind

On the opposite pole dwells the positive mind. The purpose of the positive mind is to help us imagine a bright future where our dreams are being fulfilled. The positive mind is the cup half-full and the white of black-and-white. This mind encourages us to believe that all things are possible and the world is a wonderful place. Its optimism helps us reach for the best and remain open to life’s endless potentials. Our inner cheerleader says things like, “You can do it!,” “That’s going to be amazing!,” “You’re a genius!,” or, “Don’t worry, it will all work out fine!” The projections of the positive mind give us confidence, open us up to fresh approaches, and encourage us to keep trying the way a parent helps a child get back up after a fall.

Leighton Accolade

The Accolade by Edmund Leighton, 1901

Healthy use of the positive mind lets us see the humor in difficulties, find the good we can salvage from minor disasters, and inspires us to pick up a new skill or expand our horizons in mid-life. It has an uplifting, restorative effect, encouraging us to let go of the past and keep moving forward. Applied to others, the positive mind helps us reach out to make new friends and offer hope, aid, and encouragement to others.

Yet excessive use of the positive mind can make Pollyannas of us. We can become determinedly cheerful so we can avoid our true feelings about difficult things. Misuse of the positive mind is like wearing rose-colored glasses: we get stuck in naiveté, vagueness, or helpless romanticism; we falsify reality, gloss over or whitewash faults, or simply refuse to face facts. For example, if we’re inspired to start a new project, the unbridled positive mind projects us forward to winning the Oscar and making millions of dollars, rehearsing our thank-you speech or picking out designer eveningwear—before we’ve created the first draft!

Maxfield Parrish

The Dinkey-Bird by Maxfield Parrish, 1904

The positive mind has traps of its own, the largest and most common being denial. If we start down the road of lah-dee-dah thinking, pretty soon we end up in our own little fantasy-world. Patterns of repeatedly trusting untrustworthy people, starting wildly ambitious projects that never get finished, or becoming swollen-headed about our “genius” or giftedness are signs we are stuck in positive projections. Sick positive thinking can inflate our ego to huge proportions or cause us to mask ourselves with a false personality. It can make us delusional, like the codependent who says, “Everything’s fine!” while the bank is foreclosing the house, the drunk spouse just crashed the car, and the babysitter molested the kid. Misuse of the positive mind minimizes serious concerns, isolates us in fantasy, distorts our creativity with false hopes or unrealistic goals, and rejects input from others that could help us improve.

Coming back to reality after being lost in projective fantasy can be particularly painful. Those of us who have been there say we graduated from the School of Hard Knocks, often crashing full-force into the truths of life. Our ability to trust ourselves ends up damaged. Fortunately, the positive mind—true to its purpose—helps us pick up the pieces and try again once more.

The Yo-Yo Effect

Many creative people, especially those with addictive or obsessive-compulsive tendencies, get stuck in a pattern of flipping between extremes. They go back and forth between the positive and negative minds and become the “egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” Judgmental thinking—the sand trap of thought processes—preoccipies the negative or the positive mind. Things are good or bad, all or nothing, a success or a failure, right or wrong. These attitudes affect our self-image and drag us into emotional dramas concerning our identity as creators. We become negatively charged, depressed, or rageful—or we become positively charged, manic, or flighty. Until a person navigates beyond black-and-white thinking, the creative process can be a nonstop roller-coaster ride and our self-image unstable as a carnival hall of mirrors.

Certain people thrive on these extremes and perceive the emotional seesaw as an “engine” for creativity. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.” It is common for highly creative types to believe that darkness and light are essential ingredients of art, that the world of grey would actually kill inspiration or steal all the life and color from creative works. Similarly, with self-image, certain actors and writers find it advantageous to “lose themselves” in their characters, and might regard a stable self-image as an obstacle.

My point is not to pass judgment on the negative or the positive mind, or the ways each might be engaged during the creative process. Simply, I wish to point out that they exist, they have a healthy function that serves creativity, they should be kept in balance, and most importantly, they are only two of the three possible minds at our disposal.

The Neutral or Meditative Mind

The third mind is the neutral or meditative mind, which is neither negative nor positive but has a different quality altogether. It is capable of regarding both the negative and positive minds without being influenced by either. While the negative and positive minds squabble over whether the cup is half-empty or half-full, the neutral mind sits contentedly with its own brim-full cup! The neutral mind is made of contemplation and stillness, deep inner listening, and the suspension of judgment and emotional reaction. Voices from the neutral mind are like this: “So-and-so sounds very upset. That is understandable, given the situation,” or “Wow, look at that poor person. There but for the grace of God go I.” Neutral mind sayings include, “Let it be,” “Que sera, sera,” “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on. This meditative mind offers a new gateway to creativity. Its purpose is to balance and weigh the other two minds and to help us access deeper parts of ourselves that lie beyond normal human experience.

I once found a description of the meditative mind, which I never forgot. Although the author does not speak of three minds as my yoga teacher does, his explanation transports me straight into a meditative state. Here is the Sufi scholar Hazrat Inayat Khan’s passage:

“The mind can be likened to a lake. If there is a wind blowing and the water is disturbed, then the reflection will not be clear; but when the water is still the reflection is clear. And so it is with the mind: the mind which is still is capable of receiving reflection. The mind which is powerful, capable of making a thought, a picture, holding a thought, can project its thought beyond any boundaries that may be standing there to hinder it.

“Does the heart reflect the mind or the mind the heart? In the first place it should be known that the mind is the surface of the heart, and the heart is the depth of the mind. Therefore mind and heart are one and the same thing.”

Carmichael Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake by Franklin Carmichael, 1929

What Khan is describing is the ability of the meditative mind to connect with the vastness and depth of the universe. The phrase that always stayed with me was, “The heart is the depth of the mind.” As I began to contemplate what this meant, I had a spontaneous experience of eternity and infinity. At the very bottom of our being lies the heart. This heart bathes in a steady love energy, which we call unconditional love, meaning: a neutral and meditative love for everything in the entire universe—without prejudice, preference, or exception. The fascinating thing about the neutral mind is that it is constant and endless, and it can only be experienced when we make no effort of any kind! Unconditional love is not a destination to be attained: it is a state of being, perpetually there below the surface of life. The way we access it is by turning off and clearing away everything else, by stopping the chatter of the negative and positive minds, and slowing down our breath until all that remains is the perpetual light of our soul’s glorious star. This is our true identity and the source of everything we create in our lifetime!

As we sit with the neutral mind, the other two minds fall away. The negative mind sinks into the heart, leaving the gift of compassion. All our enemies, the people who irritate us, hurt us, or of whom we feel jealous, dissolve into meditative bliss. The negative feelings we once held are replaced by compassion, a neutral flow of empathy for other peoples’ suffering. Similarly, the positive mind disappears into the heart, leaving a gift of gratitude. All the bounty and potentials, the hopes and dreams we held resolve into pure gratitude for our existence. Even the neutral mind itself washes away, as do all concepts and structures in meditation, until our sense of self vanishes altogether and we are indistinguishable from the universe.

Grey Mind

Mind by Alex Grey, c. 2000

Back in normal life, when we are not in a state of meditation, it is still possible to engage the neutral mind. When we do so, we can take criticism with equanimity and hear praise objectively. We listen to others with compassion instead of judgment, offer encouragement from a place of wisdom, and spend much of our time being grateful for each moment. The important thing is that we must practice using the neutral mind on a daily basis.

Ordinarily, it is easy to slip back into the negative mind, or we might choose to be deliberately positive no matter what. Unhelpful thought patterns, whether from the negative mind or the positive, are like sand traps draining us emotionally, impeding our momentum, and ultimately severing our connection with the creative flow. These two opposing minds can be like weeds taking over our waking experience unless our meditation practice uproots them. Just as the physical heart is designed to beat, the mind is designed to think. Left alone, the mind constantly generates thoughts—whether positive or negative—because that is what minds do. Instead of condemning our thought patterns as bad, if we regard them from a neutral, non-judgmental place as simply unhelpful, then we actually have enough energy left to start changing! Meditation is the way out, the way to emptiness, no thought, and the deep stillness in which the entire universe is reflected, so it is also the key to pure, renewable creativity.

Sources:

The Sufi Message of Hazrat Inayat Khan

The Mind: its projections and multiple facets by Yogi Bhajan with Gurucharan Singh Khalsa

The Ten Light Bodies of Consciousness: a guide to self-discovery and self-enlightenment by Nirvair Singh Khalsa

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