JESVIR MAHIL, UNITED KINGDOM
Jesvir Mahil is an Education Consultant for post-‐compulsory education in the UK. In addition to teaching for over thirty years, she worked as an official inspector, monitoring quality of teaching and learning in colleges. In recognition of her creative contributions to education, spanning three decades, she has been accepted as a Fellow of the Society for Education and Training in Britain. Jesvir is currently researching for a PhD in Education at Birmingham University, exploring how well creativity skills are taught in colleges. She facilitates Equine Assisted Creativity Masterminds where people learn to expand their consciousness in the company of horses simply being horses.
She lives with her family in Birmingham, UK and is the Director of University for Life (Education Consultancy for Lifelong Learning), www.universityforlife.com
59 A Vineyard Road
Northfield, Birmingham B31 1PJ
Phone: +44 (0) 7803 414 903
I delivered this presentation about the relationship between creativity and cultural hegemony at the Education Conference at the University of Birmingham on 26 November 2016. The sound is not good after the 17 minute mark but I have left the last 3 minutes in because they were good questions asked by the audience. Sorry if you cant hear them!
Jesvir Mahil & Annemieken van Reepingen (October 2014)
PRESENCE AND CREATIVITY
You may have already noticed, when you think of some of your most revered heroes and heroines, that a combination of presence and creativity in action is an incredibly powerful way to make an impact and add value to the world we live in.
On our journey home after the 10th EAHAE (European Association of Horse Assisted Education) conference in Poland, Dr Annemieken Van Reepingen and I, wandered through Warsaw, discussing the relationship between presence and creativity. She had delivered an experiential workshop at the conference in which participants learnt the difference between being fully present in the body, and not.
As you’d expect from old friends who haven’t seen each for years, each bursting to share the ideas we have discovered and passionately curious about how they all fit in with the perspective of the other, our discussion got so interesting we promised to write an article about the relationship between presence and creativity on our return home.
Well, here is what we wrote:
When we are fully present in our own bodies, aware of the rhythm of our own breathing and alert to all the sensations we feel, it is very difficult for another person to topple us over. We are able to maintain our balance with strength and resist external pressure when we are fully present. If you practice martial arts or any other sport where balance is important, you will know the importance of breathing rhythmically and as the Chinese, Japanese and Indian philosophies teach, the importance of the solar plexus, wherein our personal power supposedly lies. This is often described as a yellow ball of light, like the sun, located in the region of our bellies. When I was learning Tai Chi, my teacher described it as a cauldron full of boiling water and advised us to move gracefully to avoid spilling any of the scalding water. This was a good metaphor that always reminded me to remain alert to the fire in my belly; my personal power.
It seems to me that this personal power taught throughout the ages in yogic and martial arts philosophies is closely linked with the concept of presence. Indeed they may be exactly the same thing. What is important is the impact of our presence or personal power in our daily lives. Dr Van Reepingen clearly demonstrated this through an exercise where we imagined being three meters ahead of our physical body and found ourselves being easily toppled over by our partners in the exercise. In comparison, when we were fully present in our own bodies, we were able to resist external pressure and maintain our balance.
There is a growing trend in the personal development industry for literature advocating the importance of presence, for example a Google (2014) search for books on ‘Mindfulness’, the modern companion to the ancient tradition of meditation, brings up no less than 1,500,000 entries. A search on Amazon.com (2014) for Mindfulness shows 14,852 products being sold, presumably to people who want to harness this power of presence which is commonly associated with reduction of stress.
The book that I am personally working with to gain better awareness of presence, is by Williams and Penman (2012) and the title promises “Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world”. I was drawn to this book because there is a chapter entitled “When did you stop dancing?” I know the power of dancing and that it is impossible to dance well unless we are fully present in our bodies. In fact, there is a popular quote going around on social media, accredited to Gabriel Roth (Life, 2014) that says:
“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions. When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence? “
This quote leads nicely to the link between presence and creativity. I can understand the importance of being fully present in our own bodies when we are dancing or singing but not when we are listening to a great story for example. Doesn’t our mind take us on a journey that is beyond our physical experience when we are listening to an engaging storyteller? Does that absence from our bodies, when our minds are elsewhere, take away our power?
This was the question over which I pondered with my friend Dr Annemieken Van Reepingen. I am a creative writer and one of the first books I wrote, (Mahil, 2006) was mostly written as an unconscious stream of consciousness, in short bursts of creativity, in the middle of the night when I was usually only half awake and not fully present in my body at all. I do not remember writing creatively and being fully present at the same time. Telling a good story often involves entering the realm of different worlds through our imagination, which is a bit like daydreaming. I am sure we can all remember times when we were daydreaming and jolted back into consciousness by the sharp pangs of reality which brought us back into our own bodies like a bolt of lightning. For me, this is usually looking at the clock and realising that hours have passed when I meant to only sit down and write for half an hour! Although there may be a paradox between being conscious and fully present and at the same time accessing the inspiration for creativity from our unconscious, Annemieken and I realised in our discussion that in order to write authentically we have to be present to our own selves and values to ensure that we are not writing to please others. There is power in our words when they come from our own heart and soul and when these words ring true for others. So in this sense, we do need to be present and in alignment with our own souls in expressing our creativity.
Out of the many definitions of creativity, the one that I find most useful in my business work is suggested by Robinson (2011: 2):
“Creativity, … is the process of developing original ideas that have value, …”
Is it possible to use the principles of mindfulness as explained by authors such as Williams and Penman (2012) to create a powerful presence and to be creative as defined by Robinson above? Well, here we have to understand that creativity is not often achieved in isolation. When we generate original ideas, we cannot claim that they have value just because we say so. Most creative work in business is accomplished through collaboration and popular authors on creativity such as Csikszentmihalyi (2013) remind us of the importance of others in evaluating whether an idea is original and whether it has value:
“There is no way to know whether a thought is new except with reference to some standards, and there is no way to tell whether it is valuable until it passes social evaluation. Therefore, creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context.”
Whenever I have worked in teams, I have noticed that it is those members that are most fully present in themselves that manage to steer the group and even if they don’t generate the most original ideas, they are the ones that add most value by making use of the ideas in a manner that is appropriate to the sociocultural context.
So regardless of whether we are writing creatively in deep solitary slumber, or whether we are developing innovative products in collaboration with teams, it seems wise to be mindful that we put full presence into the expression of our creativity.
Annemieken Van Reepingen
Before we can start talking about the relation between presence and creativity, lets define presence. What is presence? Presence to me is:
It means being aware of yourself, of whatever is going on in your body. Your body has wisdom, your mind is only a small part of that great whole system you are. What are your sensations, emotions, thoughts?
Presence is at the same time staying in contact with the external world, using all your senses, including what we call your sixth sense, your intuition. Being present is not a closed state of consciousness, it is quite the opposite: it is being totally aware of your surroundings. Being present in that way does not leave room for thoughts that are not about the here and now, it does not leave room for worrying about the past or the future.
Being present requires also letting go of expectations, letting go of what you think should happen in the situation, thus making room for what is actually happening.
I work daily with horses and people. Horses are masters in being present, they are prey animals. For them being present is a prerequisite to survive. You never know whether a lion might come round the corner, and you have to keep all your senses open to find out whether he is hungry or not, all in a split second. Leading them requires the same presence from us: staying in contact with our inner selves and in contact with the world around us. People on the other hand are masters in not being present. Horses can teach us a lot in this regard.
Presence evokes a state we call “the flow”. You are in the flow when everything happens smoothly, almost automatically, it does not cost you any energy. On the contrary, it gives you energy. Some say that is because you tap into the energy of something greater than yourself. In any case, it is a state of being that does not cost you any effort, there are no obstacles really. When I am in this fluent presence, I often say and do things I am amazed about later, when I look back. How on earth did I think of that or come up with that? Where did that come from? This is where creativity comes in: new and valuable things come up that you wouldn’t have been able to come up with without this state of presence. When you think about it afterwards, it almost seems like you have become some kind of channel for ideas. I have heard many artists and masters in their profession say that they feel they are a channel in their best moments; in the moments they create best whatever it is they create: a piece of art, a presentation, a coaching session, teaching, furniture, etc…
So, my hypothesis is that to be able to be creative, you need presence. And everything that prevents you from being present kills creativity. One of the biggest killers, and one of the sneakiest ones too, is perfectionism. Bréne Brown (2013) defines perfectionism as putting oneself out. It is trying to do the best we can, so people are pleased with what we do and like and love us. It is not really about looking for better quality. It is not trying to develop and get better; it is trying to look better. Perfectionism is a shield that people put up to protect themselves from rejection and criticism. “If I do things perfectly, no one can criticize me, and everyone will love me and treat me with respect”. Perfectionism is a monster that devours energy. It wears you out and leads to burn-out.
In other words, it is a shield against vulnerability. This leads us to the conclusion that being present also means daring to be vulnerable. If you are present with everything you have in you and in contact with everything there is around you, you are in a state of vulnerability. This means, that in order to be creative we have to be able to be vulnerable. And isn’t it true indeed that we feel extremely vulnerable when we are creative or expose the products of our creativity: every author feels vulnerable when his book is published and read by the public; every painter feels naked when people look at his paintings.
Now, we are ready to close the circle: it is exactly presence that will keep you in this vulnerable and creative state. Presence will keep you away from perfectionism or any other defense mechanism or shield you use to hide yourself. Now, you might say: “why wouldn’t I hide out? Why would I want to be vulnerable? It’s a dangerous world out there”. Because I have never seen anyone happy hiding out, except maybe in the hide and seek game! It is exhausting and wears you out, alienates you from yourself and others and as we already pointed out, kills creativity. Being present and vulnerable on the other hand is the prerequisite to really connect with your inner core and with others. And we human beings are all about connection. We are unhappy if there is a lack of connection; we need connection to strive and survive. We certainly need connection to be happy. Presence allows you to connect.
If you hide out, your view will be impaired. So instead of protecting yourself from danger (when I talk about danger, I am referring to physical and emotional risk) you increase the chance of getting hurt. In contrast, presence will keep you safe, as you will be aware of everything that happens and be able to react if and when necessary.
Conversations themselves can be incredibly creative as this joint article written by my friend Dr Annemieken Van Reepingen and myself illustrates. We each have our own perspective, our own frame of mind, our own history of experiences with which we judge the world. When we build bridges through the love inspired by friendship, creativity is born.
We would love your thoughts and feedback on our article and will answer your questions about presence and creativity as best we can. We can be contacted by email:
Jesvir Mahil (December 2010)
MY TEACHER IS A HORSE!
Remember those moments of epiphany (we’ve all had them) when your life takes a dramatic turn following a deep insight or discovery of a love that you have not experienced previously?
One of these life transforming experiences occurred for me about five years ago when I realised that there is a growing number of people around the world that have made a major shift in consciousness by promoting their horses to the role of educators rather than captive vehicles for transport or creatures for entertainment. In loosening the bonds of captivity and allowing their horses to experience the natural freedom and power that is so readily associated with them, horse owners around the world are stimulating a paradigm shift that could have an inspirational impact on innovation in the world of education.
Being an educator myself, I am fascinated by the work of these modern day horse owners that are no longer just training their horses but also allowing themselves to be trained by the horses. They are learning to listen to their horses rather than merely telling them what to do. This role reversal requires a very sophisticated sensitivity and understanding of the interaction between horses and their communication with human beings.
Gerhard & Karin Krebs, founders of HorseDream, are two of the pioneers using their sensitive insights into the educational relationship between horses and human beings. They have developed concepts whereby their gorgeous herd of Friesian horses behave as facilitators in educational programmes for developing practical skills such as leadership. Last autumn, I was fortunate to attend one of their training programmes and became a member of the European Association for Horse Assisted Education (EAHAE) which attracts members to its yearly conferences from around the world. Imagine that! Perceptions about the role of horses in education are changing around the world and there is a growing global awareness that the equine world can enrich our lives with much more than mere entertainment or transport facilities.
How do you see horses? What do they symbolise to you, metaphorically and literally? If you already own horses, what needs and desires do they fulfil? Are they your toys? Are they your tools? Are they your teachers?
If your horse is your teacher, what have you learnt? For example, when I was doing the HorseDream training in Germany I realised that the Friesians were very sensitive to subtle, imperceptible changes in my body language. These are changes that would go undetected by the casual observer but being aware of my own inner thoughts, I knew when these changes in my body language occurred. When I thought I was doing well with the horses and felt confident, my body language exuded this positive vibe. In contrast, when I thought I was making a mistake and felt embarrassed the horses seemed to sense this and lost interest in my endeavours to connect with them. I was amazed that I could think a thought and as if by telepathy get a relevant response from the horse. My assumption is that the thoughts were conveyed through the physical, emotional and, dare I say, spiritual dimensions of the interaction.
I am still an Equestrian beginner although I have read at least twenty books by contemporary authors, pioneers in placing the horse on a new pedestal: Master of Wisdom; Messenger of Truth; Teacher of Natural Communication. What is your position in all this? What is your story?
EAHAE International (former "European") Association for Horse Assisted Education
Non-profit business-unit of G&K HorseDream GmbH Private Academy for Horses, Leadership and Communication
Lichtenhagener Str. 8
Phone: +49 5685 9224233
EAHAE was founded by Gerhard Krebs (HorseDream) in August 2004. Since then HorseDream leads EAHAE as a part of its business. Membership fees and payments for special services go directly into the support of the community, namely administration of all EAHAE activity (website, social media) promoting EAHAE, sponsoring the conference and coaching and supporting the members.
EAHAE is a support platform, on which every member can develop her/his own horse assisted education business. For the EAHAE community it is essential we hold and adhere to certain values.
Above all is trust. Further we encourage caring, collaborative business and not competitive business. It is core of the EAHAE values that we collaborate on an equal level. Regarding our horses, we consider them as trainers not as tools.
These core values are a substantial and essential facet of the HorseDream Train the Trainer Seminar, which qualifies for EAHAE membership. If it is felt by the board that these values are being compromised then membership can be revoked.