How Did Steve Jobs, Pablo Neruda And Leonardo Da Vinci Become Exceptionally Creative?
We live in a distracted world
My meditation teacher once said,
“In the modern world, we either want to be entertained or asleep.”
Is it any wonder that we fill up our minds, rooms and schedules with activities and gadgets?
Too much stimulation from using gadgets and video games is linked to shortening attention spans and learning disabilities in growing children. The effects are perhaps, more serious in adults since our brains are ageing. On days when I find myself in too many video calls, I am left exhausted.
So I am left with the unanswered question — In this world inundated with technology, what is a desirable level of mental stimulation and which environment could provide that?
Famous Walkers Throughout History
Pablo Neruda built a forest in his home, La Sebastiana, in the coastal town of Valparaiso, Chile. As I traced in Neruda’s footsteps in 2013, I wondered if these very trees had whispered his Nobel prize-winning poetry in his ears as he took his three-hour-long afternoon stroll in this personal sanctuary. Every single day.
Leonardo Da Vinci thought of several of his designs while taking a walk through his expansive garden landscaped like a forest, surrounding his castle of Clos Lucé, France. Was it here that he may have mentally sketched Mona Lisa? I guess there is no way to know for sure. And yet, visiting it with our baby daughter, I immediately noticed how walking in this forest put both her and us at ease immediately.
In his book, Philosophy of Walking, author Frederic Gros draws attention to other thinkers who also saw walking as something central to their practice. He shares that Thoreau eagerly secluded himself in Walden Woods, Nerval rambled to cure his melancholy, Rousseau walked in order to think, while Nietzsche wandered the mountainside to write.
Only ideas won by walking have any value ~Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, built a tower in the woods, where he lived and worked like a hermit to come up with his theories which went on to challenge and even overturn his predecessor Sigmund Freud’s work.
Spending time walking in nature seems to be a common thread in the daily routines of most great achievers, even in this modern technology-driven world. Famous walkers also include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet.
This is in stark contrast with our world, which is characterised by an obsession with busy. There must be something going on when we spend time walking in nature that puts our minds to ease and, potentially, in a realm where extraordinary ideas are born.
The Key to Optimal Brain Activity — Presence, Play and Creativity
Could resting our brains through regular strolls influence our mental state so that we become more present, relaxed, and creative?
In his book The Happiness Equation, best-selling author Neil Pasricha shares that we must alternate between periods of intense focus and blank space to come up with truly original insights during the focused phases.
A visit to the wilderness is a relaxing detox from our otherwise heavily digital and urban lives. Instead of being constantly hooked to notifications or conversations, a walk in the natural world allows us to live in a more present state or blank space, as Pasricha puts it.
- Walking makes us present
Encounters with raw nature and depictions of its beauty feel sublime because they yank us out of our thoughts or wherever it is that our minds have drifted. And that is why walking is a superpower — because of its ability to pull me into the moment instantly. Walking creates presence.
The interesting thing that happens when we become present is that our brains relax. For instance, I may chance upon a beautiful waterfall, but I don’t crave it. I don’t want to take it and install it in my living room. Or you may come across rotting stumps, and yet they don’t repel you enough to look away and be afraid of coming upon another one.
2. Presence brings joy
In our otherwise distracted worlds, where we constantly remain in the cycle of making things go a certain way, we can at best feel a sense of relief when things work out. On the contrary, we accept the natural world that passes us by while walking, as it is and let it be. Unconcerned about how things around us are, we are free just to be. Therein lies true joy, naturally.
Being present not only rests our brains but also heals our bodies and expands our creativity. Scientifically, by placing people amidst nature, their brains have been shown to emit alpha waves which are associated with a more relaxed and creative state of mind, greater levels of intuition, spiritual connection and healing.
3. Joy enhances creativity
It is easy to understand why there is this connection between relaxation, play and a more creative state of our brains.
In his book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport explains that our brains are capable of paying intense attention for only a limited time each day.
Such “directed attention” or narrow awareness, which allows us to focus deeply on challenging tasks, tends to get depleted unless we rejuvenate through rest. The best kind of rest for our brains besides sleeping is playing. The joy we experience in surfing, biking or hiking is nothing but our brains at play.
Not only do we become more present and relaxed strolling through nature, but we also put our minds in a more creative mode. In that state of play, we can access the deepest recesses of our minds to unlock our best insights, ideas and creativity.
My Family’s Experience Showing Up On Forest Trails
My family’s experience bears this out too. Pristine, undisturbed nature is the only environment we’ve found to present complete order — the perfect blend of chaos, order, challenge and the right level of boredom, too. So, we have been hiking through forests, rain, snow or shine and reaping its benefits.
By the time we moved to Whistler last summer, we were already keen on making forests, mountains and nature our anchoring experience here. Our kids began forest schooling. The program allowed them to meet other local kids by exploring and falling in love with the local trails. They enjoyed their guided treks and educational activities thoroughly, often coming home and trying to “forest-school” their parents.
Alongside, my husband and I enrolled in the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s “Forest Bathing” on Saturday mornings. Forest bathing is a Japanese mindfulness practice that allows us to observe and feel the forests in a whole new way. Using each of our five senses, we quietly explored the same forest every week. Each week, we discovered new things about this green patch, as our senses sharpened and about ourselves, as we became more mindful.
I can still sometimes hear our guide’s voice ringing in my ears as I take a solitary trek.
What do you see in this forest? And now consider, what it feels like to be seen by the forest?
All these months of walking in this “nature’s playground” has allowed us to develop greater awareness and a feeling of centredness. My husband has remarkably pivoted his business with innovative insights during the pandemic. After living and working in cities for many years, I have once again started writing poetry that inspires me and moves my readers. And my daughters have been showing creativity beyond their years in school and at play.
Time to spring-clean our souls with strolls
Spring is just around the corner in my part of the world. The forests will soon burst into fresh flora, and the mountains will still be welcoming to skiers and riders of all abilities. Perhaps, along with our spaces, we need to spring-clean our souls by reconnecting with the natural world that is so readily accessible to us.
All of us have an innate need for presence and play. We all knew the value of being present and playing as children, but somewhere along the way, if we have missed the point, it may be time to reclaim that childhood and rekindle our playful spirit.
You never know, à la Da Vinci, you might chance upon an idea for that uncanny portrait or a viral idea during your next stroll through the woods.
Note: A version of this article is now published on Tourism Whistler’s “The Whistler Insider" blog here.