Math, creativity, & fertile soil in the sacred temple underground

by Julie on August 22, 2014 · 8 comments

 

TouchHealthySoil

 

Fertile soil rich with everything it takes for life to spring forth.  The soil must be tilled, fed, prepared, planted, watered, and acknowledged for the mystery it holds.

Life is a creative impulse moving all the way through its arc of expression. You are life. You are a creative impulse in an arc of expression. You, too contain rich, fertile soil that holds the mystery of your existence and expression.

Sometimes, in order for your creativity to pour forth, the most powerful thing you can do is lay your creation at the foot of this sacred garden within you and allow it to grow of its own accord.

Math, Beauty, and the Unexpected

My path to a degree was a long, sixteen year process. I started at a small satellite center of Consumnes River College in Placerville, California, a small circle of portable buildings right behind Raley’s grocery store, affectionately nicknamed ‘UBR’ or University Behind Raley’s. For many of those sixteen years, I took only one class a semester as I was working full-time and raising my two girls. I took my first college Path class (after years away from school) in one of those portables.

For the next ten years, I took one class a semester. And then … my husband died. It was after his death, that I began in earnest to pursue that diploma. A few years later, just before I transferred to Stanford, I took my second semester of Calculus.

I had always felt math was beautiful, but in this class of Calculus I discovered that math had an unexpected beauty. My professor was a much-older man. He had a shy and kind demeanor and was soft spoken. I really enjoyed his teaching because he taught math with gentleness, and with a clear love of the subject. And, he taught math with poetry. At the end of each class, he would pull a chair into the center of the room, grab a book of poetry, and sit down, with great intentionality, to read one poem. These moments became very precious to me over the weeks we met together.

During one class toward the end of the semester, we were studying ‘series’. I won’t explain what they are, other than to say that if you follow them all the way through, you arrive at sine and cosine. I had learned of these two formulas many years before, but to witness how they were actually derived, organically and beautifully, brought tears to my eyes. The beauty was so clear, perhaps brought even more forward by the beauty of this man’s love of math and gentle heart. I sat in my chair and the tears welled up, thick and deep in my eyes, and then they began to fall. He saw them fall. He stood and looked at me for what seemed to be a long, long time, (although in reality what was probably only a few seconds), and then tears fell from his eyes, too.

We were sharing a love of math, but also a love of something so much greater – a love of that which is the source of math, beauty, poetry, life.

I remember feeling the joy of seeing something unfold, of watching the magic that is at the heart of creation. I had no idea that series would lead to sine and cosine. No idea. None. And, voila, there they were. Unveiled.

What I really want to share here…

… and I am using math and poetry and beauty as a way to do it, is the deep, deep creativity of the universe. It’s the same creativity that is at the heart of YOUR nature.

Sometimes, the unveiling is really deep. This depth requires time for creation to reveal itself. Sometimes, the depth requires darkness. This is the process of incubation. Sometimes, as the creative process unfolds, things are in the dark for quite a while before they appear.

Just this past week, 

Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University was honored with the top award in Mathematics, the Field’s Medal, which is often described as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. This Venture Beat article mentions Mirzakhani’s process of incubation in reference to math and the ‘depth’ of her process.

“Mirzakhani likes to describe herself as slow. Unlike some mathematicians who solve problems with quicksilver brilliance, she gravitates toward deep problems that she can chew on for years. “Months or years later, you see very different aspects” of a problem, she said. There are problems she has been thinking about for more than a decade. “And still there’s not much I can do about them,” she said.”

Incubation happens in the dark, beneath the soil, in a sacred place.

After entering into a question, or holding a problem somewhere in our mind, more often than not, we must give that question or problem some time in the dark to allow it to germinate, to sprout, and to grow. Newborns who are too small to live on their own are placed in an incubator until their vital body parts are functioning well enough on their own to exist outside of the incubator. And, the same is true for seedlings too young and tender for the harsh sun. They must be strong enough before they break through the soil into the light of day.

 

The etymology for incubation is this:

Latin incubare, the source of incubate, literally meant ‘lie down on’; and incubation once had the sense of sleeping in a sacred place or temple for oracular purposes.

Incubation is a vital part of the creative process; so much so, that when I begin a project, while my tendency can be to wait until I’m under a deadline, if I simply begin the project, I also begin the incubation process. This beginning doesn’t have to be developed, meaning I don’t have to do a whole bunch to get it started. I just have to begin. Beginning begins the whole process if I have a clear question or problem to solve, or vision to bring about. It’s the clarity and the holding that begins the incubation process. The question is clear. The vision is clear. The intention is set. The seed can do what it needs to do in the dark, because I have done what I need to do in the light.

Great significance for YOUR creativity

Consider your creation (vision or dream). It must be clear enough to begin. It can be as simple as a question. It can be a more complex vision. But it has to have specificity. Consider a seed. You have a seed that will grow into something. It’s not a vague seed – it is specific. It will be a specific type of plant based on the seed. The seed holds the creation. Your creation has a seed, too.

Consider planting a seed. You have to till the soil. Perhaps add nutrients. Make a hole. Place the seed in the soil. Cover it so it is in the dark. The darkness is what it needs to do what it needs to do.

It is the same with your creations. They must have time in the dark. They must have time to lie down in the sacred temple below the soil so that the divine mystery can do what it does – unfold spirit into the flesh of matter.

The creative process is a Whole process.

Reason and intuition, mathematics and poetry, sunshine and dark soil underground: creativity is the continual marriage of yin and yang. Both are necessary for health and wholeness of any beautiful aspect of life.

Just as we need to honor women in the realms of math and science, we must also honor the yin, or feminine, in these realms, too. For the most part, we are taught that simply working hard on a project will bring forth innovation and creativity. But this is only half the picture. When we acknowledge the power of incubation, that which happens underneath the surface of things, in addition to working hard on a problem, and we then consciously cultivate this sacred power, we bring our awareness to wholeness and the cyclical nature of creativity.

If we truly want to be creative as a people, a species, we have the opportunity to come back into right relationship with something we have tried to control for hundreds of years – the mysterious nature of life. What would a right relationship look like with this sacred place beneath the soil, this place of incubation? What happens there beneath the soil, while set in motion by our hard work and attention, is wondrous. We attempt to explain and prove what it is, but can we also meet it with wonder? The wondrous is right in front of us, all around us, within us. While we acknowledge our hard work and smarts, can we also acknowledge the sacred, too?

To truly be in relationship with the sacred means we bring back wonder and humility to the equation. It means we lay our need to control down, and instead, listen and receive.

An understanding of a creativity that acknowledges and incorporates the sacredness of life might actually bring forth the sacred intelligence of life that could save us from ourselves.

 

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim August 22, 2014 at 7:54 am

Julie, I love how you brought Math into the realm of creativity. Although my degree is in Math, I never really understood the beauty of it. My daughter was lucky enough to have a Calculus teacher like yours and had a similar experience. She is now doing a Masters degree in the subject. Incubation, to me, is a deep and dark place. It can be unsettling, yet a time where trust and persistence are essential. Also, a time of wonder, humility, listening and receiving, as you said. At some point, clarity breaks through the surface. I am in that incubation period now, so this post is perfectly timed for me. Thank you.

Reply

Julie August 22, 2014 at 8:23 am

Kim, Wow. I had no idea you were a Math major. And how exciting for your daughter. It is a beautiful subject.
I know it can be unsettling, and I also know much of that feeling can come from the way we’ve been taught to think about the deep and dark. That’s why I love to see it as the soil, rich with life.
I love that you are listening and receiving. Feel for the cracked seed case and the roots going down that will give you strength to inhabit the sprout that rises out of the surface.
With love, Julie

Reply

Sara Foley August 22, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Now, I don’t understand the beauty of math – but I do understand the beauty of words, the feminine, incubation (oh, the definition blew me away!) and just beginning things. Such an inspiring post, and your story of your math teacher – wow!

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Julie August 25, 2014 at 7:36 am

Sara, Wasn’t he inspiring?! Yeah, not everyone does, just as not everyone understands the beauty of lots of things. But we all have our own place where we see beauty. It sounds like you and I hang out in some similar places!

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Charlotte August 24, 2014 at 7:59 am

Julie-
I love this post. As a high school math teacher I am constantly being bombarded with curricular expectations that demand control. Students beg for mechanics and control because they want to survive and excel. Parents hope for control but are often feeling powerless in their role as a home based mathematical nurturer. I try my best to facilitate order and control as I try to guide a group of 30 multi-level teenagers through a list of learning outcomes. Last year I began a series of paintings I have called ARTrithmetic. Each time I completed a painting I would bring it in to my class and we would chat about it. Math if full of myth and story, and grace and beauty. Somehow this gets lost when we deliver our curriculum. In a perfect world I would teach math only through the eyes of an artist. Stories, paintings, and poetry would support each lesson. Alas in the complicated world of teaching, the needs of the organization take over and time become the ultimate limit. I have many more compositions in my head and will continue to try to provoke an emotive response to math with my students. If nothing else it makes the classroom walls brighter.

I am just starting my blog up again.

hoping to continue to connect-
http://charlottehoodtanner.blogspot.ca/2014/08/art-rithmetic.html

Reply

Julie August 25, 2014 at 7:38 am

Charlotte, I love this, that you bring your paintings in to help teach math. Yes, it is full of myth and story, and grace and beauty. I am heartened that you bring such a rich depth to your teaching. Your students are fortunate to be learning from you.

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Emma Jarrett August 25, 2014 at 6:29 am

What a beautiful post to read as the New Moon this morning provides yet another inspired opportunity for the planting of seeds.

Thank you, dear Julie <3

Reply

Julie August 25, 2014 at 10:54 am

Hello, Lovely Emma,
Yes, today we plant seeds into this sacred temple underground so that incubation can begin.

Reply

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