Sitting for Ideas

From the vault:

Today I am going to share a secret with you – my superpower, if you will.  I sit for ideas.

A mentor once told me, “Hugh, lots of people in this world are going to tell you that you should work on your weaknesses. But if you do that, you just get a lot of strong weaknesses – things other people would be better at doing anyway. I think you should outsource your weaknesses, and focus on what only you can do.”

I have thought a lot about this advice over the years. And while I see the limits of it (and also remember that said mentor died of alcoholism and estranged from his family and thus, perhaps was not equally brilliant in all areas of his life) it really has served me well.

And sometimes, I have learned, you can modify a weakness so it becomes a strength. An example is meditation.

I like the idea of meditation. I like the outcomes. I even like the practice of meditation – for about 2 minutes. Then my mind goes all ballistic – the Zen practitioners call this “monkey mind” – and ideas rush in at ballistic speed.

Now, I’m not alone in this. Many people report this experience, and as I said above, there is even a term for it. But I also noticed something: Some of my best ideas happened during this time. Game changing ideas. Career changing ideas. Ideas that rocked my world. Ideas that apparently had been floating around in my head and co-mingling with ideas like, “We should eat dessert first” and “I need some new socks” and ‘It’s time to weed the flower bed.” Until one day, I sat still, closed my eyes and created space, and the idea finally saw a wedge of space and showed up.


So I asked myself, “What would happen if I was actually intentional about sitting still, closing my eyes and waiting – would the ideas still show up?”.

Yes. Yes, they did. Later I would read that Thomas Edison did something very similar. He would spend an hour a day, alone, in solitude, without distraction or noise, waiting for ideas to come. He said, “Ideas come from space. This may seem astonishing and impossible to believe, but it’s true. Ideas come from out of space.”

Here is how I do it.

  • Set aside 10 minutes or so. Longer is better, but even 10 minutes has value.
  • Eliminate as many distractions as you can. Sometimes, I put in my earbuds and use a white noise app, because the inner-city can be noisy.
  • Assume a position of comfort, but not total relaxation. I usually sit upright in a kitchen chair, feet flat on the floor.
  • Have a paper notebook and pencil beside you (in order to capture the ideas).
  • Pretend to meditate.  – I’m sorta kidding here. But seriously though. Close your eyes. Notice your breath. Relax. Your mind will begin to drift. But instead of calling it back, like you would with meditative practices, you let it roam.
  • Enjoy the ride.

Your brain will go everywhere. Things will pop in your head you haven’t thought about for years. People you haven’t seen. For me, anyway, it feels like body surfing in a sea of thought, flitting from idea to idea, never fully landing, just surfing.

Until it hits you. The connection you make you wouldn’t have made before. The solution to that problem you had last week at work. The idea that could revolutionize your industry. It will hit you like a ton of bricks. And when it does, pay attention. Look at it from all angles. Notice the colors, how it feels – and then, quietly, calmly, open your eyes and write it down. And keep writing until you have the idea down. And now, it’s yours.

Now you just have to do something with it. But that is another blog post, for another day.

Dictating How People Show Up

I’m republishing things I have written elsewhere in the past to archive them here. I think of them as tales from the vault. This is one of them.

I recently observed something that suddenly made me understand something I have struggled to understand for years: That people who want more diversity to happen in their groups also want to dictate how the diverse people act, and would put limits on those people.

Who the hell do they think they are to do that? And then I realized that for older folks especially, that is how they have observed change, and then they assume all people in that group should act that way.

A thing I see *a lot* – especially in people and groups that have seen themselves as historically progressive, that fought early battles for inclusion of people previously excluded – is how they point to the non-combativeness of the first person from that group they included and then expect that will be the way all people from that group will behave.

Example: I have had a personal conversation with a famous minister who personally knew William Stringfellow. For you who do not know, Stringfellow was an Episcopal layman who was incredibly influential in the 1960’s, and was a major influence on Walter Wink. Stringfellow was also gay, and lived with his partner.

This famous minister held Stringfellow (who was not officially out, but it was known to his friends) as the model for how gay people should act. I.E. They should leave all of their sexual identity in the closet.

Because Stringfellow had to (and let’s be honest: chose to) act straight in order to get published and to have a lecture career, because he chose to diminish himself in order to overcome prejudice that would have otherwise silenced him, that is seen by people who knew him as the model for how Queer people should act.

Or the woman minister I know in my denomination, who was the first woman minister in her regional body, who is praised by her contemporaries as “knowing how to not be confrontational” and “knowing how to meet the group where they were”. They praise this as if it is the model for how a woman minister should be, rather than acknowledging that this woman had to diminish herself in order to be seen as non-threatening, OR recognizing that this particular woman had the choice, personality, and support structure that allowed her to do this.

Some people who are members of oppressed peoples have the desire, giftedness, support structure, and mental health to purposefully choose to diminish themselves in order to advance the group they represent. Bless those people. But that doesn’t mean it should be normative for us in the dominant culture to expect that, nor does it obligate them to perform in ways that do not threaten our dominance.

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