How to Find Inspiration
The psychology and philosophy of inspiration.
Posted Nov 21, 2018
[Article updated on 17 June 2019]
Think back to your favorite teacher: for me, a French teacher who silently wept as he read to the class from a novel by Marguerite Duras. The teachers whom we hold dear in our hearts are not those who assiduously taught us the most facts, or fastidiously covered every bulleted point on the syllabus, but those who inspired us and opened us up to ourselves and to the world. But what is inspiration, and can it be cultivated?
The word ‘inspiration’ ultimately derives from the Greek for ‘God-breathed’ or ‘divinely breathed into’. In Greek myth, inspiration is a gift of the muses, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (‘Memory’), though it can also come from Apollo (Apollon Mousagetēs, ‘Apollo Muse-leader’), Dionysus (god of wine), or Aphrodite (goddess of love). Homer famously invokes the muses in the very first line of the Iliad: ‘Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans…’
Similarly, the Church has long maintained that inspiration is a gift from the Holy Ghost, including the inspiration for the Bible itself: ‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ (2 Peter 1:21).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines inspiration as ‘a breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. into the mind; the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, especially of an exalted kind’. Going with this, there appear to be two aspects to inspiration: some kind of vision, along with some kind of positive energy that derives from and drives towards that vision.
Inspiration is often confused with ‘motivation’ and ‘creativity’. Motivation aims at some sort of external reward, whereas inspiration comes from within and is very much its own reward. Although inspiration is associated with creative insight, creativity also involves the realization of that insight—which requires opportunity, means, and above all effort. In the words of Thomas Edison, genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration—although you may not get started, or get very far, without that initial 1 percent.
Other than creativity, inspiration has been linked with enthusiasm, optimism, and self-esteem. Inspiration need not be all artistic and highfalutin: I often feel inspired to garden or cook, to plant out some bulbs for next spring or make use of a seasonal ingredient. These inspired tasks feel very different from, say, writing a letter of complaint or filing my tax return. If I could be paid to do what inspires me, and pay others to do what does not, I should be a very happy man, and probably a very successful one too.
Despite its importance to both society and the individual, our system of education leaves very little place for inspiration—perhaps because, like wisdom and virtue, it cannot easily be taught but only ever… inspired. Unfortunately, a person who has never been inspired is unlikely to inspire others. That is a great shame. The best education consists not in being taught, but in being inspired; and if I could, I would rather inspire a single person than teach a thousand.
But where does inspiration come from in the first place? In Plato’s Ion, Socrates likens inspiration to a divine power, and this divine power to a magnetic stone that can not only move iron rings, but also magnetize the iron rings so that they too can do the same. This leads to a long chain of iron rings, with each ring’s energy ultimately derived from that of the original magnetic stone. If a poet is any good, this is not because she has read every book on her subject with an underlining pen, but because she is divinely inspired, divinely possessed:
For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.
Socrates compares inspired poets to the Bacchic maidens, who are out of their minds when they draw honey and milk from the rivers. He asks Ion, a rhapsode (reciter of poetry), whether, when he recites Homer, he does not get beside himself, whether his soul does not believe that it is witnessing the actions of which he sings. Ion replies that when he sings of something sad, his eyes are full of tears, and when he sings of something frightening, his hairs stand on end, such that he is no longer in his right mind. Socrates says that this is precisely the effect that a rhapsode has on his audience: the muse inspires the poet, the poet the rhapsode, and the rhapsode his audience, which is the last of the iron rings in the divine chain.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates argues that madness, as well as being an illness, can be the source of our greatest blessings. There are, he continues, four kinds of inspired madness: prophecy, from Apollo; holy prayers and mystic rites, from Dionysus; poetry, from the muses; and love, from Aphrodite and Eros.
But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane companions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.
All human beings, says Socrates, are able to recollect universals, such as perfect goodness and perfect beauty, and must therefore have seen them in some other life or other world. The souls that came closest to the universals, or that experienced them most deeply, are reincarnated into philosophers, artists, and true lovers. As the universals are still present in their minds, they are completely absorbed in ideas about them and forget all about earthly interests. Humdrum people think that they are mad, but the truth is that they are divinely inspired and in love with goodness and beauty. In the 20th century, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung echoed Plato, arguing that the artist is one who can reach beyond individual experience to access our genetic memory, that is, the memory, such as the memory for language, that is already present in us at birth. It is perhaps no coincidence that, in Greek myth, the mother of the muses is Mnemosyne/Memory.
The idea that 'madness' is closely allied with inspiration and revelation is an old and recurring one. In Of Peace of Mind, Seneca the Younger writes that 'there is no great genius without a tincture of madness' (nullum magnum ingenium sine mixtuae dementiae fuit), a maxim which he attributes to Aristotle, and which is also echoed in Cicero. For Shakespeare, 'the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.' And for Dryden, 'great wits are sure to madness near allied, and thin partitions do their bounds divide.' As I argue in a book called The Meaning of Madness, our reservoir of madness is a precious resource that we can learn to tap into.
For the modern writer André Gide,
The most beautiful things are those that are whispered by madness and written down by reason. We must steer a course between the two, close to madness in our dreams, but close to reason in our writing.
7 simple strategies to encourage inspiration
So it seems that inspiration is some kind of alignment or channelling of primal energies, and that it cannot quite be summoned or relied upon.
Nonetheless, here are seven simple strategies that may make it more likely to alight upon us:
1. Wake up when your body tells you to. No one has ever been tired and inspired at the same time. To make matters worse, having our sleep interrupted by an alarm clock or other stimulus can leave us feeling groggy and grouchy, as though we had ‘woken up on the wrong foot’.
2. Complete your dreams. REM sleep, which is associated with dreaming, is richest just before *natural* awakening. Dreaming serves a number of critical functions, such as assimilating experiences, processing emotions, and enhancing problem solving and creativity. In fact, the brain can be more active during REM sleep than during wakefulness. Many great works of art have been inspired by dreams, including Paul McCartney’s Let it Be, Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory, and several of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and short stories. In addition, awaking after REM is associated with feeling refreshed, and people who wake up after REM perform better on tasks like anagrams and creative problem solving.
3. Eliminate distractions, especially the tedious ones. Clear your diary, remove yourself from the world, take plenty of time over everything. You want to give your mind plenty of spare capacity. You want it to roam, to freewheel. Before going to bed, I check my calendar for the next day’s engagements, and am never happier than when I see a blank page. Don’t worry or feel guilty, the house won’t fall apart, the sun won’t drop out of the sky. Many people are unable to let their minds wander off the beaten path for fear of the monsters that may be lurking in the undergrowth. If you meet a monster, take the chance to say ‘hello’.
4. Don’t try to rush or force things. If you try to force inspiration, you will strangle it. You will achieve much less overall, if not also in quantity then at least in quality. There may be ‘on’ days and ‘off’ days, or even ‘on’ hours and ‘off’ hours. If you don’t feel inspired, that’s fine, go out and replenish yourself. Your boss may disagree, but it’s probably the most productive thing you could do. If you can, try not to have a boss.
5. Be curious. John Locke suggested that inspiration amounts to a somewhat random association of ideas and sudden unison of thought. If something, anything, catches your interest, try to follow it through. Nothing is too small or irrelevant. Read books, watch documentaries, visit museums and exhibitions, walk in gardens and nature, interact with inspired and inspiring people… Feed your unconscious.
6. Break the routine. Sometimes it can help to give the mind a bit of a shake. Try new things that take you out of your comfort zone. Modify your routine or surroundings. Better still, go travelling, especially to places that are unfamiliar and disorienting, such as a temple in India or Japan, or a hippy farm in the Uruguayan pampas (I tried that and drove off after just four hours).
7. Make a start.
When I write an article or chapter, I make a start and come back to it whenever I next feel inspired. The minute I start flagging, I stop and do something else, and, hopefully, while I do that, the next paragraph or section enters my mind. Some pieces I write over three or four days, others over three or four weeks—but hardly ever do I write a piece in a single sitting or even a single day. When I write a book, the first half seems to take forever, while the second half gets completed in a fraction of the time. Small accomplishments are important in that they boost confidence and free the mind to move on, establishing a kind of creative momentum.
As I argue in my new book, Hypersanity: Thinking Beyond Thinking, if you learn to work with and never against your nature, things will get done as if by themselves.
If you have any further thoughts on inspiration, please share them in the comments section.