Where does inspiration come from? More specifically, how does that lightning-in-a-bottle ah-ha-moment happen? I think the answer might be found in the connection between cows and goddesses. Seriously.
Bear with me a moment. Let’s muse a bit on, well, musing:
verb (used without object)
1. to think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.
2. Archaic . to gaze meditatively or wonderingly.
3. to meditate on.
4. to comment thoughtfully or ruminate upon.
(Thank you, Dictonary.com!)
The verb form of the word provides four definitions that to me seem more a series of four sub-actions that define the overarching action of “to muse.” You first meditate in silence, gazing with wonder (with inner and/or outer eye) on a thing or subject, considering it meditatively, just long enough to then comment on it (for self, internally, or for others, externally) thoughtfully. Ironically, the starting point of inspiration is silence, since many ground-breaking ideas end up making a lot of noise (so to speak).
But we are a busy and noisy people. How can anyone find the silence or time needed for the reflection that leads to anything resembling an original thought? (I get this question a lot.) The only real answer is you have to want it badly enough. However, the sort of silence that leads to meditative wonder is less a lowered decibel level for any given span of time than it is a stillness of spirit cultivated with practice that creates space for rumination. It takes practice and intentionality.
But where does that new thought come from? From whence the muse? I believe the answer is hidden in the rumination. And here’s where the dictionary is once again helpful.
verb (used without object)
1. to chew the cud, as a ruminant (a cud-chewing quadruped, like cattle).
2. to meditate or muse; ponder.
I have rarely seen a cow do much of anything but stand and chew. Slowly. Occasionally, they sit. Standing or sitting, they appear to be looking at you or the fence or the grass and sky at the same time, taking it all in, or none of it, with a certain amount of pondering disinterest. And they do all of this while they chew, and chew, in magnificent silence.
To chew on, over and over again, to ponder, ruminate, like a cow… interesting. It is thinking, but not the type of thinking we are much taught how to do in school (particularly not business school). It is an “inefficient” kind of thought, one that does not start with the end in mind, but simply starts with the one chewy subject and allows itself to be led by that starting point. And after a first round of chewing, of going down the uncharted pathway, the thinking goes back to the beginning and starts chewing again, tasting the topic all over again, allowing for alternative paths.
I tend to do this type of thinking through my pen or keyboard. I write it out and follow the path the words mark out for me. Conversation can also provide this perfect pondering, if the participants are patient with the silences, tolerant of non-linear thinking, and not looking for an instant solution to a particular problem. Some of my most memorable moments of friendship – and inspiration – have occurred through such perfectly messy banter.
So, back to the beginning of our muse at hand. Let’s now chew on the noun form of Muse for a moment:
1. Classical Mythology .
a. any of a number of sister goddesses, originally given as Aoede (song), Melete (meditation), and Mneme (memory), but latterly and more commonly as the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who presided over various arts: Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (lyric poetry), Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (religious music), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy), and Urania (astronomy); identified by the Romans with the Camenae.
b. any goddess presiding over a particular art.
2. ( sometimes lowercase ) the goddess or the power regarded as inspiring a poet, artist, thinker, or the like.
3. ( lowercase ) the genius or powers characteristic of a poet.
The noun embodies the action of musing. Goddess, power, or genius, it is that seemingly mysterious THING that inspires and characterizes the poet, artist, or creative thinker.
I love that there are nine sister goddesses called muses, representing a range of domain expertise from epic poetry to astronomy. Even comedy gets its own muse! What it tells me is that there are certain core disciplines that feed inspiration across all disciplines and stimulate the musings of artists, poets, musicians, choreographers, comedians, and scientists alike.
I like to think of it as the discipline of inefficient thought. It is the patience of cattle that allows for the silence and the open spaces and the chewing on over and over again. It is the genius that fearlessly explores the inherently messy mind, not to put it in order, but to discover yet another crumb to nibble.
So what about the lightning-in-a-bottle moment? I believe it is a mystery we may never fully solve, but there are clues we can pick up along the way. Surely it is magic, but a magic that comes to those ready and waiting. And chewing.