Each morning our return to waking life is marked by a unique mental state. In those first minutes of our day, our minds are in an estuary between the dream world and 3rd dimensional consciousness. Like an aquatic estuary, it’s ripe with nutrients and lifeforms that you can’t find anywhere else. This in-between state of the mind can be used for greater creativity, serenity, and flow.
For many years I squandered these golden minutes. Being overly concerned with productivity had me immediately sprint to my daily to do list. In my sports and military-focused past, the first task of the day was literally running. Those familiar with Eastern medicine or sports-performance know that intense physical effort upon awakening is bad for the body. The same is true for the mind.
Like an engine, or a muscle group, your mind runs a lot smoother if it’s allowed to gradually warm up.
Inversely, going from sleep to mental sprinting can send the nervous system into Fight or Flight mode. When I look around New York City subway cars during the morning rush I can see the overactive adrenals on many commuters’ faces: quick blinking, dark circles and saggy skin. Even the jerky way many people move in the morning suggests that they didn't let their systems warm up properly. This causes a mental fog that often requires caffeine to cut through, which in turn stresses out the nervous system even more.
Meditation has become quite popular in the business world for it’s ability to train the mind towards clarity of thought. In a pinch, the ability to enter a meditative state can “reset” the a mis-calibrated mind. However we don’t need to sit on a cushion and close our eyes to find that state, we’re already in when we first wake up.
Hypnotists do their work by getting subjects to enter lower frequency brain waves states. The lower our brain wave frequency, the more easily we can access our subconscious, the more suggestible we are, and therefore the more effectively we can change affect behavior. Just like metal, the mind can be molded more easily in a volatile (fluid) state than a fixed (solid) one. That is why children learn life lessons better from fables, rather than from explicit commands. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” sticks a lot better than “Lying to Get Attention is a Bad Idea.”
Those of us with a penchant for productivity tend to jump out of the volatile brainwave states (Theta 4–8Hz & Delta 1–3 Hz) of sleep straight into the fixed state of alert consciousness (Beta 14–30 Hz). In the Beta State the attention focus is on processing the data from our five senses. This is best suited for tangible thought and action. When our minds are fixed, we are most in control, but also the least creative.
By paying attention while waking up, we can bridge the gap between waking life the creative unconscious.
The Alpha brainwave state (9–14 Hz) is a middle ground between dreaming and alertness. In Alpha we’re conscious of the material world through our five senses, but our mind is still volatile enough to connect to the dream world. We’re typically in Alpha when we first open our eyes in the morning. In that initial Alpha, we can usually still remember our dreams. You may notice how as you get up you can feel yourself start to forget your dreams. That’s the transition from Alpha to Beta. It’s caused by your mind speeding up too fast to maintain dream consciousness.
Meditation and hypnosis also bring us into an Alpha State. We actually cycle between Beta and Alpha throughout the day. We spend a good chunk of each day in a light trance depending on what we’re doing. I usually notice how when I do slow immersive activities like walking the dog or practicing Tai Chi, I’ll suddenly remember a dream or uncover the solution to a problem I had. That’s Alpha.
Not all of us have the ability nor desire to incorporate lengthy mindful practices, but all of us can maximize our use of our initial Alpha State for greater mental serenity and creativity.
The best concrete practice for hacking creativity is to Write Morning Pages. Morning Pages are the daily prescription from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, the best book I’ve ever read augmenting creativity. Morning Pages are simple:
Hand write three pages of whatever comes to mind as soon as you wake up. Every day. That’s all.
Writing thoughts on paper makes the subtle thoughts tangible. This helps put conscious attention on what’s normally unconscious, making you more aware of what’s going on deep inside you. The benefits of this are enormous.
A practice like Morning Pages makes it easier to access ideas and subtle thoughts throughout the day.
I started doing Morning Pages 292 days ago. (I know because I log my streak on Coach.me.) Since I've started this practice, I've produced over five times more written content than I had in any previous year. Ideas simply come more easily and clearly to me now than they have before. I've made is a daily habit to reach for my notebook as soon as my eyes open, ideally before I’ve started thinking myself into the Beta State.
The initial torrent of thought is caused the basic need for expression. Thinking too much however, becomes indulgent and can cause resentment (mentally dwelling on things that don’t matter). Morning Pages give an outlet in which to run our minds without spinning out of control.
Unless I feel a strong thought coming on, I usually start the pages recording my dreams since I can still remember them while in Alpha. Even without analysis, simply recounting dreams allow me to peek at what’s going on in my mind beneath my consciousness.
It doesn't matter what we write. The key is to never stop moving your pen. The only reason your pen would want to stop is if you start thinking about something other than what you’re writing. The practice is in fully engaging thought with writing, like a meditation.
Some prefer to type Morning Pages because they can’t hand-write fast enough to keep up with their thoughts. I recommend against it. There’s an added benefit to handwriting. The fact that we cannot hand-write as fast as we can think is a good thing. In order to stay engaged we must slow down our thinking and feel the pen on the paper. The physical act is as important as the mental one.
It’s important to have a journal and pen that feels good to write with. That feeling, after all, comes from the subconscious.
Also, the quality of the penmanship has plenty of useful information too. I’m not a handwriting expert by any means, but I have noticed a few things. The biggest pattern I've noticed is that my handwriting become illegible anytime I’m writing a thought I’m embarrassed by or not sure of. It’s as if I don’t want to see that thought myself, so I physically make it so I can’t. Inversely, when I what I write comes out unusually neat, it so happens to be a thought very clearly expressed that I’m proud of.
As a bridge to the volatile, Morning Pages are incredibly versatile. Being in an Alpha State not only reveals the subconscious, but it allows us to prime our own minds for the day. Those who practice affirmations will find they are more effective in evoking mood change if written in the morning. In a volatile state, the suggestion doesn’t even have to explicitly written to be absorbed. Instead of fixed affirmations like “I will be motivated today,” I usually end my last page writing gratitudes and desires because it calibrates my mood into one that’s naturally motivated.
Our first thoughts have a huge impact on our mood and energy for the day. Choose good ones.
The first minutes of our day are marked by a state of consciousness rich with access to ideas, insight, and mental calibration. Rushing to accomplish tasks is bad for the nervous system and the quality of our day. Instead of reaching for your phone, try a slow mindful exercise, like Morning Pages. By stretching out that early morning in-between state, we can bring consciousness to our subconscious, and make our waking life as magical as the dream world.