Introducing Zen into a creativity brainstorming session provides stimulating discussions, invigorating stories, and compelling exercises. It is especially useful in shifting paradigms, redirecting the group’s thinking, and sharpening everyone’s focus. Although there are around 1,700 different Zen koans and thousands of Zen stories (or sutras), which help reshape people’s perceptions, integrating a few into a creative environment are enough to set the participants’ thinking in a new direction.

The koans are unanswerable questions, statements, or tales that are understood in a flash of realization, not through reasoning or logic. That moment is defined as enlightenment. For example, “What was the face your mother had before she was born? ”Or “biting one’s own teeth.” Or the story of the student who entered the monastery and asked to learn Zen. The Zen Master asked if he had eaten his porridge. The student said, “Yes.” Then, the Zen Master said, “Then, you better wash your bowl.”

Unlike the koans, the sutras are stories told by Zen Masters about real monks and nuns exemplifying everyday life. These teachings are more easily grasped and demonstrate a detachment that enables Masters to offer compassion and enlightenment to others without becoming caught up in real-world, day-to-day pressures.

Zen is a simple approach to everyday activities. Its simplicity is often disarming and difficult to grasp at first. One of the most significant changes in perception that can be introduced into the seminar is guiding people to be aware of the present moment. This
state of “mindfulness” is also referred to as staying in the “now.” This enables people to avoid being easily distracted. One of the most basic elements of Zen is the practice of sitting or zazen. This activity forces people to become less internally chaotic and to become more centered, which leads to a greater clarity of thought. It allows everyone to shut out excessive stimulation.

Here are six ways to more easily explain the Zen way of thinking and integrate them into creative thinking and group brainstorming.

1. Flow – Timelessness
Just like scientists who get lost in thought during their research, many artists also lose themselves in their work. They can get so deeply involved, they forget to take breaks, to eat or even to realize how many hours have passed. To help a group find the best creative solutions encourage everyone to fully immerse themselves in the sharing of ideas until they experience a sense of “timelessness.” What this creates is a fluid, unhindered thought process, often referred to as “being in flow.”

2. No Mind – Absorption
In this state, there is no judgment. The mind is completely free of critical commentary. Everything is just observed and absorbed. This approach helps to dispel tension within a group, because it enables people to listen non-judgmentally.

One Zen story that can help explain this kind of thinking involves the village Zen master who was falsely accused of impregnating a teenage girl. The girl’s father went to the Zen master’s home and handed the Zen master a baby, saying, “This is your baby. The one you had with my daughter. You take it care of it.” The Zen master took the baby and simply replied, “Is that so?” He then raised the baby for one year as if the child were his own. During this time, everyone shunned him in the village, thinking he was immoral. One year later, the girl’s father returns to the Zen master’s home. This time, his head was bowed as he said, ”Zen master, I am so sorry. My daughter confessed that the child was the baby of our neighbor’s son. I have come to take him back.” With that the Zen master turned, picked up the baby and simply said, “Is that so?”

Notice how the Zen master did not defend himself or reprimand the man. He simply absorbed the information. By becoming less defensive in any creative exchange, allows the group to remain open to new ideas. During creative meetings, ask the group to try absorbing information, without judging it first.

3. Mind Like Water – Responsive to Circumstance
To understand “Mind Like Water,” think about this: What is the shape of water? Well, you know the obvious answer: “It’s whatever shape it’s in.” It’s flat in a flat dish, vertical in a vase, circular in a bowl and so on. Now, imagine if could wrap everyone in the group could allow their minds to wrap around any kind of idea, like water. When all members of the group can do this, ideas start to flow in new directions.

4. Joy - The Ecstasy of Creation
Notice how children are in a state of joy when they’re playing. They’re actually experiencing a heightened sense of creativity. Some people use “think bubbles,” like the dialogue bubbles in cartoon as a brainstorming technique. This act of random playing with unrelated ideas can stimulate fresh insights into the creative-problem solving process.

5. Letting Go - Allowing
Sometimes, when we work in teams, we experience “idea ownership” or attachment to our own suggestions. This pride of authorship can undermine the creative flow in the entire group and hamper the group’s ability to move forward with someone else’s idea.

When this occurs, it is helpful to remember the nature of the tree. It must allow for every kind of interaction with all kinds of creatures. It must allow all animals in. It must permit them to store food. It must withstand all kinds of weather. And, it must be flexible, or it will break. If a creative team could learn to be more “tree-like,” it would avoid clinging to ideas or censoring out others, while developing more creative flexibility.

6. Mind of a Child - Pliability
If you ask people what children do after they finish playing with the new toy, they often say that kids play with the box it came in. Why is it that the box is more entertaining than the toy? Because it has limitless possibilities. Children can climb in the box, if it’s large enough, and pretend they’re exploring a cave, or
flying a space ship, or riding in a submarine. They can be anywhere they want to be, because the box allows them to use their imaginations and create any environment or adventure around it.

Remember, also that the box has four sides and some physical restrictions. Those very restrictions can sometimes guide creative solutions. For example, the haiku, a Japanese poetic form, has specific structural restrictions: This poetic form consists of three lines with a required number of syllables per line: 5 syllables, followed by 7, then returning to 5 again. Just for fun, write a haiku in 15 minutes. You might be surprised to see how creative you are.

The whole point of using Zen is to change the way you look at solving a problem. It helps to read a short koan or sutra to the audience before a presentation. It surprises the listener and introduces an unexpected mental challenge. Here are a few particularly interesting ones:
The barn’s burnt down.
Now I can see the moon.

Or this one:
Looking for Zen is like looking for
fish tracks in a dry riverbed.

Or even this one:
A flute with no holes in it
is the most difficult to blow.

And, if the audience resists Zen, try sharing the following quote by Thomas Dewar:
Minds are like parachutes.
It only functions when open.

Burgess, Randy, ed. (1995) Zen, Kansas City: Andrews & McMeel, p. 31, 60-61.

Bendinger, Bruce (2002) The Copy Work Shop, 3rd ed. Chicago: The Copy Workshop,
p. 114-115.

Goleman, Daniel, Paul Kaufman and Michael Ray (1991) The Creative Spirit, New York: Penguin, pp. 46-51.

Man-Tu Lee, Anthony and David Weiss ( 2002) Zen in 10 Simple Lessons, New York: Barron’s, p. 38-39, 44, 68-69, 98-99.

Mascetti, Manuela Dunn (ed.) (2001)The Little Book of Zen, New York: Barnes & Noble, p. 14, 58, 70, 112.

Reps, Paul and Nyogen Senzaki (compilers) (1994) Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Boston: Shambhala, p. 175.

Author's Bio: 

Margo is an award-winning advertising marketer and professor, as well as a Kauffman Faculty Scholar at Florida International University. Her first book: Street-Smart Advertising: How to With the Battle of the Buzz, is available in DVD and 6-CD award-winning webinar sets, She invented tactikPAK®, a patented system of learning, created Mental Peanut Butter® Training, and developed three advertising CDs. Her second book, The Brains Behind Great Ad Campaigns, will be released in the summer of 2009. She’s writing third d advertising book, which will focus on copywriting. Her award-winning Web site exudes creativity