When faced with uncertainty or ambiguity, do you tend to feel anxiety or are you excited for a challenge? How comfortable are you with the unknown, with uncertainty?
Perhaps uncertainty and ambiguity makes you anxious and you have much of your life planned. You have set expectations of what you want your life to be like and are quite set in your ways. Maybe you fear the possible curve balls life could throw you and though you know change will happen, you like your routine and knowing what to expect.
As nice as this may be, being uncomfortable with ambiguity does not lend you to being very resilient, creative or adaptive in the face of change.
Resilient people see adversity as challenges that can always be reckoned with and feel very comfortable facing the unknown or uncertainty, because they are certain that a solution will be available and if nothing else, it will be a great experience.
From the World of Leonardo Da Vinci
What’s more, such individuals tend to be more creative and have a great capacity to invent or come up with new ideas, like Leonardo Da Vinci.
Leonardo Da Vinci believed he was a perpetual student of life. His incredible capacity to embrace ambiguity, the unknown and paradoxes enabled him to invent and make new discoveries that were hundreds of years ahead of his time.
Michael Gelb says in his book, How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, that the most distinguishing characteristic of highly creative people is their ability to go off into the unknown.
Gelb asserts that anyone can learn to cultivate Sfumato (literally translated as “going up in smoke”) or “A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, uncertainty.”
One just has to look at Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to understand Sfumato, Gelb says.
Think about it.
What is the woman in the portrait smiling about? Who was this woman? Is it really a self-portrait of Leonardo? Is she serious or is she happy?
The hazy quality of the brush strokes, paint and attention to details has made Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile the subject of speculation for centuries.
Gelb says that when you ask children about Mona Lisa’s smile they automatically start imitating it. He says that on one such occasion, when posed to several children, they burst out with such answers as, “She has a secret!” Or “Everything has an opposite, like light and day, or life and death!”
Amazing, no? That children grasp the concept of ambiguity, paradox and contrast?
Not really. Children thrive on experiences that ignite their curiosity and desire to explore. For children, everything is pretty much an unknown and therefore up for exploration and wonder.
As we age and our brain develops, we gather a lifetime of positive and negative experiences, that either leave us feeling comfortable with the unknown or fearful.
Where do you match up? How open are you to ambiguity, to the unknown, to possibly making a mistake or taking a risk? How open are you to new ideas, juxtaposing arguments or paradoxes ?
Getting Comfy With Ambiguity & Cultivating Sfumato
According to Gelb, here are some ways for you to cultivate Sfumato:
- Mimic Mona Lisa: Take a look at the painting and then try to mimic the Mona Lisa smile. Then walk around your office, your home or someplace that you are bound to see other people. Notice how it makes you feel. Notice how it leads you to observe people, places and things around you differently. Notice also how others look at you—perhaps as if you know something they don’t.
- Feel into ambiguity: List and describe two or three situation where you were met with ambiguity. Maybe you were not sure whether or not to accept a job offer or wondering about the future of your new relationship. As you describe the situations, also write about how you feel. Pay special note to the feeling of ambiguity and if or how it is associated with anxiety. Notice where you feel it in your body, what color it has or shape or sound and write about it.
- Observe anxiety: What is important to take home from the first exercise is that situations of uncertainty lead to feelings of anxiety. Many people are actually not aware of the presence of this anxiety. When you become conscious of anxiety, you can accept it, take care of it and free yourself of it so that it doesn’t limit your thought and action. So think about a situation that you feel uncertain about and describe the feeling of anxiety (write it down). Describe where you feel it, how you experience it, what sort of shape, color, sound or taste it has. Describe how you normally act or react when you have this feeling.
- Power breaths to release the anxiety: Clear your mind of thoughts (especially negative ones) and relax your body:
- Breathe in and count 1-2-3.
- Breathe out and count 1-2-3-4-5.
- As you breathe out, allow all thoughts and tension to be released (you can imagine they are flowing out into the wind, down a river or into the earth).
- As you breathe, breathe in peace.
- Breathe in and out for 10 cycles.
- Cultivate confusion endurance: Releasing anxiety and calming the mind enables you to sharpen your senses in the face of paradox so that you can embrace creative tension. In other words, you are able to see that it is okay for opposites to coexist without necessarily having to change it or wrong it. A great way to do so is by contemplating paradoxes.
For example, contemplate the paradox of joy and sorrow. Think of the most joyful moments in your life and then the moments filled with the most sadness. Is there a relationship between the two? Can you feel them both simultaneously? Where do you feel them? Do their colors or sounds merge?
You may write, draw, and feel just as you did in the above exercise.
You may wish to contemplate other paradoxes in the same fashion, such as the need for security and desire for freedom, or your experiences of humility and pride. Look for the qualities in opposites and for unexpected similarities. Can the two coexist?
As you move through these exercises, you just might notice that you are engaging your Curiosita, experiencing Dimonstrazione, and using your Sensazione to enable you to embrace Sfumato.
Before you know it, you just might find that you are indeed a genius in your own right.