On Genius, Enlightenment and The Voices

There is a Buddhist fable about a traveller who arrives at an enlightened sage. “Please, master,” he says. “Please. I want to know how to become enlightened.”

“Are you sure?” asks the sage.

“Oh, yes. Absolutely.”

“Are you willing to go through whatever it takes?”

“Anything. I’ll do anything.”

The sage looked him in the eye, decided that it was called for, and immediately turned into a demon. For the rest of the man’s days he was pursued by this demon, who hit him incessantly with a stick and screamed, “NOW! NOW! NOW!”


I came across an article this week on Alexandra Franzen’s fabulous blog, Unicorns for Socialism. In this piece, she takes on the idea of genius as something you are, and reframes it (with reference to Malcolm Gladwell) as a state of being passionately in love with something.

This reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk (in which she described the success of Eat, Pray, Love as “freakish”, and admitted that it left her terrified, because, hey, what do you do for an encore???) She suggested that we would be better off thinking of genius as the Romans did, not as something you are, but as something you have. The Genius, The Daemon, The Muse. That thing outside yourself, and also inside, that grabs your consciousness and demands that you write, make art, pursue your question until all hours of the day and night, sometimes at the cost of family, friendships, and your physical needs. Do THIS. it demands, and you do. Maybe kicking and screaming, maybe resentfully, maybe with a loud rational voice questioning the wisdom of quitting your 6-figure job to become an elementary school teacher, but you DO it.

I have one of those.

It feels a lot like that demon in the first story. It is very concerned with ethics, impact, and honesty. It is not forgiving of transgressions. It shakes me awake at 3 in the morning and says, “Get up! Write this down. Now!”

“Oh,” I mumble. “It’s late. I’m tired. I’ll do it in the morning.”

“No, you’ll forget! Get up! Get up! Do it, NOW!”

So I do. Because it has never been wrong. Yes, I will forget by morning. Yes, they are always the thoughts I didn’t know were kicking around in there, like they have gelled in my sleep. (1) And yes, when I get up the next morning, I am always surprised by what I wrote, and glad I did it… although tired. So, so tired. The last month has been like that a lot. Pulling over to the side of the road to scratch things down, calling people to ask them questions when it strikes me so that I don’t forget, and falling into bed at the end of the day, exhausted, at 9 p.m.


There’s another voice, though, and it is sinister. It sounds similar, worries about the same things, concerns itself with my accomplishments, but it does so with a nasty little twist. Whereas the one is merely unconcerned with trivialities like food, water, and sleep, the other has that oily tone to its “encouragement”. “Do this… or you will be a complete and utter failure.” It holds me back (“Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say! Just go get a job like everybody else does. What makes you think you’re so special?”) and then blames me for listening to it (“Oh, you see. You were thinking about that 10 years ago, and now it’s a New York Times bestseller, and what have you done with the last 10 years?!?”) It is absolutely and utterly incoherent, and seems to exist for the sole purpose of destroying me.

Why do we even have that voice?

What could possibly be the evolutionary benefit of a part of consciousness that makes you sick with self-loathing?

Yes, I know the solution: stop listening to that voice/those voices. They don’t even make any sense. But this is so much easier said than done. One teacher taught us to personify them and address them directly, calling them The Inner Critic. (“How,” I ask rhetorically, “did I wind up with an anarcho-capitalist in my suite of inner critics?”) Another calls them The Monsters and suggests that we recognize that they are trying to protect us (from humiliation, from rejection, from making mistakes). I sit in meditation, learning to disidentify. “I am not my thoughts. They do not mean anything. They are not the real world, they are an inaccurate story about the real world. I do not know the future, or what will happen if I take this action.”


The trick, I think, is to learn to tell these two apart. The Genius, although caring little for my creature comforts, personal goals, or professional success, does nothing to undermine me. “She” (because it is always my own voice that I hear, regardless of what it is saying) merely wants me to do it all, do it now, and get it done. The task itself is the driving force. Those other voices want… Well, they don’t really want much of anything. They just want me not to do whatever it is. They are the anti-genius. They are the voices of silence, conformity, placid enoughness, and they want, more than anything, for me to Just Shut Up. Be Invisible. Stay Down Where Nobody Can See You. Draw No Attention. And if they have to resort to reminding me of all the times that I listened to them in the past, and use that as proof that I’m meant to Stay Down and Shut Up, so be it. Coherence is not one of their strong suits.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with enlightenment?

I’m not sure. But I hear that somewhere along the path, we must learn to stop listening to those voices of the anti-genius.

This is the calling: Keep Showing Up. There are thoughts that need thinking and words that need writing, and paintings that need painting, and songs that need singing.

I know that I am positing a Numinal world here; I know that it is not compatible with my rational scientific training. But it is compatible with my experience. The things I have said and done and written that mattered most, when I opened my mouth and the words poured out, and they were exactly what the person needed to hear at that time, or when I looked at something when I was finished and thought, “Where did that come from?”… those things feel like they came through me, not from me. I cannot make ideas. I can only express them. If they are forming in my mind, unbidden, what part do “I” have in this? Who am I, really? I’m the one with the hands, and the voice, and the body. And there is something in/beside/through me that wants speaking. So I speak it. (2)

Because I could really use a break from this three in the morning stuff.


1. I once learned a difficult quantum mechanics derivation in my sleep. (Time independent perturbation theory. True story.) It is a very strange thing, this brain.
2. And then hit “Publish” even in the agony of self-doubt. And get back to my other job, because dinner ain’t gonna make itself.

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2 thoughts on “On Genius, Enlightenment and The Voices

  1. What could possibly be the evolutionary benefit of a part of consciousness that makes you sick with self-loathing?

    Seth Godin has proposed an answer to this question, somewhere. It may be in his book, Linchpin. What you call the anti-Genius and I (well, really my writing teacher) call my shitbird Godin calls the “lizard brain,” and it’s the part of you that wants you to play it safe and not take any risks, ‘cuz that’s how you’ll survive. That’s how I remember the explanation, anyway.

    As for the voice of the Genius, in me, it is barely a whisper.

  2. Funny thing is, I started writing this because I had been thinking about the difference between the lizard brain and the monkey mind. I guess that what we’ve got here is a competition between consciousness (which wants to explore all the possibilites of the universe?) and biological drives (which just want to keep us alive and inside the tribe until we’ve managed to make babies who are old enough to also survive inside the tribe.) So I guess I kind of “know” the answer to that question, but I don’t like it.

    My Genius (in whatever guise) has been mercifully quiet for years at a time, especially when the kids were babies. I’m not sure I would inflict it on somebody else at this point. I feel like I’m writing in these frantic bursts trying to get something down while running frantically ahead of The Resistance. You know that process? The Voice is right behind me, but if I write fast enough maybe it won’t notice? So I’m putting words down on paper in a free-writing kind of way, or trying to replicate the way I talk so that it is a less cognitive process and maybe won’t draw attention to itself. (I also try this: put every thought into a different file so that it’s not like I’m actually “writing”. I’m just scratching things down here and there.)

    And then I feel silly for even wanting to know any of this stuff, because I never considered myself creative until other people started telling me I was a couple of years ago. I thought, “Oh, I can’t draw, and I’m not a musician, and I don’t write stories, so all that stuff about creativity is for other people.” So I had no coping mechanisms, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I might be avoiding writing as we speak.

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