How Learning to Slow Down Helped Me Become More Creative

Have you ever felt totally immersed in sensory details–details like the crevices of a knickknack or the sound of water cascading from a tap?

There’s a word for that: ambedo. Ambedo is a neologism from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a website and soon-to-be-published book of invented words that describe emotions for which there are no existing names. 

According to Koenig, ambedo refers to a state of being where you experience a moment for its own sake, leading to “a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details–raindrops skittering down a window…clouds of cream swirling in your coffee.” 

For me, recognizing and reaching a state of ambedo was like rekindling a long-lost love I didn’t realize I had, or igniting a fire I never knew I’d extinguished. 

Full screen mode 

It took a global slowdown for me to experience ambedo.

Ambedo for me is about bringing a mindfulness to everyday tasks and totally immersing myself in the moment. Total immersion in the task at hand is related to the Zen habit of letting each task fill your entire world. In an age of multiple browser tabs, single-tasking may be difficult, but it can be incredibly beneficial for productivity.

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work on the state of “flow,” essentially, being in the zone, also speaks to this idea of being so invested in the present moment that time ceases to matter. 

I hadn’t been able to tap into any of this–flow, ambedo–previously. Three Tasmanian-devil-related toddlers under four and a full elementary school teaching load left little time for careful observation. And the only “trance” I experienced was a special sleep-deprived stupor reserved for working moms.

But all that changed. On the 26th of February, we packed our bags, filled our water bottles and prepared to go to school the next day. On the morning of the 27th, we just didn’t. In the following days of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown I found myself staring straight into a sprawling vista of time unpunctuated by weekends. 

I’d been starting to think that 2020 would be the year that got away. But then I discovered ambedo.

Life, on steroids 

I work as a curriculum developer and I teach, but my creative practice is writing. Before learning how to slow down again, I had relentlessly courted inspiration. The feelings weren’t mutual. I lunged; it fluttered away. I pounced–it ducked. The harder I tried, the more persistently I created notes, Google Docs or bullet journals (each time proclaiming IDEAS in caps, with an exclamation mark afterwards for good measure) the more I ended up with a whimper instead of a bang. 

Ambedo requires experiencing a moment for its own sake–meaning the moment is its own reward–but it also offers delayed dividends later. According to Koenig, the term is a play on the Latin word “albedo,” a measure of light reflectivity. In ambedo, the opposite is true, making it a measure of “how much you absorb the world.” 

The pandemic had us locked down at home, and it would be a few months before classes transitioned fully online. But even without any exciting experiences beyond day-to-day tasks, I found myself able to tune in to the finer details of mundane activities.

Lazy mornings with the kids–most mornings at that time–were healing. They had moles I hadn’t noticed before and personality quirks previously buried under our avalanche of daily responsibilities. Housework was anchoring. Scraping off gunk from an oil-encrusted tawa (a flat griddle used to make roti or Pakistani tortillas) proved oddly cathartic and satisfying. Even sweeping and mopping had a divine order, I found: One walks forwards while sweeping and backwards while mopping.

I went from color-coded “To remember” notes about work, school, the gym and the kids’ schoolwork to just one list, unwritten and in my head: living. With so much displacement and uncertainty outside, survival became life itself, and other things ceased to matter. 

To cope, I focused only on the task at hand, and gave my mind license to wander, which in turn brought me the insight and inspiration I had once actively sought and never found. Finally, I was able to write. 

Ambedo by any other name

It might seem counterintuitive that not trying should yield better results. But apparently, I wasn’t alone.

According to clinical psychologist Nida Khan, the deliberate slowdown within a state of ambedo is conducive to creativity because “it creates a space inside ourselves, and that space is where creativity slips in. Because the world has paused, our practical callings to meet deadlines and run errands have slowed down to the point where this can actually happen.”

“Buddhist Dharma teachers would call it a slowing down of the doing mind, and hence, an emerging of the being mind,” Khan continued.

“The closest equivalent to ambedo I’ve come across is satori, the Japanese Buddhist moment of enlightenment,” explained Muneeb ur Rehman, a theater practitioner and coach who has stayed with Buddhist monks in a Chiang Mai monastery on various silent retreats lasting anywhere from 10 days to three weeks. 

“In the sense that the strictest phase of lockdown saw nothing coming in and nobody going out, it was almost like a meditation retreat. But with Wi-Fi, it’s not the same,” said Rehman.

Clearly, a mandated lockdown is different from a meditation retreat. It would be misleading to say my transition was seamless or that I didn’t grapple with feeling overwhelmed. After all, unlike the monastery where that one meal is served to you, I still had household responsibilities and children who were anything but silent. 

And yet I noticed similarities between my life at home during lockdown and many of the monastery norms that Rehman shared, such as no eating after noon, wearing colorless clothing or consuming only guided meditation lectures as content.

At home, pajamas were a mainstay in my daily-wear, my children controlled the screens and thus my screen time, and I soon made a conscious decision to stay far away from any news updates. There weren’t hours stuck in gridlocked Karachi traffic dictating notes to Siri while desperately wishing to be somewhere else. I was where I needed to be–where I was supposed to be–and I had to sit with myself and make the most of it. 

I experienced the feeling of ambedo once I accepted this, and then just by losing myself in the inconspicuous objects and unglamorous tasks around me. It felt harmonious and richly fulfilling, and my inner self connected with my outside cocoon, even though outside just meant the inside of my house. 

Look long and carefully 

Finding a state of ambedo isn’t a mystical process. For me, the following three steps were enough.

Step 1: Let yourself look 

To find creative inspiration, I had to allow myself to become absorbed in sensory details without viewing them as a means to an end. According to psychologist Wilma Koutstaal, “Looking and observing closely, giving ourselves the space, time, and permission to really look seems to be a key active ingredient in allowing us to generate ideas that reach higher in novelty, appeal, and individuality.” 

Step 2: Look frequently 

John Pelley, a professor of medical education at Texas Tech University, relates mindfulness meditation to the development of sensory skills. Pelley describes this as “bodybuilding for the brain.” Like bodybuilding, the more often we pay attention, the stronger our attention muscle becomes. Let sounds, sights and other tactile sensations wash over you for the simple pleasure of having experienced them, and the rest will follow. 

Step 3: Enjoy the journey 

The short story The Station is about how in our perpetual rush to reach an elusive, idyllic station, we miss the journey. 

My state of ambedo was about enjoying the journey and its many moments. And I found that ideas, lurking near the fringes of my mind, came soon enough. 

September 30, 2020