Learning To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Part 2



smoke___iii_by_mattthesamurai-d33s193Going up in smoke: a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty.[i]


Sfumato means that there are no harsh outlines present (as in a coloring book). Areas blend into one another through minuscule brushstrokes, which makes for a rather hazy, albeit more realistic, depiction of light and color. An early, wonderful example of sfumato can be seen in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.[ii]  Sfumato was one of the four painting techniques of the Renaissance and this artistic style gives us a jumping off place to exploring mysteries and probing the unknown.


What we do not know, we seek after.  We are not anxious about ambiguities, mysteries, and the great unknown.  As writers, and people in general, we are not repelled by the unanswered questions and great contradictions of life.  In fact, there is an irresistible attraction to the unknown or even what others call the unknowable. Philip Yancey wrote these classic words:  Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.


How do you respond when your life ‘goes up in smoke’ and the pyromaniacs of doubt and disillusionment set fire to your house of certainty and security?  How do you react when what you believed no longer seems to work?  Rather than covering up or avoiding our anxiety over unsolved mysteries and deep seeded doubt, we confront them.  We refuse to ignore our physical and psychological pain.  We ‘tune in’ to the subject at hand and wrestle with it.  We are not afraid to embrace the uncertainties of life.


For over 35 years I have wrestled with what the theologians call theodicy, the contradiction that seems to exist between the all-loving God and the suffering of humanity.  I have felt the tragedy of life landing an uppercut to my jaw followed by a punch to my solar plexus, leaving me stunned and breathless. However, I cannot escape the journey into unknown territories.  I cannot hide from my doubt.  I cannot run from disillusionment. My life experiences always bring me back to this subject.  I refuse to cave in to traditional thought on the subject.  I have found some clues and a few answers but I am not content.


We live in a world of tension between the known and the unknown, certainty and uncertainty, and faith and doubt.  We are surrounded by enigma and life’s contradictions and if you give yourself permission it can become the source of your greatest works.




Logic and Imagination: the development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination.[iii]


Logic gets you from A to B.  Imagination gets you everywhere.  (Albert  Einstein) A good writer will write with what Roy Williams calls ‘whole brain’ thinking.  We use logic when we apply the principles of writing to our work: outlines, edits, and organization.  We use imagination and creativity when we do the actual writing.  There is a constant movement between writing on the lines and thinking outside the lines.


Imagination precedes logic but logic gives expression to our imaginations.  Visualization is the forerunner to actualization.  The artist sees his work before he creates his work.  An architect applies the art of imagining and visualizing his structure before he goes to the design table.  Fertile innovative writing demands working with the tension between logic and imagination.


In a moment of examining his methods, Einstein came to the conclusion that “the gift of imagination has meant more to me that any talent of absorbing absolute knowledge.  All great achievements in science must first start with intuitive knowledge.  I believe in intuition and inspiration.  At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.”[iv]



Body:   the cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise.  DaVinci believed that we should accept personal responsibility for our health and well-being”[v]


This might be a curious subject for those that want to perfect their writing abilities but there is a huge link between health and writing.  Your physical and psychological health is a key to immaginative writing.  When you are distracted by health and mental issues it is difficult to focus on any kind of thinking besides the issues before you.


I have noticed that after an hour of exercising I feel more alive and aware.  Straining my body seems to help me to strain my thinking.  Bad diets and lack of exercise can have an impact on the amount of creative inspirational moments you have.


The same goes for psychological health.  If we are plagued by stress and shame you will be hampered in your ability to think creatively.  The destructive duo of stress and shame drain us physically and emotionally.  Shame distracts us and prevents us from imaginative thinking by forcing us to focus on our negative feelings about our self.  Stress disrupts us from creative thought by insisting that we give attention to the negative disruptions in our life.


To become successful writers, or to experience success in any area of our lives, we must give attention to physical and psychological health.


However, let me just make this point and I don’t want it to negate the importance of health.  There have been great writers who suffered from physical and psychological disabilities and yet found a way to transform their inabilities into strengths.




Connectivity:  a recognition and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena.  Systems thinking.[vi]


Da Vinci used the act of dropping a stone into a lake and watching the ripples it created in order to describe the interconnectivity of all things.  One action creates a series of other reactions.  Leonardo described the connectivity of all things by saying, “the earth is moved from its position by the weight of a tiny bird resting upon it.”[vii]


As writers we seek to connect the dots as we observe the relationship of all things in life.  We are all impacted by the words we hear, negatively and positively, and we influence others with what we say and do.   As writers we seek to understand how our story relates to the Big Story.  We look at the impact of the things we have done and the decisions we have made.


It was the summer of 1964 right after I graduated from high school that I decided to go to Prairie Bible College in Canada.  Over on the East Coast a beautiful young lady had just been kicked out of business college for drinking.  She got saved that summer and made the decision to go to the same Bible college. Even though the social regulations of that school conspired to keep us from meeting, we did.  That young lady was Michele Ballard.  We fell in love and got married in the summer of 1968.  God conspired to bring us together.  All of us have similar stories.  Social theory says that we are only 6 degrees of separation from everyone in the world.


We are not alone but are joined to others in life’s journey. We are influenced by the intersections of life when our paths cross with others.  At the same time we seek to build bridges to connect ourselves with those that are estranged from us.  As we allow others into our life our dis-unity becomes a realistic unity.  In the Alchemy of Influence Henry Drummond says that all men are a mosaic.  We are the result of all the influences that have impacted our life and those influences become the source of our writing.


In closing, I am aroused by Thomas Merton’s thoughts on becoming a unified human person so I leave these words for you to consider.


The first thing that you have to do, before you even start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole and learn to live as a unified human person.[viii]




[i] How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb, Bantam Dell, New York, ©1998, Pg. 143


[iii] Ibid, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, Pg. 165

[iv] Albert Einstein cited in Paul Schilpp, 1979, Albert Einstein: Autobiographical Notes

[v] Ibid, Learning to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, Pg. 194

[vi] Ibid, Pg. 221

[vii] Ibid, Pg. 222

[viii] The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, Thomas Merton  (pp. 3-4). Harper Collins, San Francisco, Kindle Edition, 2012, Pg. 3-4


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