“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
If you think about it for a second, it’s no surprise that the practices of meditation and mindfulness are growing in popularity. Life is going approximately ten thousand miles per hour, our tech is making us busier instead of freeing up time, and we’re losing touch with tangible experiences, which are too often traded for virtual ones. We are growing increasingly desperate to find pockets of time and space to take a freaking knee. To wit: you claw through the deluge from Hell that is your inbox while fielding texts from your spouse about dinner between reading the Times on an app while walking to your lunch break spin class while listening to a podcast…No wonder sitting down and doing nothing for ten minutes sounds like a slice of heaven. But because we’re Human 2.0, we have to turn an ancient spiritual practice into something that has measurable dividends backed by neuroscience and the latest issue of Psychology Today. Articles and blog posts abound about how meditation results in better sleep, better sex, better productivity, increased creativity, decreased depression and on and on. So you start thinking you’ll meditate not because it’s really good for you to just hang out with yourself and BE for a few minutes each day, but because it will make you even more efficient at juggling everything in your life–so you can add a few more things to your plate.
For artists, living in 2017 proves to be especially challenging. In order to do what we do we need everything the modern world doesn’t want to hand out: quiet, the ability to focus, a mind that can go on adventures instead of chanting the To Do list as though it were the names of God. But we’re Human 2.0 too and so, again, we only turn to the cushion because someone said something about how it helps you be more creative and being more creative means more book deals, more words each day, more productivity. And we’re back on the merry-go-round with all the other poor bastards that have bought into our modern obsession with doing it all.
In keeping with our bite-sized attention spans, I’ll tell you right here, right now:
The only way you’ll know if meditation can increase or enhance your creativity is if you try it out for yourself.
I know you want statistics and science and links and I was planning on laying all that out in a glorious, confident display of meditation know-it-allness, but then I realized that my motivation for doing so was to somehow convince you in the same way that someone convinces you to go Paleo, like it’s the answer to everything. And I am exhausted by everyone having the Answer, like if I go gluten-free or get 10K steps a day or have my chakras realigned then all the problems in my life will be fixed. And that’s just not so. Nothing is the Answer. Who the hell even knows what the Answer is? Still, some things move you closer to the good, juicy bits of life and some things move you further away. In my experience, meditation and mindfulness brings me closer to the deliciousness and that’s where the art is.
There are so many articles out there that will tell you meditation increases creativity, some more legit than others. Studies have been done, of course. Some are convincing and some are not. The only thing you can trust is your own lived experience. And if a lot of people are saying, Hey, this thing works for me and you feel a tug, a little quickening like, Hey, I’m curious and I think maybe this might work for me too, then honor the tug. Try it out. In her excellent introduction to meditation, Start Here Now (my number one recommendation for anyone curious and wanting to read a bit more), Buddhist author Susan Piver has a short chapter dedicated to the intersection of creativity and meditation. She cites the phenomenon that many, many artists and writers talk about: how when they’re walking or showering or driving or dreaming, they find unexpected inspiration. Piver suggest this:
When we stop striving–even to become more creative, relaxed, or intelligent–moments of clear seeing arise. Our meditation practice teaches this exact skill: to relax our minds while resting attention on the breath–without agenda…When we are able to let go of traditional agendas, our brilliance is unleashed. This is how creativity works. I don’t know why.
The act of being fully present, fully in your body, fully aware of yourself and the world around you somehow triggers the creative impulse. There is science to this: the same thing that happens in your brain when it’s meditating is very similar to what happens in your brain when it’s experiencing creative flow. And, no, I am not providing a link on purpose because then you’ll go down the rabbit hole of the Internet, likely unmindfully, and totally forget to go sit down and meditate for a few minutes. We all know how to use Google, so Google that shit if you want. Other posts I write will get deep into the neuroscience–promise.
Meditation is a way to train yourself in awareness, to learn to slow down, to really see things, to meet life with eyes wide open. The poet Mary Oliver says, Attention is the beginning of devotion. Read any of her poems and you can see mindfulness at work. Artists are observers of both the internal and external world, so it stands to reason that a practice that trains in that has a good chance of helping artists to improve that skill, which, it would also stand to reason, can only help their art. So that’s one reason to give meditation and mindfulness a try (meditation is the sitting and meditating part and mindfulness is bringing that awareness into your daily life).
Perhaps what I’ve found to be most helpful, though, is how meditating supports my mental health as an artist. When we’re on the cushion, we cultivate gentleness toward ourselves, moment by moment. When our mind wanders, we don’t beat ourselves up. We tenderly bring our minds back to the object of concentration (the breath, a mantra, sound, what-have-you) and begin again. As one of my favorite meditation teachers, Sharon Salzberg says:
If that isn’t an important lesson for writers to know, I don’t know what is. I remind myself when a book is sucking really hard and I have massive revisions ahead of me. I remind myself this when one of my editors rejects a new manuscript I’ve submitted, or one of my book’s numbers are low. The act of sitting on the cushion is a daily training in accessing flow, self-compassion, and the ability to skillfully deal with whatever shit life throws your way.
I could write reams more on the subject – and I suppose I will – but for now, why don’t you go sit and see how that feels for you? Try an app like Headspace or Calm for guided meditations to get you started. See if there’s a meditation studio or organization in your town – it’s great to practice with the support of a group and knowledgeable teachers. Check out Susan Piver’s Start Here Now, which includes a very simple guide on the practice and how to start it. You can also check out the resources page on my coaching site.
Keep in mind:
- Most importantly, know that you absolutely can meditate – you’ll just need to search for the style and tradition that works for you.
- You don’t have to be Buddhist to meditate.
- Start slow – five minutes a day for a month. Ten minutes a day the next month. And so on. Don’t get overzealous. Starting small and practicing every day is much more effective than meditating for longer periods only a couple times a week.
- Be gentle with yourself.
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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