There’s a recurring theme that comes up in the questions students often ask in the mindfulness and meditation classes that I teach. Several themes, actually, but one of them essentially revolves around creativity. The question is basically about whether it’s always valuable to work to quiet your mind, or if perhaps ditching the leash and letting it roam free now and then might not only be a good thing, but potentially really productive – especially if you’re into engaging in a mildly important concept called “innovation.”
It’s not a new question. It is a great one, though. So solid, in fact, that not only has it been written about here and there, but it’s been scientifically researched. I’ve read so many articles and commentaries on the topic, and most of them just leave me scratching my head. I mean, I get the question. Won’t all of this effort to control the incessant chatter in my mind also potentially snuff out the radical genius who is one fresh idea away from changing the world? How do I tell the useless rambler to stuff it while still keeping the genius at work? Well, here’s why I’ve been scratching my head…it’s not rocket science (maybe neuroscience, though): you give the genius space to work.
Most of us in this overachieving, overscheduled, overstimulated tier of the world’s population have minds that resemble one of those units on “Storage Wars” – the ones that some person or family has just been throwing things into for decades without ever really even opening the door all the way, let alone taking stock of what’s inside. There’s a lot in there. Some of it’s valuable, and some of it’s not. Some of it is basically buried treasure. But none of it is maximizing its potential because it doesn’t have the space to do whatever it does best. In this case, mindfulness is our clean-up crew.
In mindfulness, and particularly during meditation (which is a type of mindfulness), we attempt to make a distinction between our “thinking mind” and our “observing mind.” Your thinking mind is your executive center. It includes that parts of your brain that make you good at analyzing, planning, predicting and problem solving (not to mention anxiety, worry, regret, etc.). It is ALWAYS working, and you can’t stop it. You’re not even going to try to. You are, however, going to give yourself a break from it, which will be made possible by your observing mind.
During meditation, we give ourselves a focal point, which is usually the breath. You draw your attention to the sounds and sensations of your inhales and exhales. If you like, you can work with a gatha or a labeling thoughts exercise to help you stay focused on your breath. When you notice that your attention has temporarily meandered to what you’d like to have for lunch, or what you want to work on later, then you recognize that as “thinking” and gently return your focus to your breath. You will do this back and forth again and again…and again and again. Over time, with regular practice, you may find yourself pulled away by your thoughts less often. Or you may not. It is the effort that matters, and produces results. As the saying goes, meditation is a “practice,” not a “perfect.”
Back to my point – the reason you can notice that you are having a thought is because of your observing mind. That part of you was watching the thought, rather than engaging in it. Mindfulness is about connecting with that part of your mind, and learning over time how to step into it before reflexively responding to challenges, or any external stimuli. It enables you to make intentional choices about the actions you take. Which leads me back to mind wandering…(you didn’t think I’d gotten lost, did you?)
Creative brainstorming, whether to solve a logic problem or design the next iteration of a technological wonder, is essential to progress. But just as the clutter of needless worry and anxious reflection can prevent your thinking mind from functioning as efficiently as possible, it can also be a real buzzkill for creativity. The key to effective mind wandering is intention. Brainstorm deliberately, not when you have committed to being focused on something else. Even a few minutes a day of mindfulness lets the clean-up crew of your mind tidy up. It gives your observing mind a chance to step in, keep your thinking mind on track, and open up space for those brilliant ideas to emerge. You knew that treasure was in there all along, and with a little mindfulness, everyone else can know it, too.
Photo credit: Srinivas Bandari