Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Mindfulness and Creativity
It's very unlike me, but I have been doing some experimenting with mindfulness meditation in recent weeks, mainly inspired by Sam Harris and Robert Wright expounding on it at great length in this podcast episode.
(On a totally unrelated note, isn't it amazing how, while everybody would tell you that in the internet age everything has to be short and punchy and superficial, many of the world's most popular podcasters - Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Dan Carlin, etc. - make such hugely, luxuriantly lengthy episodes?)
After spending 10-20 minutes a day doing it pretty consistently, I think I can see very rudimentary effects - at least at the level that I can now very easily, almost automatically, identify when I am being sidetracked from a given task by distracting thoughts and bring my attention back to where it needs to be. By no means has this transformed me into a whirlwind of productivity, but it has at least managed to help me realise when certain thoughts (about work, money, family, whatever) are preventing me from fully focusing on what I want to be focusing on - whether that be listening to a presentation or the radio, reading a book, playing with my daughter, and so on.
Oddly enough, though, at a phenomenological level I think what I have gleaned so far from this basic mindfulness practice is a felt understanding (I think that is the best way of putting it) that the conscious mind - what I think of as me - is in a sense a passenger of the unconscious mind. Thoughts simply arise (in their tens of thousands, as I'm sure you're aware if you've ever tried the standard "focus on your breath" mindfulness routine) and the conscious mind assesses, confronts, responds to, analyses, and is influenced by them. It's as though your conscious mind is dancing around on top of highly geologically unstable ground which is constantly shifting under its feet and blasting geysers and sulphurous fumes into the air. As you practice meditation more and more, you get to the point where the conscious mind is actually able to at least observe this going on and identify to a degree where it needs to go; before you have ever begun practicing, the likelihood is you aren't really aware that your consciousness and unconsciousness have this relationship except at the level that you often find yourself having uncontrollable unwelcome thoughts which you get caught up in and prevent you from concentrating (or much worse).
The relationship of all of this to creativity fascinates me, because, of course, the creative process is dominated by the unconscious mind - that's where creativity happens. (This is why good ideas usually strike you when you're not trying to have them.) Creating is, in a sense, the conscious mind picking out material from what the unconscious mind spits up at it - identifying good ideas and then working on them, polishing them, carving them into something worthwhile. It doesn't control the process in any sense; it's reliant on what boils up in the geysers and hot springs underfoot.
I wonder, then, how mindfulness might help - or even hinder - this. At the nuts and bolts level it can surely only help, in that it aids focus and concentration in the long-term and thus contributes to the whole "99% perspiration" element of creativity. But on the other hand, when it comes to having good ideas, is there nothing to be said for being as unmindful as you can be - maybe even anti-mindful - in order to allow your unconscious mind to simply broil away, as unedited and unfiltered and unnoticed as possible? Might monitoring the unconscious not aid to dampen creativity in some way?