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? 


  1. Mindfulness, I think, is useful to an extent, but I'd argue it represents only one, perhaps least effective means of stirring creativity in the meditation department. But... since you've gone this far (and I'm feeling like pontificating) , you might well think about a potentially more dynamic engagement with the unconscious and put your theory regarding 'the monitoring of the unconscious' to the test.

    I refer to the practice of 'active imagination' as best conceived by Jung (possibly expanding on Swedenborg and Blake before him). It's easy enough to Google the method , but in short, The Red Book is the end result of Jung's journeying... essentially the foundation of the work which dominated the rest of his life, writing and career. Quite the result.

    I'd be interested in your opinion in this arena. And I of course, recognise that this is ever so slightly off topic... good post anyway!

  2. Your ideas about the unconscious and creativity match my own. I suspect I may be sub-pathologically ADD; my brain feels very noisy. It would be nice to turn down the volume a bit, but I have never tried this kind of meditation for fear of affecting my creativity, which I feel benefits from the endless firehose of thought.

    If you keep going with it, I'd be interested in your conclusion.

    1. I think it is worth trying. I am only a beginner but after a couple of months I can see an effect on my daily life. I am not less distracted but when I am distracted I notice and can return my attention to where it needs to be.

  3. That's an interesting question, but I suspect meditation will only help. Actually getting crap done is a harder part of the creative process than having an idea.

    1. I expect you are probably right that benefits far outweigh costs.

  4. I don't see any danger of mindfulness "dampening" creativity. Everyone's personal experience is different, of course, so what is true for me may not hold true for you, but as a writer I find that I'm most productive and creative when I can immerse myself fully in the writing and enter "the groove," "the zone," "flow," or whatever the popular description is these days - that Zen-like state where the only thing that registers at all is the thing you're focusing on. I can definitely see mindfulness training helping one to achieve this state (and maintain it in the face of distractions), and I don't see it being a detriment (any more than, say, the accelerator pedal in a car becomes a detriment to speed when you're cruising down a hill).

    Good to hear the experience has been positive for you, by the way!

  5. I think you have inadvertently discovered the Ignatius Examin; the way you talk about the conscious riding along...I don't know if it would be something you're into or not, but give it a look if you're interested in using this excercise to look for buried things that can 'float to the surface'. Sounds like you're doing it anyway, but there's a huge body of work dedicated to this; we use it as a daily sort of breviary in our prayer group.
    Cool stuff; totally about the length of things! True enough, eh?! The other folks like to go on about our gen's 4 second attention span, but really, who's watching CNN and who's spending hours in essentially the 'Online Library'? I think the answer is us! :)
    Playing with daughters is the best medicine, bar none, isn't it?! :)

    1. It's very interesting that most different major religions developed meditative practice. That suggests universal value.

  6. I have a theory about mindfulness, which is that it's specific design is to split the mind into the characteristics you have observed.

    That might seem strange, but the hypothesis goes like this; if someone asks you to hold out your arm straight for a long time in a particular position, then you will quickly learn about the structure of your muscles because of an uncomfortable pain that develops in the specific muscle groups that support that position.

    Then, as you practice more, you will be able to support it for longer, always able eventually to find that point at which it gets uncomfortable again, and you can pick out those muscle groups.

    You might not think it works the same way for the brain, but why wouldn't it? Biological processes that get tired? Same deal.

    In this way mindfulness is like repeatedly exercising the same bicep muscle, it allows you to distinguish a particular element of experience; sensory fixation, and when it is not operating, and also gives you an impression of the other mental processes going on in your mind when they run across this process and try to grab resources back from it.

    However, it's just the bicep. If you look at other forms of meditation from other traditions, they also talk about the great difficulty of keeping focus on some particular task, but in the case of christianity, those tend to be visualisations, in islam, recitations, and so on. In each of these structures the unconscious or bodily impulses are associated with different sensory experiences; exactly those things that you are meant to ground yourself in, according to one tradition, might be "idolatory" or "corporality", or "fleeting distractions" in another.

    The obvious result here to me is that what "you" are changes according to your activity, particularly if you practice these kinds of exercises, and things butting in from other activities can be conceptualised as "not you".

    On the one hand this is good, finding determined mindsets that estrange you from yourself can be a way to observe yourself in better perspective, but for someone who enjoys imaginative curiosity, learning to tune out your own individual mental creations for the shared immediate sensory experience of the here and now is probably better seen as an exercise similar to running. Good for health, liable to make you a very boring person if you get to wrapped up in it.