Updated: 13 April 2020 (first published in February 2018)
For most of my life I thought we’re either creative or we’re not, and I wasn’t. A 10 year career in the most non-creative, corporate world imaginable followed.
Later, when growing my first business I still believed that I wasn’t creative , whilst regularly solving problem after problem. It didn’t occur to me that just because something isn’t considered “artistic” that it can still require creative skills.
I noticed my creative ability developed dramatically around the same time that my commitment to regular meditation intensified.
I got curious. Had my increased meditation boosted my creativity or was that just a coincidence with a different cause?
What Makes Up “Creativity”?
To figure that out first I needed to get a clearer grasp on what even makes up this supposedly elusive thing – creativity. I gravitated towards research psychologist Keith Sawyer, a renowned creativity expert who has written a highly rated creativity advice book that’s grounded in scientific research.
He outlines eight steps that are empirically proven to boost and develop creative ability. Sawyer’s evidence comprehensively supports that creativity can be trained and developed. In fact overwhelmingly often it is trained and developed.
So with that concluded the question becomes which of these steps are relevant to meditative practices? Two stood out for me:
Step 3: “Look — Be constantly, quietly, intently aware. Look but also see, not only what you expect but, better yet, what surprises you.”
Step 5: “Think — The creative life is filled with new ideas. Your mind tirelessly generates possibilities. You don’t clamp down although you realise that most will not pan out — at least not for the given objective. Successful creativity is a numbers game: the more the better.”
Image by Roman Kraft
My previous research outlined in this article showed that meditative practices can systematically develop our awareness, focus and attention as required in step 3 above.
So then, which meditative practices are best for stimulating our ability to generate lots of new ideas?
This comprehensive 2012 study split two groups of meditation novices to practice 2 different styles of mindfulness meditation.
- Open-monitoring, which involves keeping attention flexible and not fixated on specifics, just observing and noting things as they occur without getting involved in them.
- Focused attention, where the goal is to focus on a single phenomena such as the breath or a body part, and ignoring other stimuli.
After each meditation session, the subjects’ ability to perform a range of cognitive skills was tested. The research discovered that open-monitoring meditation was far more effective than focused attention in stimulating divergent thinking, a method used to generate lots of different creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.
Focused-attention was more strongly linked to narrowing options and forming a workable solution, but in an effective creative process this step comes after first generating lots of ideas.
Taking It Further
Two years later Matthijs Baas expanded on that work by conducting 4 studies to explore the relative importance of specific mindfulness skills in the creative process.
They found that the students who scored higher on attention and awareness tended to have fewer new ideas and scored lower on originality.
Only high observation scores, a skill enhanced by open monitoring meditation, consistently predicted creativity. It also improved working memory and cognitive flexibility, and reduced cognitive rigidity — all important factors in the idea creation process.
The other mindfulness skills tested such as description (being able to describe things without analysing) and accepting present-moment experience without judgment were unrelated to creativity.
Baas’ team concluded, “A state of conscious awareness resulting from living in the moment is not sufficient for creativity to come about. To be creative, you need to have or be trained in the ability to observe, notice, and attend to phenomena that pass your mind’s eye.”
Image by Simon Abrams
As far as the evidence is concerned, open monitoring is clearly the most effective meditation style to boost creativity.
My own experience has been slightly different. My meditative practices have historically been more heavily skewed towards focused attention styles, yet I still saw my creative ability skyrocket, despite the studies above showing either little contribution or even a potentially negative effect from those styles of meditation.
The reality is that most forms of mindfulness meditation and many others incorporate varying degrees of all these elements rather than isolate them individually style by style. As a result my open monitoring skills had developed without me consciously training them very often, which might explain the changes in creativity I’ve experienced.
Furthermore, managing my stress responses more effectively and being less tired have both given me the space to be more creative. It’s another conversation, but stress responses trigger our brain’s “threat control centre” (the amygdala) and cut off higher level thinking in favour of short-term, emergency survival functioning.
My stress responses weren’t being triggered frequently or intensely enough to cause me anything particularly serious like stress response hyper-stimulation, but I think regular mild stress responses were enough to stifle my creative ability. Before I was a regular meditator, that was the state I lived in. I considered it to be “normal”, even though it often didn’t feel right. Perhaps you can identify?
Finally I should note that when I knew I needed to solve problems I had also employed some other creativity techniques outside of meditation, but not in any consistent way.
As usual, my goal is to enhance skills and attributes rather than become a better meditator for the sake of being able to meditate better. To that end, I’m always interested in non-meditative ideas for creativity that are proven either scientifically or experientially. Meditation has it’s place in the process, as outlined above.
Here’s what came up from both my experiences and Mind: Unlocked’s community when we discussed this in our sessions.
- Here’s the Keith Sawyer book mentioned and linked above.
- James Altucher, an entrepreneur and writer famously said something like “ If you can’t think of 10 ideas then think of 20”. It sounds counter intuitive, but forces you to suspend judgement and just generate. By letting poor ideas flow we also risk finding a few good ideas. I used that process to generate over 100 names in 5 days, one of which was this movement’s original name “MEDITATION: UNLOCKED” and another 98 that were spectacularly horrible!
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron — I’ve not read it but I’ve heard this book recommended so many times by people whose creative output I really respect, so it comes highly recommended.
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert — another one I don’t know personally but it has come up a lot in conversations about creativity.
So there’s some practical ideas there that you can follow up with. Let us know your best creativity tips.