Mindfulness and authentic creativity

Every time Sunada watches Bobby McFerrin or Yo-Yo Ma perform, she’s left in awe. It’s not just their amazing musicianship, she says. What uniquely comes through in their music is their generosity of spirit and totally engaging way of expressing their individuality. As a musician herself, she muses on what it takes to cultivate that kind of open-hearted spontaneity and creativity.

I recently read an interesting discussion that’s given shape to my thinking on this subject. It was about the difference between spontaneity and impulsivity. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some subtle but important differences.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “spontaneous” means

  • Happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated.
  • Unconstrained and unstudied in manner or behavior.

To illustrate, it uses this quote from Woodrow Wilson: “The highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people.” So the implication is that a spontaneous act is something positive that expresses one’s higher nature.

The same dictionary defines “impulsivity” as:

  • …a sudden urge or feeling not governed by reason

Even more telling are the synonyms I found in the related thesaurus: brash, foolhardy, hasty, ill-considered, impetuous, rash, reckless, and unconsidered!

Spontaneity arises out of studied mindfulness.

So, yes, both spontaneity and impulsivity are about unplanned, in-the-moment actions. But the implication is that impulsivity is a reaction to something, and arises from an irrational place ruled by our baser emotions. Spontaneity, on the other hand, arises on its own from a deeper and nobler place. It’s governed by reason and experience, but is still perfectly natural and uncontrived. I get an image of someone who is fully present, and able to marshal his knowledge, skills, experience, and values in the moment as a springboard for a focused and creative response. In short, spontaneity arises out of studied mindfulness.

So there are some clear parallels to meditation here. Impulsivity is the product of our ordinary reactive mind. Anyone who meditates knows that this is what our minds are like more often than we like to admit. It’s like a runaway train, spinning off on its own stories and daydreams, obsessing over self-centered desires and fears, or just plain chattering away for no apparent reason other than to occupy itself. Most of the time it’s operating in this mode without our awareness, sitting in the driver’s seat of our lives! (YIKES!)

Now seriously, would you want to settle for this lesser side of you as the basis for your creative endeavors? For those of us for whom our craft is synonymous with an expression of who we are, we want and expect something much more of ourselves.

I believe that the mind is also inherently creative. The more we can get out of the way, the more it works its own magic.

But how we do that? Obviously it’s a contradiction in terms to TRY to be spontaneous. Again, I see a lot of parallels to meditation. When we meditate, we can’t make our minds calm down on command. But we can set the proper conditions – i.e. step back and allow our minds to return to their natural state of calm. The less we interfere, and the more we trust in the mind’s inherent ability to do its own thing, the better off we are. I believe that the mind is also inherently creative. The more we can get out of the way, the more it works its own magic.

And how do we set conducive conditions? First, it’s really important to start by tuning into our bodies and settling in. Particularly if you’re engaging in a physical activity like playing an instrument or dancing, it’s vitally important to stretch and liven up one’s energy. But there’s another reason. If we slap dash jump right in, we’re still caught up in our reactive, impulsive mind. By taking the time to slow down and mindfully turn our attention to our physical bodies, we bring ourselves more fully into our present experience. We settle into a quieter place beneath the chattering mind and touch a deeper core within us. This brings us closer to our totality as a person – including our bodies, perceptions, and feelings — and all the richness they hold.

Our life experiences and values, and all the intuitions and emotions associated with them reside much more as inchoate inklings and gut feelings, not neat words or concepts. Our hearts and bodies know things at a level that our heads cannot. So creativity needs to begin with a foundation of opening ourselves up to all these things. We’re preparing the fertile soil for our creativity to arise.

Our hearts and bodies know things at a level that our heads cannot. So creativity needs to begin with a foundation of opening ourselves up to all these things.

Next, it’s critical to tune into our hearts. When we sit down to do something creative, chances are we’re arriving with a lot of extraneous baggage. We may be stressed out, maybe anxious over deadline pressures, or perhaps tired, bored, and lethargic about this task that we need to get done. Anyone who practices a musical instrument daily knows that it can seem like a real chore at times.

But these are all objections from our impulsive mind. So let’s stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place. I do it because I love it and can’t imagine life without it. How can I reconnect with that inspiration every time I sit down to practice? How can I get back in touch with the warm and vital humanity within me that wants to create? What’s helped me is to shift my thinking from “I have to practice” to “I’m going to sing the music I love.” See the difference?

Thirdly, while practicing I find it really helpful to focus in on my senses and stay as openly curious as I can. As a singer, I can pay attention to the vibrations in my throat and body as I sing, or experience in detail the qualities of sound within my voice. I know a painter who lovingly feels each brush stroke as it works the canvas. The idea is to bring our attention fully into what we’re doing, without adding any extra judgments, interpretations, or effort. Just stay 100% present to what’s happening.

What’s the point? When I stay intimately engaged and yet refrain from trying to “do” anything in particular, a different side of me starts to come forward. I’ve had times when the feeling tone of my voice prompted me to shape my phrases in a new way. Floating the lyrics on top of the natural ebb and flow of my breath gave it more life. Neither of these were conceptual ideas that my mind decided to “do”. It’s as if my body wordlessly and instantaneously knew and just did it.

Paradoxically, it seems that the times I stop trying are the times when I’m at my best. All the ways I struggle — trying to get it right, be perfect, do it beautifully — are ways my impulsive mind muscles in and gets in the way. If I just step back and be simple – i.e. just sing — that’s when things start to happen. I’m told that’s when I’m most engaging, authentic, and seemingly most comfortably who I am. Mistakes and imperfections? Well, that’s all part of the package of who I am right now. It makes me more real and human, I’m told.

Ultimately, I think that any creative endeavor is a form of meditation. It’s about staying completely focused on what you’re doing, free of distractions. But at its best it’s also about being so relaxed and open that your true inner nature shines through. My music and meditation practices have informed each other for years. Both continually challenge me to nurture that higher being within me and bring it more out into the world.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • I found your article very inspiring. I write poetry and the last few years (because of life-changes) , it’s been an up-and-down process for me. I’ve found it quite challenging to pick up the thread of my writing when I haven’t done it for a while. So I was enriched by reading your article and found your practical hints very helpful. Thank you.

  • Vicky Tsaconas
    August 4, 2009 1:34 am

    hi Sunada,

    I did feel inspired to write again; I set up the conditions you suggest, (which I’ve now done a few times) and found them easy to use and very effective. Thank you again.

  • Thank you so much, Sunada. I have been looking for a long time for a connection between my Buddhist practice and my creativity as a writer. I could not articulate that thread but I knew it was there. Your article expressed it so beautifully and has really inspired me to use the meditative state as a springboard for my self expression. A lotus blossum to you.


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