creativity

New Year aspirations (rather than resolutions)

When I was younger I used to think that New Year’s Day resolutions would almost automatically bring about change. It was as if thinking that you wanted to change was enough to make it actually happen. I guess I thought this was possible thanks to the “magic” involved in moving from one year to the next.

Of course I’ve learned a lot since then about how slowly inner change happens. And now I see New Year’s resolutions differently, if I even make them. Now they’re an opportunity to think about the direction that I’d like to see the slow change move in. They’re more “aspirations” than resolutions.

There is one thing that’s happening, though, which is both practical and symbolic. It might almost seem like a silly thing, but my bookkeeper is going to be closing our old QuickBooks Online account and opening a new one. The old one has been with me for years. It’s like an old house that you can still live in. But it’s been repaired and altered so many times — often by people who weren’t very sure what they’re doing — that it’s an ugly mess.

For example, in the past Wildmind used to have an online store where we sold meditation supplies. This was supposed to help cover the costs of teaching meditation. We stopped doing that altogether two years ago, and last year I donated several thousand dollars worth of inventory to my local Dharma center so that they can sell it in their little book shop. While it was a relief to get rid of that inventory, there are still all these categories, products, vendor records, and so on in our accounts. It’s a mess. So we’re starting off with new books — clean, light, and set up to reflect what I’m currently doing on Wildmind. It just feels good. And that is almost magical.

But my personal aspiration is to work at being more balanced in my life — especially balancing self-care and self-nourishment, on the one hand, with being creative, productive, and helpful on the other.

  • I think better, create better, and meditate better when I go for regular walks (which my dogs also love, naturally).
  • I’m happier when I take care of my aging body’s need to stretch. When I do that I can be free from pain and have more energy.
  • And my practice has more life and inspiration when I get off on retreat. That’s something I haven’t been able to do in the last couple of years.

So I’m bearing those sorts of things in mind as I enter 2022. They’re not, as I said, examples of “magical thinking.” Change doesn’t happen just because you want it to. I still have to maintain those aspirations in mind (which is work in itself), to be mindful of opportunities to bring more balance to my life, and to be mindful of when things are getting out of balance. So I still have to do the work. But those are the kinds of things I aspire to focus on in order to bring more balance into my life. If I manage that, then 2022 should be both joyful and creative, and hopefully my life will benefit both me and others.

Happy New Year!

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Dealing with creative distractions

creative distractions in meditation: man surrounded by star trails

Someone recently asked me about how to deal with useful distractions:

As a creative writer, I think I get some of my best ideas while in a meditative state such as when showering or shaving. My question is what I should do when a ‘useful’ or ‘epiphany moment’ happens while meditating. My instinct is to get up and write my idea down and my fear is that if I go back to my breathing I will lose this idea which has bubbled up from my subconscious. I don’t really see my wandering mind as a thing to avoid but a thing to embrace – which confuses me regarding the practice of meditation.

Mind-wandering is partly a problem because it disturbs us emotionally. Research has shown that we’re distracted—i.e. thinking about something unrelated to what we’re doing—almost half the time. It also shows that these distractions make us unhappy.

Traditional Buddhist teachings agree, and point to five different types of distractions that we get caught up in. We crave pleasant experiences, we think about things that annoy or anger us, we worry, we slip into dream-like states (or even into sleep), and we engage with doubts, telling ourselves stories about our own incompetence or unlovability. All of these states are painful, lead to pain, or are unsuccessful attempts to deal with (usually unacknowledged) pain.

But these “five hindrances,” as they are known, come in varying degrees of intensity. Ill will, for example, may manifest as hateful thoughts about another person, or as mild irritability, or even as an aversion to some experience that we resist experiencing.

It’s the hindrance of craving, or “sense desire,” as it’s termed, that can lead us into the kind of pleasant, creative rumination that my correspondent asked about. In a relaxed state, especially when we’re doing something familiar and repetitive, such as showering, the mind my look for a pleasing distraction in the form of putting together ideas in new and creative ways.

There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way. There’s nothing actually wrong with any of the hindrances, in fact. It’s just that they tend to cause us suffering. In their milder forms, though, that’s generally not the case. Creative thinking in fact can be very enjoyable. One problem is what in economics they call the “opportunity cost.” If you’re creatively daydreaming, you can’t also be mindfully aware of your present moment experience, which is a gateway to a more deeply satisfying level of experience. In meditation, for example, we can end up spending most of our time letting the mind drift in this way. And once it starts drifting, it can be hard to stop it. The mind may well end up straying from pleasant and creative forms of thought to more overtly pain-inducing types of thinking, such as ill will or doubt.

Creative thinking is going to happen, though! Sometimes when I have a creative thought in meditation I’ll cross my fingers. I soon habituate and forget my fingers are crossed, but when the meditation ends I notice that they are in an unusual position and I remember the thought I’d had.

I think it’s also OK to keep a notebook handy and to jot the thought down, in order to get it out of your head. It’s probably less disruptive to the meditation session than it is to worry about losing the good idea!

If creative thoughts keep coming to you in meditation, then usually this is a sign that you’re not giving yourself opportunities to do this in your daily life. If you’re constantly on the go, always doing something, then it’s natural that when you close your eyes to meditate you’ll find that the mind starts digesting all the information you’ve been exposing yourself to, making sense of it, and coming up with creative insights. If you take breaks between tasks, though, and even schedule time for reflection, then it’s less likely that your meditation will be dominated by “good ideas.”

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Yourwellness magazine follows up google meditation programme

Digital Journal: In the hope of increased innovation, Google is offering its employees meditation and mindfulness courses, CNBC reported September 20th. According to their article, “Ommmm! How Silicon Valley values meditation,” Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” course has been taken by more than 1,000 employees and currently has more than 400 on the waiting list, and is geared towards teaching emotion management which could ultimately increase productivity and creativity. Programme creator Chade-Meng Tan commented, “There are people who came to me that say they got promotions because they came to my class, people who say they feel a lot better physically, mentally and emotionally,…

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“To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth, and not to take any stage of life as a final stage.” Eric Fromm

Erich_FrommFor social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, creativity wasn’t necessarily about bringing something — a poem, a symphony, a sculpture — into being. For him, creativity was an attitude. Creativity was the ability first to be aware, and then to respond. In this sense, creativity may produce works of art that can be viewed in a gallery, but it is also a way of living. Creativity may produce not only art but a life lived with awareness, a life imbued with meaning, a life lived well. Creativity is about allowing life to come into being — fully.

When I sat down to write this post just a few minutes ago, I looked at this quote, which I had chosen last week, and felt an inner heaviness. “I have nothing to say” was my thought. My impulse was to head to the internet to find something “easier” to write about — something that would unleash an instant torrent of thoughts. Fromm’s words had looked appealing last week, but today they evoked nothing but fear.

I was experiencing resistance. I was experiencing doubt. But to be creative is “not to take any stage of life as a final stage.” Resistance and doubt are not final stages. They are not substantive. They are not fixed or solid. They’re like fog born over a lake in the hours before dawn, destined to dissipate as the sun rises. If we react to doubt, though, we take it to be something solid, something to be feared and to escape from. But it’s only a delusion that it’s solid.

So this is the awareness I bring to meet my resistance: Here you are. I find you unpleasant to be with, but although I fear you I will turn toward you. I will bring the sun of my awareness to meet you, and watch you dissipate.

And another birth happens. As doubt dissolves away, words appear, and confidence is born.

When we take the birth of something we find uncomfortable, like doubt and resistance, as being “final,” we make a judgement about ourselves (“I can’t do this; I have nothing to say; I’d better not do anything or people will think it sucks”). We run from the unpleasant, since we have deemed ourselves incapable of enduring it. We seek an easy escape from our pain. We cease to live creatively and responsively. And in doing so we give life to our doubts, making them appear more solid and substantive than they actually are. The judgements we make become our self-view (“I’m not the creative type”). We fix ourselves. We take ourselves as something final. We fail to act responsively. We fail to truly live.

To be creative is to live. It’s to live fully. The Buddha said that only those who are aware are truly alive. He said that those who lack awareness are like the dead. In the zombie-like state in which most of us spend the majority of our lives, we are not mindful, and so instead of responding we merely react. Rather than living as fully aware and responsive beings, a bundle of habits stumbles through a simulacrum of life.

Mindfulness allows us not so much to live life without fear, but to see our fears (and that which we fear) as just one more part of the process of life; as just one more impermanent arising; as the fog before the dawn.

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Mindfulness opens the way for us to view everything we experience in this way. Our very sense of self may dissolve away. It’s not that we entirely lose our sense of self, but that we stop seeing our self as composed of anything substantive. Our “self” is not a final stage. It’s something in process. It’s composed of change. We see, in a way, that our “self” isn’t a “self.” It is nothing but moments of birth and death.

Mindfulness brings understanding, or wisdom. And with this wisdom we recognize which of the processes unfolding within us are life-denying, born of fear. Fear itself has this life-denying quality, as do grasping, hatred, resistance, and aversion. These qualities are manifestations of our inability to see all experiences as transitory and evanescent events. They represent our false belief that some stages are final. And we respond not by fleeing from these inhibiting and life-denying processes, but by turning toward them with mindfulness, seeing them as impermanent and insubstantial, and seeing through them.

When we respond in this way, creativity is already emerging. We are already living with awareness and living with wisdom. And increasingly, creativity is not something that we do. It’s something that happens of its own accord. It is life, living through us, unchecked, unfettered, and free.

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Gratitude, creativity, and the “boys in the basement”

Glass lamp in a black backgroundLast night I sat without a timer, or rather using a stick of incense to time my sit. Recently I bought some rather lovely Shoyeido Nokiba (Moss Garden) incense, which has long sticks that burn for 50 minutes. It’s a nice alternative to using my iPad as a timer. Sometimes it’s nice not to have electronics between me and my little altar.

The Boys in the Basement offered up some interesting experiences. The “Boys in the Basement” is a term I borrowed from the novelist Stephen King. He uses it to refer to the creative powers of the mind. I write quite a lot, and the term resonated with me very strongly. Writing barely happens at all on a conscious level. Stories write themselves. Or the Boys in the Basement do the writing. I — the conscious I — just witness the words appearing, witness the small twist in the gut that comes when something in the writing doesn’t feel right, witness alternative phrasings appear. “I” don’t really do anything. writing is an excellent teaching on non-self. Actually everything is, but we rarely pay attention to the lessons, because they threaten to upend the way we see ourselves.

And it’s just the same with meditation. The less there’s a sense of “me” meditating, and the more there’s this sense of “me” witnessing the meditation unfold, the better things tend to go. The surprising thing is that there are unconscious parts of the brain that are better at meditating that “I” am.

The boys in the basement often surprise me. Last night they decided that gratitude was going to arise for every experience that appeared, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Observing the breathing: gratitude. Noticing a pain in the back: gratitude. Getting distracted: gratitude.

This may make no sense to you. It probably wouldn’t have made any sense to me until the Boys decided that this was how it was going to go down. Why should I feel gratitude for feeling pain? Some people are paralyzed and can’t feel pain, for one thing. For another, this body turns up and does things even when it’s suffering. What kind of a friend is it who shows up and helps you out even when they’re in pain? And one interesting thing was that pain received with gratitude ceased to be experienced as pain at all. It wasn’t even unpleasant — quite the contrary. Pain turned into bliss.

100 day meditation challenge, day 70Right from the start of the meditation I found I went straight into powerful pīti (pleasant feelings of energy in the body), deep joy, and an almost complete absence of thought.

I’d like to invite this gratitude practice into my life throughout the day. I was trying it last night. My son was sick, and I could hear coughing coming from his room. Gratitude. (Why gratitude? Imagine if I couldn’t hear him coughing. Not everyone has hearing. Imagine if it didn’t bother me. Not everyone has empathy.)

I’d like to invite this gratitude practice into my life throughout the day, but it’s not something “I” can make happen. The invitation can be sent out, but it’s up the Boys in the Basement whether they’ll respond to the call.

But I’m sending out the invitation now (although that’s not really me either) and even though I didn’t get much sleep last night I’m grateful to be here, grateful to be conscious, grateful to be a channel for the Boys in the Basement.

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Practice mindfulness: don’t become roadkill on the information superhighway

I just stumbled across a lovely column by author Pico Iyer in the New York Times on “The Joy of Quiet.”

He discusses how overwhelmed we are:

In barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them — often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more many of us seem desperate to unplug.

I tend to think of us — well, most of us, anyway — as being a bit like early 20th century rubes from the sticks who have just arrived on Times Square, and are dazzled by the displays to the point where we’re a danger to ourselves and others.

I also think this is a transitory phase, and that the tide, in some ways, is beginning to turn. Perhaps that’s not the best metaphor, because while the tide can only go in one direction at any given time, in some respects I think things in the realm of attention and distraction will go in both directions at the same time; you’ll see more people trying to do more multitasking at the same time as you get more people finding ways to withdraw and find an accommodation with the deluge.

Perhaps it’s going to be like the realm of health and fitness, where you see both an explosion of obesity and a rising interest in gyms.

That means that ardent multitaskers may be the informational equivalent of nacho-gorging couch potatoes, while those with a keener sense of the worth of their attention (and the need to preserve it) are more like healthy-eating exercisers. Because multitasking doesn’t really get stuff done, and it has a bad effect on our minds.

I suspect that at some point obesity rates are going to drop, because one way or another they have to. Policies will be put in place or some pill will be found that helps people to keep the pounds off. I don’t think there’s likely to be a pill that helps us develop mindfulness, but there too I think there will be a cultural push to encourage more reflection and down-time. And for the same reason — we’ll have to. I think we’ll have to because people with fragmented minds are incapable of processing information effectively. I’ve seen this in high school students; words just wash over many of them, and if you ask them to restate something they’ve just read they’ll often just tell you something they already know (whether or not it’s relevant to the reading they’ve done) because no learning has taken place. No civilization can survive, no business can thrive, based on minds that are incapable of learning. So that’s why I think things will change.

Here are some signs that I see of the change happening.

Iyer mentions some in his column:

“…those who part with $2,285 a night to stay in a cliff-top room at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur pay partly for the privilege of not having a TV in their rooms; the future of travel, I’m reliably told, lies in ‘black-hole resorts,’ which charge high prices precisely because you can’t get online in their rooms.”

The wealthy are either the first to realize that they need to protect their attention, or at least have found the most ostentatious way of doing so.

“Writer friends of mine pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connections that seemed so emancipating not long ago.”

And there are less expensive ways to achieve similar ends. Some people, myself included, use full-screen writing software, some of which is free, like the WordPress software I’m writing on now, which has a full-screen mode. Some people are disciplined enough to turn off their email programs and other alerts in order to avoid interruption.

“Intel (of all companies) experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and managers. (The average office worker today, researchers have found, enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.) During this period the workers were not allowed to use the phone or send e-mail, but simply had the chance to clear their heads and to hear themselves think. A majority of Intel’s trial group recommended that the policy be extended to others.”

I think businesses are increasingly going to recognize that attention is a resource that needs renewal. Those that don’t will fail.

A recent article, Multitasking loses its cool; Mindfulness is now in, points out that “Mindfulness training can help people focus, see clearly, work with change, form deeper relationships and more.”

Another points out that mindfulness makes you a better leader:

The practice of mindful leadership gives you tools to measure and manage your life as you’re living it. It teaches you to pay attention to the present moment, recognizing your feelings and emotions and keeping them under control, especially when faced with highly stressful situations. When you are mindful, you’re aware of your presence and the ways you impact other people. You’re able to both observe and participate in each moment, while recognizing the implications of your actions for the longer term. And that prevents you from slipping into a life that pulls you away from your values.

Google is teaching mindfulness to its employees. So is General Mills. And Plantronics.

And talking of Google, the forthcoming Google Glass project — sci-fi style head-up display glasses — are designed not to get in between you and your experience of the world. It’s hard, initially, to see how they are pulling this off, but that’s what have said it manages to achieve.

Technology can help us avoid overload, but fundamentally it’s we ourselves that will determine whether technology is our tool or whether we are a tool of technology. As Iyer puts it,

All the data in the world cannot teach us how to sift through data; images don’t show us how to process images. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.

And so he sees more of his friends turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi. I suspect that those who don’t are going to end up as roadkill on the information superhighway — too dazzled by the bright lights of the rectangular screens into which they stare all day to be able to achieve much, and hence unable to survive.

Todd Henry argues that we’re losing the capacity to be bored, and therefore the capacity to be creative.

So I’d say “Meditate: your future may depend on it.”

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Worth pitching? Why did a meditation story get repeatedly rejected?

Meditation is often thought to help expand the mind, opening up the limits of consciousness. Now research suggests that meditation can indeed help one keep an open mind, preventing people from falling into mental traps that prolong problem-solving, findings appearing in the journal PLoS ONE. So is this worth pitching?

The research is rooted in experiments based on something with the intriguing name of the Einstellung water jar task. Einstellung literally means “attitude” in German — in this case, it refers to the creation of a mechanized state of mind, a propensity to solve a given problem in a specific manner even though …

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Meditation makes you more creative (but some kinds work better than others)

Certain meditation techniques can promote creative thinking. This is the outcome of a study by cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato and her fellow researchers at Leiden University, published 19 April in the open access journalist ‘Frontiers in Cognition‘.

This study is a clear indication that the advantages of particular types of meditation extend much further than simply relaxation. The findings support the belief that meditation can have a long-lasting influence on human cognition, including how we think and how we experience events.

Two ingredients of creativity

The study investigates the influences of different types of meditative techniques on the two main ingredients of creativity: divergent and convergent styles of thinking.

Divergent thinking

  • Divergent thinking allows many new ideas to be generated. It is measured using the so-called Alternate Uses Task method where participants are required to think up as many uses as possible for a particular object, such as a pen.

Convergent thinking

  • Convergent thinking, on the other hand, is a process whereby one possible solution for a particular probem is generated. This method is measured using the Remote Associates Task method, where three unrelated words are presented to the participants, words such as ‘time’, ‘hair’ and ‘stretch’. The participants are then asked to identify the common link: in this case, ‘long’.

Analysis of meditation techniques

Colzato used creativity tasks that measure convergent and divergent thinking to assess which meditation techiques most influence creative activities. The meditation techniques analysed are Open Monitoring and Focused Attention meditation.

  • In Open Monitoring meditation the individual is receptive to all the thoughts and sensations experienced without focusing attention on any particular concept or object.
  • In Focused Attention meditation the individual focuses on a particular thought or object.

Different types of meditation have different effects

These findings demonstrate that not all forms of meditation have the same effect on creativity. After an Open Monitoring meditation the participants performed better in divergent thinking, and generated more new ideas than previously. Focused Attention meditation produced a different result. Focused Attention meditation also had no significant effect on convergent thinking leading to resolving a problem.

The researchers suggest that Open Monitoring practice restructures cognitive processing in a robust way, and sufficiently to affect performance in another, logically unrelated task. They suggest that this kind of practice reduces the degree of top-down control and local competition and thus leads to a broader distribution of potential resources in the brain. This pushes the individual toward a cognitive-control state that is less focused and “exclusive,” which facilitates jumping from one thought to another – as required in divergent thinking.

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How “letting go” helps us get things done

Joe, a student in my online class, was worried that meditation would hurt his career. He works in a very competitive business where everyone is single-mindedly pushing and driving hard all the time. The whole idea of “letting go” seemed absurd in that context. But at the same time his stress and anxiety levels were sky high. He knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to live.

Yes it’s true that in meditation, we’re told to drop everything and let go. But that doesn’t mean becoming passive and ineffectual. There’s more to this instruction than meets the eye.

There’s an image that comes to mind for me to illustrate what letting go is like. Imagine we’re kayaking down a river. One way we could do it is to paddle like hell, trying to force our way around, fighting the currents, insisting that the kayak go exactly where I want it to go. And doing it how I want to do it.

Or, we could survey the terrain and current before jumping in. Then we ride the current and let it take us most of the way to where we want to go. We steer to make sure we don’t get dashed against rocks or end up heading down the wrong side of the river. We could also use a calmer bend in the river to stop and look ahead to plan our next stretch. We can steer our course without using nearly as much effort this way, adjusting our path as we go along.

Life can be the same way. We don’t have make all the effort ourselves to make things happen from beginning to end. If we expand our view beyond our self-absorbed need to reach our goal, there’s a whole universe of structures and currents out there that can help us.

At work for example, if we find people who have common goals and interests as we do, our combined energies can often accomplish more than the sum of us individually could. Involving our boss in our plans sometimes results in him clearing a path in front of us, getting us resourses, additional help, budgets, etc. Tagging onto existing workflows and procedures means we don’t have to create everything ourselves.

Letting go can help us in our inner world, too. Have you noticed how creative ideas often pop up when you’re taking a shower or walking the dog? In other words, when you’re not really trying? Recent neuroscientific research1 suggests that making less effort is what helps. When we become effortful in problem solving, it generally means we’re pushing our way through our old, familiar ways of doing things. And often, those are exactly the ways that haven’t worked, but we keep pounding at them anyway. When we keep repeating the same thing over and over, we become blind to other possibilities. So to be “not effortful” means to inhibit the thoughts that don’t work in order to leave room for something else to emerge.

Not being effortful also means your mind is quieter and more conducive to new ideas. A creative thought is one that brings up a long-forgotten memory or combines some of them in a new way. Neurologically speaking, they involve connections between far fewer neurons than your front-of-mind thoughts. So the signals they emit are much weaker, and generally get drowned out by your much louder, effortful thoughts. To give those quieter thoughts a fighting chance to be noticed, it helps to have a quiet mind. One that has “let go” of jangly discursive thinking.

So letting go doesn’t mean letting go of everything — just the stuff that gets in our way. In this context, it means letting go of our obsessive focus on results, and our inflexible views of how to get there. It doesn’t mean dropping all thoughts about the future, but finding a more open and flexible relationship with them.

The larger perspective of the teaching on “letting go” is an acknowledgment that I am a part of a highly interconnected world. Every time I get hyper-focused on my own little view of the world, I am being blind to the way things really are. To think that I can do things exclusively my way is to be foolish and ignorant. And it’s bound to get me into trouble, or at least cause me a lot of stress.

But at the same time, I’m not a helpless victim either. I am the agent of my own free will, and can use it to steer my path through life. With mindfulness, we can skillfully navigate our way through all these forces to get to a better outcome. And it’s not just me that benefits — because everything I do ultimately benefits everyone.


1. See How to have more insights by David Rock, Psychology Today, Sept 5, 2010.

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Mindful Awareness Research Center event explores neuroscience behind creativity through meditation, song

About 40 people sat calmly with their eyes closed, letting their thoughts drift and their minds settle on the present moment.

In a quiet, steady voice, Diana Winston guided the group into a mode of relaxation.

“Try to soften your stomach,” Winston, director of mindfulness education at the Mindful Awareness Research Center, gently instructed them.

The communal meditation initiated an event about the relationship between creativity, the brain and mental awareness in the Neuroscience Research Building auditorium on Saturday.

“Mindfulness, Neuroscience and Creativity: An Interactive Exploration” was the first workshop of the summer and cost $50 to participate. In addition to classes and daylong programs, a full mindfulness course is also being offered through the center this…

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