What do you think of when you think of creativity? Far too many people think of someone other than themselves – art and ideas are for other people, or kids, but not them. But it’s not limited to children and those uncommon individuals like William Shakespeare and Georgia Okeeffe who have been touched by genius; everyone can be creative. While some studies show that creativity can slow with age, other studies show it doesn’t have to – and mindfulness may be one of the keys to maintaining creativity throughout our lives.
Creativity is not restricted the arts and music – scientists and accountants and computer programmers are creative. Creativity occurs whenever you’re producing something both new and useful, whether that’s a book or a building or a pasta salad. Scholars who gave the same creativity tests to artists and engineers got the same spectrum of results: both groups were equally creative. You can be, too, even though creativity tends to peak in our late 30s and early 40s, just when some of us are too busy with kids and bills to feel creative at all.
But creativity is our birthright. Creativity feeds the soul and gives significance to our lives. Part of being your best self is being creative, whether it’s solving the ordinary problems in life, expressing yourself through music or movement, writing a novel, cooking with whatever’s on hand, or joking with your friends. (Humor, of course, is highly creative.)
Mindfulness supports creativity in a variety of ways, some more direct than others. One major component of creativity is divergent thinking, the sort of thinking that generates lots of new ideas. Divergent thinking is important enough that for a long time the term was used as a synonym for creativity, but it’s not the whole story. Creativity is realized when we also use convergent thinking to pick an idea, or combine several, and run with the result. The right and left hemispheres of the brain must work together for us to be creative.
In a 2012 study at Leiden University in the Netherlands, researchers studied the effects of meditation on both divergent and convergent thinking. Participants who engaged in “open monitoring” mindfulness meditation – the sort of meditation in which you observe whatever arises in your awareness non-judgmentally – were significantly better at a task that required divergent thinking.
In the Five Factor model of personality, “openness to experience” is the trait that correlates highly with creativity. Several studies have also shown that openness to experience also correlates highly with meditation practice. Interestingly, creativity – not overall intelligence or openness – predicts a longer life. Scientists theorize that this is because creativity exercises the brain, maintaining the integrity of neural networks. Creativity also allows us to handle stress better, which helps protect our health.
Mindfulness meditation might also support creativity in other ways. Just one night of sleep loss can severely impair someone’s divergent thinking; mindfulness meditation improves sleep. Many creative types need to be in a particular mental starting place to begin work, and find that meditation can help them get there consistently.
How to Meditate for Creativity
Interested in trying meditation to enhance your creativity? Try open monitoring meditation – sometimes called “open awareness” or “open focus” meditation – which is an aspect of mindfulness meditation. After first settling your mind by focusing your attention on something you are experiencing in the present moment, such as the feeling of your breath, allow your thoughts and feelings to move through your awareness, without reacting to them or judging them. As best you can, simply see them as they come and go, but don’t hold on to them or follow them. Similar to the experience of watching clouds passing through the sky, allow your thoughts to be witnessed and released as they move across the blue sky of your awareness. If you notice your attention has become engrossed in the content of the thoughts (rather than simply witnessing the thoughts as temporary mental events), then return to your original “anchor” for attention (for example the feeling of your breathing). Then, when your attention is again settled in the present, expand again to a more open focus in which thoughts, emotions, and sensations can arise, be known, and allowed to pass naturally. Set aside some time each day for your meditation practice. As little as ten minutes a day can be life changing. Try it and see for yourself what creative ideas begin to arise in that head of yours!