Mindfulness Meditation and Creativity

Ascent ~ Sara Roizen

I’m happy to share that I followed my own advice from my previous blog on “getting unstuck in the studio” and have begun painting again! Aside from the list of ways to get unstuck that I already posted about, I have to say that starting to meditate daily again has had a very positive impact on my productivity in the studio.

There are hundreds of different ways to meditate, and I believe strongly that for each person it is a highly individual choice as to which meditation method(s) are most helpful. I grew up in a family who practiced TM (Transcendental Meditation) on a daily basis. Over the years I have often wavered in my constancy when it comes to practicing TM myself, however I have found that when I practice regularly, the quality of each day is greatly improved.

In addition to Transcendental Meditation, I am always exploring other types of meditation, from different schools of thought. Recently I read a truly helpful and well-written book called The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, written by Mark Williams, PhD, John Teasdale, PhD, Zindel Segal, PhD, and internationally known meditation teacher and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. In this eye-opening book, the authors utilize elements of cognitive behavioral therapy and the concept of “mindfulness” to enlighten readers on how to work through depression, and other challenging states of mind and being. They write, “Mindfulness meditation allows us to respond creatively to the present moment, freeing us from the knee-jerk reactions that start the cycle of rumination.” (p.81).

The main premise (to summarize a wealth of information) is that when we begin to worry, grow depressed, or experience other negative states of mind, we usually attempt to “think our way out” of the situation. We automatically find ourselves in problem-solving mode. This has to do greatly with the way our minds are usually wired and our discomfort with sitting with and experiencing unpleasant feelings and thoughts. The more we try to intellectually solve our problem, the more we get stuck in the problem itself. Even if we do “find” a solution to the immediate problem, it is not long before a new problem springs up to take its place. In addition, when we try to out-think ourselves out of depression or anxiety we usually experience an onslaught of other negative and related thoughts such as “oh, here I go again – I can’t do anything right!” or perhaps our minds drift to the past to a previous time when we felt upset – and we feel that we are always doomed to feel this way. To summarize, one negative thought usually unleashes a torrential downpour of similar negative thoughts, which creates a snowball effect.

An alternative way to face negative thoughts and emotions is to learn to bring mindfulness to the experience. We do not deny that the emotion is there, but we do not add fuel to the emotion either – by continuing to try and problem-solve. Mindfulness is a skill (like any other) that we must practice and cultivate in every day life. In the beginning it may seem forced, and we find ourselves becoming frustrated with our attempts to be more mindful of the present moment. However, the authors emphasize that there is no such thing as “wrong” mindfulness meditation – as long as we are gently aware of the thoughts as they arise. (We cannot let go of a thought or feeling, until we have acknowledges its presence).

The authors include many daily exercises for developing mindfulness. Some of them are refreshingly simple, yet not as easy as they may sound at first! For example, bring mindfulness to the simple daily chores (that we usually do not enjoy). Try washing the dishes mindfully: truly feeling the way the warm water and soap feel on your hands, the texture of the dishes as you wash them, the sounds in the sink as they clank against each other…Or, when was the last time you ate a meal mindfully? If you’re at all like me, many of your meals are eaten in front of the t.v. while talking, or doing at least three things at once. Maybe set a goal for yourself of having one meal a week at the dining room table, by yourself or with someone else. Eat slowly and with purpose, paying attention to the way the food really tastes, the textures, and the smells. (Don’t forget to turn off the t.v.! Perhaps just play some soft music in the background).

Another one of my favorite practices that the authors mention is one I have been doing for years. It’s called the “body scan.” I like to begin with my head and progress down my body, all the way to my feet. Lie down in a comfortable position and begin by focusing on your breathing. Thoughts will inevitably come and go, so just notice that they are there, and then let them slowly drift on by. Sometimes imagining your thoughts as leaves that you place in a stream can help. You hold on to the leaf for a moment, and then place it on the water and watch as it drifts away from you. Beginning with your head, just bring gentle attention to each part of your body, noticing if any tensions, feelings, or sensations arise in that area of your body. If they do, try not to judge them but just notice them and imagine warm accepting energy going to that part. When that area feels more relaxed and less tense, progress down to the next body part. As you do this exercise, you might find yourself growing very relaxed and even sleepy. If you nod off to sleep a few times it is not a problem – it probably means that your body was holding onto excess tension that is just now being let go. Remember to be aware of your breathing as you do this – but do not judge the quality of your breathing, whether it is “too fast or too slow,” just notice it. When you are finished, take a few minutes to continue lying there and just breathing and feeling your body as a whole entity.

Mindfulness can also be practiced in the art studio, the recording studio, or when we sit down to write…really it can be practiced anywhere! One of the best ways to bring an awareness and mindfulness to our creative pursuits is to simply remain interested in each moment of creating as it unfolds. I know that for myself, and probably many of us, we remain our harshest critic. When I sit down to paint, it sometimes feels as if I am surrounded by a room full of critics, peering over my shoulder and judging each brushstroke I make. And yes, it’s true – someone will always have an opinion about the work that we create. However, what truly matters is that we learn to eventually make peace with our own inner critic. This does not mean that we have no thoughts or opinions or personal striving in the art we make. It does mean that we do not cut ourselves off from the source of creativity, by drowning ourselves in negative self-talk and doubt. It might mean that we do not place as much emphasis on the finished product, but more on the moment by moment creation of the work that we do.

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