Work / Life Balance
Sometimes the best way to improve your performance is to do nothing at all. The creative benefits of calming your mental chatter.
By Mark McGuinness
If you depend on your creativity for your living, then your most valuable piece of equipment is not your computer, smartphone, camera, or any other hi-tech gadget. “In a modern company 70 to 80 percent of what people do is now done by way of their intellects. The critical means of production is small, gray, and weighs around 1.3 kilograms. It is the human brain.”*So what are you doing to maintain this precious resource? You probably give it plenty of stimulation – books, movies, music, nights out, interesting conversations with offbeat people.
But I’m not talking about stimulation, quite the reverse. I’m talking about qualities such as focus, calmness, clarity, and insight. They may not sound so sexy, but they are at least as important to your creative process as the glamour and stimulation side of things. And amid the bustle of daily life and the chatter of social media, they are the qualities most easily lost.
What works for me is daily meditation. Every morning, before I start work, I spend 20 minutes sitting on a mat, focusing on the sensation of breathing, doing my best to be present and aware, and trying not to get tangled up in my thoughts. It makes all the difference for the rest of the day. And I’m convinced it makes me a better writer.
Qualities such as focus, calmness, clarity, and insight are as important to your creative process as glamour and stimulation.
I received my initial instruction in meditation from Buddhist monks. I’ve also been on a few meditation retreats, which I highly recommend. But you don’t need to disappear into a monastery to take up meditation. And you don’t need to be a Buddhist, or adopt any religious beliefs. You can do it right here in the middle of your daily life.
The Benefits of Meditation Practice for Creatives
It’s important to note that there’s a lot more to meditation practice than simply “boosting your creativity.” If I were to promote meditation as some kind of creative thinking technique, the monks would be rightly appalled – or amused. So the benefits I’m going to describe, while very real, are really side effects of meditation – if you approach meditation looking to “get” any of these things, you’ll probably be disappointed. On the other hand, if you just practice it for its own sake, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover yourself experiencing some or all of the following:
Focus. Concentration is essential to outstanding creative execution and performance. The simple act of focusing on your breathing day after day, will gradually improve your powers of concentration.
Patience. Meditation can be incredibly boring. For once in your life, you’re not trying to do anything or think anything, just sit there and pay attention to your immediate experience. And you will encounter all kinds of resistance to doing it. Zen priest Steve Hagen says, “If you can get past resistance to meditation, nothing else in life will be an obstacle.”
Calmness. At first, you’ll be surprised, maybe even horrified, to discover how busy your mind is – a non-stop stream of mental chatter. But if you stay with it, you should gradually find that your mind settles down as the months go by.
Clarity. Like calmness, this can be gradual and intermittent to begin with. But you are likely to notice moments and even periods of mental clarity, when you see things clearly and your mind is sharper than usual – which makes problem-solving and decision-making easier.
Insight. You’ve probably had the experience of suddenly realizing the solution to a problem, even though you haven’t been consciously thinking of it. Or you may have experienced a moment of inspiration, when a new idea flashes into your mind unbidden. If you’re practicing meditation regularly, expect this to happen more often.
Perspective. When you spend time just being present and observing your breath, thoughts, feelings, and moment-to-moment experience, you start to realize how trivial most of our daily worries really are. Even in the midst of the daily grind, you can let go of the small stuff, and keep the big picture in view.
The kind of meditation I practice is a mixture of concentration (Samatha) and insight (Vipassana). Samatha practice is simply about focusing on your breathing, in order to develop concentration and calmness. It’s the best place to start, given how busy and unfocused our minds typically are. Vipassana is so simple it almost sounds like doing nothing at all – it’s about being very aware and present to your immediate experience, noticing your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the sounds and sights around you.