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Work / Life Balance

What Daily Meditation Can Do for Your Creativity

Sometimes the best way to improve your performance is to do nothing at all. The creative benefits of calming your mental chatter.


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.

Getting Started

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.

To learn how to get started, read the Introduction to Insight Meditation by the monks at Amaravati monastery. I also recommend Steve Hagen’s book Meditation – Now or Never.

How About You?

How do you maintain your mental clarity and focus in the midst of the pressures of daily life? Have you ever tried meditation? Did you notice any effect on your creativity?


Mark McGuinness is currently helping readers of the Lateral Action blog to break through their creative blocks. For bite-sized inspiration follow Mark on Twitter.

* Research from the book “Funky Business.”

Comments (69)
  • Rondal

    I’m really glad that you wrote this article as I often find myself lacking in several of these area (especially patience) and have increasingly noticed my creativity suffering because of it. Would you recommend taking a meditative lunch break to help boost clarity and productivity or would I be better starting off in a more secluded environment?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Hi Rondal,

    If you’re looking to start meditation, I’d recommend doing it sometime with fewer distractions than in the middle of the day. Mornings or evenings are good. There may even be a local centre near you that offers introductory courses.

    AND I would also recommend a good break at lunchtime – either meditation, a nap, or simply a nice walk outside or some quiet time in a cafe. Studies have shown that taking a nap in the early afternoon can boost productivity by 34% – it helps the brain ‘reset’ itself, so you’re more alert and focused.

  • Bart Jacobs

    Wonderful post. It is interesting to see you write about meditation from this point of view. As you say yourself, meditation is not “made” to spur your creativity, but it really is a wonderful side effect. Meditation is one of my favorite topics to write about and I always like to read other people’s best practices, techniques, or experiences. Thanks for this post, Mark!

  • Nick

    Great post – I have recently realised that meditation is the most powerful thing I can do to increase the quality of my work. It’s free, doesn’t take long and isn’t that hard after a bit of practice. The key moment for me was understanding that the random thoughts, distractions etc are all part of the practice, not to be shut out.

    Nick

  • Farnoosh

    I can’t agree more……with all of this. How much we resist sitting still and doing nothing!!! I have tried so many times to commit to stillness but still find it so very very hard to do. I need to commit again. Every day. I am glad I read this, and will try to imagine that someone out there is holding me accountable……maybe a bigger picture of me……. :)! Having said that, I think the easiest time for me to mediate is right after a long yoga practice……ah the body is so happy and the mind so ready to relax. Thank you!!!

  • Isabelle

    Excellent article. Thank you!! I need to start meditation too.

  • marisel

    this is so simply presented and the suggestions very helpful and accessible. thank you.

  • Matthew Anderson

    Naz Hamid just posted a great article that references an obliquely connected thought â?? that exercise plays a key role in design. He notes that a sharp mind is the main tool in a job well done, and that through exercise he achieves that sharpness.

    His thoughts can be found here, as part of a larger thought: http://weightshift.com/memo/di

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks everyone, glad you found it of interest.

    @ Nick – “The key moment for me was understanding that the random thoughts, distractions etc are all part of the practice, not to be shut out.” Yes! Some days I still struggle with that one though. 🙂

    @ Farnoosh – “I need to commit again. Every day. I am glad I read this, and will try to imagine that someone out there is holding me accountable”. Funny you should say that, I finally established the daily habit (after several failed attempts) by promising my blog readers I would meditate every day for a year, so they would hold me accountable. The WSJ interviewed me about it recently: http://online.wsj.com/article/

    @ Matthew – Definitely agree that exercise is crucial to mental sharpness and creativity. I like to ‘top and tail’ my day with meditation in the morning and some exercise late afternoon/early evening. I invariably get more done, to a higher standard, than the days when I’m ‘too busy’ to exercise. 🙂

  • Farnoosh

    Mark, thanks for the response and the WSJ interview is very impressive. Good for you! I wrote to all my readers on commitment to stillness and where has it gone? The intention is good but alas, the will has abandoned me. I have got to find it again. Traveling all the time doesn’t help but alas, excuses excuses. :)!
    http://www.prolificliving.com/

  • keith J. Hutchinson

    Mark,

    I’m glad that you wrote this. I think that as Creatives we forget that we are just as important as the tools we use. I spend my time in prayer in the mornings before I start the day. Another major help is time management and realizing the 24hr days are a benefit and not a hindrance.

    Thanks again

  • Ralph Moreau

    I meditate as well, except I use a technique similar to the law of attraction. I think about being in the state of happiness, and truly having everything I want in my life. I also spend 20 minutes. Nice to know other creatives are doing it to.

  • Gerald

    Loves this, thank you!

  • Walter

    Inspiring article Marc. Several times i’ve thougt of starting with meditation but i never did. After reading your story and the nice introduction by the Amaravaty monestaryi’ve decided to start.

    Walter

  • mike mallory

    It’s good to see the world warming up to it!

    I’ve maintained a daily practice for years, and it really charges up my focus and creativity-

  • Glen Woodfin

    I went to a unique musical performance where the musicians played with odd instruments that I had never seen before. For example, they spun an object on a string and that created a certain sound. The concert was very good. I recognized one of the performers as a gentleman that I’d met before at a local radio station.

    After the show was over, I walked up to Bill and complemented him and he gave all the credit to meditation and said he’d be happy to meet with me for lunch to explain more. When we did, I was amazed at how many years he’d taken the time out to meditate. I mentioned that I didn’t think I’d be able to sit still for more than 5 minutes at a time.

    I think there is something to what he was saying, but it kind of killed the mood when started raising his voice trying to convince me that I MUST MEDITATE! It was like he was on a quota to get more recruits for a cult. Anyway, it made it less attractive; however, over the years, many creative people that I’ve met swear by listening to the stillness within.

  • Eri Skyrgianni

    Thank you for being thoughtfull of others. This means that meditation is already working for you. You are a bright member of the community and we are proud of you.

  • Clv

    Hi,

    I chant everyday. That’s my meditation. Repeatedly chant “Nam-myo-ho-ren-ge-kyo”, it has a lot of meaning, one of them is infusing yourself with the law of cause and effect in this case, universe. It is also a life itself or to be one with the universe. If you break it Nam is like your head, myoho is like your throat, and so on… ( i don’t remember completely).

    But anyway…..I agree with what you said. But they way with my chanting is….you can’t stop mind from thinking, even when you’re calm your brain is still thinking, while you’re enjoying your breath, you’re still thinking about that breath. But what you can do….while doing the chanting, really just let your thoughts out and let it out, even thou they are good or bad. Look through yourself carefully. I do it morning and evening. Morning is to set my goal and get my self ready. Evening is to being grateful for everything and evaluate my self and introspect it. It helps. And yes, fight my self to spare my facebook and internet time to just do it is a hard thing, but once you’re in it…..I feel waaaayyy better. It makes my self more discipline too….and calmer and can handle things better.

    If you want to try, you can even do it everyhwere, driving, jogging, eating, screaming….whatever. It’s supposed to get your real potential as human being.

    It’s a good article….and I think we all need that.

  • Katie

    Perfection. Even stopping to read this made me more conscious of my minds chatter. Thank you.

  • Vanessa Adao

    I highly recommend the breathing techniques from the Art of Living Foundation. So simple and so powerful! After each of my practices I fell so inspired which makes a huge impact in my design productivity.
    You can find a course close to you: http://us.artofliving.org/

  • Shafeek

    wow, some great tips, fortunately, I have practicing early morning Meditation since child hood,
    before before sun rise, we give a deep concentration on mind, cut off all the external interruptions, and listen to the versus.
    the prostrates, and bow, check able to check my lens(eye). and stay calm standing… so on.
    I realized it the days i missed the morning prayers.
    Thank you for this post,

  • Blagoj

    I practice Vipassana but I will try Samatha now… Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  • Rick P

    Agreed, 100%. In fact, as we so often do, I’ve recently fallen out of the habit of a daily meditation. I was thinking about this last night and then oddly enough I read this in the morning. Sounds like it’s time to work on my Monkey Mind.

  • Will Mellon

    I make beginning my day with focus and clarity a priority…and I notice in my vision and productivity when I slack on this crucial step. I appreciate this article, any time I read something on meditation, it instills those qualities in my presence and awareness.

    The book that introduced me into Buddhism was Hagen’s “Buddhism:It’s Not What You Think” A great read that teaches me a lesson each time i reread it!

    Namaste

  • Amanda

    This is a great article. I have a wandering mind and it is hard for me to sit still and brainstorm sometimes. I have practiced meditation a couple of times but now I think I will incorporate it into my daily routine. Thank you so much!

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