Meditators are often advised to focus on a meditation object, and when they realize that their mind has started wandering, to just bring it back to the object of their meditation. The standard advice is not to follow any thoughts and emotions that may arise.
This, however, is often easier said than done. As soon as I am trying to quiet my mind, thoughts and reminders start coming from all directions.
Like a monkey of whom I have limited or no control, “my” mind bounces around, jumping from the cup of coffee I had before the meditation to yesterday’s cookies, and from there to the chat I had with a friend last night.
Quite appropriately so, they call it the “monkey mind.”
But is this monkey mind good or bad news? I have been contemplating this for quite a while and over time have come to appreciate it. Why? This state of mind can be used to harvest plenty of good ideas. I let the mind loose and it turns into a treasure trove of creativity.
How do I use meditation for creativity? How do I harvest ideas and gain insight?
During my morning meditation, I often sit and just observe my breathing (roughly at the belly button).1 I do this for about 20 minutes. When I notice that my mind has started wandering, I bring it back to my belly and breathing. This is a kind of mindfulness meditation (and more specifically a focused attention meditation)—I am being mindful of my breathing at the belly button.2
As advised, in the past, I tried not to follow any “freight trains” of thought or associations my mind creates. After meditating for a couple of years, I got pretty good at it.
But I also noticed that I often had very interesting ideas while trying to sit still. At some point, I asked myself whether I shouldn’t just linger a bit longer and keep track of where my wandering mind takes me, and note down my ideas and thought bites along the way.
Well, I gave it a go and in the meantime, this has become one of my favorite creativity techniques.
You never know what comes up, but I quite often get great insights that help me with a problem I have had the day before or a question I have been pondering.
I needed a system to quickly catch these ideas without breaking the meditation.
When I become aware of an idea, I linger for a bit longer and “store” it using a mnemonic filing system. This doesn’t take long, and I can immediately return to my breathing.
You want to practice doing this in your daily life for a few days to become fast enough and gain confidence in your ability.
Please note that I don’t go looking for ideas during meditation! They pop up and I catch them.
I also keep a notepad or voice recorder next to my meditation chair, but would only use these as a fallback. Should I ever have the final missing clue to prove/disprove the theory of relativity, I will just break the mediation and start writing.
Generally though, I prefer mental note taking because I don’t want to interrupt my meditation or handle equipment. When I notice that my mind is on to something interesting, I just take a quick snapshot and continue with my meditation.
You can even nudge your brain to work on a specific challenge.
Pose a question you want to work on or follow the first two steps of the natural planning model. Then brainstorm for a few minutes and note down all ideas that come to mind.
Go to bed as usual. You don’t need to make any particular effort or ponder over the question before going to sleep. Keep a notebook next to your bed, just in case you have some great insights during the night or in the morning.
Start your day with a short morning meditation. I recommend the breathing exercise described above. Before doing your meditation, give yourself permission to note down any ideas that may appear during meditation. If something comes up, just make a mental note using the number rhymes.
After your meditation, go through the pegs in your number rhymes and write everything down. Often more ideas will appear. Keep writing!
Sleeping over a question is not necessary though. You can also pose a question, do some brainstorming (optional), take a break, and then sit down for a meditation session. The mind likes the empty canvas you create through meditating and will gladly paint something on it.
Alternatively, you could also create this empty space by going for a walk, observing a natural landscape, or exercising. It is best not to intentionally focus on your question or problem. Listen to music or throw some pebbles into the lake. But be ready to take notes with your mental or physical notepad.
But doesn’t this defy the original purpose of meditation – reigning in the monkey?
Usually, my thoughts and free associations slow down after a few minutes. The mind settles on the breathing and stops the flow of ideas. When this happens, I let it be. I reap the benefits of meditation, such as an elevated mood, reduced stress, and improved focus afterwards.
But when my mind doesn’t stop working, I reap the benefits of creative insight. I win both ways.
If I ever become good enough at it so that my mind calms down immediately, then I have acquired a powerful tool indeed, and I won’t mind the absence of my “creative monkey.”
But in the meantime, I am going to make best use of him, and turn every meditation into a good meditation.
What do I want you to do next?
If you are not already doing it, make a 15-to-20-minute meditation part of your daily routine. I recommend the breathing practice described above. If you don’t have time in the morning, try the early evening, or any other time that suits you. Prepare a mental filing system such as the number rhymes or a memory palace and practice mental note taking of ideas during the day. This will help you to get fast enough to use it during meditation.
Do you have some experience with meditating and creativity? I’d love to get your insights in the comment section.
To read more on my morning routine, check out this post.
If you find your environment too noisy for meditating (I often do, but I have an effective antidote), read about the impact of noise on mental performance and how to effectively block it.
Have a wonderful day.
- You can also choose a different location where you observe your breathing, such as your nostrils or your chest.
- A current line of research is investigating the benefits of meditation for creativity: Practicing open monitoring meditation (aka open awareness meditation), a different kind of mindfulness meditation, before a creative task was found to be beneficial for divergent thinking. In a different experiment, mindfulness meditation reduced cognitive rigidity, that is the tendency to be blinded by prior experience and overlook obvious solutions to a problem.