CRAIG HASSED: We’re going to be exploring now a very important topic around creativity. And many people assume, well, look, if I become more mindful, if my mind’s not so active, then I won’t be so creative as if an active mind, a mind that’s thinking a lot, is a more creative mind. It’s based on an assumption that it’s the volume of thinking that we do that produces creativity, not the quality of thought. And really, mindfulness can help us to hone the quality of thought.
It’s interesting to consider why people like Einstein, for example, he would often go very quiet and just, as it were, withdraw from the conversation to reflect deeply on a problem, and often, after a period of time, expound something quite profound. Or somebody like a Steve Jobs, who was interested in being more mentally flexible and creative, and learned meditation at an early age. And it clearly helped him to clarify and simplify his thought, which has really reflected itself in lots of ways in his future work. So how can it help? Well, one of the things that gets in the way of our creativity is so much default mental activity, thinking too much and distracting.
We can’t be creative while the mind is distracted and off-task. But even when we’re trying to engage with a task, we’re very often ruminating or worrying it’s got to be perfect. And if it’s not, what happens, and I’m not getting anywhere, or we’re so anxious to come up with something useful that that kind of mental agitation seems to seize up the areas of the brain that are actually trying to make those decisions, or to come up with something creative. So to learn to reflect, on the other hand, is like, to use a metaphor, a pond of water becoming still.
If the surface of the water is very agitated, then it doesn’t reflect very clearly, so the image, as it were, is very broken. So being able to, as it were, be still, to allow the movements of the mind to come and go, to allow kind of the surface of the water to become quiescent, all of a sudden the reflection’s a lot clearer. We can actually see what’s there. And so many people often find that, in order to be creative, it can start first with a kind of coming to a quietness, allowing the mind, the business of the mind to settle somewhat. And then thoughts may arise. It might be an initial thought.
And perhaps, as we’re paying attention in a mindful way, it wasn’t such a useful thought. And we’ll let that one come and go, rather than jump on it. Or we wait, and another thought comes and goes. But we may find that, oh, there’s a very lucid, a very clear thought that has an entirely different quality to it. That is a thought that is truly creative. And if we’ve got the space and the clarity, we give that thought some attention. It could be the seed of an idea. And we really start to nurture that seed and help to eventually bring it to fruition.
But that discernment about which thoughts to follow and which ones not to, which ones, as it were, to water and nurture and which ones not to is a very important decision to make. And it’s a very important step in creativity. Indeed, this is not an easy area to research, but there is some research going on. For example, in mental flexibility and problem-solving. So mostly, when we’re trying to solve a problem, we keep approaching it with the same method, even if it’s not working. And we get frustrated and irritated. That’s sometimes called cognitive rigidity, or mental rigidity. And what the research shows that when people cultivate mindfulness is a kind of mental flexibility that’s created.
If the method that might have worked on the easy problems is no longer working for the harder problems, a more mindful person is more likely to let that go, to sit back, to have another look, to free up the mind, to be curious, to just notice, to perhaps look a little bit outside the square. That kind of mental flexibility not only is helpful for dealing with frustration, but the curiosity that’s engaged can help a person to, oh, make a discovery, to see something that might have been there, but they weren’t seeing before. And so there’s very interesting research there.
And what other research has shown, as well, is that, if a person is very stressed and mentally overloaded, and then you give them topics and ask them to come up with something creative, then very often the person who’s stressed and hurried will just come up with tremendously predictable things every time. And when you help a person to make a little bit of mental space, to sit down and to settle for a moment, then you present the person with something to come up with in a creative way, then the person is much more likely to do that, and something that’s curious or a little bit unexpected or something that’s actually a little bit outside of the square.
So people do that better if they’ve got a little bit of mental space. So just to come back to the point, it’s not the volume of thinking or worrying over achieving something that really helps creativity, it’s the quality of thought and the attention, the discernment about which thoughts to give attention to. Just to summarise some of the ways in which mindfulness can help with creativity, it may be, for example, that we sit and just rest the question in our mind, for example, learn to settle with it, and learn to reflect on it. So a kind of contemplative practise that helps us to do that. So sitting meditation can help.
Or sometimes– and many people will have already been doing this– if we’re not getting anywhere, we need to stop and to reset, to go for that walk, walk through the park, just feel the breeze, hear the birds. And that kind of setting a little bit of space in the mind is being mindful, doing something else helps us to come back to it perhaps with a different perspective. So they can be very useful kinds of ways, but also, just in the normal day to day life, being less attached to thoughts, less distracted by thoughts, more able to deal with preoccupations and concerns about being able to get somewhere and achieve the goal we want to achieve.
Reducing that kind of frustration can also help us not to get in the way of ourselves. It often happens with writers block, for example. So learning to be less preoccupied about those things helps us not to perhaps be our own worst enemy when we’re trying to be creative.