Mindful Meditation Doesn’t Help Creativity. Do this instead!

Art of man in greenish abstract painting with mind wandering meditation on creativity.

Recently, a colleague and I were discussing meditation and creativity. I meditate daily and work as a creative, so it made sense to share my insights here with you.

Can meditation help creativity? Yes, but not mindful meditation. Research in the fields of cognitive psychology & creativity shows that attention-focused meditation DOES NOT help with creativity. Instead, you should do what cognitive scientist call Open Monitoring meditation to help your creativity.

Many creative people are told to start a mindful meditation practice. This is bad advice in my opinion, and science seems to back me up.

Why doesn’t mindful meditation help creativity?

In mindfulness meditation, the idea is to focus your attention on present moment, and in most cases “control” your mind by focusing on your breath, a word, phrase, mantra, or in extreme cases focusing your attention on “nothingness.” This is all in the attempt to discard thoughts that don’t serve your spiritual (or otherwise) goal.

Mindfulness meditation can have huge positive impact on your emotional well-being, but less on your creativity and creative output.

Obviously if you meditate on something you’re grateful for each day, while attempting to remove distracting negative thoughts, then your mind slowly comes into a more grateful attitude, which has proven to reduce depression. This is just one of the benefits of mindful meditation.

So, what about this idea of discarding negative thoughts? That’s good, right? Sure, if negative thoughts are inducing depression and inaction, then surely you would want to work on discarding negative emotions (thoughts) and work on building a positive, thus happier mindset.

However, if you’re in a state of depression or anxiety, do you really NEED to focus on helping your creativity, or do you NEED to focus on “fixing” your depressive life state?

See, I’ve done most variants of mindful meditation in my early 20’s and 30’s.

Did mindfulness help me reduce stress? Yes.

Did mindful meditation help me feel happier? Yes.

Did mindful mediation help me feel gratitude? Yes.

But, did all these feelings of happiness, gratitude, and connectedness help me with my originality or production of art? Absolutely not.

a photograph of meditating Buddha carved in the side of a mountain
image credit: Rajitha Fernando

And honestly, I can definitively say, mindful meditation actually hurt my creativity. I spent almost 8 years clawing away from the desired “present moment peace” that mindful meditation gives you, back to my “abnormal” anxious, artist state.

For example, In my poetry, I explore themes around human and spiritual disconnection; pain, loneliness, isolation across time. For me, I NEED and WANT to “look into the abyss” and see what stares back.

Yes, it’s often scary, and yet, I swing from good day and bad days; i.e. being a fucking normal human being. But, it’s me, it’s my creative process, and it works productively.

Basically, mindful meditation changed me to a point where I actually felt a loss of me, the creative me.

Yes, mindfulness produced a happier me, a grateful me; me that strangers and friends alike, liked! But I couldn’t shake the feeling I was off. and I couldn’t imagine a happier Vincent van Gogh producing his work, or a peaceful Theodore Roethke giving up on spiritual madness, or any other number artist who suffered to give us profound magic.

“Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder … my sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Edvard Munch

For instance, after switching to a sort-of open monitoring meditation (OMM; see below), which helped my creativity, I recognized that my past experiences with mindfulness meditation actually hurt my creativity and creative output as an artist and professional creative.

But you’re probably saying, “Hey Lane! Wait a damn minute. That’s just your experience. And it’s anecdotal at best.”

Well you’re absolutely right.

But you can find many experiences of people who also agree with me that their creativity didn’t benefit from meditation. And more, who like me, actually think meditation hampered or even hurt their creativity.

Even many cognitive psychologist, such as Lorenza S. Colzato did not see their test subjects perform better in divergent thinking (a signal of creativity) using mindful meditation. However with open monitoring meditation, the scientist did see more divergent thinking AND being receptive to ideas with test subject.

And there are many other studies that conclude that mind wandering promotes creativity. You can read a 2012 abstract on how mind wandering affects creative problem solving. Or, you can view an abstract of a 2017 study in Scientific Reports about how mind wandering helps creative incubation.

Elderly Asian man drawing and painting beside fence at park.
image credit: Hazyrah Mokhlas

This is an important distinction, because divergent thinking is a process used in creative problem solving to generate unique ideas by free-exploring, free-flowing, playfulness, and other creative personality traits.

Therefore mindfulness, by the very definition of the practice itself, is at odds with exploring, free-flowing ideation, and most certainly problem solving in general.

How can you creatively solve a problem, if you discard the problem to return to a present moment, or empty state?

Again, I’m not saying there are no benefits to mindful meditation. There are many demonstrated benefits (both scientifically and anecdotally) to mindfulness meditation, such as emotional balance, healing trauma, etc.

But I do not think the practice directly helps creativity.

The “creative personality” and mindful meditation paradox

Most highly creative people I’ve met tend to be extremely gifted with intelligence. Also, they exhibit some rare mental/emotional traits in other ways, such as:

  • more than average mental flexibility;
  • a genuine sensitivity to problems;
  • are naturally curious about people, places, things;
  • have an amazing tolerance for ambiguity;
  • love and embrace change;
  • and finally, deeply motivated to share in some way.

Now, juxtapose that with mindful meditation.

  • be fully present in yourself, and
  • fully in present moment (time);
  • follow breath (in/out);
  • whenever your thoughts/feeling wander…
  • acknowledge them…
  • DISCARD them,
  • return to breathing/present moment

Do you see the conflict here?

The very characteristics of mindful meditation is to discard ALL thoughts (negative or positive) in order to return to present moment. While in contrast, the very nature of the creative person is to exist in ambiguity and change (often negative) in order to solve a problem.

Sure, having nonjudgmental and nonreactive awareness are great outcomes for non-creatives and creative alike.

And on the surface these desired outcomes seem to be perfectly aligned to creativity. After all, a part of the creative process is to generate a lot of ideas without judgement. But, that is where the connection ends.

Mindful meditation will not directly help your creativity in general, nor (in my opinion) help you expand your creativity. Because in a way, when you mindfully meditate, you are removing the very stimuli that can increase creative problem solving, which is what creatives do personally and professionally: generate novels ways to solve problems, for humankind, book characters, movie scenes, etc.

But what if there was a meditation that allowed for the exploration of creativity through thoughts, whether negative or positive, and still maintained emotional balance?

A better, proven meditation that works for creatives

So, let’s look at what cognitive scientists call Open Monitoring meditation (OM).

From a cognitive science stance, on the surface these views on mindful and open monitoring meditation seem straight up paradoxical. But in reality, many people use a combination of the two.

For instance, mindful mediation to help with increased attention, no-judgement, and focus; and open monitoring mediation is used for observation, insight, and increased creativity.

What is Open Monitoring Mediation?

Open monitoring meditation, in a nutshell, is about observing your internal and external states. Those states can be emotions, feelings, philosophies, memories, dreams, imagination (internal), or they can be external such as your feelings with your body, your environment (temperature, colors, odors, sound).

There was time that mind wandering was considered to be a negative aspect, because it may diminish attention, alertness, and possible negative implications on working memory, like short term memory making.

However, in the last decades, cognitive scientist have realized it has huge impact on autobiographical constructs as well as divergent thinking (creative problem solving).

This is exciting because no longer is daydreaming and a wandering mind considered “lazy,” or unproductive. It can now be seen for what it is, which is the minds ability to create complex solutions for messy problems.

How to do OM meditation to help creativity

This is how I like to do open monitoring mediation. This is not considered the “typical way” of doing mind wandering in a controlled experiment, but mind wandering is about, well wandering…

I typically spend 10 -15 minutes doing it, and I typically do it at home.

But, whenever I feel blocked, or need to ideate on a really strange or messy problem, whether be in art or business, this is mind wandering meditation is my go to meditation. I’ve found that going out side of my daily environment produces the best creative solutions.

1. Choose your environment…

This is very important. Unlike mindful meditation, where you find somewhere quiet and where you will not be disturbed. With open monitoring mediation, you choose your environment for purpose. This could be your room, the beach, by a mountain stream, in the corner of a book store. Any where, really.

For example, if you want to stimulate creativity for a book. Then, if possible, put yourself in environment of a the main character (internal and external states).

I like to go to a busy place, like a coffee shop, but off to the side where I’m not in the path of people, but where I’m still “in the environment” so to speak.

2. Close your eyes…

Close your eyes and let your mind wander. What are the sounds? How do they make you feel? The smells? The thoughts? Are you feeling tense or relaxed? How does your body feel? The chair? The carpet your lying on?

The idea here is to let your mind wander and have no judgement. The difference here is you still allow your mind to wander to whatever it needs to wander to. You’re not trying to bring control back to anything, at all.

3. Notice patterns and connecting dots…

Are you seeing patterns in your thoughts? Some connecting dots?

For instance, I was at a coffee shop and did this because I was feeling kind of blocked and wanted to start a new poem. This is what I remembered and wrote down in my idea journal (see next step).

  • smell of an old leather shoe. is it mine?
  • smell coffee
  • a woman overheard ‘I miss….’ [she began to whisper]
  • rattling coffee cups
  • steam of coffee maker
  • I’m tired
  • I’m angry about yesterday
  • I’m hot

4. Record the observations…

Have a pen and paper, or audio recorder available and immediately record as many of your observations you remember. You will not remember most. That’s okay. Explore these for connection and patterns further.

And that’s it. It’s one of the most simple, but powerful meditations you can do to help your creativity. I don’t do it everyday, because i do a hybrid meditation everyday. But if i do need to use divergent thinking to generate an idea, then i use this meditation.

Though mindful meditation can have an impact in other areas of your life, it’s been shown that there is no direct connection between that approach and creativity, and in most cases will decrease your creativity.

Whereas mind-wandering, or open monitoring mediation can drastically help creativity, and has been proven to do so in scientific studies.

Regardless, it’s about YOU, using the right tools for the right situation. If you’re super creative, but undisciplined and not very focused, then do some mindfulness for 5 minutes a day for a few days to reset and increase those traits. If you’re super focused, but aren’t generating creative output, then try open monitoring for a few days.

I believe Scott Barry Kaufman sums it up nicely in this video below. Basically saying, “know when to be attentive, and when to wander.”

Basically, give each one a go, adapt, and see which one help you be more creative.

Sources:

  • Frontiers in Psychology: “Focused attention, open monitoring and loving kindness meditation: effects on attention, conflict monitoring, and creativity – A review”
  • Scientific Reports:“Mind wandering simultaneously prolongs reactions and promotes creative incubation.”
  • Psychological Science: “Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.”
  • Mindfulness: “Prior Meditation Practice Modulates Performance and Strategy Use in Convergent- and Divergent-Thinking Problems.”
  • Creativity Research Journal: “The neuropsychological connection between creativity and meditation.”
  • Creativity Research Journal: “Exploring the Link Between Mind Wandering, Mindfulness, and Creativity: A Multidimensional Approach.”

Lane Watson

I love everything to do with creativity. Matter-of-fact, I love it so much, I studied the science of creativity in graduate school. Yes, you can study the science of creativity!