“Mindfulness” is a term you might expect to hear from your hot yoga instructor during a lecture on the benefits of mixing ancient algaes into your coconut water, before he wishes you “Namaste” and peacefully glides away on his fixed-gear.
It’s fair to be sceptical when new, vaguely spiritualist buzzwords are increasingly bandied about by journalists and policymakers as possible solutions to the social crises and intellectual stagnation of Western society.
Very often, these terms are an attempt to repackage an older idea that everyone is familiar with. The repackaging is not without its benefits, however, as it tends to highlight elements of the original idea that are more relevant to contemporary circumstances.
Mindfulness is no exception.
When someone speaks of mindfulness today, they’re probably talking about practicing some type of meditation, a term which — when stripped of its spiritual connotations — really just means: “continuous thought or musing upon one subject or series of subjects; (a period of) serious and sustained reflection or mental contemplation” (Oxford English Dictionary).
Recently, mindfulness — as a means of enhancing mental health and creativity — has been attracting interest.
In 2011, the University of Oxford founded the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, which was part of the University’s Psychiatry Department, and made treatment for depression the focus of its research program.
This fall, the Centre is offering a course titled “Mindfulness and Creativity: How to Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World.” Its synopsis claims that “[m]indfulness can enhance creativity, clarity of thought and decision-making — skills needed not only by ‘creatives’ but by anyone who wants to optimise their work, life, and overall wellbeing.”
The course also targets “those who would normally eschew mindfulness or other techniques that imply that they are anxious, stressed or chronically unhappy but who could benefit from meditation nonetheless.”
If you’re one of those trying to keep up with the hectic creative pace integral to successful content marketing, freelance writing, or online entrepreneurship, you’ll likely recognize yourself as being part of the course’s intended audience.
If there is something to meditation as a means of becoming more consistently creative, then those of us responsible for creating new content should be taking advantage of it, right?
But how can practicing mindfulness make you a better content writer and marketer?
In a recent study carried out at Leiden University in the Netherlands, researchers compared the effects of two types of meditation, or mindfulness practice, on creativity:
Both types are useful practices, but the researchers at Leiden ultimately decided one of them leads to more creativity. By comparing the two forms of meditation, we’ll get a better sense of why this is the case.
Focused attention mindfulness means fixating on a single idea or object to the exclusion of everything else.
This method of meditation is typically used to create a sense of wellbeing in the practitioner.
For example, if a person were going through a difficult transition in their life, like losing a job, the end of a relationship, or a period of grief, proficiency in focused meditation may be helpful.
By making a practice of selecting a particular thing to concentrate on, the practitioner excludes all other thoughts that arise from the stream of consciousness, thoughts which compete for her attention and tend to distract and, sometimes, upset her. With long practice, a focused attention practitioner will find that she can exclude disruptive thoughts and emotions and experience a deep inner calm.
Having the skills to find an inner sense of stability and calm in the midst of a complex and traumatic experience gives focused attention meditators an excellent tool for managing the emotions common in difficult circumstances.
Beyond its benefits for emotional wellbeing, the researchers at Leiden wondered if focused attention meditation could make people more creative.
After 45-minute periods of doing this type of meditation, Leiden study participants were slightly more proficient at the Remote Associations Task, which was designed in 1967 to assess creative problem-solving ability in both the arts and sciences.
To complete the test successfully, the subject must discover a term that connects three apparently unrelated words. For example, what’s one word that links: hair, time, and stretch? Check your answer here.
Though this test does demonstrate an individual’s capacity to make unique connections in a particular circumstance, it doesn’t say much about a person’s ability to consistently come up with new ideas.
Sometimes creativity is defined as finding a specific solution to a very controlled problem. However, this way of thinking about creativity is not all that useful when it comes to generating a multitude of ideas — a capacity which is especially necessary when striving to meet the creative demands inherent to constant content creation.
Open monitoring mindfulness is all about entertaining every possibility, by examining every thought and sensation that arises, and refraining from focusing on any one in particular.
If you have ever used a meditation app like Headspace, you’ve done open monitoring mindfulness. When you use the app, a meditation guide named Andy gives you a series of instructions which work to “bring the mind into the body” by directing your attention to the sensations of your breathing, your body’s position, weight, and other senses. As he indicates, an important part of the process that guides you through is that you refrain from assessing or judging what you’re experiencing.
By making a habit of this type of mindfulness, you will be able to notice, consider, and non-judgmentally let go of a variety of other feelings and emotions that enter your awareness.
You have probably guessed that this practice tends to cultivate one’s ability to come up with a lot of different ideas, which is what the researchers also suspected as they created their study.
To assess how capable one is of generating multiple ideas, the researchers used a special test which I mentioned not long ago in my piece on boredom. The test is called the Alternate Uses Test, wherein a person is given a relatively banal object (say a paperclip) and asked to list as many uses for it as possible.
Want to give it a try? How many different uses can you come up with for a paperclip? Go!
(Note: the researchers suggested that practicing open monitoring mindfulness is also a lot like the brainstorming or mind mapping task your eighth grade English teacher assigned for starting a term paper. For some of us this may not be a fond memory. If you have an aversion to mind maps, take heart. As Gina Edwards explained in a recent post, brainstorming and generating ideas needn’t be a daunting prospect.)
When engaging in open monitor mindfulness, “[t]he first goal is to … open the mind to any occurring thought, sensation, or emotion and consequently expand the consciousness to a (spiritual) connection where one reaches clarity. During a session, as a thought occurs, most often accompanied by an emotion and/or a sensation in the body, the practitioner observes and acknowledges the experience without any judgment” (Meditate to Create, para. 11).
Trained in the Transformational Breath method of open monitor mindfulness, a coach from the Leiden study guided participants through a set of breathing and thought exercises.
In this process, the meditation guide “invites the practitioner to be open and instructs the meditator to observe rather than judge thoughts and emotions, leading [him or her] to more readily accept all feelings and forms of emotions arising from moment to moment” (para. 11).
After a period of open monitoring meditation, the participants’ creativity was assessed using the Alternate Use Test. The results were compared to those of Alternate Use Tests that were conducted after periods of focused attention meditation and a baseline control exercise, wherein participants engaged in simple visualization.
Participants were far better at coming up with a multitude of creative ideas after practicing open monitoring mindfulness. The researchers’ hunch was right.
How can you integrate open monitoring mindfulness into your creative routine?
Here’s a simple five-step process to follow, which I’ve adapted from the practices described in the Leiden study.
Materials Needed: A device with a timer, some system for making notes (a voice recorder is a good choice), and a list of no more than six non-specific writing or content areas/subjects.
Step 1: Find a quiet, solitary place with the absolute minimum number of distractions (set yourself unavailable on your devices), and make yourself comfortable. Set your timer; try starting out with fifteen to twenty minutes. Pomodoro apps and meditation programs are great for this.
Step 2: Set aside any thoughts that have been preoccupying your mind and begin to take deep breaths while mentally repeating the following affirmations: “I am open,” “I let go,” “I open and expand my consciousness,” and “I accept myself as I am.”
Step 3: Observe, rather than judge, your thoughts and emotions. Accept all feelings and forms of emotions arising from moment to moment. Don’t hold on to any of them. Let them each give way to the next.
Step 4: When your timer signals the end of the session, exhale any breath you’re still holding and focus your attention on your list of non-specific writing or content creation areas.
Step 5: Come up with and record as many ideas as you can for each of your original topics. (Using a voice recorder may keep you from becoming distracted, which sometimes happens when worrying about the details of writing things down.)
In their discussion of their studies’ findings, the Leiden researchers emphasized what they termed the “distributed” or balanced nature of thought patterns fostered by the practice of open monitor mindfulness.
By its very nature, this way of thinking doesn’t rely on top-down ways of viewing the world, as do attempts to apply a dominant organizing system or controlling structure to every new situation.
For this reason, the study implies that open monitor thinkers are more inclined to make the best of a less than ideal social or economic circumstance, as they can look at what is conventionally thought to be a problem and see it as an opportunity to try a new approach.
For example, if your job is to find creative ways to draw more customers to a given product, wouldn’t it be helpful if your mind was trained to remain open to approaches that are seemingly ineffective but contain unrealized potential?
Because you’re in the habit of suspending assessments and judgements, you’ll be able to see the vast scope or simplicity inherent in circumstances conventionally thought to be limiting or prohibitively complex.
By teaching you to remain open and how to entertain every possibility, open monitoring meditation helps you to see potential where others don’t and be more creative when others can’t.
When he’s not refining prose and hunting down grammatical errors, Ben Barber reads paper books from brick libraries, traps Dungeness crab, brews beer, and stalks inspiration through temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. His graduate degrees in English Literature have honed his editorial eye, while teaching him the importance of respecting the author’s unique voice. Feel free to drop him a line if you’re interested in discussing the nuances of semicolon usage, the metaphysics of the late-Romantic poets, Spinoza’s third type of knowledge, or recipes for baby back ribs.