17 Nov Mindfulness and Creativity
JK Rowling boarded a train from Manchester to London in 1990. A few hours later, when she got down at Kings Cross Station, she had given birth to the idea of Harry Potter. Let’s review how she describes her experience.
“I took the train back to London on my own, and the idea for Harry Potter fell into my head. . . . Coincidentally, I didn’t have a pen and was too shy to ask anyone for one on the train, which frustrated me at the time, but when I look back, it was the best thing for me. It gave me the full four hours on the train to think up all the ideas for the book.”
Did you notice how JK Rowling said, “Harry Potter fell into my head”? She does not claim that she consciously thought of a young boy wizard, a castle that doubles up as a school, and potentially lethal chess games. She claims to be a recipient of the idea.
JK Rowling is not the first person who believed that creative insight just stuck her like a bolt of lightning. The author and speaker, Elizabeth Gilbert, whose book Eat, Pray, Love sold more than 12 million copies, attributed the idea of genius ideas striking you to the Greek and Roman civilizations.
In the widely acclaimed Ted talk, she declared that the Greeks believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit, and the humans were merely hosts. The spirits favored certain humans for unknowable reasons. Hence, the Greeks called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates famously believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans called these creative spirits “genius” and attributed creative breakthroughs to these spirits and not specific individuals who had those insights.
However, before we get all mystical about creativity’s origins, let’s learn a little more about JK Rowling. She wrote her first book when she was six years old and her first novel when she was eleven. She read so widely and exhaustively that she racked up a fine of £50 while at university for overdue books. So, when she took that epochal train journey in 1990 and was struck by a “genie” that gifted her Harry Potter, she had read exhaustively about different genres and written prodigiously. She took five more years to map out all seven books while simultaneously teaching English and published the first book in 1997.
These facts help us derive two conclusions:
1. You need to be deeply immersed in a subject, and then relax and let your mind wander. This wandering helps your mind process everything and generate some insight you would not have, if you focused intensely on the subject. That’s why Isaac Newton needed rest and an apple, Archimedes a bath, and JK Rowling her train ride, to that striking moment of clarity.
2. We still need to focus intensely on our insights and work incredibly to create something valuable to society. While Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galápagos Islands inspired him, he had been thinking about evolution for most of his adult life, and it still took him seven years to create a draft of this theory.
The Wandering Mind
Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman best explains this concept of the “wandering mind” and its impact on creativity in his book “Focus.” Goleman wrote that when cognitive scientists observed people, they realized that two major brain areas seem to be active during brain wanderings. The first is the medial prefrontal cortex, which is generally active when you rest. The second is the anterior cingulate cortex, which is traditionally active when we are intensely focused on various tasks. The scientists were puzzled that even when our minds were wandering off, one part of our brain seemed to observe the wandering. They explained this conundrum, by hypothesizing that typically when our mind meanders, it gravitates towards our concerns, unresolved issues, or other things we have been actively trying to focus on, but have not made much headway. That’s what allows you to recognize that you have had a fantastic insight among a haze of other thoughts.
Scientists also realized that when our minds wander, we become significantly better at anything that depends on creativity’s lightning bolt. This could range from a writer resolving a block, a surgeon inventing a creative procedure, or a banker getting a hunch for an investment.
A fantastic example of this phenomenon is the story of Marc Benioff – the founder CEO of Salesforce. He was a Vice President at Oracle, and he took a month off to vacation in Hawaii. He spent that time reflecting on life choices and career. He resigned from Oracle and started Salesforce from his rented apartment. He is such a firm believer in self-reflection and mindfulness that he has ensured that most Salesforce offices have dedicated Mindfulness zones. Employees set aside their phones in a basket as they enter these mindful zones, clear their minds, and embrace “shoshin” – beginner’s mindset, which encourages them to keep an open mind and reflect on any topic.
The Building Blocks of Creativity
Creativity was best summed by Louis Pasteur when he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Typically, you can break down creativity into three key steps:
1. We identify a broad challenge and immerse ourselves in understanding multiple aspects of the problem. We read white papers, talk to people, whiteboard multiple outcomes, and listen to experts in the domain.
2. We then zone into a specific part of the problem and dive into it.
3. We step back, and let the mind wander to process all the inputs we have digested and our own life experiences. Since our brain’s focusing part is also active during the wander, we are instantly aware when the mind throws up a plausible insight.
Close your eyes and imagine you are biting into a piece of pineapple. Imagine smelling it, the texture of it on your tongue, the juices erupting in your mouth as you bite into it. If you had an fMRI brain scanner attached to your head, it would record a gamma spike in your brain. The spike is also associated with creative insights and happens in the same area of your brain associated with mind-wandering, dreams, metaphors, and poetry. Our minds hold an infinite supply of memories, impressions, and potential insights and associations. However, the chances of the right problem connecting to the right memory and surfacing valuable insights are pretty rare. The possibilities are reduced to zero when we focus too intensely on specific things or are continuously distracted by digital devices and social media.
Enhancing Creativity by Using Mindfulness
In his book, Danny Penman, an award-winning writer and journalist, explored the relationship between mindfulness and creativity. He suggested that mindfulness enhances three critical skills that impact creativity.
Firstly, mindfulness enhances divergent thinking by opening our minds to new ideas. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard, conducted one of the best studies in this area. She examined the brains of people with extensive meditation experience. The studies showed that meditation slows down, or even prevents, age-related thinning of the frontal cortex. We all assume that as we get old, we tend to get more forgetful. Sarah’s studies showed that those who meditated in their forties and fifties had the same grey matter as those in their twenties and thirties.
Secondly, mindfulness increases focus and attention.
Finally, mindfulness increases our resilience when our ideas are met with resistance or hostility. This was demonstrated when Dr. Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin) examined the impact of meditation on the human brain. He summarized that for people who regularly meditate, the brain scans showed significant activity in the brain’s left prefrontal cortex over its right counterpart, giving people a large capacity for happiness and a significantly reduced capacity for negativity.
Our current situation is best summarized by the following quote “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
The question remains – how we can honor the sacred gift of creativity in our society.
The answer is simple. Black Lotus. Simply download the Black Lotus application on your mobile device and sign up for a free trial. Black Lotus is designed by Om Swami – one of the world’s foremost meditators and spiritual teachers. The application handholds you through the remarkable journey of self-transformation by using the RARE framework.
Reflect – You kick start your day with a guided meditation and breathing exercises designed with individual goals in mind.
Act – You are encouraged to perform random acts of kindness to help you give something back to the world.
Reinforce – You read remarkable short stories aligned with your current goal to help reinforce crucial lessons.
Evaluate – You end the day with a thoughtful reflection that helps you with simple course corrections for transformative results. Remember that even the most incredible journeys begin with the first step. You don’t need to invest thousands of hours to see the benefits. Just download Black Lotus to meet a happier and more peaceful YOU.