Meditation and Creativity

Background

Last week I reconnected with an old designer friend who has lived in Thailand for the past two decades. Sridhar Rylie worked for the Thailand Creative Design Center (TCDC) since its inception in 2005, as an advisor on design, innovation policy, and creative economy. After giving up his full time work at TCDC Sridhar became the head of Master’s program in Design at the Rangsit University, where he is currently completing his PhD.

In his email Sridhar explained, “In my Ph.D. I am exploring the influence of meditation on creativity and am substantiating that with many recent findings from neuroscience. I am hoping to develop a new program focusing on higher levels of creativity and true empathy (not the empathy proffered by champions of Design Thinking).“

I was intrigued by Sridhar’s topic of dissertation, more so because of my own curiosity for human consciousness, imagination, meditation and design. I do agree with Sridhar that meditation liberates our mind to become more creative. This article presents my musings about the connection between meditation and creativity.

Meditation and personal creativity

Though I do not meditate in a traditional sense, I have developed a keen interest in understanding the effects of meditation on creativity. I find the definition of meditation, “achieving a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state” (source: Wikipedia) broadly applicable to the context of my curiosity. In that framing I can be meditating in the middle of an activity, such as cooking, lawn mowing, or while looking at the street outside from my window.

The solitude of the pandemic has brought to me many opportunities to experiment with ways of experiencing this state of mind. Through various experiments in managing my attention I have learned that most of the insights and epiphanies that have untangled my thoughts have come to me when I was not thinking- when conscious mind was at rest and the subconscious mind was connecting the dots without requiring mental effort from me. Archimedes called it a eureka moment.

I interpret this phenomenon as a moment when my ego was disengaged, my biases were at rest, and deeply rooted impressions from all of my unfiltered observations of my surroundings from the past were coming together to reveal to me new patterns and meanings. In this state of awareness my past experiences, compressed and tucked only in a big black hole in my consciousness, created a big bag of revelation. I call that experience a moment of meditative creativity.

So, I ask myself, “What is the connection between meditation and creativity?”

I will first explain an interesting experience. Three years ago I was standing at the Grizzly Peak Vista Point in the Oakland area looking at a beautiful view of San Francisco downtown. Suddenly a feather floating in the air brushed passed me. As I tried to catch it, it drifted away leaving behind a tender memory in me.

That night at 2:00 a.m. I woke up and wrote a poem in which the feather became a metaphor for expressing my identity and an interpretation of my purpose in life.

I was surprised how the inspiration to write a poem came to me serendipitously. Until that night I had never written a poem in my life. I discussed this strange eruption of creative inspiration to write a poem to my professor of design from 45 years ago. He explained his rationale to me:

He first recited a poem written by Allana Iqbal to me:

हजारो साल नर्गिस अपनी बेनूरी पे रोती है

बडी मुश्किल से होता है चमन में दिदावर पैदा

The closest translation of its meaning is:

“For years

the bud languished

in the darkness

unnoticed

unappreciated

until one day

it bloomed into a flower

just when a maven

was visiting the garden”

He explained to me that the sensitivity for writing a poem was growing inside me through decades of observing and absorbing my surroundings with designerly curiosity. Just like the maven in Iqbal’s poem, my attention fell on the bud just when it was ready to turn into a flower. My moment of inspiration at night was a moment when the bud turned into a poem.

What I learned from this self discovery of poetic expression is that when my mind was still it allowed for a new form of creativity to sprout from the reservoir of experiences in my subconscious. I gained an understanding of why artists have traditionally look for a quiet space, away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, to open the gates of creativity.

To best harness the connection between meditation and creativity we must ask ourselves two questions:

  1. How might we make a habit of giving ourselves the time and space for deep observation without judgement?
  2. How might we surround ourselves with serene conditions that can let our minds meditate and creativity surface?

I have learned that the creative impulse that emerges from meditation is driven less by my ego and more by empathy grounded in an expanded and profound consciousness of the universe.

Meditation and shared creativity

I grappled with the question, Is meditation primarily a personal experience or can there be a collective meditation? Well more fundamental to this question is- is there a collective consciousness? The answer is yes. Author James Razoff suggests,

“You’ve got to stop thinking of consciousness as your own. You’re only thinking for yourself when you are by yourself. As soon as you are in the presence of others, your consciousness is linked at some level to those others.”

The point is- collective consciousness can be cultivated with the purpose of nurturing curious, compassionate and creative communities. Collective meditation is a method by which we can help form such communities within organizations and in the society.

Meditation through Sensing

My mother was an artist, a dancer, an actor, a writer, a social worker a feminist and a politician. Since my early childhood she made it a point to accompany me to creativity workshops and encouraged me to learn dance, drama, art making and creative writing. I particularly remember attending workshops conducted by designer Yeshwant Chaudhury where I was exposed to our five senses through creative activities. Later, during the environmental exposure class at the National Institute of Design I discovered how our five senses connect us to our surroundings and that we must also pay attention to our the sixth sense. All of this exposure helped me become sensitive to the signals that our senses receive and not merely rely on our “thoughts” as the only source of information for interpreting and understanding life and relationships. My curiosity for “sensing” has remained at the heart of my inquiry.

About 25 years ago I participated in a workshop on “Alternate Ways of Knowing” organized by Dr. Liz Sanders when we were working at Fitch. One of the sessions was about Native American rituals. The most memorable part of the workshop was a first hand experience of a rattle ritual in Native American culture.

According to the website TechniDrums,

“Native Americans believe that spiritual energy stems partially from the trancelike state we enter when exposed to music. The rattle’s cleansing sound can unblock unwelcome energies and heal the body of troubling ailments. It helps open the mind and can positively shift people’s moods. Often, though not always, rattles are used to expel the mind of worries prior to prayer.”

The workshop facilitator asked us all to stand in a circle, close our eyes, stop thinking and diffuse our attention, as she shook a Native American rattle in a steady rhythm. We let the sound of the rattle enter our consciousness without focusing on it for 20 minutes. At the end of the 20 minutes she asked us what we heard. Several of us began to hear a stream of water after a few minutes and then the sound of a horse galloping through the stream. While I do not remember the exact explanation the facilitator offered for our common experience, my own interpretation of that shared experience was- that those of us who were able to diffuse our focus began to sense new patterns in the sound of the rattle. Those patterns were defined by hidden contours of the sound that we did not notice when we paid attention to the most obvious characteristics. Our calm mental state allowed us to hear new sounds. It was an amazing experiment in consciousness and imagination. To date I draw a lesson from that experience — if we leave our biases behind and let the whole sensory experience, rather than a part we are familiar with or focus on enter our consciousness, we can experience magical sensations. This was a first hand experience of the connection between meditation and shared consciousness for me. This experience also taught me that we can collectively sense the world surrounding us in fresh ways if we allow ourselves to activate our senses and diffuse attention and biases.

Collective meditation can create a collective consciousness that is better suited for finding creative ways of experiencing hidden patterns of life. In an organization cultivating shared consciousness, rather than forcing agreements, can lead to more inclusive, sustainable, and creative outcomes. There is a hidden world of sensory experiences waiting to be discovered.

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A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.

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