At Fast Company, we write a lot about how to do your best creative thinking. Unfortunately, continually hearing this insight from the best in business doesn’t always save me and my colleagues from hitting our own creative ruts.
For me, the “creative rut” feels like oversaturation; there’s so much going on in my mind, but I’m unable to focus on any one idea, experience, or question with a meaningful degree of mental clarity. Unable to—as Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it—reach out to everything that I know and have around me and “make connections that no one else thought to.” Could meditation help?
I’ve dabbled in meditation practices on and off, but regardless of whether it felt like a great experience or a challenging one, I always ended up abandoning it. But now, as summer is coming to a close and that back-to-school energy has imbued me with high hopes of entering the fall as a re-energized and creative contributor, I thought there could be no better moment to give meditation another shot, this time with creative intention set.
To test out the possibilities of meditation as a path to creativity, I enlisted both some professional help–Tatum Fjerstad, who I knew through my yoga studio and who has hosted many meditation workshops in the past–and some support–several of my Fast Company colleagues would be joining me in an hourlong session in a conference room before starting our workday. Fjerstad promised that the workshop would help “unveil your purest, most authentic voice while building a belief system around your ability to be creative and build work and the life you love.”
Sounds good to me! Armed with my notebook, a pen, and an open mind, I was ready to meditate my way to a more creative work life.
To start, we practiced sensory meditations, which included spending several minutes isolating our attention to focus only on the sounds around us. We were in a quiet room, but when I really sat and listened, there were all kinds of things to be heard, from the air conditioning vents to the person sitting next to me swallowing. It was a nice, easy place to focus. As any other thoughts popped into our heads throughout this time, we were instructed to simply acknowledge their presence and then tune politely back in to noticing sounds.
Following the sensory practice, we moved into Vedic meditation, ditching any sense of isolated focus and just observing our thoughts. Vedic meditation is traditionally practiced by repeating a mantra, but we just focused on our breath. For many in the room—myself included— this meditation was more challenging. Fjerstad explained we often find this hard because as human beings we have been trained to view the ability to focus as essential to success. And it can be. But in general, focus equals exclusion.
Focusing on any one thing necessarily means that you’re limiting the opportunity for yourself to recognize new ideas and deeper understandings as they may pop up in the periphery. If we only ever follow the “Focus, please!” directive, then we’re not allowing ourselves any time to play in the free, creative space of our minds.
Each five-minute period spent meditating was followed with five minutes of free writing. Any thought in my head was to be put down on paper. I wound up with a few pages of scribbles, ranging from paragraphs and half-sentences to keywords.
The final step in this process was to read through everything we’d written to identify patterns or recurring themes, and then do a few more minutes of writing, utilizing that recognized theme as a lens with which to consider our next natural thoughts.
It was surprising and exciting to recognize common threads that ran between my sometimes wide-ranging thoughts. While this didn’t explicitly lead me to any creative breakthroughs immediately applicable to my workday, the process did help to open up a mental environment that supported free, creative thinking, and I’d certainly put it in the category of making surprising connections, both of which I consider steps in the direction of more productive, fruitful work.
Immediately after we wrapped up the workshop, I jumped into a long meeting with our editor and publisher to discuss an exciting project we’re working on. It was a fairly stark juxtaposition to the quiet, introspective meditation environment, but as the meeting progressed, I did take note of the fact that my mind felt calmer, quieter, more contemplative.
At the end of the day, when I was completely wiped and ready to zonk out in front of the TV, I impressed myself by following through and getting a second half-hour of meditation in for the day. It was, as I was forewarned, more difficult to sink in this time. I felt like the stressful pieces of my day were suddenly replaying themselves in my mind, but the end result was the same: a little calmer, quieter, and more contemplative than I’d felt before.
Perhaps it was due to my firmer commitment and greater curiosity this time around, but I left the workshop with a better understanding of what meditation is supposed to be. It’s not about silencing the mind, but rather settling into a neutral place of simply observing your thoughts. Watching the thoughts that pass through your mind, honoring their presence, and then flowing on to the next passing thought until maybe things do quiet down a bit.
The free writing and reflection piece, intended to give what was in my mind another place to exist and create, essentially, a data set to analyze and draw understanding from, was really revelatory for me. As an already avid journal keeper, I really appreciated this new approach to personal writing and will definitely be making use of it moving forward.
So, will meditation become a part of my daily life? I hope so. There’s no question that it was an enlightening and challenging experience, one that I think will inevitably lead to benefits like clearer thinking, greater self-awareness, more calm, and yes, clearing the space needed to practice real creative thinking.