Creativity is an elusive and highly idealized quality that often appears in fits and bursts. While we often recruit our creativity to help complete challenging projects or resolve problems in our lives, making time to be creative also provides powerful health benefits and improves our mental well-being. Creativity is also associated with better leadership, productivity, and problem-solving, which can enhance teamwork and employee satisfaction in the office. Unfortunately, most of us are clueless as to how to access our creative sides, or view creativity as a gift that isn’t available to “ordinary folk” like us. Happily, recent research reveals that creativity can in fact be intentionally harnessed using a specific type of meditation called open monitoring meditation.
Many of us are familiar with meditation practices which involve focused attention—a technique where the mind concentrates on a single object. While the benefits of focused attention meditation—reduced stress and anxiety and an improved attention span—can be helpful for creative endeavors, science shows that open monitoring meditation techniques are more effective at promoting divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to find many different solutions for a given problem and is strongly correlated with creativity. It’s essential for getting the mind unstuck and for producing creative solutions and ideas.
Open monitoring meditation focuses the meditator’s awareness on the feelings, thoughts or sensations that are currently present in one’s body, and there are two types: internal and external. An internal open monitoring meditation will focus on thoughts, emotions, memories, and visualizations, while an external meditation is centered around the sounds, smells, colors and other perceptions of one’s immediate environment.
The goal of both internal and external open monitoring meditation is to sit quietly and pay close attention to where the mind travels. We’re encouraged to observe our mental processes and to become aware of types and qualities of thoughts, and how our thoughts create changes in our body and emotions—all great ways to become more open to divergent thinking and harness our creativity. The biggest challenge of open monitoring meditation is to follow the path of the mind without judgment or reaction and to stay completely present in each moment of experience.
Examples of open monitoring meditations are Mindfulness, Vipassana and Insight meditation, body scan meditation, and loving-kindness meditation, but many meditation practices contain a mixture of both focused attention and open monitoring. It is also possible to change and adapt a focused attention meditation to have more of an open monitoring flavor. For example, you could modify a second chakra (Svadhisthana) meditation to explore the sensations and visualizations of the element of water in the lower abdomen and low back. You could also modify a mantra meditation to focus on the feelings of vibrations and other body sensations as you chant the mantra out loud.
Although open monitoring meditations have been shown to have the most powerful effect on evoking creative states, don’t neglect to practice focused attention meditation as well. Focused attention meditation will stabilize and strengthen your attention, discipline, and focus which will ultimately help you be more successful in your open monitoring meditations. A strong, steady focus will also be helpful in effectively and efficiently executing creative works.
As you begin trying meditation for creativity, take your time in finding a practice that resonates with you and is comfortable to maintain for 15-20 minutes. For best results, practice the meditation right before engaging in creative work, brainstorming or other activities that require problem-solving. You can also take a meditation break when you are feeling stuck or blocked in your creative process. If you’re experimenting with multiple meditation techniques, keep a meditation journal to track which practices evoke the most conductive mental and emotional states for engaging in creative work.
Research shows that prior meditation experience has no significant effect on one’s ability to activate divergent thinking, so if you want to try meditation for creativity, there’s no better time to start than now! The more we engage our creativity, the more familiar and accessible it becomes.