Much of the recent focus on mindfulness and meditation has been on stress management. Few things help one deal better with the stressors of everyday life. Just several minutes of meditation each day can reduce blood pressure, improve sleep, and mitigate the severity of episodes and symptoms of mental illnesses. But there is more. Meditation quiets the mind, and a quieter mind is more likely to have room for new and better ideas about the challenges one faces in life, business, and art.
Researchers at the Institute for Psychological Research and Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition of Leiden University in the Netherlands found a tremendous impact of focused-attention (mindfulness) and open-monitoring meditation (observing without judging) on creativity. “First, open-monitoring meditation induces a control state that promotes divergent thinking, a style of thinking that allows many new ideas of being generated (sic). Second, Focused Attention meditation does not sustain convergent thinking, the process of generating one possible solution to a particular problem.” Meditation equals more ideas.
Another study published by Greenberg, Reiner, and Meiran in PLoS One determined that mindfulness practice reduces cognitive rigidity. In the experiment subjects were given six tasks, the first three requiring complex solutions, and the last three progressively easier ones. Non-meditators continued to apply the difficult solution methods to the easy problems, and were more likely to become frustrated. Meditators were more likely to quickly figure out that the last few problems could be solved using fewer and easier steps. “The authors conclude that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be 'blinded' by experience. Results are discussed in light of the benefits of mindfulness practice regarding a reduced tendency to overlook novel and adaptive ways of responding due to past experience.” The meditators were less rigid in their thinking, and they ruminated less.
The immediate implication for us with mental illnesses is suicide prevention. Few things are more characterized by rigid thinking and rumination than suicidal ideation. An ability to see several different solutions can grant a reprieve from the finality of ending it all. But I think an even greater benefit emerges to a problem faced by so many with mental illness.
The population of individuals with mental illness tends to skew toward the creative. But much energy is lost when in the grips of difficult symptoms. If the stress management benefits of meditation can make episodes less likely or less severe, and if the act of meditating itself can make us more creative by making us more able to come up with a larger number of novel solutions to problems and questions we face, we all win by taking a few minutes a day to practice meditation.
This becomes especially important to those in creative professions who stop taking meds because they “dull their creativity.” If you believe that, consider adding meditation as an adjunct therapy to your medication regimen to help boost your ability to be creative. You have to be alive and productive to go on creating. Meditation can help you come up with more ideas when you are healthy and to avoid bad results when you are not. So sit down, open up, and be mindful. Better ideas will follow.