I first got into the meditation game when I was in my mid-twenties. I heard an interview with an Irish psychologist on the radio. She explained this practice could help people become more productive, focused and creative.
I told myself learning to meditate would help me get more stuff done instead of my mind wandering. I secretly wanted a way of managing my moods better. So I browsed a few books, scrubbed through YouTube videos and put the practice to one side. Meditation was only part of my daily routine in my early thirties after taking several courses and finding a teacher.
In this article, I explain how you can incorporate meditating into creative work. And I also cover some of the popular apps and books new meditators should check out if they want to integrate this practice into their creative processes.
The Benefits of a Meditation Practice
Productivity, creativity, tools and systems are helpful. But these activities represent the outer stroke.
They help you progress in the world. Meditation, on the other hand, represents the inner stroke. It’s for finding balance within.
Meditating regularly and focusing on the present moment can help with problem-solving in that it forces a meditator to step back from a challenge.
It aids with stress reduction and even sleep. Meditation can also help a creative improve their working memory, tap into their subconscious, and find or explore forgotten or buried ideas. You don’t need to be a Buddhist either, although Buddhist teachings occasionally appear in various meditation apps and books,
If you’re unconvinced, let’s look at the science. I interviewed the chief science officer of Headspace, Dr Megan Jones. She told me:
“We’ve done a few different studies where we’ve looked at the impact of three weeks of Headspace use, 10 minutes a day, on people’s behaviour towards others. One study found that people were more likely to help someone in need, meaning they were more compassionate to a stranger who needed help after three weeks of Headspace. Another study showed that people were less aggressive in response to provocation after three weeks of Headspace use.”
Headspace meditation research shows many key benefits of this practice:
- An internal study published in the top mindfulness journal found that only 10 days of Headspace reduced stress by 14%.
- Two studies by Northeastern University found three weeks of Headspace increased compassion by 23% and reduced aggression by 57%. Headspace claims using its app will improve focus by up to 14%
The Transcendental Meditation organisation cites hundreds of academic studies about the benefits of this practice. It helps with stress and anxiety, brain function, cardiovascular health, depression, insomnia, PTSD and addiction.
The American Psychological Association found transcendental meditation aids with reducing anxiety, managing negative emotions and aids with learning and recall. Finally, a neuroscience study of a South African firm with 80 employees found psychological stress decreased significantly after they practice TM for five and a half months.
Founded by Andy Puddicombe and Richard Pierson, Headspace is one of the most popular meditation apps available. After watching several YouTube videos, Headspace was the first meditation app I tried back in 2014.
The free five-day challenge Headspace walks through the basics of mindfulness. The Headspace app also provides shorter guided meditation sessions focused on creativity, productivity, and even mindful running as part of a monthly subscription.
Puddicombe’s voice is reassuring. He guided me through the basics of short, medium and lengthy meditation sessions.
I learn the basics of Vipassana meditation and mindfulness meditation via its courses. The former involves focusing on the breath for five, ten or twenty minutes, while the latter involves become more aware of your surroundings.
Headspace is a cuddly and warm introduction to the practice. I enjoyed the animated lessons too. Start here if you’re curious about focused-attention meditation.
2. Waking Up
I heard about author and neuroscientist Sam Harris on Tim Ferriss’s podcast several years ago. I was intrigued by somebody who spent the early part of his life studying meditation with teachers in the East. In his book Waking Up, he writes,
“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”
An avid gamer, this video game metaphor hooked me.
Harris turned his book into an app of the same name. The Waking Up app includes an onboarding course for mastering the basics before transitioning to 10 or 20-minute daily meditation sessions.
The app goes deeper into the nature of the human mind via short talks and courses from Harris and other teachers. They offer sessions focusing on bodily sensations, open-monitoring meditation and your overall wellbeing. These guided meditations are available via a monthly subscription.
Harris encourages creators to observe how we see ourselves and our thoughts. A guide meditation exercise involving looking in the mirror is oddly unsettling, but I use Waking Up a lot to manage my well-being. Try Waking Up if you want to go a little deeper than Headspace.
3. 1 Giant Mind
1 Giant Mind is a lesser-known meditation app co-founded by the Australian Jonni Pollard. 1 Giant Mind reminds me of transcendental meditation.
Unlike Headspace or Waking Up, you don’t need to focus on the breath until a buzzer sounds (although there’s a buzzer). You also don’t need to become more aware of your surroundings.
Instead, Pollard provides a mantra, chakra or meaningless sound to focus on for a predetermined period. The ‘12-Step Learn Meditation’ course takes fifteen minutes a day and includes some videos.
After that, you unlock a 30-day challenge. Pollard and his team claim to have collected data from more than 6,000 users of the 1 Giant Mind app since 2015, revealing a profound reduction in stress.
Unlike Headspace or Waking Up, 1 Giant Mind offers fewer guided sessions, but it’s a good alternative if you dislike focusing on the breath. You can use this app with your eyes open or closed before engaging in knowledge work.
The guided sessions are free, and the creators also host in-person events and meditation sessions.
4. Books About Meditation
Mindfulness in Plain English by Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Henepola Gunaratana is the first book I read about meditation. It helped me understand the concept of bringing attention to my immediate environment. This book also dispelled some myths I had about meditation. I thought expert meditators always sit in an awkward position for hours at a time, but as Gunaratna writes,
“Meditation changes your character by a process of sensitization, by making you deeply aware of your own thoughts, words, and deeds.”
(…no Lotus position included.)
More recently, I read David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish, in which he describes transcendental meditation. Before you buy this book and others like it, note that they don’t provide instructions. Instead, Lynch explains the benefits of this type of meditation practice.
In Catching the Big Fish, Lynch also recounts his story with meditation and how he incorporates it into his creative process. He likens focusing on the breath to sitting on a boat on the ocean and becoming mindful of the waves around you. On the other hand, Transcendental meditation is akin to diving beneath the waves to the ocean floor.
Catching the Big Fish is a short book I’d recommend to anybody interested in learning more about meditation for creative thinking. I enjoyed gems from Lynch-like,
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”
5. A Teacher
I never set out to find a meditation teacher. Instead, I found one accidentally. I like to run, and, like many long-distance runners, I have tight hamstrings. So I started taking yoga classes to loosen up my hamstrings.
The first time I took a yoga class, I was pleasantly surprised when the teacher asked us to lie on the ground for a few minutes at the end of practice. She called these few moments savasana.
My yoga teacher encouraged us to focus on our breath and to count back slowly from 10. I enjoyed these moments of stillness at the end of the class and later recognised they’re a form of meditation.
A few years ago, I attended a mindfulness day in Dublin (a gift from my wife). We took part in practices like mindful walking and mindful eating. I found mindful eating hard and stilted because it feels more natural to engage in conversations while eating. Mindful walking was easier. We walked around a garden in silence, admiring the plants.
In 2019, I went on a yoga retreat for two days in Ireland that incorporated long blocks of meditation into the day. At the time, work projects spilt out into the weekend.
I’d have to leave some of the classes early to respond to emails and Slack messages, hardly the point of a retreat. Still, group meditation sessions in the mornings and evenings felt reassuring. I finally felt like I was doing it right.
6. Transcendental Meditation (TM)
In early 2020, I completed a course in transcendental meditation. This practice involves sitting down and meditating for 20 minutes in the morning and evening, using a mantra. I consider it as part of my creative process as I typically practice TM before writing or podcasting.
If you’re wondering what the mantra is or how to find one, the first rule of transcendental meditation is you can’t teach or talk about transcendental meditation.
That’s a slight exaggeration, but new students are advised to work with an accredited TM teacher in person for at least four days. It costs several hundred euros or dollars. Your teacher will provide you with a personal mantra and some other instructions.
I found transcendental meditation more profound and more reflective than other practices. I set aside twenty minutes early in the morning before I start work and in the later afternoon. I’ve also found practising TM in the evening time complicated falling asleep as it energises rather than relaxes me, so it may be best to avoid TM before bed.
7. Other Guided Meditation Practices
After practising and reading about meditation for several years, I’ve encountered other types of meditation.
You can enjoy eating a meal, a mindful walk or a run whereby you’re focused on that activity and not on a device or technology. Headspace covers all of this.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that even writing can represent a form of meditation via the book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.
For the uninitiated, pick a topic to hold at the forefront of your mind and write about it without any preconceptions or judgment for fifteen or thirty minutes.
As Goldberg writes on the subject of writing as a mindfulness practice,
“Whatever came up, I kept my hand moving, and I stayed there until the time was up. Just as in meditation, whatever comes up while you’re meditating, you keep the structure of the posture until the bell rings.”
The goal of this practice for creators isn’t producing bold or creative work, earning money or even finding an audience. These are nice side benefits, but this practice is about writing for the sake of it. As much as I enjoy it, I still find it helpful to sit down and either focus on the breath or practice transcendental meditation.
Meditation for Creativity: The Final Word
I’m hardly an expert meditator, but mastery is beside the point. Unlike anything to do with productivity, meditation isn’t about hitting a goal, target or achieving an outcome.
A meditation teacher once likened the practice to dying a white sheet yellow. If you dip a sheet into a bucket of dye and hang it out to dry, the sun will bleach it white.
It takes many dips to turn that sheet into a deeply coloured blanket and conquer a fear of creativity. It takes many moments of sitting down and calming the mind to find a sense of balance and to use meditation as part of a creative process.