‘We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.’

– Albert Einstein

What is mindfulness?

Before we look into the link between mindfulness and creativity, let’s first define what mindfulness is.

A simple definition

Being mindful refers to one’s ability to be fully present and aware, without any interpretation or judgement.

Cultivating a state of mindfulness tends to be done by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly, and non-judgmentally acknowledging and accepting any feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations that may arise. Although it is a basic and innate human ability that we all share, reaching this mental state usually requires quite some effort at first.

Mindfulness and meditation: are they one and the same?

The terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” are often used in a similar context, so confusion is understandable; but while they embody many similarities and have incredibly intertwined practical applications, the terms are not exactly interchangeable.

You could see them as mirror-like reflections of each other, with the most obvious difference being that mindfulness is a state of mind that can be applied to any situation throughout the day, whereas meditation tends to be practiced for a specific amount of time only.

Learn more about mindfulness exercises for at the workplace.

Focused Attention and Open Monitoring: the two general categories of meditation

Focused Attention (FA)

Focused attention meditation involves focusing on one object or thought, like the flame of a candle or the repeating of a mantra.

This type of meditation helps to foster a state of stillness and is therefore also called clear mind meditation. Because of its effectiveness in preventing distractions, FA mediation is especially helpful for beginners.

Open Monitoring (OM)

Open monitoring meditation, on the other hand, requires unfocused thought and entails opening the mind and being receptive to all of the feelings, thoughts, or sensations that are present in one’s body.

Although the meditator does not purposely engage in thinking, thoughts will inevitably arise anyway. Whenever this happens, the thoughts are not stopped in a forceful way, but are merely observed with a non-judgmental attitude until they disappear. This practice can help practitioners understand that they are not their minds as it allows them to see that the mind has a will of its own at times.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a unique blend that encompasses techniques from both focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation. The goal is to remain aware and non-judgmental of whatever is experienced.

Usually, an attentional anchor point is used on which the meditators put their attention, like breathing, for example. At the same time, they also remain aware of their surroundings and have both a peripheral and internal awareness of all of the different sensations, thoughts, and feelings that are present in the body. All of this is done in a non-reactive way and practitioners refrain from casting judgment and simply accept everything that happens around and inside of them.

Mindfulness meditation helps people to accept rather than react and allows them to gain perspective on irrational and self-defeating thoughts. Because of this, it is often used in combination with psychotherapy.

What is creativity?

A simple definition

Creativity is a complex and multi-faceted concept for which an all-encompassing definition is hard to find, but we can describe it as “a phenomenon whereby something novel (i.e., original and unexpected) and appropriate (i.e., valuable and adaptive concerning task constraints) is created.” (source)

The connection between mindfulness and creativity

Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness has significant effects on both our body and our mind and can thus greatly affect our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. From better sleep, reduced stress levels, and a boosted immune system on a physical level, to improved mood and decreased anxiety, rumination, and job burnout on a psychological level, to name just a few.

Another aspect of mindfulness that is increasingly garnering more interest is its effect on and connection to creativity. However, as we currently do not yet have one definite and clear explanation of what exactly creativity is, studying this connection is not an easy task. Due to this lack of conceptual clarity, researchers tend to avoid addressing creativity as a whole and rather focus on its particular subcomponents and the different and dissociable processes underlying it.

One of the most well-known studies is the 2012 study by Lorenza Colzato and Dominique Lippelt in which they investigated the impact of focused-attention meditation and open monitoring meditation (which are both related to mindfulness) on creativity tasks tapping into convergent and divergent thinking. Another defining study is that of Baas in which he explored the importance of specific mindfulness skills in the creative process.

Convergent and divergent thinking

The terms convergent and divergent thinking were first coined by the psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1956.

Divergent thinking is the process of exploring and creating multiple possible and unique ideas. It fits best with problems that are open-ended and requires a context where more than one solution is correct. In contrast, convergent thinking represents a style of thinking that involves generating one right solution to a well-defined problem. It emphasizes speed and high accuracy and relies heavily on logic and less on creativity.

Although divergent thinking is definitely the more creative one of the two, true creativity requires both thinking processes as they, in fact, complement each other: divergent thinking helps us to generate novel ideas whereas convergent thinking evaluates them and selects the most useful ones. Or in other words: a creative and effective problem-solving process consists of divergent synthesis followed by convergent analysis.

What effect does mindfulness have on convergent and divergent thinking?

As mentioned earlier, mindfulness meditation combines techniques of both focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation. 

Through their study, Colzato and Lippelt discovered that open monitoring meditation is highly effective in stimulating divergent thinking. This came as no surprise. More unexpectedly, however, was the discovery that focused attention meditation did not sustain convergent thinking. The researchers suggest that this could be because the meditation practice affected convergent thinking in two opposing ways due to the combination of its focused character and its relaxing aspect. Furthermore, both types of meditation techniques tend to elevate mood in comparable ways, which facilitates divergent thinking but not convergent thinking.

The importance of specific mindfulness skills in the creative process

A couple of years later, psychologist Matthijs Baas expanded on Colzato and Lippelt’s work and demonstrated that of mindfulness’s many different key elements and skills, only one is a clear predictor of creativity (source). 

The mindfulness-related skills he assessed were:

  • observation (i.e., the ability to observe internal phenomena and external stimuli);
  • acting with awareness (i.e., engaging in activities with undivided attention);
  • description (i.e., the ability to describe phenomena without analyzing conceptually);
  • and accepting without judgment (i.e., being non-evaluative).

What Baas discovered was that the ability to observe and attend to various stimuli was the only consistently reliable predictor of creativity. This observation skill, which is enhanced by open monitoring meditation, improves working memory, increases cognitive flexibility, and reduces cognitive rigidity and according to Baas, it is closely related to openness to experience, one of the five personality traits of the Big Five personality theory that is believed to be one of the most robust indicators of creative success. (source).

This shows that instead of a straightforward and all-encompassing positive correlation, there are actually particular mindfulness traits that stimulate creative performance. If you want to improve your creativity, it is, therefore, recommendable to focus on sharpening these specific skills.

Three ways to cultivate creativity

Besides honing your observation skills, there are many other ways to cultivate creativity.

Make time for the Aha! moments

Nowadays, we are constantly doing something. Be it checking emails and social media or worrying about what we will eat later tonight. This is detrimental to our creative flow as it is in states of daydreaming when we are most receptive to new ideas.

An Aha! moment (also known as the eureka effect) is a moment of sudden insight or discovery which usually occurs when your thinking brain is switched off.

Eurekas stem from new neural connections that are formed in your brain. They need time to incubate and usually happen on a subconscious level, when your brain is given the chance to idly integrate new information with existing knowledge. This way it can notice patterns and establish new connections that were not obvious to your conscious mind.

How?

Try to build a habit of making time to allow your mind to roam freely. This can be done while showering, for example, or while going for a run.
Do make sure that these moments are not used to force creative insight as this will most likely have the opposite effect. Eurekas are usually not discovered deliberately and trying to do so can inadvertently stifle the entire process.

Boost your mood

The biggest benefit of uplifting your mood is that it improves your overall well-being and health, but it also affects many other facets of your daily life, such as your creativity. 

While feeling good may not stimulate convergent thinking, other aspects of the creative process, such as divergent thinking, greatly benefit from it.

Our mood influences our perception to a great extent and when we are in a relaxed state of mind, we tend to look at things in a different light and are often able to come up with new and unique ways of approaching a problem.

How?

There are numerous ways to increase your mood, and mindfulness is just one of many. However, thanks to mindfulness’s innate relaxing character and its ability to help us become more aware of our constant mind wandering, it is by far the best tool at our disposal as awareness is the first step to change.
Deliberately letting our mind roam freely can be beneficial, but unintentional mind wandering, on the other hand, tends to quickly turn into rumination or worry. Our ability to think about what has, will, and might happen is a cognitive achievement than only we humans share; but, unfortunately, this achievement comes at an emotional cost and leaves many of us unhappy, worried, and anxious.
Being able to consciously choose whether we are fully present or absent-minded can, therefore, have a very positive impact on our well-being.

Practice later thinking techniques

Lateral thinking, also known as thinking outside the box, refers to the mental process of solving a problem or generating novel ideas and solutions by looking at something from a new and unique perspective. It tends to be creative, illogical, and unconventional and is the opposite of vertical or logical thinking.

The term was coined by Edward De Bono in 1967 in his book The Use of Lateral Thinking.

How?

The PMI (plus, minus, interesting) strategy
PMI is a useful brainstorming, decision making, and critical thinking tool that encourages participants to look at things from more than one viewpoint by listing the positive, the negative, and the interesting.
The six thinking hats
The Six Thinking Hats model is a metaphorical representation of different thinking styles.
The ability to change the way you think about problems can lead to great discoveries and sounder and more resilient decisions. This is why “putting on a different hat” (i.e., examining things from different viewpoints) can be so beneficial.

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