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Mindfulness and Cultivating Creativity

Accessing the mind’s default mode

There is a story about the maestro Michelangelo when he was working on the David. It’s said he sat in his studio for months looking at the giant piece of marble that would eventually become his masterpiece. After a time, his patrons came to him and said, “We hear you have stopped working!” to which he replied, “I have been working every day.”

For most of us, creativity is not something we can turn on and off. It is, for lack of a better term, a headspace that we have to enter into. This headspace, it turns out, has a firm foundation in neurobiology. It’s something called the default mode network.

Neuroscience describes the default mode network as a collection of brain regions active when an individual is not focused externally, and the brain is in a wakeful resting state. This corresponds to something called task-independent introspection, which is similar to the brain states associated with certain kinds of meditation and mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness comes in two general flavors. The first is the more familiar state of unfocused thought, where we are simply letting the externals—and, in some cases, the internals—pass us by, without clinging. This sort of mindfulness, when not connected with a formal meditation practice, is associated with everyday automatic behaviors, like driving a car or taking a shower. The second kind of mindfulness is where we are intent on a specific task, such as the walking mindfulness meditation made popular by Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hahn. Focused, action-based mindfulness of this kind corresponds with a different neural network, called the task-positive network.

Creativity, or at least the space that allows for creative thinking, arises out of the default mode. It is in these periods of unfocused, wakeful rest that we have the opportunity to see things in a different way, make new associations and strike upon new ideas. For Michelangelo, it meant sitting quietly with a glass of wine and a chunk of bread, staring at a rock. For us it means putting down our smartphone, sitting in the park or going for a drive with no particular destination in mind.

To that point, one of the greatest obstacles to creativity is distraction. When distractions intrude, the brain can’t switch from task-positive to default mode, so we end up feeling blocked or creatively stuck. These distractions can come in any number of forms, from our daily to-do lists to ongoing stressors, like interpersonal tension or financial concerns.

It’s also important to bear in mind this interference isn’t restricted to the creation of high art or great literature. These distractions can prevent us from engaging even small efforts of creativity, like a programming workaround or a marketing strategy. The bottom line is that, in order to access our creativity, we need to find the silence within ourselves to create a space of allowing. This is where mindfulness can give us an opportunity to find that silence.

With that in mind, accessing our creativity is not so simple as being in one state or the other. Similarly, it’s not just about the right brain/left brain dichotomy. It’s a process that involves various areas of the brain working together to bring us through nested and recursive stages of creativity that include including preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. The kind of mindfulness that brings us into the default mode is the bridge between incubation and illumination. It can be the silence that allows us to find our true voice.

© 2015 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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