Mindfulness for better creative thinking

18th December 2014
Paul Bailey

Creativity is a complex subject, and ‘creative’ is a popular word, but what does being creative mean and how might we aid creative thinking?

To be creative, in its simplest sense, is to be inventive, imaginative, innovative, original, visionary, abstract, lateral – to have new ideas. In running a brand consultancy and design studio for many years I’ve worked with a great number of creative people, from designers to leaders of global businesses, and have seen a wide range of creative processes in action. One thing that these creative processes have in common is the ‘flash of genius’ or that ‘moment of inspiration’. We have all experienced this, the times when we might have been struggling with a problem or issue for some time when all of a sudden, and when we least expect it, an answer pops into our heads seemingly from nowhere. It often seems to be the way that after a great deal of time spent surrounding ourselves with research and influences, once we stop consciously thinking about the problem then our subconscious mind appears to work overtime to come up with a solution.

So what has this to do with mindfulness, and how can mindfulness aid creative thinking?

Andy Paice is an expert with 20 years experience in mindfulness and meditative practice. In his mindfulness teaching Andy likes to draw on a method he learned from an American Zen teacher which separates the mind into two perspectives, the seeking and the non-seeking. At this point it is best for me to give an example of the seeking and non-seeking minds using Andy’s words from the facilitated process he uses in his sessions:

I am the seeking mind. I’m always on the lookout for something new that will improve life in the short, medium or long term. If there is agitation I seek calm, if there is calm I get bored and want something to happen. Whenever the thing I am seeking is obtained or achieved, I seek the next new thing. I never stop seeking, my quests are infinite. My perception is limited to that which I’m seeking. I’m not so interested in the here and now, more in what should happen next. I am the very impulse behind innovation and evolution. Without me things would stagnate.

I am non-seeking mind. As non-seeking-mind I am simply here in this present moment. I don’t look for anything different other than whatever is happening in this very moment. Therefore I’m not trying to reject or get rid of anything either. I allow whatever is happening to happen. I am a state of pure being. I am not interested in doing or getting or striving. I am the mind of meditation that feels complete allowing and accepting. Because I’m not searching for anything I see what is already here. Things just happen by themselves and that’s fine.

These are brief explanations but hopefully they are clear enough. The seeking mind is looking for new things and always in a state of doing, whereas the non-seeking mind is content and allows whatever thoughts it has to enter, always in a state of being.

For me this is a fantastic structure within which we can appreciate how the creative process might work. Think of times that we might be striving to come up with new ideas or solutions for hours, days or weeks only to find nothing. Consider this as our seeking mind being active, striving for answers, looking for new ideas, only to find nothing. But then there are those times when we might be out for a walk, or having a shower, or sitting on a bus, and that ‘moment of inspiration’ hits us. These are times when we are right in the here-and-now, in the moment. Consider this as a time when our non-seeking mind is open to whatever comes in to it.

When meditating, we accept and acknowledge everything that comes into the mind, whatever that might be, and we allow those thoughts and impressions to move freely and leave again. This is in effect, returning to a state of non-seeking or simple acceptance. However, when considering the creative process the optimum state for the ‘moments of inspiration’ or unexpected thoughts to arise is when there is a paradoxical integration of these polar opposites of seeking and non-seeking. In other words, we need our seeking mind to kick in again, to take the thought that came to the non-seeking mind but then seek to develop it. Andy describes this combination of the seeking and non-seeking mind as the third state. I’ll let Andy’s mind speak for itself again:

As the integration of seeking and non-seeking I have an alive feeling of flow and connection and an openness to whatever is happening in the here and now. Life lived from my state is an endless play of new possibilities. In this place I can be less fixed and rigid because there is no sense of failure. I embrace the non-seeking part which is so accepting that I need not be hard on myself, whilst the seeking part is free to give a big Yes to life and to go out and find whatever interesting things may be sought.

It is in this integration of our seeking and non-seeking mind that we can help put ourselves in a position to encourage creative thinking. Making time for our non-seeking mind allows us to receive the abstract, lateral, unexpected thoughts and ideas, and switching to our seeking mind allows us to take these thoughts and develop them into tangible, creative solutions. The non-seeking mind doesn’t mean we don’t need to work at being creative, far from it. What the non-seeking mind is doing when we get these ‘flashes of genius’ is taking reference points from our knowledge and experiences, things we have seen, done and heard maybe years previous or at that precise moment.

This is how mindfulness can aid creative thinking. In this ever-increasingly hectic life we need to take a step back from constantly seeking and give our non-seeking mind time and space to just be where it is at right now. That way we can encourage the unexpected, the inventive, imaginative, innovative, original, visionary, abstract, lateral, new ideas, and then let our seeking mind take over again.

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Andy Paice used to be a Buddhist monastic, living in a monastery in central France of the Tibetan tradition. He has devoted thousands of hours to the practice of mindfulness and meditation. He now works as a London based Mindfulness Trainer, Coach and Facilitator in business, corporate and community environments.Andy delivers secular Mindfulness workshops, courses and one-to-one sessions.

It is in this integration of our seeking and non-seeking mind that we can help put ourselves in a position to encourage creative thinking. Making time for our non-seeking mind allows us to receive the abstract, lateral, unexpected thoughts and ideas, and switching to our seeking mind allows us to take these thoughts and develop them into tangible, creative solutions.