When time is short and we need to create, the last thing we may want to do is slow down and be mindful. Yet my experience of leading mindfulness and meditation sessions in education and creative organisations, as well as embedding it in my own music practice, has shown that it has great benefits for creativity and personal wellbeing.
Mindfulness is being aware of the present moment by directly experiencing what is going on in our minds, bodies and that which surrounds us. Our art emerges from our current states of mind and emotions, so it is important to fully recognise and inhabit them. In doing so, the art we create fully belongs to us. It is shaped, shifted and moulded into creation. However, if we are not particularly mindful, clarity of thought, decision-making, and creation cannot easily arise. Instead the process of creation becomes one of indecision, U-turns and incompleteness. In turn we experience feelings of frustration, anger and annoyance. From this the likelihood of obtaining mindfulness and a sense of kindness to ourselves, and our experience, can diminish easily. One can see then, how the seemingly simple experience of mindfulness can have such a powerful effect on our art, and our lives.
When leading a mindfulness for creativity session recently, I gave the participants the following lists to write – five creative pursuits you enjoy, five blocks, five acts of positive wellbeing you currently have, and five acts of positive wellbeing you would like to have. Uncovering for yourself what works and does not work is personal. It is not about creative technique, but a deeper sense of your need to create and how to look after yourself to enable this to happen. These activities bought up realisations and forgotten pursuits as well as solidified ideas. In some it also allowed buried feelings of discontent and frustration to arise. Sitting with these emotions and accepting them can be difficult. This is where meditation can play a powerful role.
I first started meditating six years ago on an eight-week Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course. The benefits of a daily meditative practice were immediate; I had a clearer mind, was more relaxed and could focus on single tasks for longer periods of time. This new habit drifted and after a while I had stopped. It was not until I went on a ten-day retreat with the London Buddhist Centre in December 2013 that I properly embedded meditation into my daily life. I find it a challenging habit to embrace. Sitting still and doing nothing for thirty minutes twice a day is not always something I have the desire to do, especially when I am very busy. However, I have learnt that when I do maintain this daily practice my creativity flows so much better. I get more done in less time and what I do create I am happy with. Learning to give ourselves the time and space to meditate gives our imagination time to arise, ideas begin to form and sometimes inspiration strikes.
Another form of mindful meditation is that of the free flow write. Dedicating a specific amount of time (commonly thirty minutes) to write freely about whatever is on your mind is a technique made famous by the legendary creativity teacher Julia Cameron, in her book ‘The Artist’s Way’. Free flow writing allows for your inner critic to get out of the way as you write. Without taking pen away from the page, you get out on to the page what is on your mind. It clears the decks of the mindless chatter and insignificant worries that occupy your mind. It also makes clear exactly where your thoughts are going, the emotions you are experiencing and what is bothering you. It can be particularly helpful when you have reached a creative block of some kind.
When working on a soundscape last year I reached, fairly early on, a major creative block. My life at the time was very stressful and I was working on a project whilst teaching music full time. I had completed all the necessary field recordings, sifted through, labeled and organised them. I had even moved onto manipulating, layering and structuring them, but the piece had no sense of direction. Not even that, it didn’t feel like it had an identify. I was completely uncertain as to what this piece was about. Fortunately, I had booked onto a meditation retreat and after a week of three sittings of meditation a day, daily walks and simple countryside living I emerged with a clearer mind in which I could allow this piece to unfold. That is exactly what it did and with such ease. I was mindful of my body, my breath and particularly with my sense of sound, which allowed the piece to rapidly unfold onto my computer. It is in quiet times such as retreats and those when we are in nature that we can notice our desire to create. The stillness allows for insight and our creative impulses to arise.
Mindfulness benefits not only our creation of art but also our appreciation of it.
There is a technique in the book ’Life with Full Attention’ by Maitreyabandhu on enjoying the pleasure of art. The beauty that arises from spending time simply sitting and absorbing a painting, taking it all in, allowing meaning to arise both within the painting and our own experience is something we seldom do. It is rare that we allow ourselves to fully focus on one activity. However, when we do we can notice our ability to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Art galleries are the perfect place for us to fully embrace this. The near silence, spaciousness and beauty of the building and the art allow appreciation to be so easily achieved. Often we ourselves, or those around us, feel the need to evidence our experience, usually by taking photographs, but this changes the whole dimension of our experience. It becomes one of being behind the lens. Distance is created and a direct experience is not had. If we simply allow ourselves to absorb a work of art we are in turn absorbed by it.
Mindfulness for creativity allows our art to take its natural shape and direction rather than being defined by our limitations. Allowing it to wander to where it should be by being present and creating in the moment, rather than with a predefined idea, allows for something new and more exciting to emerge. A shorter more focused amount of time (as opposed to the grandiosity of ample open ended hours we dream of having to create) enables art to be born without our inner critic taking over. With the headspace achieved through meditation, free flow pages and time spend in nature ideas bloom quickly. Having let the mud settle our creation can take form.
Elizabeth Cackett is an educator, composer and sound designer who embeds meditation and mindfulness into her everyday creative practice. She has led composition and mindfulness workshops, and presented work at universities and academic conferences, alongside teaching music in schools.
Action research into the benefits of meditation in creativity and education has informed her practice and led her to develop this approach in her teaching. Working primarily with children and young people she has seen the benefits of these techniques in developing self-belief, focus and creative work.
Her latest project, an application titled ‘Spatial Wanderings’, is a form of auditory storytelling with the theme of meditation and mindfulness, comprised of four chapters (compositions) and twelve key sounds. It was exhibited at the InstallEnrichRepeat series, Atmospheres Festival, Cardiff in May 2015.