Why Meditating Might Make You a Better Artist
Marina Abramović in Brazil, still from the documentary The Space in Between, 2016. Directed by Marco Del Fiol Courtesy of Casa Redonda.
People with jobs that require creativity—or as the artist Miya Ando puts it, require you to “start from blank canvases or nothingness”—face a particular set of anxieties and problems. You might be beset by horror vacui, the fear of emptiness. And even once you’ve started on a piece or a project, problems still loom. Myriad questions arise, like how to proceed? What mark to make next? From there, the potential worries just pile on: Are you good enough? Will you be able to finish what you’re working on? How does your partner feel about you? How will you pay the rent? What made the cat throw up last night?
The go-to method for dealing with such issues used to be getting gloriously drunk, smoking opium, or indulging in some similarly romantic cliché of artistic escape. Today, in our more practical and health-conscious age, meditation is increasingly becoming a preferred tool for dealing with stress and tapping the wellsprings of creativity.
In the West, meditation had a first flowering in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi turned the Beatles and other notable figures onto it. One of the people the Maharishi inspired was the filmmaker David Lynch. Through the foundation he inaugurated in 2005, Lynch has arguably done more than anyone else in fomenting recent excitement around meditation as a practice, particularly the Maharishi’s brand, Transcendental Meditation (TM).
Still, while TM seems to be the most popular approach, meditation is a way with many paths. Ando, who was raised in a Nichiren Buddhist temple and now tends to practice something close to TM, believes that all forms of meditation are “windows on the same view, doors to the same house.”
Meditation denotes a set of techniques aimed at focusing the mind. But the crucial question is: on what? Scientists have broadly classified two types: focused-attention meditation (FA), which entails fixing one’s attention on a mantra, a sound, a thought, or an object; and open monitoring meditation (OM), which, as it sounds, involves focusing the mind on nothing, but it allows you to acknowledge whatever thought happens to arise.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, (Ray Lee Project Vol. 1) NDD Immersion Room, 2017, for “The Women’s Triology Project, Part I,” at Leila Heller Gallery, 2018. Courtesy of Jared Siskin/ Patrick McMullan.
As an example of FA, the performance artist Marina Abramović has famously developed her own method of paying attention to every minute sensation in, say, drinking a glass of water or counting grains of rice over a period of hours. OM, on the other hand, may be as rigorous as the no-mind tradition of Zazen, or Zen meditation, or it could be free-form. Artist Rachel Lee Hovnanian, whose take on a meditation space, NDD Immersion Room (2017)—a forested room in which visitors spend time alone, after having surrendered their phones and other devices—was recently on view at Leila Heller Gallery in New York, practices a form of OM by simply walking in the woods and thinking.
Recent research suggests that each approach has benefits for creativity. At least one well-regarded study, by the Italian cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato, found that OM benefits divergent thinking, which is the process of generating as many ideas about a topic or problem as possible. We might say that emptying the mind helps us not to fixate on stressors, stimuli, or things that don’t pertain to our work, and in doing so allows new ideas to enter the field of our thinking. Colzato found that FA also may stimulate divergent thinking.
Generally, convergent thinking is not considered as “creative,” yet FA surely helps us practice concentration itself, which is another quality that is necessary for creative endeavors. Consider Abramović’s method of focusing on each detail of a process. Since art demands choosing among details, practicing her method ought to help you recognize what details are available.
Concentration alone, however, may not be the most useful skill for creativity. Indeed, in a series of four studies examining mindful meditation and creativity, the Dutch psychologist Matthijs Baas found that people who most effectively focus with attention and awareness do relatively poorly on tests of creative originality. By contrast, strong observation skills did predict creativity.
Observation would seem to be a quality boosted primarily by OM. In actuality, most meditative approaches blend OM and FA. Ethan Nichtern, a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition who has worked with artist Leidy Churchman, among others, explains that Shambhala employs a variety of meditation techniques: “The breath functions as a sort of home base, as an object of mindfulness to return to, but then there are visualization practices, compassion meditation, mantra meditations, and contemplation, where you actually think through a particular topic in a contained and directed manner.”
Similarly, practitioners of TM stress that its techniques are neither strictly OM nor FA. Although they use a meaningless mantra as a point of concentration, TM is “self-transcending,” a mix of OM and FA meant to induce a state of simultaneous rest and alertness.
Ultimately, as the unwieldiness of such terms as OM and FA suggest, it may not be science that offers the most illuminating view of the relationship between meditation and creativity but rather how people actually practice meditation.
The artist Hugh Scott-Douglas, whose wife teaches meditation, utilizes it because, he says, meditation “brings a real structure to my day.” He begins each morning with silent meditation followed by a series of breathing exercises, that, he continues, “largely work you into a parasympathetic state, which for me is really important because I do all my reading and all my heavy mental lifting in the morning.” The practice leaves him feeling mentally “clear and clean.”
That sense of clearing the mind of distractions seems to be a common goal. Nichtern points out that “working with the breath is a good baseline technique to work with before a period of creative engagement, because it’s about gathering and settling the mind.” He adds that one state resulting from such techniques is what Buddhists call cool boredom, “where not much is happening in the mind but there’s an appreciation of not having a lot of entertainment to chase, so you can work with what’s arising and with the subtleties of the present moment. For a normal person, boredom is a problem, but when you’re in a creative space having a tool that allows you to see what the moment is pregnant with is really helpful.”
Ando speaks of that empty space or state of mind as calmness: “To be still and to have quietude is of immeasurable importance, especially for those of us who are creative. We need to introspect and to train our minds to be aware of how we are thinking.”
The designer Lindsey Adelman began a meditation practice while she was creating her company, and the culture of her design studio remains imbued with it. She, too, links the discipline with a sort of calmness. Before beginning, she says, “I felt I was constantly responding to demands or always a little bit behind, like I had a collar and a leash on me all the time. I was constantly hustling, I couldn’t take it anymore. When I started meditating, it made me feel more in equilibrium with other people and my surroundings, I felt more like swimming. I just felt more alive and calmer at the same time, I trusted something bigger than me.”
Installation view of Slater B. Bradley, “Sundoor at World's End,” at La Maddalena (Church of Mary Magdalene) for Zuecca Project Space, Venice, 2017.
So important has the practice become for Adelman that she offers every new employee at her company free training at the David Lynch Foundation, and everyone in the office is invited to meditate in a group for 20 minutes each day. “Over time,” she says, “the people who stick with it don’t take things personally, they take feedback easily, and they don’t react to pretty much anything—it’s kind of a superhuman strength, not to react.” Her sense that accumulated meditation experience improves people’s performance both in creative problem solving and other tasks is borne out by research.
In fact, artist Slater Bradley (whose show “Ketu” opens May 10th at Galeria Filomena Soares in Lisbon, Portugal) has been meditating for so long—some 12 years now—that it has become for him a life practice. He feels he can actually live meditatively, though he gets tuned up by practicing kundalini yoga several times per week. Further, meditation informs and seeps into his artistic practice. The work in “Ketu,” which deals with Vedic astrology, has, he says, “a lot of meditative painting techniques or repetitive actions with a marker, which gets into waves of energy, electromagnetic fields, these types of things.”
There can be little doubt that artists like Bradley, Adelman, and others are at the forefront of a cultural movement that embraces the use of what were once thought of as esoteric techniques for enhancing their creative lives. Yet Bradley thinks they are part of something even bigger.
“I think there’s a neo-spiritual art movement happening,” he says. “At a certain point the truth is a bigger subject than pop culture. With meditation you find your inner peace, your inner truth, your centered truth, and then you find the world, and the world finds its center. That’s a noble pursuit for art these days.”