If you sit still doing nothing for just a few moments, your mind will start to wander in all different directions, and this happens also after a while when you otherwise try to concentrate on a task. A beloved child has many names, and this also goes for this well-known phenomenon. The Buddha called it the “monkey mind”, likening it to the monkey constantly jumping from one tree branch to another. A western everyday name is of course “day-dreaming”, and the neuroscientists are talking about “mind-wandering”.
In fact, day-dreaming is so common that it is designated the “default mode” of our brain, and it has been roughly estimated that during the course of our life we are self-generating more than 50 000 000 such thoughts. The thoughts could be about both our past and our future, and we are thus passing our days remembering our past and having our minds creating memories of a future yet to come.
So why is our brain hardwired for this kind of thinking, and is it good for us? On the negative side, being constantly in a state of day-dreaming makes us unaware of the present moment and the beauty around us. When we are constantly absorbed by our own mind and thoughts, we also become disconnected from the people around us. People prone to negative thoughts, also risk getting caught up with repetitive, harmful thought leading to psychiatric problems.
This is why mindfulness and integrating mediation practices like focusing on our breathing, allowing us to be fully present in the moment, is such an important counterbalance to the negative effects of mind-wandering.
On the other hand, evolution would not have equipped us with such a dominant mind trait if it did not provide us with benefits outweighing its negative aspects, and this is where creativity comes into the equation.
It has been shown that this constant mind-wandering comes with very little metabolic cost in terms of energy consumption, and with this massive number of thoughts every day, even a tiny fraction of creative thoughts, say one in 1 000, would mean 50 000 new ideas over a life time.
The proportion creative thought vs. more ordinary, non-creative every-day thoughts is of course not evenly distributed among us, and the creative individuals have more highly creative and useful thoughts than normal adult population.
But having all these creative thoughts is of no help to us if we lack the ability to pick them up and refine them into something useful to us, regardless if it’s a piece of art, an invention or just an idea for a good dinner recipe.
If you look at yourself. If you have not been absorbed by work, you have likely had some 250 thoughts going through your mind in the last hour. How many of them do you remember? Not many I would guess, as we tend to be equally unaware of our thoughts as we are unaware of so many other things around us in the present moment. This is where meditation could help us to be more receptive to our creative ideas.
Over the last 2 500 years, many different meditation practices have evolved. I have already mentioned breathing meditation as one making us more focused and integrated, but this practice is withdrawing us from mind-wandering rather than letting us explore it. A more receptive meditation practice is called “just being”.
In its simplicity, you just sit down and allow your mind to wander off, but unlike in a state of day-dreaming, you pay attention to your thoughts. You notice what comes, you have a look at it, you try to see from where it comes, you reflect on it, and then you let it go. This way you gradually over time increase your ability to be aware of your thoughts, but also not to identify yourself with them. Thoughts are just thoughts. Some are negative and destructive. See them for what they are and then let them go. Some are creative and useful. Absorb them and make use of them.
This sounds simple enough but is indeed not so easy. As with all other meditation it requires effort and a lot of practice. However, it’s a practice that will pay off and allow you to make better use of your creative abilities.
This blog post was inspired by:
Fox, Kieran, and Roger E. Beaty (2018). Mind-wandering as creative thinking: Neural, psychological, and theoretical considerations. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, Special Issue: Creativity
Kamalashila. Buddhist meditation – tranquillity, imagination & insight.
Illustration: Pixabay.com – Dana Tentis