'Being' and creativity: does meditation dissolve imagination?
August 10, 2014 7:02 AM   Subscribe

A lot of mindfulness meditation techniques focus on awareness of the present moment and stepping outside our personal narratives. My question is: does this process end up dissolving our perceptions of the past; and when one side steps the narrative, doesn't it make it harder to compose and imagine stories that exist outside of the present moment?
posted by wallawallasweet to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Anecdata: A prolific novelist who meditates daily told me once that meditating improves her writing because it clears her mind and, afterward, allows her to exist more fully *in the present moment of the story she is writing*. Not being present/having darting thoughts/being preoccupied with anxiety can actually rob you of your ability to be completely consumed by a project.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 7:21 AM on August 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

Meditation focuses on the present moment because our brains are very good at staying in the past or jumping ahead to the future, so we don't need to practice doing that the way we need to practice staying in the present moment.

As I understand it, someone able to dissolve their self from the past entirely would have basically achieved ongoing nirvana (as opposed to a few moments of it), which is rare enough that it tends to inspire entire religions.
posted by jaguar at 7:38 AM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

One way to look at it is that meditation is good for quieting the "thinking" mind, and allows for a more intuitive, emotional or creative side to speak. You can listen to your creative, imaginative self in the present moment, rather than be preoccupied with thoughts which are about the past or future.
posted by billiebee at 7:38 AM on August 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Meditation as you're talking about it is about taking a moment to make your brain focus on the present because it usually doesn't; that's all it is. You will still remember your past. Your imagination will be unaffected.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:06 AM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Japanese Zen Master Ikkyu wrote this poem:
Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.
Here's something my Zen teacher wrote:
When I started doing zazen thirty years ago, I was going to art school. After practicing regularly for some time, I started to feel that the art world was all fake; everyone was just faking it. Like the emperor’s new clothes, it seemed so pretentious and false. It became impossible for me to continue. The work I did in the evenings and on weekends aiding the elderly and disabled felt much more genuine and meaningful; it made much more sense to me. It took many years before I could return to doing art. Zen practice has made it possible to relate to art differently, or rather to relate to myself differently. For a time I had to reject that whole world, but now when I no longer think of myself as an artist creating art, I simply enjoy finding and exploring form and color (these days using a camera).
Meditation is transformative, but it's a a transformation that originates from within you; unless you become attached to some narcissistic guru (don't do that; a good teacher will talk with you as you are and encourage you to be who you are), you will not be altered in a way that conflicts with your deeper values. You might feel contradictory or confused, but it's never anything but your own mind, so just trust it.

I personally think that meditation, contemplation, solitude, silence, and so on, are essential tools for any artist. Consider that meditation is a kind of deep listening—some have speculated that the neurological basis for meditation evolved in tandem with the ability to hunt in the forest—and you'll see how this could be useful for imagination and creation. And if you read the dialogues of Zen Masters, there's always fresh, vivid imagination happening, sometimes ridiculously:
One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.
I quite highly recommend John Daido Loori's book The Zen of Creativity. It describes his practice of contemplative photography, or art practice as itself a kind of meditation.
posted by mbrock at 8:21 AM on August 10, 2014 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I am neither a great artist nor good at meditation but I do work in a creative field and I have found whenever I am asking myself if x genuine life experience is going to interfere with y potential to create art it's actually what Anne Lamott calls KFKD -- the inner critic -- trying to keep me from having the very experiences that are going to feed my soul and result in whatever choices need to be made to be there for both my life and my own voice as a creator.

As a writer, even the most fantastic flights of imagination have to be expressed, and we humans understand things through experience. So while someone might be coming up with a totally new fictional universe they are still going to have to describe it according to senses (translucent red ocean that smelled of citrus) and so on. So being present, to me, seems the very basis of flights of fancy in some ways, or at least the capacity to express them.

Good luck!
posted by warriorqueen at 9:14 AM on August 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think you might possibly also find something worthwhile in Rilke's "Letters To A Young Poet." Here's a quote from the sixth letter:
I don't want you to be without a greeting from me when Christmas comes and when you, in the midst of the holiday, are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy. But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn't understand a thing about what they were doing.
posted by mbrock at 9:49 AM on August 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

As an artist learning mindfulness, I have found it to be beneficial to my creativity. Since mindfulness is about the moment and acknowledging/understanding your thoughts, I'm able to focus on the creative ideas and develop them, rather than trying not to forget them in the clutter of other thoughts. This wasn't the case at first, but was possible the further I developed techniques and applied them. YMMV.
posted by stubbehtail at 10:42 AM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I believe your question contains a misapprehension: mindfulness doesn't remove your capability to know or experience your personal narrative but rather gives you a tool to not be beholden to it.

My work in mindfulness has increased my capacity for creativity. I am less involved with what I should do (I should make good art, I should make art that looks like X or that deals with theme Y) and instead open to the art my heart soul and body are capable ready and excited to make.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:12 AM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These answers are really helpful for helping me understand the relationship between the concepts, thanks for sharing and please keep 'em coming!
posted by wallawallasweet at 11:54 AM on August 10, 2014

There are many different types of meditation and not all meditation is about focusing on the present. That said, Julia Cameron advocates a kind of written meditation each day called the morning pages. If find that when I do this, I get the same kind of "cleansed out" feeling mindful meditation gives me, and I've also gotten a lot of the cruft out of the way which allows me to better focus on my actual writing projects. My morning pages basically serve as my journal.
posted by Brittanie at 12:19 PM on August 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

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