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Posts from the ‘Creativity’ Category

Keep calm… and carry on breathing: The simple exercises that can alleviate pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression

First appeared in the Mail on Sunday

  • Breathing is so ordinary – but many of us forgot how to breathe correctly
  • But this can have huge implications on our overall health and happiness
  • Mindfulness can beat depression, enhance happiness and creativity
  • And correct breathing techniques are the cornerstone of mindfulness

 

Breathing is so ordinary that its true significance can easily pass us by. But many of us have forgotten how to breathe correctly.

And this has huge implications for overall health and happiness.

For thousands of years, people have used simple breathing exercises that, ultimately, can have profound effects on the mind and body: they can relieve chronic pain and help sufferers cope with anxiety, stress and depression.

Some even claim these practices lead to spiritual enlightenment.

But I am as spiritual as a housebrick. Instead, I use breathing exercises to stay positive, focused and appreciative in a crazy world (and especially when I’m stressed out by a looming deadline).

DON’T BREATHE ‘BADLY’

I first discovered the art of breathing as part of my research into mindfulness meditation, about which I have written three books, including the international bestseller Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

Mindfulness – the modern take on the ancient practice of meditation – has been clinically proven to beat depression and enhance happiness, clarity of thought and even decision-making and creativity. And correct breathing is its cornerstone.

My latest book, The Art Of Breathing, gathers a range of mindful breathing techniques in one little volume that will allow anyone to incorporate some mindfulness into their life.

These techniques work because of the way your breath reflects and amplifies emotions. Incorrect breathing can cause anxiety, stress and even depression.

It works like this: momentary stress causes the body to tense and you begin to breathe a little more shallowly. A shallow breath lowers oxygen levels in the blood, which the brain senses as stress.

Breathing then becomes a little faster and shallower. Oxygen levels fall a little more. The heart begins to race. The brain feels a little more stressed…

It is a vicious circle.

But there is an alternative….

A gently rising and falling breath stimulates the parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm. Soothing hormones flow, calming negative thoughts so you begin to breathe a little more slowly and deeply.

You begin to relax. To gain a sense of its power for yourself, try this simple exercise:

  • Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Close your eyes.
  • Place your hands on your stomach. Feel them rise and fall as you breathe in, and out.
  • Submit to the natural rhythm of the breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Relax into the breath’s fluidity.
  • Within a few breaths your heart will begin to slow and beat more effectively. Your breath will start to become deeper and more rhythmic. You will begin to relax and think more clearly.

EASE ACHES AND PAINS

Most of us breathe incorrectly, especially when we’re sitting slumped at desks for far too long each day. Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.

When you are upset, anxious or stressed, or spend too much time sitting in one position, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work.

But the secondary muscles are designed to shoulder only 20 per cent of the burden, so they become stressed. If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.

You can counteract such tension by using a simple breath-based meditation. All you need is a chair, your body, some air, your mind – and that’s it.

HERE’S HOW…

Sit erect in a straight-backed chair with your hands in your lap. Close your eyes.

  • Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. Stay in touch with the sensations of each in-breath and out-breath.
  • When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the sensations of breathing.
  • Shepherding your awareness back to the breath is central to mindfulness.
  • After a few minutes, or longer if you can manage, open your eyes and soak up your surroundings.

After this, you’ll probably be feeling less tense. Maybe any aches and pains you have will be less bothersome. Hopefully, you’ll have gained a bit of clarity and started to realise that your breath is one of your greatest assets.

The Art Of Breathing: The Secret To Living Mindfully, by Dr Danny Penman, is published by HQ, rrp £7.99.

How to Embrace Life’s Difficulties at Christmas and the New Year

First appeared in the Daily Telegraph.

Christmas and New Year may be the most stressful times of the year but they also offer countless opportunities to become more mindful. So use these ideas from my new book Mindfulness for Creativity to embrace life’s difficulties and become more adaptable, creative and resilient. And when you do so, you will gain as much peace and contentment as any number of weeks spent in a meditation retreat.

 

Drink a glass of wine (or beer) mindfully: At this time of year it’s easy to drink too much while barely tasting a drop. So try drinking a glass of wine or beer with mindful awareness by following these steps:

1) When you ask for your drink (or pour it yourself), briefly ask yourself why you chose it. Is it your genuine favourite or was it out of habit?

2) Take a few moments to soak up the smell of the drink. Close your eyes if that helps. Flick through the aromas, noticing as many as you can without trying too hard. Connect with them and soak them up. Reconnecting with your senses is the heart of mindfulness.

3) Take a sip. What’s the first taste that you notice? And the second. The third…. Wine has scores of different flavours. Other drinks can be similarly complex. Try to gain a sense of the different flavours washing over you. How many of them do you normally taste? When you drink without paying attention you miss out on so many wonderful flavours, textures and aromas.

4) When your taste is saturated, swallow and take another sip when you feel ready.

5) You may feel the need to drink the whole glass, or you might feel satisfied part way through. Either way, tune into the thoughts, feelings and emotions that may be pushing you one way or the other. Notice how compulsive they feel.

6) Carry on repeating steps two to five for about five minutes or until you’ve finished your drink. Did it taste different to normal?

 

Go to the cinema with a friend at precisely 7pm: Often, what makes us happiest in life is the unexpected – the chance encounter or the unpredicted event. Movies are great for all these. Most of us only go to the cinema when there’s something specific we want to watch. However, if you turn up at a set time and date and only then choose a film you will discover that the experience is totally different. You might end up watching (and loving) a film you’d never normally consider. This act alone opens your eyes and enhances awareness. Once you’re inside the cinema, just forget about all this and be consumed by the film.

 

Only give gifts to children: Everyone else can be given a card where you explain your rationale and how much you appreciate them. You could even make your own cards and write the greetings with a calligraphy pen. And while you are writing, feel the pen gliding over the paper. Try not to make anyone feel guilty about giving gifts but simply explain why you have chosen to focus your energies on children and on making and writing the cards. How does this make you feel? Creative, stingy or relieved?

 

Watch adverts: Research carried out by former ‘Mad Man’ Dr Robert Heath at the University of Bath suggests that the best way of evading the influence of advertising is to pay it full conscious attention. If you try to ignore it, your deep subconscious will latch on to the adverts and soak up their seductive emotional messages. Paying full mindful attention undermines this and helps you to spot the tricks that are played upon you. So one day this week actually watch the adverts on TV and pay attention to the ones in newspapers and magazines. Notice the sounds and images used. Pay attention to each element of the advert. Deconstruct it. What emotions are aroused? Can you notice any flickerings of sexual desire, humour, or perhaps wonderment and awe? Some latent fear? Fear that you might miss out, or that you are not young or attractive enough? Shame even. Can you notice the overwhelming pull of these emotions? Now pay attention to your body. Can you notice how each emotion is localised in different parts of the body? Fear or shame might be found in the tightness of your stomach. Desire in your hands or face. The precise location isn’t important. Each time you become aware of your emotions, return to paying attention to the adverts. Do you feel immune to them or a little annoyed that they influence you at such a deep and visceral level?

 

If you’re a party animal – don’t go to ANY parties over the coming week. If you’re normally shy and retiring, or simply hate parties, go to one (or even arrange an impromptu one). Any disturbance to our normal social life can feel unsettling. So pay attention to how you feel when you are ‘deprived’ of your normal social life – or thrust into the centre of a new one. Do you feel a little nervous or relieved? Disappointed or uplifted? Remember this isn’t a permanent change, just a taste of a different way of approaching the world.

 

Watch the traffic for 15 minutes whilst driving: Begin by broadening your awareness and paying close attention to the vehicles around you. Do they travel in straight lines or weave slowly from side to side, speed up or slow down without rhyme or reason? Do some push in aggressively while others passively give way?

 

After a few minutes of watching the traffic, take a moment to ask yourself:

What is going through my mind?

What sensations are there in my body?

What reactions and emotions am I aware of?

 

If you are feeling angry, stressed or frustrated then your mind has switched on its emotional autopilot. You can defuse these unpleasant emotions by teasing apart the two major flavours of suffering – primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as being stuck in traffic. Secondary suffering is the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration. You have no control over primary suffering but you need not make the situation worse by reacting to it and creating secondary suffering. It’s akin to being stuck in quicksand. The more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink. If you instead pay attention to your frustration, by accepting its unpleasantness rather than struggling against it, then it will tend to melt away of its own accord.

 

Continue paying attention to your reactions to the traffic for another ten minutes. In this way, you can learn to respond rather than react.

 

Go on a Creative Date: this is a block of time for you to nurture your inner spirit or creative flame. It can be a visit to a museum, art gallery, or perhaps a trip to the theatre. You might like to climb a hill, visit a castle or perhaps watch a murky sunrise or sunset… or perhaps learn how to be a fire-eater, a circus clown or how to ride a unicycle. If you can’t think of anything to do, think back to a time when you were half your current age, what did you enjoy the most? Why not do that? Try to approach this Creative Date with a spirit of open-hearted playfulness. Set aside the time to do it now, otherwise it will get squeezed out by seemingly higher priorities.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers here:

You can download free meditations from ‘Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World’ from here:

What Exactly is Creativity?

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

 

When I was researching Mindfulness for Creativity it proved to be surprisingly difficult to pin down a workable definition of creativity. It’s one of those things that we all know when we see it but is difficult to describe in words. After a while I decided that trying to pin it down was the antithesis of creativity itself. It’s like trying to describe a beautiful picture, a breathtaking view, or a song that moves the soul… You can do so but only at immense cost to the underlying whole.

Nevertheless, this is what I settled on: Creativity is characterised by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena and to generate solutions. Creativity involves two processes: thinking, then producing. If you have ideas, but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative.1

Creative people tend to be more open and enquiring, while being less constrained by existing categories and boundaries. They are generally more autonomous and value curiosity and exploration as ends in themselves. They have flexible minds and ideas are their currency. They value expertise and enjoy pushing their own boundaries and those of others. They love ideas for their own sake and will happily tinker with existing ones or use them as building blocks for entirely new ones. Creative people are not only artists, writers and academics, but are also to be found in science, engineering, business, finance and the law. In fact, creativity is so important – and so innately human – that there is no aspect of life that it can’t play a part in.

There are two broad styles of thinking associated with creativity:

 

Convergent thinking

Convergent thinking is normally logical, rational, deductive and focused. It aims to produce the single best answer to a problem with little or no ambiguity.2 It emphasises speed, accuracy and logic and concentrates on recognising the familiar, reapplying techniques and accumulating stored information. It is most effective in situations where an answer readily exists and simply needs to be either recalled or worked out using decision-making strategies. The solution that is derived at the end of convergent thinking is generally the best possible answer the majority of the time.

Convergent thinking is linked to knowledge as it involves manipulating existing information or wisdom using standard procedures. Knowledge can be an important aspect of creativity. It is a source of ideas, suggests pathways to solutions and provides criteria for effectiveness and novelty. When you use convergent thinking to solve a problem you will often consciously use standards or probabilities to make judgments. (This contrasts with divergent thinking, where judgment is deferred while looking for and accepting many possible solutions.)

It is an aspect of the mind’s Doing mode (see page 35 of Mindfulness for Creativity).

 

Divergent thinking

Divergent thinking is spontaneous and free-flowing. It lies behind the ‘purest’ forms of creativity and in many ways is true creativity. Divergent thinking generates ideas by exploring many possible solutions, often in parallel. Ideas may arise in an emergent cognitive fashion as epiphanies or ‘Aha!’ moments. Many possible solutions are explored and unexpected connections are drawn. A high IQ alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, traits that promote this style of thinking are more important, and it is commonly found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, courage, persistence and resilience.

Divergent thinking is cultivated by the mind’s Being mode (see page 39 of Mindfulness for Creativity) and arises most often when the body’s soothing-and- contentment system is ticking over (see page 23).

Creative thought often involves both convergent and divergent thinking. Neither is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the other, and each has its own qualities. The most creative solutions or ideas, be they in art, science or business, often involve multiple phases and iterations of convergent and divergent thinking. So although the finished idea will often arise in an ‘Aha!’ moment, divergent thinking shouldn’t take all of the credit; convergent thinking might have accumulated the knowledge, wisdom and ideas necessary for divergent thinking do to its unconscious work.

Experiments have shown that mindfulness boosts creativity largely by enhancing divergent thinking, but many of the qualities associated with convergent thinking are also enhanced by mindfulness. Such things as working memory, clarity of thought and mental fortitude, resilience and courage are all boosted by mindfulness and are important features of convergent thinking. Happiness also increases both convergent and divergent thinking. Mindfulness enhances happiness and dissolves anxiety, stress, depression and feelings of exhaustion. It is through this additional route that mindfulness also boosts creativity.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

1 See https://www.creativityatwork.com/2014/02/17/what-is-creativity/

2 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convergent_thinking; Cropley, A. (2006), ‘In praise of convergent thinking’, Creativity Research 
Journal, 18(3), pp. 391–404.

Stuck for ideas? Struggling with a problem? Go for a walk and everything will fall into place…

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

 

There is something about the fluid nature of walking that encourages the mind to flow freely and feel at ease with new ideas. Research suggests that ‘creative output’ can increase by 60 per cent after a short walk.1 Countless generations of poets, writers, philosophers and artists have known this, and often walked for inspiration. Walking also encourages clarity of mind and purpose, which is why Steve Jobs hiked in the hills above San Francisco with his designers and board members before making important decisions. And he wasn’t unique – Aristotle, Einstein, President Obama and even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg all walked to clarify their ideas.

For these reasons, another great Habit Releaser is to go for a walk for thirty minutes or more (you can find more in my new book Mindfulness for Creativity). You can walk more or less anywhere. Your neighbourhood is as good as the wild mountains if you walk with the appropriate frame of mind. If you are feeling a little more adventurous, then go somewhere a little wilder such as a nature reserve or the seaside. The important thing is to soak up the surroundings as mindfully as you can, so try to approach the walk with open-minded, playful curiosity. If you are not physically fit, don’t worry. The aim is not to push your physical boundaries, but to open up your awareness to new (or perhaps forgotten) states of mind and to notice the effect that walking has on your thought processes.

Before you start walking, spend a few minutes absorbing the scene. What can you see, hear and smell? Does the air have a taste? Focus on the sounds. Soak up the different ones. Can you hear the wind? Or perhaps the notes of different car engines in the distance? Can you hear insects, birdsong or the scampering of small animals such as squirrels? Notice the rise and fall of each individual sound. Mentally flick between them. How does the pavement, earth or grass feel beneath your feet? As you walk, notice the movement of your muscles and joints. Feel the gentle swaying of your limbs. Can you feel the movement of the breath in your whole body – at the front, the back and the sides? Can you feel how the breath is always changing, just as the sounds do?

If you are walking through the city, look up and pay attention to the buildings. Can you see any wildlife such as nesting birds? Are there any trees or grasses growing out from walls or roofs? What details can you see on the buildings? You might see sculptures, or perhaps dates carved into stonework or even a gargoyle or two. Simply observe with playful curiosity whatever you find.

When you finish your walk, how do you feel mentally and physically? Tired or energised? Achy or pleasantly relaxed? Whatever you feel is what you feel.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

1 Oppezzo, M. and Schwartz, D. L. (2014), ‘Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), pp. 1142–52.

Why Not Go on a Creative Date?

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

 

Understanding your own mind – and how it unwittingly ties itself in knots – is one of the central skills of mindfulness. This was traditionally done through meditation but there are other ways too. One if these is consciously breaking your ingrained habits of thinking and behaving. According to a study carried out at Duke University, most people spend around 45 percent of their time running through one or more of their habits1. If you think that’s bad, others estimate that it may be as high as 80 percent…. Clearly, that’s the antithesis of creativity.

Habits can can trap you in dull and unproductive states of mind and drive anxiety, stress and depression. But the converse is also true. Each time you break a habit you become a little more mindful – a little more conscious of the world around you. It helps you to reconnect with the world and all of its beauty. It helps you to see everything in a new light, to conjure up new ideas, and to develop the courage necessary to follow them wherever they should lead.

The Habit Releasers in my new book Mindfulness for Creativity will help you to break down the negative habits of thinking and behaving that force you into approaching problems – and the world – in the same old unproductive ways. They will help you to progressively ‘jump the tracks’ into new and more creative ways of thinking. They are generally interesting to do and require very little effort.

One of my favourite Habit Releasers is the Creative Date. This is simply a block of time for you to nurture your inner spirit or creative flame. As the years pass, it’s all too easy to forget the small things that used to make you happy and fed your soul. The pressures of life and work can erode life in myriad subtle ways. Think back to a time when you were half your current age. Were you more spontaneously creative? Were you ruled by serendipity? A creative date gives you the necessary time and space to rediscover this serendipity.

And what will you do? Anything at all. It can be a visit to a museum or art gallery or perhaps a trip to the cinema. You might like to go and see a car race, climb a mountain or swim in the sea. Or perhaps watch a sunrise or sunset, visit a castle, go to a music festival or learn how to be a fire-eater, a circus clown or how to ride a unicycle. Try to approach this Habit Releaser with a spirit of open-hearted playfulness. It’s not just children who learn best through play – we all do. If you’re short of ideas you can look at the Appendix 1 of Mindfulness for Creativity for inspiration. The essential aspect of a creative date is to simply do what you need to do to set your spirit free. So much of life is planned, ordered and hemmed in that it’s important to throw caution to the wind and trust to luck. And when you do so, you’ll find that your mind opens up to new possibilities – creative possibilities. Your senses will come alive once again and your spirit will be renewed.

Before you go any further, it’s important to allocate the time for your date now. If you don’t, it is likely to be squeezed out by other, seemingly more important, priorities. That’s the nature of the autopilot, it tends to reassert itself. It’s also important to defend this time against all comers. It’s your time to spend as you wish. It should be for you alone. Don’t feel the need to bring along friends, family members or your partner. If you feel guilty, gently remind yourself that this will be for everyone’s benefit in the long run because it will help rekindle your innate creativity and love of life, without which your life and theirs are greatly diminished.

If you wish, you can make the creative date a regular feature of your life.

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

1 Neal, D. T., Wood, W. and Quinn, J. M. (2006), ‘Habits: a repeat performance’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), pp. 198–202; Verplanken, B. and Wood, W. (2006), ‘Interventions to break and create consumer habits’, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 25(1), pp. 90–103.

Enhancing Creativity, Problem Solving and Decision Making with the Breathing Meditation

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

 

The philosophers of ancient Greece believed that wisdom was imparted to mankind through the breath of the gods. Indeed, our own word inspiration means, literally, to breathe in. Mindfully focusing on the breath may not give you enlightenment from the gods, but it will certainly bring great clarity of mind. For this reason, the first week of the programme in my new book Mindfulness for Creativity teaches a simple breathing meditation that enhances clarity of thought and awareness.

Breathing meditations are not only profoundly relaxing but also directly relieve anxiety, stress and depression. They also enhance ‘convergent thinking’, or the ability to focus deeply on an idea, problem, or work of art – and this happens on both a conscious and unconscious level. The flipside of such convergent thinking is ‘divergent thinking’ (and I’ll come to that in a later post). Creative ‘Eureka moments’ happen when you shift between these two styles of thinking. In effect, this shift in awareness allows you to approach problems and ideas from different angles in different states of mind. Such a profound change in perspective is the essence of creativity.

The meditation programme at the heart of Mindfulness for Creativity enhances both convergent and divergent styles of thinking and teaches you how to move effortlessly between them. And it begins with one of the simplest of all mindfulness exercises: the Breathing meditation. You can listen to it here:

The meditation works by inviting you to focus on the sensations the breath makes as it flows into and out of your lungs and to notice the effect this has on your whole body. Throughout the meditation, it is important to focus on the sensations of breathing, rather than the idea of breathing. Many meditators, initially at least, tend to think about the breath, instead of actually experiencing breathing first-hand.

Why is focusing on the breath in this way so important?

Firstly, it provides a dynamic anchor for your awareness. It allows you to sense when your attention has wandered and provides a focus to return to. This helps you to see when your mind has slipped into the circular, repetitive thought patterns that undermine creativity. You also come to a deep-seated realisation that your mind is in constant flux. It is never idle and thinks constantly. This isn’t ‘bad’ in itself but if you are unaware of the thoughts passing through your mind then you can easily miss interesting or creative ideas. If you are lost in your thoughts, then your greatest ideas may also become lost.

Secondly, it helps strengthen your powers of concentration, so that you can effortlessly shift the focus of your awareness. See it as a form of exercise that gently builds and enhances your mental flexibility. This has positive ramifications across the whole of life.

Thirdly, it teaches you that the breath can become a sensitive emotional radar. All of your emotions are reflected in the breath. If you learn to focus on the breath while paying attention to your own emotional landscape, then you can begin to use it as a sensitive early-warning system. You can learn to sense when you are under pressure long before distressing thoughts appear in your conscious mind simply by becoming aware of disturbances in the normal rhythm of the breath. Such an alarm system allows you to defuse the ‘negative’ emotions that drive anxiety, stress, fear, anger and unhappiness before they gain unstoppable traction in the mind.

Fourthly, it teaches you that you can relate to your thoughts in the same way that you do to the breath. Just as the breath rises and falls, thoughts ebb and flow. At any one moment these might reflect an accurate view of the world – or they might not. This can be a profound and liberating insight because you are no longer compelled to believe that your mind’s running commentary on the world is completely true. You come to realise that it might, instead, be simply reflecting your emotional state; or perhaps running on autopilot, with your thoughts simply reflecting a habitual state of mind.

Fifthly, breathing itself can be profoundly relaxing. When you pay attention to the breath, and it becomes calmer, it naturally becomes deeper and more rhythmic. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and is naturally calming. So, paradoxically, noticing the build-up of negative emotions by the effect they have on your breath and body actually helps dissolve them. And actively ‘breathing into’ the areas of the body where the negative emotions appear to be localised can dissolve them even more effectively.

 

You can listen to the Breathing meditation here – or by clicking on the red ‘play’ button below

 

You can download the first chapter of Mindfulness for Creativity for free from here:

You can buy Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World from Amazon UK here:

From Waterstones here:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

The Relentless Pace of Life can Stifle Creativity and Undermine Happiness and Wellbeing – But it Doesn’t Have To Be this Way…

‘If you want to discover your creativity, and make more insightful decisions, then read this book.’ Professor Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.

 

Exclusive extract from Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World

 

The buzz of creativity always hit Jess around 10 a.m. For some reason, she’d spend the first hour or so of each day batting away pointless emails and staring blankly out of the window. But then her mind would suddenly clear, almost as if a veil had been lifted from her awareness. She’d straighten up in her chair, her pupils would dilate and she’d feel tingly all over. After a sigh, she’d begin typing furiously.

Nothing compared to that magical hour when everything flowed quite naturally. She didn’t consciously think or plan. The words seemed to pour through her fingers and on to the computer screen. All of her fears, worries and problems simply melted away, leaving her in complete control of her life and work.

But then something would shatter her concentration: the phone would ring, a text would arrive or a ‘vital’ email would flash on to her screen. The veil would then draw across her mind and that would be the end of her creativity for the day.

Why can’t I just think clearly like that all of the time? she’d snap at herself when her creative bubble had just burst. Resentment would begin gnawing away at her soul. Clearly I am creative. Nobody achieves as much as me when I’m in the flow. I do more in that hour than the rest of the day put together . . . Even if I could work and be as creative as that for just another hour or two each day, then life would be so much better. I’d get a pay rise. I could get a decent car, maybe a house . . .

Jess would then sigh before starting to deal with the pointless dross that cluttered up her workday as a copywriter for a marketing agency.

It’s not just copywriters who battle against the mental clutter that destroys their creativity. We all do. And it comes at a huge but largely hidden price. Designers and engineers fail to see cheap and elegant solutions to problems. Doctors miss subtle but important symptoms that cost patients their lives. Managers and entrepreneurs are too frazzled to take advantage of evolving markets. Writers, artists and performers fail to connect with their audiences’ souls. Even those who work from home inadvertently strangle their own productivity by forcing themselves into a creative black hole.

My latest book ‘Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, Create and Thrive in a Frantic World shows you how to enhance your own creativity and retake control of your life. It will teach you how to sweep away the barriers that are clouding your mind and throttling your creativity. It will help you make better decisions and deal more effectively with problems. In short, it will help to extend your own magical hour of creativity into two, three or four hours . . . or perhaps into whole days. The techniques aren’t only used by ‘creatives’, but also by major businesses such as Apple, Google, and Intel. Financiers at J.P. Morgan, HSBC and Deutsche Bank have adopted them to help them make better decisions. Even the US Marines use them. Truth is, we’re all creatives now – whether we want to be or not.

To enhance creativity and problem solving you need to cultivate three skills. Firstly, you need an open but disciplined mind that can gather and then integrate new ideas, concepts and information. This is known as ‘divergent thinking’ and it happens on both the conscious and unconscious levels. Secondly, you need to consciously notice the new ideas created by your mind and to realise their significance (otherwise they will simply pass you by). And thirdly, you need the courage to follow your ideas wherever they should lead – and the resilience to cope with the inevitable attacks and setbacks.

The practices in Mindfulness for Creativity foster all three skills. They are based on ancient traditions dating back at least 2500 years, and were originally developed by the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and the early Buddhists. Over the centuries they have been adapted to suit the times, but the core principles have always remained intact. The state of mind they cultivate is known as ‘mindfulness’, but it has also been called ‘awakening’, ‘presence’ or simply ‘awareness’. Mindfulness is a state of calm, open-hearted, non-judgmental awareness. It’s a state of mind where you are paying full attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, rather than living in the past or worrying about the future. Although it is traditionally developed through mindfulness meditation, other, less formal practices can also be used. Mindfulness for Creativity teaches both.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that practising certain forms of mindfulness meditation for ten to twenty minutes a day can enhance creativity, problem solving and decision making. They also dissolve anxiety, stress and depression, while enhancing happiness, wellbeing and resilience. A typical ten-minute meditation consists of focusing your attention on the sensations the breath makes as it flows into and out of the body (download here). This creates a calm mental space from which you can observe all of your thoughts, feelings and emotions as they bubble up from your deep subconscious. It allows you to watch as they appear in your mind, linger for a while and then dissolve. In effect, your mind becomes less frantic and ‘noisy’ and this, in turn, means you can notice your quieter thoughts and ideas. So it helps foster great clarity of thought. In this way, mindfulness smoothes the path of ideas as they arise from the deepest reaches of your mind. This enhances divergent thinking – the purest form of creativity – and the type that most of us would recognise as ‘creativity’ itself. Divergent thinking is the most mysterious state of mind because it appears to conjure up ideas from nowhere – often out of the blue, and frequently without bidding. It’s the form of awareness that gave rise to Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’ moment, Isaac Newton’s insights into gravity, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and many great novels, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In short, it’s the state of awareness that allows you to spontaneously ‘see’ the solution to a problem, to conjure up new ideas and to create a work of art or design with true insight and flair.

 

DIVERGENCE . . .

Mindfulness enhances such divergent thinking on another level too. It progressively dissolves the mental habits that force us to think along the same tired, old lines over and over again. These habits exert immense control over our lives, but we are largely unaware of their influence. In fact, scientists estimate that around 45 per cent of the choices and decisions we make each day are governed by habit1. Such habits have their uses, but they are very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they allow the mind to outsource routine matters to its ‘autopilot’, so that we can focus on the more important things. On the other hand, they can lock in place the ways in which we approach the world and think about ideas and problems. In short, they can stifle creativity.

And here’s the rub: because habits allow you to outsource certain forms of thinking to your autopilot, often without you realising it, thinking itself can become increasingly habitual. Certain thoughts can become habits in themselves. Negative, self-defeating thought patterns are particularly habitual. Ones such as Why can’t I do this?, What’s wrong with me today? or He’s got it in for me can turn into mental soundbites that the autopilot throws into your mind just as easily as it helps you brush your teeth or find your way to work. The same is true for countless other thought patterns too.

The way that we tackle problems at work and at home is often governed by thought patterns laid down many years before. They originally served a purpose, but do they still? Technology may allow us to tackle problems in new ways, but do our patterns of thought and behaviour? Circumstances may change, but our patterns of thought and behaviour often do not. This is why it is so easy – and so seductive – to think along the same tired, old, familiar lines and to make the same decisions over and over again. In this way, habitual thought patterns can progressively narrow the mind and ensure that we consciously think less and less, while ceding more and more control to our mental autopilot.

This is why around half of the choices and decisions we all make each day are governed by habit. If this figure seems a little high, cast an eye over your own life: do you always sleep on the same side of the bed? Have sex on the same nights of the week (and in the same positions)? Do you wake up at the same time each day? Always take the same number of footsteps to the bus stop, station or car? Take the same route to work? And when you’re there, do you always sit in the same chair at meetings, drink out of your ‘favourite’ cup and have the same polite conversations with the same people?

When it comes to approaching problems, habitual ways of thinking can make it very difficult to create innovative solutions or to spark a chain of new or original ideas. But there is an alternative. Habits aren’t destiny (unless you allow them to be). You can progressively disentangle yourself from the web of habits that controls your life by using the meditations in this book. And when you do so, you’ll find it increasingly easy to think clearly, spot new ideas and adapt to changing circumstances. In the long run, this will allow you to consciously ‘jump the tracks’ into more fruitful ways of thinking.

 

RESILIENCE . . .

It is not enough to think clearly and to produce original ideas. You also need the courage to follow them wherever they should lead and the resilience to withstand failure, hardship and cynicism. The scientific evidence is clear: mindfulness helps build such courage and resilience.2 It does this by encouraging the mind’s harsh ‘inner critic’ to fall silent for a while. Your inner voice is an essential part of your identity, but if it becomes too dominant, then it can stifle free-flowing creativity and experimentation. Left unchecked, your mind can start baiting itself with such bitter and angry thoughts as, This is pointless. I’m just not up to it any more . . . I can’t come up with anything new at all. Why can’t I just make a decision and get on with it? Your inner critic can all too easily consume all of your energy, leaving behind a burnt-out shell. You can start to become paralysed with indecision and even the smallest of problems can seem insurmountable. This not only further erodes creativity, but left unchecked it can lead to anxiety, stress, depression and exhaustion.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As you read through Mindfulness for Creativity you will come to understand that your inner voice is not always correct. The mind’s running commentary on the world should not be mistaken for the mind itself. In short, thoughts are not always facts (even those that claim to be). Simply understanding how this aspect of your mind works can reinvigorate creativity and grant you the courage to experiment, to make decisions and to risk failure in pursuit of your goals.

Such courage, especially in the face of failure, is essential. After all, you simply cannot create something new or make a difficult decision without risking failure – and taking such risks requires great courage. Creativity, problem solving and effective decision making all require a special type of quiet, persistent courage. It’s not the flavour of courage that is bold or arrogant. It’s far more subtle than that. It’s the type that you feel when you are standing on solid ground; when you have a sense of wholeness, certainty and strength; of trusting that there is a path to your goal, even though it might not be obvious at the time. Mindfulness cultivates such courage by broadening your mental horizons so that everything falls naturally into perspective. It’s as if you can see the world for miles around and all of your fears, worries and problems simply dissolve. You come to understand that most problems, no matter how difficult they might at first appear, are often akin to bumps in the road, rather than life-and-death scenarios. This, in turn, fosters the courage necessary to create new ideas and follow them wherever they should lead.

FREE THINKING . . .

Mindfulness for Creativity operates on two levels. Firstly, there is the four-week meditation programme, which takes around ten to twenty minutes a day. This clears the mind and allows innovative ideas to take form and crystallise. It also soothes the mind and dissolves stress. This, in turn, allows the mind to work more effectively, so that you can begin to solve problems faster and more intuitively. Mindfulness also helps decision making by dissolving anxiety, stress, frustration and depression. Even if you have none of these problems, you will still find yourself feeling happier, sleeping better and becoming fully engaged with life once again.

Secondly, mindfulness creates a mental vantage point from which you can observe just how much of your life is controlled by habitual ways of thinking and approaching the world. Such renewed clarity will help you tackle the habits that constrain creativity and effective problem solving. Habit breaking (or habit releasing) is as simple as taking a different route to work or spending a little time walking around the park soaking up the sights, sounds and smells. Or it might mean listening to your favourite music with fresh ears or drinking a cup of tea or coffee with your eyes closed. Such simple things broaden awareness, spark curiosity and open the doors to serendipity……

 

You can buy Mindfulnes for Creativity from Amazon UK HERE:

From Waterstones HERE:

Or direct from the publishers HERE:

 

References

For a full list see ‘Mindfulness and Creativity’ and ‘What it can do for you’.

1 Neal, D. T., Wood, W. and Quinn, J. M. (2006), ‘Habits: a repeat performance’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), pp. 198–202; Verplanken, B. and Wood, W. (2006), ‘Interventions to break and create consumer habits’, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 25(1), pp. 90–103.

 

2 Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J. and Finkel, S. M. (2008), ‘Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, pp. 1045–62; see Barbara Fredrickson’s website at http://www.unc. edu/peplab/home.html.