Mindfulness, Creativity and Being Comfortable with Uncertainty

The interwebz are full of articles extolling the virtues of mindfulness. You can find encouragement to practice mindfulness whether you are a reader of Forbes, The Guardian, Time, Harvard Health, or Cosmo!  It appears that any industry or endeavour can point to mindfulness or meditation and draw connections between being aware and paying attention, non-judgmentally, to the present moment as a way to boost well being and productivity and reduce stress, burnout, and fatigue.

I’m on board. I know that when I take even 10 or 15 minutes a day to sit and watch my brain work and remind myself that I am not my thoughts my days go better, my mood is more stable, I am less likely to lose my temper or be irritated by little things, and I sleep 110% better than on days I do not meditate. I’ve sat on my own with a timer; I’ve used Headspace; and I’m currently using Calm. They’re all great options–the point is just to build a habit of noticing.

Part of what I get to do at Energized Academic is give workshops to groups of faculty and graduate students. This term I’ve given presentations on productivity and time management, career planning, and developing a mission statement for your career. Given to different audiences at different points in their academic journey, each of these presentations has somewhere at its core the notions of paying attention, taking inventory, and choosing a course with intention. So mindfulness, whether just as a principle or as part of a visualization exercise, ends up finding its way into a LOT of what I do.

Here are some of the key lessons I give to the groups I work with:

  1. You are not your thoughts. Sitting still and doing a guided meditation and watching your brain react to silence and try to keep itself busy with distracting thoughts is illuminating; you learn a lot about the “story of you” that you tell yourself and, with practice, can slowly begin to differentiate YOU from the “story of you” that is part of constant narrative chatter in your mind.

As a scholarly type, chances are you spend A LOT of time in your head. Since you’re there already, think of mindfulness as a different way to get to know what’s going on in there.

  1. Mindfulness opens new (neural) pathways to creativity, new ideas, and FLOW. There is a lot of research out there that supports the connection between practicing mindfulness and being CREATIVE. (samples here and here) Creativity is, for a lot of us, the highest possible good. Detaching from narratives in your mind that are handed down and seem “given” opens up the opportunity for you be creative and expansive with your life. Detaching from a given definition of success, for example, can be literally sanity saving while you are in graduate school or on the tenure track. Detaching from long-held narratives about your innate gifts or weaknesses (see: I am clumsy, I am fat, I’m no good at math, I’m no good at languages, etc etc) allows you to pay attention to your life and your experiences non-judgmentally and not as part of a pre-ordained story that ends by necessity in success or failure or disappointment or whatever you think you know about the future.

  2. Meditation can, literally, save your life. And if your life doesn’t need saving, it is a boost to your mental health.  I have a friend who credits meditation with literally saving their life during the time they moved from one temporary job to another, wondering if they would ever find a fulfilling, permanent gig. This person’s example illustrates another A-plus, primo, do-not-miss-out-on-this benefit of mindfulness and meditation: its ability to enhance your ability to weather periods of uncertainty with something resembling equanimity. There is a bit of magic in sitting down and watching your thoughts come and go; you realize that neither are you your thoughts, nor are those thoughts permanent. Slowly, through practice, the mindful person learns to not get too attached to the present moment–whether it’s a good one or a bad one–because that moment itself is fleeting and will give way to something new in the next moment. Uncertainty and change are the stuff of which life is made, after all.

  3. There is something there, inside you, beneath your thoughts. This is the other bit of magic that was essential for me as I went through my (most recent) period of uncertainty: the slow realization of something beneath and more steady than my thoughts. Michael Singer, in The Untethered Soul, calls this “the one who watches” and “the one who remembers,” as a way of reminding us that there is a mind in there that does the things that we then can mistake for reality. Lots of time spent reflecting on this, coupled with surrounding myself with people who saw a bigger and more exciting future for me than I was capable of imagining for myself at the time, allowed me to slowing come to that realization that I’ve seen a zillion times in print but never before felt: I am enough, just as I am.

  4. You don’t need a $100 cushion or stool, or to sit crosslegged, or to spend 30 minutes every morning. Ten minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time to sit and watch your thoughts come and go (and go–that’s the key point–don’t follow them down their narrative rabbit holes!) while sitting upright in a chair is a fine place to start.

I know you’re probably not a fan of uncertainty, whether in your career or in your romantic life or in knowing where you’re going to be living in two years’ time. And you can be sure that if I had a crystal ball, I’d use the heck out of it and not just to play the lottery. But, since I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t think you do, either, allow me to suggest a few minutes spent in meditation, each day, to get to know yourself and your capacities in a new way.

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