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Features / Miscellaneous

Meditation and creativity: should we believe the hype?

Words:

Emily Gosling

Illustration:

Christopher DeLorenzo

Perhaps a sign you’ve truly made it in your field is the suffix “ian.” Anything dream-based? Freudian. Anything presenting a terrifying, dystopian take on the modern condition? Ballardian. Anything dream-like, terrifying and somehow beautiful and erotic? Lynchian. Lynch’s creative vision is barely paralleled in modern filmmaking, many would say, and just as many would surely love even a sliver of that creativity and imagination. So to what does he attest that vision? Transcendental Meditation.

He’s vocal about TM’s power to help catalyse his warped, strange realities; having founded the David Lynch Foundation in 2005 to help bring the practice, which he’s been devoted to since 1973, to a wider audience. Lynch is far from alone as a meditating creative, and in 2016 meditation isn’t exactly an alien concept. You can barely “ohm” for smug-faced, serene folk bandying about the word “mindfulness” as though it’s a finite resource; and it’s rare a woman’s magazine doesn’t harp on about the topic. It’s become almost as commodified and trendy as yoga, juicing and those weird water bottles with a big stick of charcoal in them.

While meditation takes multifarious forms, put simply it’s the practice of sitting still and alone, usually for about 15 minutes twice a day. Some forms – like TM – involve repeating a mantra (either internally or out loud), while mindfulness-based techniques encourage paying attention to what’s around us; maybe the temperature of the room, how different parts of the body feel, the thoughts that flit through the mind.

“It’s fuel for the artist, you grow faster between films or paintings. It speeds things up. You start making the subconscious conscious; meditators have an edge over artists that don’t meditate"

David Lynch

So sifting our way through this rather sickly soup of Marie Claire spiritualism, mindfulness apps and the many questions about TM and its hefty price tag (a mere £290 plus for your mantra – and that’s if you’re on benefits – with some teachers), what place does meditation have in creativity? How does it help? I thought I’d begin my quest to find out just as Lynch might have (he probably didn’t) by heading over to a TM introductory talk somewhere near Westminster in London. Sitting in a small, stuffy conference room in a community centre it all feels a bit like we’re being sold a timeshare holiday home, or learning how to be involved in some sort of a pyramid scheme.

We’re shown a number of videos, one featuring product designer Lindsey Adelman discussing why she’s got everyone in her studio on the TM bandwagon. “Meditation plays a role in allowing creativity to flow,” she says. “It’s the secret to enjoying life.” Following many odd claims – one stating that TM can scientifically lower our biological age – David Lynch arrives (via screen, of course). You can’t not like David Lynch, as a person or an artist. This part of the presentation makes everything seem a lot more palatable. “You become more you – you get more ideas and more energy to fulfil them,” he says. “It’s fuel for the artist, you grow faster between films or paintings. It speeds things up. You start making the subconscious conscious; meditators have an edge over artists that don’t meditate.”

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However, undeterred by the flipboards, shiny shoes and somewhat pushy approach of this west London TM outfit, I contacted a different organisation, the Meditation Trust, and in (almost) true Gonzo style, found myself learning TM with a lovely lady called Gemma, who reeled off numerous creatives she’s taught. According to the trust, TM helps creatives by reducing the stress that “negatively affects our creativity.” It goes on: “Stress hormones released during the fight or flight response disrupt the rational part of our brains and can cause negative thinking which can block our creativity.”

For us cynical, London-worn Westerners, it sounds perhaps wacky at best, cultish at worst – something more suited to the sort of sunset imagery-filled motivational quote your suburban auntie might post on Facebook than the sort of thing that might be useful in, say, a commercial graphic design studio. However, there’s no shortage of graphic designers who meditate, as I discovered recently from a Twitter shout-out to find those who do. One man who got back to me was Glenn Newcomer, a graphic designer at Hum Creative who practises awareness-based mediation. “I think I’m drawn to sources of inspiration that I wouldn’t have been otherwise,” he says. “When I come out of a session I have all these thoughts and ideas: meditation is like a salad bowl that shakes everything up and lets you make new connections.”

“A massive part of portrait photography is connecting with someone and getting them to drop their guard and relax. It’s much easier for me to do that now as I’m calmer. [Meditation] lets you take a break from the stresses of everything around you.”

Ben Gold

Ben Gold is a TM devotee and a successful photographer who’s shot for clients including The Times, Comic Relief, and Drapers. He started learning TM about six years ago, and says the practice significantly helped not only with personal problems, but in his work. “I trust my ideas a lot more, I find it much easier to make decisions under pressure,” he says.

From all the creatives I spoke to, meditation’s power to help social interactions proved key to helping their work: for freelance creatives, the ability to speak to others and collaborate is crucial, and something that having a more free and accepting understanding of your own mind is invaluable for. “Being compassionate and understanding things from other perspectives is really critical as a designer,” says Glenn.

“I’ve got a more positive outlook on life. I’m able to connect with people more,” adds Ben. “I’m a portrait photographer so a massive part of that is connecting with someone and getting them to drop their guard and relax. It’s much easier for me to do that now as I’m calmer. [Meditation] lets you take a break from the stresses of everything around you.”

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Linking creative work and meditation is nothing new. The practices themselves are thousands of years old, but in more recent history Johannes Itten and Oksar Schlemer from the Bauhaus practiced meditation and incorporated its ethos into their teaching. Making art is often linked with being “in the zone,” to use pop-psychology parlance, and the idea of being aware and absorbed in the present moment – as meditation and mindfulness advocates – is clearly analogous to that trance-like state of creativity.

It’s these connections that have changed artist Kirstie Macleod’s practice, and indeed her life. She credits meditation with her move away from London and to a rural village near Glastonbury in Somerset, having chosen the area in part because of its inherent spiritual connections. “There are so many lay lines, and two very powerful natural springs,” she explains. “The Red Spring [or Chalice Well] water tastes of iron, and there’s the whole thing about the blood of Christ. It brings so many spiritual leaders, gurus and yogis who come here to learn and teach. There’s a very spiritual vibe, and mostly a very positive one.”

Since she began meditating around 18 months ago, finding the practice through Kundalini yoga, Kirstie says her art and the way she approaches creativity have changed dramatically. “The pace at which I now work is much slower, but in a positive way,” she says. “Instead of rushing around like a headless chicken and being not as productive I’m able to be much more thorough and plan things better. When I do start working I’m much more focussed and tuned in to the task in hand rather than thinking of a million things at once.”

“Instead of rushing around like a headless chicken and being not as productive I’m able to be much more thorough and plan things better”

Kirstie Macleod

In a talk at the University of Berkeley on consciousness, creativity and the brain, David Lynch sums up why he thinks meditation is so valuable in creative fields. What it comes down to, he says, is how the practice (in particular TM) gives access to a deeper level of consciousness. “A side effect of enlivening this consciousness is anxiety starts to recede,” he says. “Negative things like anger and depression and sorrow are beautifying things in a story but they’re like a poison to the filmmaker or painter or to creativity. They’re like a vice grip – if you’re super depressed you can’t hardly get out of bed, let alone think of ideas or have that creativity flowing.

“The ultimate thing for me is the enjoyment of the ‘doing.’ The enjoyment of life grows – I love making films now more than ever before, ideas flow more and everybody has more fun on set. Creativity flows and people look like friends and not like enemies.”

So has my experience learning TM brought me such love and clarity? Well, I haven’t written my Blue Velvet yet, but it’s early days. I have finally finished this feature though, which has been languishing on my desktop for far too long. I won’t be extinguishing the incense just yet.