can meditating make you more creative?
Meditation shed its hippie reputation when iPhone apps and new gurus reintroduced ancient mindfulness techniques as tools for modern life. Now, a new generation of artists and designers is exploring meditation’s spiritual side again, in a quest for...
The dome at Inscape. Photography Christian Harder.
For his new meditation space in New York's Flatiron District, entrepreneur Khajak Keledjian asked architect Winka Dubbeldam (who is a meditator herself) to create a studio that felt like "something in between a fourth-century monastery and the temple at Burning Man." The idea for Inscape, a boutique brick-and-mortar meditation space and accompanying app, came to Keledjian while he was at the festival, inside its famous temple, several years ago. Keledjian is also the founder of the fashion boutique chain Intermix. He began meditating in 2006, after losing $15,000 to a friend who bet him he couldn't sit still for 15 minutes.
"Being there, [at Burning Man] for me was a moment of 'Wow, how does something like this exist, where there are likeminded people and this energy? Why don't they have spaces like this in New York City?'" he tells me. We've just meditated together for 22 minutes inside his festival-inspired dome, on custom Ligne Roset-designed ergonomic poufs, and he's wearing an ornamental scarf and Raf Simons for adidas sneakers. Inscape's mission is to make meditation appealing and easily available to over-saturated, over-stimulated 21st-century New Yorkers. "Society does not know how to comprehend the pace we live at. The balance got thrown off," he says. But Keledjian is also intent on tapping into and progressing a bigger movement. "Fifty years ago," he explains, "if you were running, people asked you, 'Who are you running from?' Thirty years ago, yoga was only practiced in the east, now look how popular it is. It's become part of people's lifestyles." Meditation, he believes, is the next major self-care movement.
There are now multiple apps offering guided meditations through your iPhone. The New York Times has a large multi-page interactive online guide called "How to Meditate." Silicon Valley startups have long built space and time for meditation into their companies (Steve Jobs swore by zen meditation). And thanks partly to the advocacy and fundraising of the David Lynch Foundation, Transcendental Meditation is becoming increasingly practiced and accepted in the U.S. Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld, and Lena Dunham are all vocal about the benefits of TM, and the foundation is now teaching the technique in schools and prisons.
The spread of a practice designed to instil mental clarity and self-awareness is only a good thing. But it can seem, in 2017, that meditation, like Burning Man, has changed from something purely creative into a product repackaged by fleece-wearing startup guys to aid workplace efficiency. What happened to tapping into the universal life force and experiencing meditation-induced levitation or "yogic flying"? As much as meditation is, in Keledjian's words, a "secular, modern, applicable" tool for disconnecting and helping us manage the stresses of 21st-century life, it is also an ancient technique for reconnecting with our innate creativity.
"Your mind's like an ocean, the surface is constantly in motion," explains Mario Orsatti, a director at the David Lynch Foundation and TM Center. "We've lost touch with the more powerful depths, and TM is a simple, natural process to bring us back to that, to that unbounded consciousness, the real source." While there are many different schools of meditation, the focus of Transcendental Meditation, Orsatti explains, is to realign our minds with this inner source, by using a simple mantra-based technique for 20 minutes twice a day. "The whole essence of [founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's] teaching is for humans to become fully in tune with the intelligence and creativity of nature," he says.
The age-old idea of the troubled artist — the belief that creativity stems from psychic distress — is an unhelpful myth, says Orsatti. "There can be a positive dimension to stress," he admits. "Stress is your adaptive response to experience. You need it to stimulate you to react. But stress can also reduce the functioning of the brain. That's what's happening today in modern life. TM brings the mind to a level of rest." Only in that state of mental quiet, he says, are you able to tune into the greater creative force of which we are all part. "How is it that people can come up with truly new ideas? What is the most creative thing in the world? We call it nature: an intelligence that's creating the universe."
If that sounds spiritual, it is. "But the world's got to get over the idea that spiritual means religious," says Orsatti. The TM Center in downtown Manhattan feels stridently un-spiritual. As if in an concerted effort to cover up any whiff of 60s psychedelia, the nonprofit has decorated its outposts more like conference centers than sanctuaries of spiritual learning. The certified TM teachers who pass on the technique during the four-day introductory course ($1060 for adults, $480 for full-time college students) wear button-up shirts and lace-up shoes. But Orsatti insists "It's conscious, to be open. A TM center is for everyone." "I teach a lot of executives and they don't want to see some hippie," he laughs.
Ironically, in 2017, people seem to be experiencing a renewed interest in New Age practices. We burn palo santo in our homes, do yoga, and get our auras photographed. Exploring mediation is in many cases a natural progression for someone who has experienced the energy and clarity induced by 70 minutes of ashtanga.
Writer Crystal Meers grew up three blocks from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, "so new age stuff was always around," she says. "Yoga, tabbouleh, Hare Krishnas, all that sort of stuff!" She began meditating four years ago when she attended a guided session with LA practitioner Jessica Snow. Originally, she says, "I really loved the creative visualizations and deep chill factor." Then, two years ago, a friend persuaded her to try TM, so she learned the technique at the David Lynch Foundation in LA.
"I am told the physical reparative benefits are equal to getting six hours of sleep," she says. She also reports that meditating once daily has improved her mental clarity. "As a chronic multitasker, it just feels good to try to just do one thing. I'm less anxious, more centered, and feel more alert and energized."
Reducing anxiety is a big reason many of the creatives I spoke with try to maintain a regular meditation practice. Simone Kurland, an artist based in Brooklyn, started looking into meditation a year ago. "I was becoming increasingly anxious, a feeling I was not used to," she says. "The anxiety made me uneasy, I constantly wanted to get out of wherever I was. Attempting to meditate only made it worse, sitting there let thoughts run wild." She realized, though, that the art she has made all her life — painting, sewing, drawing — is a form of meditation itself, and so she focused her attention on completing small physical tasks. "When my hands are busy my mind is clearer. I began doing 'task involved meditation' (something repetitive that occupies my hands). For example, I'll work on a puzzle, for a set amount of time, without interruption." Now, she says, meditation is crucial for using her time wisely. "I use it to focus on what exactly it is that I want to accomplish."
If the ultimate purpose of meditation is reaching enlightenment — a state of pure creative consciousness — the smaller effects of daily practice are also hugely beneficial, TM poster boy David Lynch explained to me last year. When the director started practicing TM in 1973, he said that almost immediately "I got happier [...] I got more energy, ideas flowed more freely. I felt good in my body. I felt more optimism." The influx of creative ideas was just one part of meditation's more holistic transformative power. But Lynch also says that meditating allows him to "catch" different, deeper kinds of ideas.
Yuki James, a photographer, began meditating in his 20s at a zendo (a Zen meditation hall) in New York, and has meditated on and off, using various techniques, ever since. "When I'm meditating regularly I feel the effects of it in my life overall," he says. "I feel more in tune with the universe and like I am proactively creating my reality instead of allowing my emotions to attract random and often entropic energy." But meditation can also sometimes lead him to specific and original ideas. "I have come up with concepts for shoots while meditating," he explains, "Sometimes a visual will come into my mind so lucidly that I'll hold onto it when I'm done meditating and create a story around it." He says this usually happens when he's reached a certain level of immersion in a particular sitting and is more open to inspiration.
Emily Mikaelah, an energy healer who runs the Brooklyn-based practice Helios + Solene, meditates daily and also describes receiving ideas when she's practicing. On days when she feels the need, she does breathwork, "an active meditation that moves spirit through the body, allowing it to break through stagnant energy blockages." She describes the technique as "psychedelically experiential, similar to Stanislav Grof's methods from the late 60s" and explains that these sessions "tend to bring up a lot of 'stuff' you may be subconsciously putting off." And then, every so often, she has "aha! moments." "There is a special form of inspiration that comes from the deep depths of the self," she says, "It's what the Spiritual community often calls 'instant download,' it's like you have no choice but to manifest this energy into creation."
When I speak to Violet Wilson, a student at Central Saint Martins in London, she's just returned from a silent meditation retreat in a remote part of Cumbria, in the northwest of England. This is the second Vipassana retreat she's been on since she started meditating at 14. "Vipassana," she explains, means "to see things as they are." Taking the time to look at things with fresh eyes is something she doesn't have much time to do during her intense fashion BA course. Meditating, she says, has changed her life, and while enhancing her creativity wasn't her goal it's been a welcome byproduct. The retreat, she says, was "a complex journey, because wanting enlightenment, or meditating expecting anything at all, is counterintuitive. Vipassana is about accepting your reality as it is."
One clear way meditating has affected her artistic practice is by reconfiguring her dreams. She describes a vivid dream about a flamingo-like swan that she immediately wanted to put down on paper. While you're not allowed to bring any possessions into the retreat, including drawing materials, she sketched out ideas as soon as possible afterwards with the idea of making them into larger works later. But on a more profound level, she says Vipassana has helped quiet her ego as a creative person. "It's interesting how it battles with my creativity. It's really easy to think of it as my creativity. It's easy to attach a lot of ego to what we do as artists. I think that's why artists have a high rate of mental health issues — that attachment and passion can be painful." During this recent retreat, she describes reaching "a point when my body just felt like this subtle flow of vibrations. It makes you feel more compassionate. You're ego is dissolved. You feel more connected."
Ideas, David Lynch said, are "out there to be caught, you just have to expand that container of consciousness." While many of the meditators I spoke to recounted having flashes of brilliance during meditation, people mostly described meditating as a pathway to a peace of mind that allows them to be creative outside of their practice. "It's more about creating a space in which creativity can arise," Will Fowler, the creative director of meditation app Headspace tells me, "the state of mindfulness is like trying to fall asleep. You can't force yourself to fall asleep, you can only create the appropriate conditions. You can think about creativity in the same way. By meditating, you're creating a stillness for the mind, which is a condition in which creativity can occur. It's hard to build a sand castle in a sand storm."
Khajak Keledjian purposefully chose to open Inscape's first outpost on a block that is New York's own version of a sandstorm. He says that if you can find peace at 4pm on 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, it's proof "that you can put yourself in that feeling of being anytime, anywhere." Finding 22 minutes of calm in a building flanked by spin studios and Trader Joe's seems like a true testament to the power of meditation. Who knows what 20 minutes twice a day could do?
Text Alice Newell-Hanson