Creativity and the Practice of Meditation

Creativity, no matter how modest or elaborate, in terms of whether or not one creates as a profession, hobby or small part time artisanal endeavor, is a practice in much the same way that we have all come to know meditation as a path of practice. Both activities necessitate physical, psychological, mental and emotional space, solitude (for the most part), discipline (as in developing a solid, enduring and habitual relationship with either the creative or meditation practice), measurable rewards (not of the monetary kind, although that can happen with some creative endeavors), carving out time in order to practice, and employing RAIN (acronym for Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-Identification) for either practice.

I have heard that most creative people, initially coming to meditation practice, fear that over time, this practice will “deaden” their emotions and strip away their creativity. This can’t be further from the truth. In my own personal experience, as meditation practice deepened for me, I found that my mind was able to experience more clarity, focus and concentration which kept me on track in my explorations in painting, and actually crystallized the emotions so that it was like having a direct route to joy, anger (in the constructive sense), sadness, love and vulnerability. Increased sensitivity due to the willingness to be vulnerable feels like fertile ground for creativity to come to life. Allowing vulnerability creates space for creativity to flow from our deeper selves in the internal life.

Surprisingly enough, I have to say that it was creativity that led me into the practice of meditation. A few years after getting my art degree at UC Berkeley, I was having many experiences in the studio where, as I was working more intensely and connecting with the painting process on a deeper level, it felt as though my body disappeared and I became the painting. It felt like the painting was painting itself and that the work was flowing through my hands. As I looked at my hands painting, they didn’t even seem to belong to “me”.

These out of body experiences convinced me to learn more about meditation and to start practicing it. Before this time, I had grown up in the Philippines where daily and religious life are very closely tied together. There is no separation between church and state. From this childhood upbringing, I gained a deep understanding of the interconnection between creativity and having a spiritual life. It seemed that both the creative process and devotional prayer with contemplation manifested out of a very deep place in one’s internal life. The out of body experiences that I was having seemed to be telling me that meditation was similar to becoming deeply engaged in painting as one learned to move deeper into the process of spiritual practice.

It is simple to see the interconnection between creativity and spirituality. Authenticity in the artwork, music, and writing happens quickly, once one begins to undertake meditation. For me, increased clarity and intention, as well as reliance on inner wisdom, helped me to really “know” that any given painting was finished and no longer needed to be worked on. Prior to this, I tended to overwork the artwork a lot, not usually knowing when to stop. Meditation practice generates inner wisdom over time. Wisdom that lets us know when to stop working on a piece too much, how to not overplan so that it interferes with the creative process.

Meditation helps us to know how to enter stillness, which is usually already well in place for creative people. People who habitually practice their creativity are used to being alone, so stillness does not seem unnatural.

Time has to be allocated and set aside for both practices, so that if we are already doing it for the one, then the other also naturally follows. Practicing regularly creates clarity and quiet in the mind. This definitely is a big aid to perception. Suddenly, why we have decided to spend the greater part of our lives creating is clear and simple. We no longer feel obligated to justify reasons why creativity is important, to ourselves and others.

When I first learned meditation, I did not know a lot about the Buddhist teachings. As I began to hear the teachings which were offered after each guided meditation sitting, more and more I could see similarities and complements to both practices as well as life in general. No matter which came first, the meditation or creative practice, both reinforce the importance of ritual. Ritual is simple to do, repeatable, and habit-forming in positive ways. When regularly repeated, it becomes second nature and necessary in our daily lives.

On two occasions, I almost gave up painting for good due to two very unskillful arts administrators’ studio visits and what they said to me. I was devastated and felt that since their positions were exalted in the art world that what they said about my work was true. The Buddhist teachings on impermanence taught me that their comments meant nothing because as we speak, both are no longer in those same positions in the art world. As an artist, my work has had more staying power than these two people combined. Through spiritual practice and working with the inner critic, I no longer rely on accolades from people in the art world to know my work has merit.

My first introduction to Buddhist meditation was at Jack Kornfield’s Monday night talks and sits. I remember that I asked him what the Buddhist position was on creativity and artmaking. I was concerned that as with other religious traditions I was exposed to, prior, spending most of one’s time on creative endeavor would be considered to be selfish and non-beneficial to others in the world who needed extra help via time and money. His answer to me was to tell the story of the concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz and the need for creativity and beauty, especially in the face of horror. The prisoners stuffed small pieces of paper with poetry written on them into the cracks and holes of the brick walls that they passed en route to the ovens to be burned alive. He read some of them out to us while many wept.

Exploration of the teachings of the 3 Poisons: greed, hatred and delusion can teach how to really contemplate deeply what is important to the creative endeavor – money, recognition, doing unethical things to get the work to move ahead into better venues, more sales, etc.

The teaching on the 8 worldly winds: fame and disrepute, gain and loss, praise and blame, joy and sorrow helped me to heal from my insatiable appetite for fame. Whatever I gained never seemed to be enough. What helped me the most was the realization that I, as an individual artist had absolutely no control over what the media considers to be important art, trendy art: often assigning the same fickle criteria that is identified with fashion trends, instead of looking for and writing about substantive enduring art. So this helped me to see that my own artwork had its own merits, whether or not the media recognized it. The 8 Worldly Winds is a good teaching on equanimity – in the case of creativity, it offers how to arrive at a good balanced attitude regarding fame or disrepute, gain and loss, etc. instead of being swept by either of the two extremes from any given period of time to the next.

Anatta or not-self teachings can help to put our Ego in perspective regarding our creative work as well as life in general. So it can be like a two-fer. As we practice to see how the meditation serves the creativity, both practices cannot help but permeate and interconnect with other aspects of our life as well as our relationships with ourselves and others. The work no longer becomes an extension of ourselves and larger than life personalities. We see the work as independent entities that need to be seen objectively to best understand what the work needs in order to evolve, grow and reach resolution. At the same time, we can appreciate the reciprocal connection with the work and ourselves so that we do the honorable thing to get it out into the world like our children, but then let go of how they are received.

Last, the energy we imbue into the work will proliferate into the world and into the homes and workplaces that they may inhabit, the hearts and minds of the people who choose to enjoy them, etc. This makes it important to align the work with our intentions and to be discerning about the message we decide to disseminate which hopefully does not harm. IT is possible to create political, or even non-political but provocative art to grab viewers’ attentions without encouraging and feeding defilements.

Finally, mindfulness brings forth attention to detail, no matter how small in our creative endeavors. This is not the same thing as being a perfectionist, but rather, setting out to do the best complete job that we can, which is an expression of the deep richness that we have deep inside of each of us. Discipline in both areas of practice teaches to begin again in the next moment even if what we have done a moment before was considered to be a “failure”. Failures and mistakes are good learning opportunities and encouragement to keep creating, and moving forward with our meditation practice.


Intention is everything. Buddha said, “Everything rests on the tip of motivation.” Intention is volition or the motive behind an action. In the early Buddhist teachings, every mind moment involves an intention.

Unfortunately, intention is very subtle. It’s not simple or easy to see like a thought or image in our minds that have a beginning, middle and end. This is what we can appreciate during sitting meditation. Intention may be experienced as a moment’s pause in which you know that you are about to do something. It could be the pause before deciding to scratch one’s nose or shift one’s position, for example. We can begin mindfully acknowledging the pause and make the note, “intending”.

This is an important practice we can do in our sitting throughout today. Noticing intention starting in our sitting practice reveals for us the cause and effect relationship between mind and body. Due to an intention, the body moves or scratches its nose.

Then as we utilize mindfulness in our daily lives to help us remember to have the intention to notice intention as we move through our day, we will see its manifestation as a 3 part process:
1) Intention or volition = motivation behind action or speech
2) Then there is the action which generates from the intention
3) Consequences of suffering or non-suffering

There are times when we get triggered by something that meets our experience and we say something out loud that was unedited and causes harm. Usually the triggering that we experience manifests as a strong bodily sensation. This sensation, should we notice it with the tool of mindfulness, will signal a red flag for us to stop and then pay attention toour intention or motivation behind wanting to say something before we actually say it or the motivation behind wanting to act before we actually act.

As we begin to practice this way, especially in our daily lives, it is equally important to have compassion for ourselves whenever we forget to touch in with our intention. If harm resulted, we can then try to make amends.

Here are some techniques and reflections that we can look out for as we pause and touch base with our intention:
-Is intention arising out of love or aversion to what is happening?

Buddha said that “if the intention that arises is motivated by greed, aversion or delusion, suffering results. If intention arises from generosity, love, or wisdom, then abundance and happiness results.”

-We can set an intention to be kind and respectful at all times. See what happens. It’s important to keep touching back on this intention and especially when becoming triggered, or before going in to a difficult meeting. Before the meeting, we can reflect on:

What do I hope to accomplish?
How can I do this with kindness and respect?

For preparing our intentions before meeting with a difficult person, one of my teachers had this advice to give me:

“One approach is to always prepare yourself when you are going to spend time with a challenging person. Prepare yourself by getting calm, grounded and clear about your intention. Then when you are with the person, be slow to speak. Pause a lot. Speak as briefly as you can. Avoid saying what you would later regret. Also don’t spend a long time with this person.”

-We can use mindfulness and diligence to help us remember to check in with our intention.
-breath and body both alert us to pause and see what our intention is. This pausing will eventually become second nature
-disciplines us to remember to check in even with small things like preparing a meal. As we begin to prepare a meal:
ask ourselves, are we preparing this just to get it over with?
Or are we preparing this meal out of love?
-Seeing the grasping in daily life. Why am I suffering so much with this issue? Where is this grasping happening and why?

Gil Fronsdal says, “One of the most direct ways to bring ease and happiness into our mindfulness practice and into our lives is by investigating our intentions.”
And finally, from the Dhammapada,
“All too soon this body
will lie on the ground,
Cast aside, deprived of consciousness,
Like a useless scrap of wood.
Whatever an enemy may do to an enemy,
Or haters, one to another,
Far worse is the harm
From one’s own wrongly directed mind.
Neither mother nor father,
Nor any other relative can do
One as much good
As one’s own well-directed mind.

Perception Deception

If we think about it, the many ways in which we perceive the world that we live in, can be very deceptive indeed. This is because the way in which we perceive things (how we take in information) is prone to interpretation.

Let’s begin with how the process of perception works as a tool for each of us in our daily lives. The process of perception is related to recognizing various aspects of our world such as other people, food, entering and leaving doorways, how we drive, in relationship to other cars on the freeway, our relationship to others in space, etc. Perception helps us not to have to do so much mental processing because by the time we are adults, the ability to navigate our world, happens rather quickly, escaping our notice. We can also categorize things and people, and perception helps us with depth, like when we climb stairs, etc.

Kids and babies have to learn to process, name and categorize their world through this process of perceiving. Ex. My last two kids sometimes could not differentiate between mommy and daddy. I remember my husband having to say, no, Will, or no Natasha, I’m daddy and this is mommy.

With the neuropathy in my feet and legs, I can appreciate and mourn the loss of proprioception, which is the ability to know my relationship to things and people in space. The loss has occurred primarily in my feet so that I cannot know at times, such as when descending a staircase, what my feet are doing, so that I need to look at them. I walk with a cane to hopefully prevent myself from falling if I were to become unbalanced, from conditions coming together to cause this to happen.

With our 6 senses, we can experience the barest and most fundamental perception. With sight and seeing, we recognize color and form; with our ears and hearing, we recognize pitch and tone; with our tongue and taste, we recognize salty, and sweet; with our hands and skin and our sense of touch we discern rough, smooth, hot, cold; and with our noses, we can smell things that are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. The most common sense that we can immediately experience suffering, is with our mind and our mental activity. The thoughts are so integral to what happens in our minds, we often mistake them for reality and get lost in them.

The Buddha felt it was important to question our perceptions because so often, delusion can easily enter to create struggle and suffering. Much of our misperceptions of what is actually happening arises from deep conditioning that can come from our family life and/or culture. This conditioning is often not questioned, but rather accepted as the norm because it is a view, belief or opinion that is held by many people and agreed upon.

An example of both cultural and religious conditioning at work is when the proposition for gay marriage did not pass in California.

Another area of perception where delusion can come into play and cause suffering is with our desires. When we have a strong desire, it’s just a construct of the mind. It is really just an idea and not reality.

Ex. My desire for shoes – it’s really all about how I present myself to the world and wanting to look well put together. What does this idea/desire have to do with my authentic self?

Ex. Then there’s the matter of wanting things to be different than they are. This is based on delusion for several reasons:

1) Depending on the situation, it can be a waste of time to cling to the particular idea
2) We can be deluded enough to think that we can control the situation and manipulate it.

The way we perceive things is subject to interpretation and it happens at the most foundational level of our world.

Ex. Marcel Duchamp – the urinal which he turned into a sculpture and named Fountain
Ex. Bell or bowl? (in looking at a bell that we strike to signal the beginning and end of the meditation session)

We can create stories about an offhand remark, tone of voice or gesture. We can make assumptions about people and where they are coming from with what they say and how they present themselves to us.

All of these things can get us in trouble if we don’t take the time to:
1) deeply listen without interrupting the person, waiting for them to finish so we can say what we feel we need to say, and really hear what they are telling us
2) take the time to clarify any doubts or assumptions made by us or the other person

Even the most mundane interaction between people can take off and get out of hand…..unless we remind ourselves and each other that a story is being created, an assumption is being made, etc.

Ex. I was on a walk with a dear sangha member and recounted to her the story of my latest health concern which is increased double vision in my eyes. I visited the local ophthalmologist who is a fellow artist. We have both studied under the same art professor. Although the doctor mentioned that my problem was common in his practice and was an issue of dryness, I focused on the fact that he wanted a follow up visit in 2 months time and so I thought he might be hiding the worse case scenario from me because I am an artist. This dear sangha member reminded me that I might be creating a story.

How to break up and loosen the grip of our misperceptions:
1) Be open and willing to question our opinions, views and beliefs whenever we experience feeling very caught in the grip of attachment. Usually there is a strong body sensation of contraction when a charge is being triggered with a feeling of anger arising.
Ex. This can happen when we are firmly holding on to a particular political view and someone comes along with the opposite view, engaging us
2) We can incline our minds to impermanence and perception’s unreliability
Ex. We experience the body sensations of fear arising from a perception which gave rise to thoughts in the mind and from this came the creation of papanca or mental proliferation aka worry which feeds back into the fear, thus creating a running repeating loop of suffering
If we can get to the root of the papanca which is usually a fear about something we believe is not going to or is going to happen, we can investigate further and see whether or not there is much truth to the belief we are holding on to.
3) Be open and willing to catch ourselves when we are firmly identified with whom we think we are which is actually always changing and is never reliable. We can never count on whom we think we are to be that ‘self’ forever.

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