Over the years I have explored, repeatedly, ideas of mindfulness and being fully present in the moment. It’s a popular strand in meditation. I also have an interest in psychology, and a work life where seeking inspiration and making creative jumps is an essential part of what I do. Here are a few thoughts on how these things collide.
The human mind tunes out for more than it pays conscious attention to. If you sit still in a room, you have sensory information from all your nerve endings. You have visual input – which you can reduce by shutting your eyes. There are sounds. Your own heart and breathing, sounds in the building, sounds from outside. The more fully present and aware you are, the more sound you will notice, but the more invested you are in that, the less you may be able to also process about how the air smells and the exact temperature of your skin.
There’s a practical limit on how many things we can be aware of in one go. In practice, being mindful is a selective process – more or less conscious – about which bits of ‘the moment’ you are paying attention to. This is more viable when you are motionless in a quiet and controlled space, but as soon as you start moving through the world, you will miss more than you notice.
The more I focus my conscious attention on one thing (eg my breathing) the less able I am to notice other things. It’s exactly the same as the famous psychology experiment (you can google for it) where participants asked to count ball passes in a game fail to notice the person dressed as an ape. This is us. This is the human mind. It focuses really well, but at the expense of wider experience. So if we are too focused on one thing, we can miss a lot of what is actually happening ‘in the moment’.
Inspiration does not come with focus. It is not achieved by pushing. Again this is about how our brain functions. The conscious mind is just a bit of what we’ve got, and that’s not the bit doing the ‘Eureka!’ thinking. The experience often called ‘the light-bulb moment’ when everything clicks into place, does not come when we push for it. The light bulb moment is Archimedes in the bath and Newton sat innocently under a tree. It’s also me in my kitchen just pottering about and not thinking very much at all, and suddenly finding that the greater part of a chant and its tune have just happened to me. Bang. No conscious thought, no warning.
I know, because I spend a lot of time working with both the necessity for mental focus, and the need for inspiration, that it’s usually one or the other. Focus is needed to get things done but does not invite creative thinking. I have my best ideas when I’m not trying to push for them, and not dwelling much on anything else, but pondering, imagining, daydreaming, wool gathering. At my best, I am the point where past and future make their exchanges. I am all that might be, rubbing against all that is. I am transforming regret and nostalgia into what we are doing better tomorrow. I am observation, speculation and playfulness fermenting together. Pay too much attention to any one thing, and it all falls apart.
It’s important to work out what you want and need from your life and your meditations. You may need stillness and inner discipline. You may need space for your chaos. You may need to be present but not too focused so that you can notice all the things you did not know to look for. There is no one true way, only what we choose, and whether that does what we want it to do.