Meditation is heralded by many as being a ‘cure all’ – a panacea that can prevent all of your woes and help you to find peace and enlightenment.
They’re not wrong per say. Compared with many other strategies, meditation is certainly one of the most effective when it comes to overcoming anxiety and getting a better perspective on things. But unfortunately, nothing is perfect. That includes meditation.
Meditation is all about getting ‘out of your own head’ and focussing. It’s about being in the moment and not reflecting on problems.
But here’s the thing: reflecting on problems is useful. Even a little bit of stress is useful – it’s called eustress.
And the biggest potential casualty when it comes to meditation is creativity and the default mode network. The default mode network is the selection of brain areas that light up when you daydream, or think about your own future. People associate this part of the brain with a) being distracted from what’s happening, and b) being negative.
But the truth? The default mode network is also where many of us come up with our very best ideas – including Albert Einstein. Daydreaming about the future is how we learn more about who we are, and what we want to accomplish.
So, the risk is that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. The good news is that meditation isn’t to blame. The problem is with the way it is sometimes pedalled – by people who claim we should always be in the moment.
The truth is that the brain has many different states and we perform best when we’re able to choose those states and jump between them as needed.
So we need to be ‘in the moment’ when delivering a speech or spending time with friends, but there’s no harm in letting our mind wander when we’re going for a stroll and thinking about writing a great story.
This is where something called ‘productive meditation’ comes in. Suggested by author Cal Newport in his book ‘Deep Work’, this form of meditation means you are focussing on a problem or a creative endavor. Instead of thinking about nothing, you are thinking about something you want to work on.
And in fact, this kind of meditation agrees with what some new research suggests: that we are most creative when we active both the ‘daydreamy’ default mode network and the focussed ‘executive control network’. When you focus on being unfocussed, amazing things happen.