Artistic inspiration is something that most scientists—at least most neuroscientists—refuse even to consider in the laboratory. How can you measure what’s truly inspired and what isn’t? There is, however, a subjective experience that comes with inspiration, and this I’d had tastes of myself before I ever studied neuroscience. Though I grew up as a musician and loved music, one of the reasons I chose science as a career was that I didn’t feel I could reliably access true inspiration as an oboist..
The Connection Between Art and Meditation
I was interested, therefore, to see a recent article in The Washington Post in which the clinical psychologist and artist Maia Gambis writes about connection between the states of meditation and artistic inspiration. She says:
Many of us have heard about the benefits of meditation, but sometimes find it hard to do. Fewer of us know about the profound benefits of artistic expression. Creating art, however, is another way to access a meditative state of mind and the profound healing it brings.
I have meditated for years and have long been aware of the subjective benefits of the meditative state. This article reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend, a dedicated musician, who told me that playing the violin was his form of meditation. He said that when he picked up the violin and began to play, all the troubles of his life moved into the background, and he would go into a state of total absorption, of freedom and joy.
This, I realized at the time, is a beautiful description of the experience that I have in meditation. It was quite affirming to find Gambis’s article, in which she points out that meditation also nourishes qualities that are important for artistry. It helps us, for example, create space between our thoughts, thoughts that can at times be anxious or negative. This spaciousness allows us better access to our true selves, our real creative nature.
People have different ways into this interior state. For some, a form of art will open that door to joy and inspiration and help them let go of the constant chatter of the mind; for others—like myself—meditation is the primary and more reliable means.
In my career path, I found that meditation fostered these characteristics that are key to creativity. As I mentioned, I have played music all my life. Yet, as a child I didn’t know how to inhabit the music in the way my friend the violinist experienced.
Then one summer in my late twenties, after becoming a professor of neuroscience, I participated in a meditation retreat. In my first experience of meditation, a door opened into the experience of my deepest self, and I felt total absorption, joy, and contentment. Over the months and years after that initiation into meditation, little by little, I found that I could more easily re-enter that deep state of joyful absorption in my meditation.
Interestingly, I found that the effects of meditative absorption spread into other areas of my life. I noticed that in the lab I would sometimes go into a state of one-pointed absorption as I discussed a research conundrum with a student or colleague, and new solutions would come from a place that was deeper than my rational mind. Once when I was working with a colleague on a proposal for an experiment, something magical suddenly opened up in our conversation. Ideas about the project began to flow between us spontaneously, and as our words danced back and forth, it occurred to me that it seemed as if we were jointly composing a piece of musical counterpoint. By the end of the morning, we had created the foundation for a grant that examined new ways of looking at balance rehabilitation in patients. This grant was later funded and became a significant new area of research for us both.
In this way, once I discovered the means to open that door to my own inspiration in meditation, I had easier access to it through my research as well. I found that I also could find that inspiration more readily in my music and in other moments throughout my day. It is these little moments of absorption that make life wonderful.
So, how do we find a key to opening this door to inspiration and joy? In fact, there are many ways by which we can enter: art, music, walks in the woods, yoga, or meditation to name just a few. Once a person has opened this door, no matter what their means, they then have easier access in other ways as well.
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