While attending the CREA conference in Sestri Levante from April 1st to April 5th I had the chance to interview Franca Leeson on a topic I am personally very much interested in: The connection between creativity and meditation. This interview will be published in two parts on this weblog.

Franca Leeson is a Colleague with Thinkx Intellectual Capital. She has been studying meditation since 1981 and teaching it since 2000. She has presented facilitation, meditation, and creativity sessions at Mindcamp in Toronto, Canada since its inception, at CREA in Italy since 2005, and at CPSI in Atlanta in 2007.

Florian Rustler: I have read from the CREA program that you use meditation to stimulate creativity.

Franca Leeson: Yes, I teach it as a tool that people can use to support their creativity.

FR: How does meditation support creativity, what does it do?

FL: When you produce something there needs to be space, there needs to be nothing in order to produce something. That sounds very abstract but it is actually very literal. You may need silence in order to produce or you may need to get rid of distractions, so you need the ability to pause.
The reason for that is that we are conditioned beings. A great deal of our life is taken up with repeating conditioned patterns — patterns that we have learned based on situations in the past, and we repeat them over and over. More or less that works. It gets us to the point of reproducing (laughs…) and that’s what nature likes.
If you want to be creative you need to be able to step outside of the patterns. You don’t have to throw them away. Sometimes creativity means combining existing patterns in different ways. But in general, you need to be able to step outside. As soon as you are aware of a pattern you are outside of it. Meditation is an ideal tool for becoming aware of patterns. You may fall back into it the next instant but the minute in the instant in which you are aware of it, you are not it and you are not in it.

FR: Are you using a special kind of meditation to achieve that?

FL: Yes, there are several. There are two general classifications of meditations. There are meditations that are aimed at allowing the mind to calm down, allowing things to come closer to stillness. The other kind is orientated toward insight — that means looking into things and knowing how things are. Different meditation techniques tend to be weighted one way or the other.
Breath meditation is mostly oriented towards coming to stillness or approaching stillness. You don’t ever actually get there but you can approach it quite closely. Breath meditation is a good tool for allowing all that distractive nonsense that goes on in your head and your heart to subside. I do teach that but I don’t teach it here [at CREA] because it requires a lot of time and patience and it does not have as quick results but it is very effective.
Another form of meditation, which I do teach here at CREA a lot, is an awareness practice that is also referred to as ecstatic practice. It is kind of a sensual experience. That is were you pay attention to the five traditional senses in turn. Then you turn to what is known to people trained in Eastern traditions as the sixth sense, and that is the mind sense. It is the faculty that allows you to be aware of a thought or an emotion, you can call that „mind“.

FR: So, often there are thoughts going on and we are not really aware of them?

FL: Well, we might be aware of them but at the same time we follow them and we are identifying with them. We are aware of the thought in the way that we think that it is us. When you are aware of a thought just as thought it is a very different experience then ordinary thinking. It is a funny distinction that requires exploration but it can be apprehended by almost anybody quite quickly.
For the purpose of creativity ecstatic practice allows you to open up your senses. When you open up your senses you practice what is called inclusive attention. Two things happen. One, you gain energy — by energy I mean a feeling of being alive. There is a greater feeling of being alive when you take in more through your senses. Two, it stops any notion of trying to fight with what is happening. So we are here having that interview and we are trying to include the many auditory distractions going on rather then trying to block them out. As you build capacity you begin to feel that increase of energy, and you are not trying to use the energy to block everything out.

FR: So, this kind of meditation you teach is that something that could be a part of a CPS [Creative Problem Solving] process?

FL: Absolutely.

FR: Do you include it into a CPS process?

FL: I don’t lead CPS but my husband Tim Hurson does and he uses that kind of inclusive attention for his sessions.
You have experienced me using it in the Qi Gong session to help people balance and relax. Rather then having them sitting there and going into their own world of thought – and that is what people tend to do when you are teaching breath meditation – you give them something that actually increases their energy but is more stable. In addition to that, we used it in a session I also taught here called “Insight Dialogue”. So it can be a method to have a certain kind of depth of conversation that can be helpful in problem-solving and creativity.

FR: How does that happen?

FL: There are a lot of reasons for conversations. The one that is of interest for people who practice Dialogue is that it is possible to share insights, not by telling them to each other, but by exploring a subject together. Maybe you know about David Bohm’s essays called “On Dialogue”. He invented a technique called dialogue that is a way of using conversation to explore a subject together. A meditation teacher called Gregory Kramer took that method and adapted it to the needs of meditators who want to explore their experience of the world and integrate new experiences mindfully. He wrote about it in a book, “Insight Dialogue”.
So it is a way of conversing, and there are certain things you can do to get there quite quickly.
It is not just about that amazing conversation that you had with that almost complete stranger about three years ago on a beach and you don’t know why it was amazing but it just changed your life. You can actually set up conditions that bring about more amazing and life-changing conversations.

FR: We could create a link here and say that you use meditation to support creativity and innovation. How do people who have never been exposed to that react to that link?

FL: Most people who have never actually tried meditation in our culture believe that it is a stress relief technique. There are people who say, “You need stress in order to be creative, so what is the point of relieving it?” Meditation can be a stress-relief tool but this is far from the only thing it can. But if people believe that’s all it is, there is not be a lot of understanding.
But in general, people who are interested in creativity and innovation are interested in new ideas, and I find these people to be extremely open-minded about meditation. Especially the people I teach here: it is tremendous how open minded they are about trying new things. Often people who study meditation and consider themselves familiar with it are much less open-minded!