Creative Mindfulness For Reluctant Meditators
Is there a ‘right’ way to practice mindfulness? I don’t believe there is. Instead, there is plenty of room to customise it to meet your own needs (and I share a few ideas further down).
This realisation can be helpful if we find ourselves reluctant to doing certain practices. It’s really not uncommon to struggle with a standard approach to meditating – it can feel like hard work, and we wonder if we’re doing it right, or if anything helpful is happening. A creative approach can help us to move beyond the idea that there’s a particular experience or response that we should be having.
For example, breathing meditation may not be the natural starting point for everyone. It’s true that there is huge value in cultivating mindful awareness of the breath. And it’s also the case that it may take some time before we’re ready to fully embrace the stillness of sitting with the breath. During that transition, it can be useful to develop awareness in other ways.
If you’ve struggled with meditation, then harnessing your imagination could transform your practice time from a dreaded chore into something more personalised, nurturing and appealing. This is something I’ve learned in teaching others to meditate, and in my own practice too.
In my early years as a mindfulness teacher, I thought people expected a certain approach – something concrete, scientific and evidence-based. I was sceptical about ideas like ‘grounding’ or connecting with nature in meditation – I felt they were somehow not compatible with proper meditation (whatever that is!?)
But if we go too far down the rational route, we might miss out on the benefits of bringing our imaginative abilities to the practice.
I was fortunate to have been trained as a mindfulness teacher within a tradition that did include imaginative methods. These meditations invite the use of images to stimulate the flow of self-kindness. Initially, I felt a little awkward introducing this style in classes, as I worried that people would find it a bit airy-fairy. However, I soon noticed that something magical happens whenever I take that leap.
When I invite people to use their creative imagination, something powerful and supportive is often unlocked. Those who’ve struggled to connect with meditation might even have their first positive experience of it (and this has been true for me too). To say that this is inspiring is an understatement. Over a number of years, and having taught hundreds of people, I’ve never tired of seeing that spark ignite.
Sometimes, all it takes is hearing a particular line of a poem to create a powerful emotional shift (again, my training encouraged us to read aloud a poem or two during a meditation). I’ve experienced this opening myself many times, the comfort of being deeply touched by a poem that seems to articulate and recognise exactly how I feel.
I can’t ignore that for a significant number of the people I’ve led in meditation, working imaginatively seems to accelerate the calming and soothing benefits of the practice.
The idea of using imagination to support healing and wellbeing isn’t a new one. But it’s often seen as unscientific. Our culture tends to relegate imaginative pursuits to the domain of childhood, or to people who are dismissed as ‘woo-woo hippies’.
As I now appreciate, humans have an enormous capacity for the imaginative: for creativity and storytelling and making meaning.
While the foundation of mindfulness in my life is a strong one – anchoring me in awareness, presence and embodiment – it isn’t about suppressing my imaginative side. I don’t use mindfulness to empty my mind of everything that’s creative and alive. Rather, it helps me to find the healthy thoughts and feelings that are in there somewhere, and allows them to grow in my awareness.
Needless to say, I now don’t hold back on encouraging people in my classes to go with whatever works for them, just as I’ve learned to in my own practice. For me, it took a little while for to reconnect with my own imagination and playfulness (it had got suppressed somewhere along the way) – but it’s been worth giving it room to re-emerge.
If any of this is striking a chord with you, here are a few ways you might begin to weave imagination into your own practice of mindfulness:
Tell Different Stories
We use our imagination all the time – and very effectively – when we catastrophise and scare ourselves by dreaming up potential horror stories about the future; or when we judge other people, by effectively making up stories about them. What if we harnessed this power to tell ourselves positive stories? Mindfulness is about choosing to keep (and nurture) the helpful stories, and let go of the ones that limit us. This blog goes into stories in more depth – Clear Seeing And Discovering Freedom
I consider self-kindness to be a crucial element of developing a strong mindfulness practice. Many of the most effective ways into self-kindness are imaginative. Variations include working with a soothing image, like a warm sun, or a place in nature where you feel safe and cared for, or gently connecting with a part of the self that is hurting. Or basically, whatever works for you. In the meditations using phrases, you can always create your own wording to match what you most need. Examples of these imaginative practices would be meditations like ‘Support Your Self’ or ‘Imagining Compassion’ in my Self-kindness Meditations. Some of the Breathworks ‘Kindness To Self’ meditations also include working with images. Paul Gilbert’s books on self-compassion also include imaginative tools.
Practices in which we imaginatively connect with the earth are becoming more popular (there’s a reason that mindfulness meditations often start with bringing awareness to your body’s contact with the ground). Somatic – or body-based – mindfulness sometimes includes combining awareness of the breath with images. These can be soothing practices that help to regulate the nervous system and increase wellbeing. My practice ‘Supported By The Earth’ draws on these themes – find it in the Body Awareness Meditations
Use The Language Of Image
In my work as a coach, I’ve always found the language of metaphor to be useful in developing mindfulness of emotions. When we use images to describe feelings or experiences, it can unlock a new way forward that we wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. You can include this in your mindful journaling practice, by using metaphor when it’s tricky to describe a feeling – if you were to draw an image of what you’re experiencing, what would it be? (Of course, you could actually draw it aswell). In this much-loved poem, Portia Nelson uses metaphor to bring warmth and understanding to the very human experience of falling into old habits – ‘Autobiography In Five Short Chapters’
If you give yourself permission to get creative in your practice, you may well discover additional things for yourself that are helpful.
As I mentioned before, these ideas aren’t new; versions of these methods can be found in various ancient lineages (including indigenous European traditions, aswell as the eastern practices from which modern mindfulness is drawn). To me, the essence of these traditions still feels relevant and helpful today. I’m not surprised there is a surge of interest in these meditations as we try to rebuild a mindful connection with nature in response to climate concern.
My personal explorations of all this have evolved my own definition of mindfulness into something broader, more flexible, more creative and alive than what I first took mindfulness to mean. (I tend to prefer the term ‘awareness’ anyway). This way of seeing it helps to keep my practice itself alive – to maintain it as something I want to engage in, daily, even when I’m tired, or busy, or stressed.
As we collectively rediscover these practices and bring them into the modern world we live in now, we can reclaim the power inherent in them. But we will need creativity and imagination to weave them back into contemporary culture. I’ll be interested to see how this continues to unfold.
To explore further for yourself, I’ve included a few more resources below. Happy meditating!
Somatic mindfulness is something I talked a little more about in Relaxing As Letting Go
The imaginative ‘right-brain’ was also mentioned in my post Reclaiming Our Natural Wellbeing
For bringing more playfulness into everyday life, a great book is ‘Improv Wisdom’ by Patricia Ryan Madson.
The power of story is a theme taken up by many writers today. Some of these books I’ve found helpful are:
The Enchanted Life, by Sharon Blackie
Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
Climate – A New Story, by Charles Eisenstein