I spoke to a friend this week about a meditation practise I’ve just committed to, and came up with a turn of phrase which really caught her imagination (“Thank you, I’m stealing that one!”, she exclaimed). It’s a phrase, an idea, I’ve been sitting with ever since.
First of all, let me be clear; I’m a regular but haphazard meditator. Some people rise at 7am and meditate at the same time every morning, or schedule in a meditation ritual every day. Me? I sneak in 10 to 20 minute sits at random times during the day, whenever I need more energy or clarity (ie, when I just don’t know what to do next/with myself). I guess I treat my need for meditation like hunger or thirst, and eat and drink accordingly.
But as part of my master’s in applied positive psychology, we’re invited to both facilitate a fellow student and be facilitated ourselves in undertaking a positive psychology intervention. As the subsequent essay is about the experience of facilitating and being facilitated, the PPI itself is more of a mechanism than of direct focus. So I’ve chosen something that’s loose in concept but has a little bit of structure: to meditate for 30 minutes three times a week, with the intention of creating space for insight and ideas to arise.
Because when I normally meditate, it’s to quieten down my thinking – and, indeed, I label all the thoughts that come up as ‘thinking’, as a way to recognise their lack of importance.
It’s like recognising that those white things up there are ‘clouds’, all the better so I can refocus on the sky.
But after reading Rest: Why We Get More Done When We Do Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and stopping and starting Coursera’s Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master difficult subjects, I’m aware that creating this kind of space in my life can facilitate more insight and ideas, too.
If I wanted to fancy it up, I’d say that I’m leveraging the mind’s tendency towards focused and diffuse thinking – when it’s directed on something, and when it wanders off. I like to think of it as putting my mind in a sandbox, so it can pull things out of the sand that might have been hidden, or start to build new things out of the sand.
Of course, meditating deliberately for insight and ideas isn’t new, and a study at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University shows how meditating for just ten minutes can boost creative (divergent) thinking.
But the phrase that caught my friend’s imagination came about when I was talking about how loose my intention was, how I was simply creating space for things to arise, that I was “cultivating open hands”, ready to receive whatever needed to arise during my practise.
‘Cultivating open hands’ means encouraging a state of openness, receptivity, and welcome. It’s about holding things lightly, allowing something – an experience, a thought, an object, an idea – to alight and receive our presence without confinement or attachment.
So often in life, we hold onto things – God knows I do. I hold onto memories and regrets, to expectations and frustrations, to idle dreams and waking nightmares and, most of all, to stories and beliefs about myself and others.
At the Museum of Happiness, where I volunteer, we often use a ‘letting go’ meditation at the start of our workshops. We invite participants to imagine that they hold a heavy carrier bag in each hand – the past in the left one and the future in the right – and invite them to set them down, so that they may be in the present moment.
But a subtle point about this meditation is that, by opening our hands and setting down those bags, our hands are now free and open to receive something new.
Indeed, author and coach Michael Neill has shared that he thought meditation was about emptying his mind, but soon realised that the real gift it offered was a space for new thinking to come through;
“.. I began to see the value of listening without anything on my mind, allowing myself to become reflective and receptive to a wisdom that seemed to exist somewhere beyond the reach of my own experience.“
I’ve only implemented my new meditation practise three times so far. The first session generated a tumult of insights and ideas about love and loss, the 80/20 nature of something, and how my daily to-do lists need to include something enjoyable if I’m to adhere to them (have just started using this very simple app, which puts the 1-3-5 rule of tasks into practise).
The second session came up with pretty much nothing, which was worth it for the insight that an open hand can remain an empty hand .. and how that’s okay, too.
And today’s session was kinda in-between; nothing earth-shattering, but a few useful ideas on how I can best ‘care for my soul’ this November.
So, how about you? If you sit with the question for a little while, I wonder; how can you cultivate more open hands today?