Need inspiration? Go outside.

If I told you there was an app for your phone that would help you be more creative, would you buy it? What if I told you that giving up your phone for a while might enhance your creativity? Is that as appealing?

A new study published this week shows that people performed 50% better on a test of creativity after spending four days in nature with no electronic devices. The researchers aren’t sure what exactly caused the gains in creativity — being in nature or giving up the devices, but there’s support for the idea that it’s both of those things.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s something called “attentional restoration theory” that apparently relates to multi-tasking. Basically, multitasking requires a lot of executive functioning in the brain, which is kind of exhausting, and the theory is that being in a natural setting can replenish that functioning ability. Other studies have demonstrated that hiking can improve certain mental abilities.

The sad reality is that most of us don’t spend nearly as much time in nature as did previous generations. It’s true that we are not an agrarian society anymore, but it’s also a fact that recreation in nature has declined as time spent with electronics has increased. Yet there’s a lot of evidence that we crave what nature offers us.

Look at our holidays, both religious and secular. Many revolve around symbols of nature. Yes, those holidays originated during agrarian times, but the important thing is that we still celebrate them. So at Christmas, people bring trees into their homes; at the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, people build structures outside, decorated with leaves and branches, in which meals are eaten; at Thanksgiving, a cornucopia is often symbolic; and summer holidays are an occasion for picnicking.

Why are homes and apartments with views of woods and water more valuable? Why do we have houseplants? Why are landscape paintings so popular? Why do we take dozens of photos of sunsets? We are striving to bring the outside in and make that connection with nature.

At the same time, taking a break from 24/7 connection with devices is important too. I read yesterday that silent retreats have become hugely popular in recent years: places that offer solitude and a chance to look inward have waiting lists of people who crave some time in silence. The time spent alone in stillness can be an opportunity to find mental space, to discover things about themselves, to replenish the spirit.

That kind of mental space also nourishes creativity. Why is creativity important? Not only can it help you enhance your ability to reach your highest potential, it is also critically important to managing stress. People who are creative thinkers perceive potential stressors differently, and come up with more ways to cope with them. Creative people are more open to new experiences, so fear doesn’t get in the way of solving problems or achieving dreams. And people who are more creative are also more flexible, enabling them to adapt to new circumstances.

Did you ever get stuck on a problem at work or school, and decide to take a break and go for a walk? Did you find that during your walk you came up with an idea that might move you forward? Fresh air, sun light, and views of nature are food for the mind, body and spirit. As John Muir once wrote, “Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Be the mountain

Grounded! What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear that word? If you’re a child, you probably associate it with the punishment of being confined to home for a while. A pilot might also view it as punitive, not being allowed to fly. But someone who is trying to connect with awareness and being present in the moment sees “being grounded” as something quite beneficial. Are the positive and negative definitions really so far apart?

I started thinking about grounding yesterday during some restorative poses in yoga class. Our teacher was talking about surrendering to gravity, letting the earth support us, and how gravity is such an elemental force in the universe. Sometimes we need to reestablish that connection to solid ground, especially after times of intense activity or stress in our lives.

Children want to “fly” most of the time. They have so much energy and they are growing so rapidly that sometimes they go too far, too fast, and a time-out or grounding is necessary. As adults, we can self-impose our time-outs, but, like children, we don’t always recognize that we need one. Or, if we do acknowledge the need, we delay it until we “have time”.

Periods of disruption to our daily routines, such as a lot of travel, caring for a family member, or even preparing for holidays can make us feel as if our feet have left the ground for a while. Sometimes we have the luxury of being able to take a few days at home to rejuvenate, but most times we don’t. In those cases it can be helpful to have some tools to help us stay grounded even in the midst of turmoil.

  • Mountain Meditation – there are several versions of this meditation. I use one from Frank Jude Boccio with my students:   Start by sitting in a comfortable, stable and supported position. Imagine a very tall, impressive mountain; think about how the mountain might change with the seasons or the weather, sometimes visible, other times covered with clouds; sometimes green, other times snow-covered. But throughout the changes, the mountain remains stable. Think of your posture as mountain-like, and think of your emotions and experiences as coming and going like the clouds and the sunshine. You have the ability to maintain stability just like the mountain.
  • Get your hands dirty – Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine recommend this practice in their book, Five Good Minutes:    Spend some time digging in sand or dirt, working in your garden, or even repotting a houseplant. Focus on how the soil feels, and what it nourishes. (Bread-making, or working with other kinds of dough, would provide a similar experience.)
  • Restorative yoga – this type of yoga practice requires little in the way of experience or special ability. It uses lots of props such as blankets and blocks to support you while you rest in different postures. For a good overview of the practice see the Yoga Journal web page.
  • Take a sensory walk – this walk will serve to focus your awareness and heighten your experience of your surroundings. Be sure to turn off your phone before you start, and bring along some food or gum for the taste portion of the walk:  Go for a walk, and spend three minutes or so concentrating on each sense one at a time. So, first focus just on the sounds around you; then the smells; next, touch everything that you can; and finally see everything around you as if for the first time. After that, find a place to sit down and close your eyes. Spend the last three minutes on taste, using the food that you brought with you. When you are finished, get up and walk again, using all of your senses. Allow yourself to experience whatever presents itself, without too much planning or judgment.

John Muir said, “I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. “