Cultivating a Mind Where Ideas Find You*

September 9, 2017

Peter Bonanno, director of program development for SIYLI, is known among his colleagues for his creativity, diverse interests in sciences, poetry and foreign languages. In addition to a daily meditation and journaling practice, his workday routines include dancing, tai chi and napping. Peter explains why scientists regard movement and naps as beneficial for thinking and learning.

Let’s cut to the chase: Why so much dancing at work?
A sign that I’m doing my best design work is usually that I’m rocking out to whatever degree of mobility my headphones allow and am frantically writing or sketching a new idea. For me, music and movement have always been joyful things. I think that’s true for a lot of us. And to me, joy is a mental condition during which my most inspired work comes forth. People at SIYLI are trusting and tolerant about different work styles. I’m grateful for that.

Moving helps me think, even if it’s just rocking back and forth or tapping my foot while listening to music. I get qualitatively different ideas when moving as opposed to sitting. I can sit and work if the scope of what I’m doing is already well known, and I just have to grind out the task. But movement captures the emotion and flow of creativity. When you dance, you’re listening and moving to the music; when you create, you’re listening and moving to the flow of ideas as they develop.

So yes. Dancing, doing pushups, playing a flow-inducing sport like volleyball—those are some of my favorite ways to enliven my day.

We’ve inherited a bias that good thinking means sitting still and squishing our eyebrows together to think really hard. Why? That makes no sense. Sometimes sitting works; sometimes we need to change it up. Many of my personal heroes are scientists who developed ideas while walking, showering, playing board games or lying on their backs looking up at the sky and contemplating. To live fully and express your full intelligence—I think that’s great. So whatever helps you do that, go for it.

Is there any science behind your approach?
Cognitive scientists have this thing called “4E cognition.” Cognition is how we process mental content, including both thinking and emotions, which are closely tied together. 4E cognition says that our cognition isn’t just a thing that happens in isolation in our heads, like in a little laptop perched on top of our shoulders. It’s bigger and more subtle than that, and you’ve got to see that to bring out the full power of your intelligence and creativity.

The way they explain it is with four E’s: Cognition is embodied (it happens in a physical mind and body), embedded (it happens within a social context), extended (through our use of tools and symbols) and enactive (occurring as a the relationship between behavior and environment).

If you change any of these things, it changes how you think.  Move the body, and you get a different quality of thinking. Change the group of people you’re around and, whether you want it or not, you get a different quality of thinking. Give the mind and body access to a new tool—like writing, a whiteboard, or a laptop—it changes how you think.

I often talk about cultivating a mind where ideas find you, which is inspired by one of my past teacher trainers, professor Eleanor Duckworth. Have you ever tried really hard to come up with a good idea? Like, said to yourself, “I’m going to sit down at my desk now and come up with a brilliant idea.” How well does that work? It doesn’t. It’s a recipe for writer’s block. There’s not some little you-ego-person sitting at a desk in your brain who you can force to come up with creative ideas or insightful wisdom. The mind is more like the internet, a complex network.

So the more accurate and helpful mental model is that ideas are an emergent property of a well-cared-for mind. You don’t have ideas; ideas have you. I know that sounds like something Yoda would say, but my personal experience, and how I understand cognitive science, suggests that’s actually a fair description. If your mind is good soil, if you give it space and care and time, all sorts of ideas will spring forth; if you’ve exhausted your mind and body with distress and narrow-minded thinking, you get rigid and uninspired ideas. That’s been my experience.

You also do tai chi. How is that related?
One way to think of Tai Chi is that it’s a slow, moving meditation that involves tuning into the body at subtle levels. It’s also a martial art form, based on the principle of flow and effortless motion, rather than brute force. Ninety percent of my best ideas have come after doing tai chi.

Emotions manifest as physiological sensations (embodied cognition). That’s something we teach in Search Inside Yourself. How often do we pay attention to our bodies? We don’t. We assume that the real action for thinking is above the shoulders. But when I’m designing a user experience or weighing an important decision, I notice that I attune to subtle signals from my body: a momentary tightness in the stomach or tightening of the eyebrows, cues that something’s not right. Within the last two or three years, there’s been a lot more research on mindful movement, like yoga and tai chi. I’m curious to see what they find because I know it’s made a huge difference for me personally.

So, in addition to a daily meditation practice, I try to do tai chi a few days a week, especially in the morning. It’s still a challenge for me to make it a regular habit, even after 15 years of practice, because of work, busy-ness, feeling unmotivated, not waking up early enough.

What about napping?
Napping is great. Want to hear about a study? There was this one study in psychology where researchers asked students to learn something new and then take a test on it. Typical psych experiment, right? Well, the researchers did something interesting.
Some of the students returned to their daily routine, then took the test later in the day. A second group finished learning, then walked to a gymnasium where researchers had set up a bunch of mattresses, and the students were told to take a nap before the test. And the final group took a drug to fall asleep right after they finished learning.

The results? The students who took a nap in the gym did better than the students who had to stay awake and do other things, even though the same amount of time had passed. And the students who slept right away did the best.

We do learning activities while awake, but a lot of new neural growth and pruning happens when we’re asleep. New neural pathways mean new learning. You can take in a lot of information, but at some point your brain needs rest in order to process the learning. So if someone wakes you from a nap and asks what you were doing, you can honestly tell them you were learning. Try telling that to your boss. But, seriously, it’s true. And, you know, napping just feels good and refreshing.

I’m glad that I get to nap at SIYLI: 26 minutes, once per day. I came to this through experimentation––it’s the right amount of time for me to feel like I had a deep and refreshing sleep without feeling groggy when I wake up.

Any tips for people who want to try meditating or napping or dancing in their workplaces?
Be yourself and start with what you know to be true for you. If it’s true for you that you’re more joyful doing X at work––just knowing that is important. You may or may not be able to express it in your workplace. Or you might start small. I’ve had eight or nine different jobs. In one or two of them, the environment wasn’t supportive so I’d leave the building during lunch break to meditate and stuff, but most of them were fine with my habits. At first, they were fine with it because they saw I was still getting the work done. Over time, I think they appreciated it because they saw it was part of what helped me be energetic and mentally flexible. And maybe because they recognized that while we all have our roles to play at work, we’re all human too. After I explained the benefits of movement to one of my past managers, he started stretching after lunch and taking more meetings while walking or standing up. I think those things made him happier.

I try not to be pushy about it. Out of courtesy to my coworkers, I try to keep it to a minimum if clients or visitors are around. I don’t want to put my coworkers in an awkward position with external folks we don’t know well. But once I started managing people, it also got easier––I was just like, this is how I am and what I believe in. You do what you need to do to be your best, too.

*This is the fourth blog in a series that shares the stories of SIYLI staff and their mindfulness practices. Read the other blogs: “Loving Kindness: Two Years and Going Strong,” “Unexpected Rewards”  and “Merging Mindfulness with Technology.”