Meditation Retreats

5 ways meditation has enriched my creative career

Artist and film director Ivan Cash shares five ways the meditation practice has benefited his life, creativity, and career.

Illustration by Diyou Wu.

Ten years ago my mom gave me a college graduation gift that would change my life forever: a voucher for a 10-day meditation retreat. I packed my basketball (I had heard there was a place on the premises) and was looking forward to a relaxing, sociable, summer camp-like getaway.

During the orientation I was horrified when they explained to me that we would take a “noble silence”. For ten days there should be no eye contact, no speaking, no reading – nothing. Without carpooling, I would have set off straight away.

Without escaping, I fought my way through the 10 days with lowered eyes and closed mouth, promising that I would never force myself to do anything so terrible again. The days consisted of alternating sitting and walking meditations from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. There was nothing pleasant or easy on those 10 days – no really transcendent moments of enlightenment – and yet I felt a distinct difference. As the days passed, I began to notice subtle but powerful changes in myself.

Since then, I have sat on silent meditation retreats for more than 100 days, with the longest being 30 days. I’ve seen firsthand how meditation practice has deepened my own compassion, enriched my creativity, boosted my self-esteem, and even advanced my career. To me, this simple practice was profoundly beneficial for these five reasons:

1. It breaks the rules.

We all grow up with a set of beliefs, largely based on our cultural upbringing. One of the greatest gifts meditation has given me is the ability to drop that conditioning and choose which beliefs are most important to me. In the retreat I have the opportunity to observe my thoughts, feelings and opinions without taking any action. This has made it possible for me to see which values ​​coincide with my desires in life and with those that are habitually or unconsciously rooted.

In 2011 I moved from San Francisco to Amsterdam to do what I think was a dream job for a well-known, large advertising agency. Within months, I realized that neither the prestige that came with the job nor the open bars were worth the endless weekends I spent in the office. I really wanted to quit, but that was out of the question until my one-year contract expired. “You can’t quit your job a year ago,” I told myself. “People will think you’re a total failure.”


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Learning how to change my perspective from a “fixed” reality to a malleable one has enabled me to live in accordance with my values, feelings, and beliefs.

With the help of a mentor and insights from my meditation retreat experience, I realized that I could do whatever I wanted with my own life, even if that meant breaking a contract, defying social norms and not meeting the expectations of others fulfill. So I quit a week later. It was the scariest decision of my adult life, but I was pleasantly surprised at how my co-workers took the news. My bosses even admitted that they were jealous of my decision to look past the status and remove the “golden handcuffs.”

Two of my most successful projects, Snail Mail My Email and Occupy George, came about within a few months of my resignation. Learning how to change my perspective from a “fixed” reality to a malleable one has since enabled me to live in accordance with my values, feelings, and beliefs.

2. It’s an ego check.

During my retreat in the high desert of Joshua Tree, California, I discovered a massive anthill just off the main hiking trail. I was fascinated to watch the ants working together and made a daily ritual to watch them for a while.

On the last day of the retreat, I made my way to the anthill and was horrified when I knelt down another retreatant and watched my anthill. Worse, there were other retreats nearby that might have mistaken it for its anthill. My whole body was filled with anger at this fake intruder.

Of course, the anthill wasn’t his or mine, and it didn’t matter who was staring at it. Having the space to watch the intensity of my reaction to something so insignificant made me realize how ridiculously competitive I can be. Meditation enables me to better perceive situations in which I come from a place of the ego and therefore (hopefully) to redirect my mentality.

3. It increases the connection.

We live in a time of unprecedented connections and yet we are more separate than ever. I am often amazed at how trapped we are all in our digital screens, completely detached from the people around us.

The withdrawal and loneliness that comes with it allows one to calm the mind and be fully present. To me, this reveals an awareness of the fear or insecurity that so often keeps me locked in front of a screen. It offers the possibility of increased connection with others. I love the immediate aftermath of retreats because I fall in love with so many people – the supermarket cashier, a gardener, a neighbor, a homeless person.

This feeling of connectedness and openness is a quality that I have adopted in a lot of my creative work. In the Last Photo Project, I ask strangers to share the last photo on their phone. This project in particular has benefited enormously from my meditation practice because I can really connect with strangers and keep space for their story. When both of us are fully present in the moment together, the most personal and compelling stories are revealed.

To further strengthen the connection, I’ve also launched a variety of projects that encourage a conscious break from technology. Facebook Sabbatical invites users to take a break from the platform, and I’ve also created “No Tech Zone” signs and installed them in parks across San Francisco to inspire others to drop their screens and be with the people around them around to get in touch.

4. It encourages creativity.

It may come as no surprise that meditation retreats are fertile ground for creativity. In our daily life, the endless list of to-do’s and logistics destroys our innate imaginations. In retreat, free from the distractions of the modern world, the mind can finally calm down. When my mind has calmed down, it independently explores foreign inner countries and territories and forms new, previously unimaginable ideas and connections. Ideas seem to arise out of nowhere and reveal themselves mysteriously, while silence and silence work their magic.

At a retreat I was inspired to make a short documentary about an 86 year old farmer I knew. I’d never done a documentary before, but I took up the challenge and followed the inspiration. The film turned out to be the starting shot for my career as a film director.

5. It makes us less reactive.

On the decline, something as simple as an irritating itch is an opportunity for growth. When I feel an itch, my immediate inclination is to scratch it, but when withdrawing, the instruction is to just pay attention to the discomfort instead of acting instinctively. When I followed these directions, the itchiness changed shape and place and eventually went away. I’ve found this to be the case with most body sensations, including pain.

As I build resilience through meditation, I find that not only can I endure more physical discomfort, but more mental and emotional turmoil as well. During a high-stakes music video shoot several years ago, the top-of-the-line camera inexplicably started shorting out. I was really puzzled by how much time this technical problem was taking and I saw my mind start to spin.

Fortunately, I was able to return to the mindfulness I had cultivated in meditation and just notice my anger without freaking out. I was even able to take the situation lightly and maintain the morale of the crew. We did the best job we could, and the music video received critical acclaim.

With all of that said, meditation is by no means an all-end-all technique (News flash: nothing is). I am still studying all the time. But I recommend anyone who wants to build their creative career, it’s the best you can do.


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