Could Meditation Be the Key to Unlocking Brilliant Creative Ideas?

'I thought meditation was bullshit'

On the Terrace at the Lions, a group of like-minded thinkers gathered to get raw about why meditation can be a balm to modern demands. Marian Brannelly
Headshot of Angela Natividad

Cannes, FRANCE—Many people have heard about the scientific benefits of meditation, but the practice often gets written off as something that’s granola and fringy—especially among type-A high-performers.

On the Terrace at the Lions, a group of like-minded thinkers (including meditation teacher Sah D’Simone, Havas New York/Annex 88 chief creative officer Harry Bernstein, and Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America) gathered to get raw about why meditation can be a balm to modern demands.

Harris, who’s written a book on meditation called 10 percent Happier and runs a meditation podcast with the same name, opened with the story of his “freakout” on national TV.

“If you’ve ever had a taste of panic, you know exactly what you’re looking at,” Harris said. “If you’re blessed not to have ever had a panic attack, those people say it didn’t look that bad. It doesn’t matter, because I knew it was happening to me internally. More embarrassing, I knew what caused it: ambition.”

He arrived at ABC News when he was 28, the stereotype of a young, intrepid reporter whose ambition could only be matched by the expectations of those watching his rise. He spent the time surrounding 9/11 in war zones, including Gaza and Iraq, where he was sent six times.

Then he became depressed and started self-medicating with cocaine to maintain a demanding work rhythm.

“I thought meditation was bullshit,” Harris said. “Have you ever seen somebody wearing sunglasses with an extra lens for his third eye? I thought, that’s the kind of person who meditates. I didn’t think it was for me.”

Bernstein and D’Simone had similar crash-and-burn trajectories. Bernstein’s company, 88, was acquired by Havas; D’Simone ran a popular magazine with his best friend, who’d ultimately push him out in 2012. They acknowledge their lives were the stuff of Mad Men clichés—“liquid lunches, cocaine-fueled parties, travel,” Bernstein said.

“I was a raving asshole. I would tear someone apart if they forgot to put a period in a deck,” he recounted.

Marian Brannelly

D’Simone discovered meditation after buying a one-way ticket to a retreat in India, responding to depression arising from losing his company.

“I started to see how I’d been carrying this narrative of guilt and shame throughout my life, and how that permeated at work: Running a company of 50 people, flying around, working with top talent, I created a personality that wasn’t loving or kind; it inspired fear, not love,” D’Simone said.

Now D’Simone teaches meditation “in a simple, fun, sassy and fabulous way” at places like Havas, MoMA, Google, New Balance, Bloomingdales, AmEx and the United Nations.

As for Bernstein, who feels meditation altered his creative process, he tries to work his learnings into Havas New York, which has a dedicated space for meditating. He also propagates the importance of reducing sugar intake and eating more green vegetables.

“Every 10 minutes you’re recycling news,” Bernstein said. “You’re so inundated by information that you freak the fuck out. How do you find space to absorb, express yourself and not just regurgitate all this stuff?”

“There’s enough scientific research to prove meditation improves concentration, creativity,” D’Simone added. “We are inherent creative geniuses, but we forgot with this inundation of media we’re bombarded with every day.” It’s something Harris calls the “info blitzkrieg.”

A resounding sentiment was that meditation helps pull away from one’s inner voice, giving us a chance to “turn down the volume” so it doesn’t become a domineering narrative that drives us to react in constant panic.

“Meditation is daily exercise of trying to focus on one thing at a time, usually your breath coming in and out,” said Harris. “When you get distracted—which you will a million times—it’s about starting again in the face of your inner torrent. That helps you stay on track in the rest of your life.”

Bernstein said credits meditation for giving him clarity, but also for driving his success. “A year from when I began meditating at 88, eating vegetables and building programming around this, we doubled our profit,” he said. “We were more efficient, with fewer freakouts. Once a week, someone used to cry at work. We were all overwhelmed.”

You also become more mindful. “This is overused, especially in the ad world where you have mindful yogurt and mindful yarn-bombing,” Harris added. “Mindfulness has a specific meaning: the ability to know what’s happening in your mind right now, without being carried away by it.”

Bernstein observes we’re constantly being critiqued by clients, peers and bosses. “Compound that with the inner critic. What creates that is fear, insecurity and doubt,” the notion that you’ll look better if someone else looks bad.

“In the end, we all want to win—sell an idea, win a pitch, get to the next level in our career,” he continued. Meditation eradicates the notion that survival is zero-sum, yielding empathy: “If I do my best work, and bring it around the people, we can have security and rise together.”

Asked what one can do to facilitate healthier behavior in tech, which fuels use with addictive behavior, Harris noted that he himself has a meditation app: “There’s something totally poetic about co-opting the engine of your distraction and turning it into the thing that can reduce that.”

Lastly, the panel was asked how they reconcile the fact that they work in sectors that drive people to want more stuff, whereas meditation is about stepping out of the cycle of desire.

“The needs of people [today] are driving brands to have purpose,” Bernstein said. “When you look at the work celebrated [at Lions], a lot of the time it’s purpose-driven … People define, interact and live through product and brands. We can create marketing that grows awareness.”

@luckthelady Angela Natividad is a frequent contributor to Adweek's creativity blog, AdFreak. She is also the author of Generation Creation and co-founder of Hurrah, an esports agency. She lives in Paris and when she isn't writing, she can be found picking food off your plate.