Great writing flows most easily from a place of inner clarity and calm. But with all the stimulation and stress in our overscheduled lives, it’s hard to slow down long enough to think clearly, much less creatively. Mindfulness can help.
Column by Deborah Sosin, MSW, MFA, author of CHARLOTTE
AND THE QUIET PLACE (Sept. 2015, Parallax Press, illustrated by Sara Woolley),
a mindfulness-themed picture book that was named the Gold Winner in
Picture Books in the 2015 Foreword Reviews INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards;
the 2016 Silver Medal for Children’s Picture Books (7 & Under) from the Independent
Publisher Book Awards; and a 2015 Bronze Award from National Parenting Publications.
Deborah is a writer, clinical social worker, and instructor at GrubStreet in Boston. Her
essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, The Writer’s Chronicle, Salon,
the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and elsewhere. She offers personal coaching
and editorial consultation for writers. For more: charlotteandthequietplace.com.
The term “mindfulness” might sound like the latest New Age trend, but its roots go back over 2,500 years to ancient Buddhist traditions and practices. In its modern, more secular versions, as taught by experts such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Tara Brach, mindfulness is often defined as “noticing what’s happening right here and now without judgment and with compassion.”
Think about it. What would it be like if we simply noticed what is in front of us? Sights, sounds, smells, sensations, thoughts, feelings. Research shows numerous benefits of mindfulness, including better concentration, more focus, and enhanced creativity.
Here are some ways to be a more mindful writer:
1. Eliminate distractions. Clear your work area of clutter. Mute or turn off your phone and click off social media (or download a “break” app such as SelfControl for Macs or Cold Turkey). If you listen to music, be sure it’s instrumental only. I know how hard it can be but, ultimately, you are making room for new ideas to show up. If you’re a café writer, try sitting in a quiet(er) area, wear noise-cancelling headphones, or face away from others. Although some folks prefer to write in a busy, noisy environment, our brains can process only so much input at a time and become overloaded. Try a dose of quiet from time to time.
2. Take three conscious breaths. Wherever you write, try this technique when you first sit down: Inhale slowly and deeply, noticing the air entering (nose, mouth) and the lungs filling (belly and/or chest rising). Exhale slowly, releasing any tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders. Repeat three times. Assume a comfortable, dignified position (avoid slumping). With conscious breathing, you’re telling your brain and body that you’re approaching your work with a serious, positive intention. And a little extra oxygen never hurts to get the artistic juices flowing.
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3. Notice your thoughts. If you’re like me, a garden-variety earthling, you will quickly notice the incessant stream of thoughts in your head. Congratulations! You are now practicing mindfulness. Because, contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not about emptying our mind of thoughts. It’s about noticing them and making choices about what to do next. Do your thoughts tend to focus on the past—regrets, failures, obstacles? Or are you worried about the future—rehearsing, planning, anticipating? Once you notice those habitual thoughts, gently return to the present moment and breathe, or silently repeat a simple word like “calm,” “peace,” “relax.” Repeat as needed.
4. Drop judgment, add self-compassion. The more you practice noticing, the better you’ll get at detaching from any negative messages that arise: “Why am I always blocked?” “I’m the worst procrastinator.” “I’m not good enough.” “I have nothing important to say.” Sound familiar? With mindfulness, we can let go of judgments by acknowledging that thoughts are just thoughts. Then practice adding helpful, self-compassionate phrases: “This is hard work.” “I don’t need to be perfect.” “It’s going to be OK."
5. Take mini mindfulness breaks throughout the day. Studies show that if we practice mindfulness regularly, our brain actually resets to a “default” relaxed state—perfect for generating great writing. If you don’t have time for formal meditation (for example, sitting for 15 or 20 minutes once or twice a day), you can still practice mindfulness when you brush your teeth, shower, take a walk, eat lunch, wash dishes, or sit in traffic. Notice what’s happening right here and now. Let go of thoughts of the past or future. Breathe. Or you might set a timer for three minutes and sit quietly when you get the chance. Or choose a guided meditation from YouTube or other sites.
With these easy practices, you can train your mind to embrace quiet and calm and, in the process, open up new, creative channels, filled with possibilities.
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