Practicing Patience

The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

I, by nature, am a very impatient person. When things don’t go according to my timetable or fast enough to suit me, I become frustrated and cranky. Patience is one of the foundations of mindfulness practice, and most days my failure at embodying patience just serves to send more lessons my way.

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I’ve been working on a memoir for a while now, and I say “a while” because I can’t bring myself to voice the actual length of time it has taken ― going on 3 years ― 5 if you count some of it as a floundering grad school thesis. I seem to have written myself into a spot I can’t get out of (or more likely, I don’t want to confront). When I force myself to face how long it’s been under construction, abandoned, revised, torn apart, abandoned and picked up again, I torment myself with thoughts of inadequacy. Although intuitively I know I should be non-striving and stop grasping, my impatience gets the better of me.

After sitting at this memoir roadblock for a while, I’ve put it aside and been recommitting to my mindfulness practice. After a few weeks of letting it go and focusing on accepting things as they are, I had a conclusion epiphany. I call it a “conclusion epiphany” because this was my roadblock; I was at a wretchedly painful place in the memoir and could not figure out where or how to end it. Writers often find themselves at a roadblock when we come face-to-face with memories we’re not ready or willing to face; perhaps we subconsciously put up roadblocks so we don’t have to face the dragons. Obviously, I am an avoider as well as impatient. All this time, I was so close, and the closer to the conclusion I got, the more impatient I was to finish it. The more impatient I became, the more my brain shut down. The book floundered.

“Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time.” ―  Jon Kabat-Zinn

Then, out of nowhere, the conclusion epiphany. After a year and a half of practically ignoring the whole memoir. It just came out of nowhere, over a cup of Sunday morning caramel nut coffee. I had spent a few weeks meditating and reading and thinking about things other than this damn book, and there it was. The end.

“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” ― Molière

Of course, the idea is there, but I have yet to write it. But I’m recommitting to the memoir, and I’m going to let it unfold in a patient, non-judging, and non-striving mindful frame of mind. Or at least that’s my plan.

 

Writing with your Body

Mindfulness practitioners are most likely familiar with the body scan, a meditation that facilitates a heightened sense of awareness of different parts of the body. With focused thought, each area of the body, from tip toes to crown, gets mentally “scanned” to uncover areas of tension or pain, or simply to just check in with how each body part feels. It’s a great way for those suffering from sleep problems to relax, or from those suffering from physical pain to release muscles they unconsciously tense up.

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For those of us who spend a great deal of time in a chair, a quick body scan every hour or so can not only uncover some poor sitting habits, but it can also be a way to mine our bodies for stories. Many psychologists and other researchers believe that we carry our memories in the cells of our bodies, so by getting in tune with our bodies, we can perhaps uncover long forgotten memories and events. During one recent body scan, I was lying flat on my back, fully relaxed (or so I thought) but when I got to my head, I found that I was clinching my jaw. With a few breaths, I tried to relax my jaw, but found it kept getting rigid. As I focused in on that spot, I recalled how my father had always clenched his jaw just as I was, grinding his teeth back and forth with alarming intensity. As I recalled my father, a scene from my childhood popped out of nowhere, a time when my father was fixing one of my toys while smoking. I saw him in my mind’s eye as he was then, rolling his cigarette back and forth between his thumb and index finger, then laying the cigarette on the edge of the table while he worked on my toy. Where did that come from? I thought.

“Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.” ~Pierce Harris

That “scene” uncovered with a quick body scan came to be a scene in my memoir-in-progress. Other scenes in my book have been revealed through the same method. Larraine Herring, author of Writing Begins with the Breath and Writing Warrior, urges writers to do a body shake, literally, standing up and shaking out your entire body. Herring attests it can help clear up mental stagnation, unblocking memories and increasing creativity. After sitting in a chair typing for hours, it just feels good to shake it out! I imagine if memories do live in cells throughout different parts of our bodies, most of mine might be settled in my rump!

The next time you sit down to write, try doing a body scan. Note places of tightness or tension in your body, or just note how different areas of your body feel. Pay special attention to areas that are holding stress. That might be a memory wanting some attention.

Try it!

Try this 5-minute body scan with Dr. Elisha Goldstein-

http://elishagoldstein.com/videos/5-minute-body-scan/

 

 

4 Reasons Why You Should Break Free From Being ‘Too Busy’ | Mindful

 

4 Reasons Why You Should Break Free From Being ‘Too Busy’ | Mindful.

Here Comes the Sun

This morning as I sat down to write, I had to shield the sun from my eyes as the rays drilled through the east-facing windows in front of me. It was blinding! Or maybe I’m just not used to bright sunshine in January. As I tried to write with the bright sunshine beating on my face, I unconsciously bobbed and weaved, trying to shield my eyes from the sun, but to no avail. Holding my hands out to shield the sun quickly grew tiring. After a short while, I felt a flush of warmth on my skin. I couldn’t be getting a sunburn ― through a window ― in January, could I? After fighting through my whole morning in the glaring sun, it dawned on me what I was doing: I was trying to shield myself from the sun in January. Was I nuts? I finally shut my laptop, squeezed my blinded eyes shut, and turned into the sunshine.

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At noon, I met my husband for lunch, and as we were seated, my husband noticed a rash on my neck. “I think I got too much sun this morning,” I said, laughing. As we settled in our seats, I noticed the sun beating across my face, right in my eyes ― again! I immediately began searching for a blind to pull down, but found none at the tableside window.  “Do you want to switch seats?” my husband asked. I stayed in my sunny seat, squinting through lunch, wondering if the universe was trying to tell me something.

Traditionally here in Nebraska, January is one of the nastiest months for winter weather. Omaha ranks number 5 among the coldest major cities in the country, on average, 133 days of subfreezing temperatures a year, with most of those days in Omaha are cloudy. (Remember About Schmidt, a grey, gloomy movie shot in Omaha?) Anyone who hates winters as much as I do knows that late January is hump time. Just get through January, survive February, and we’re on the downhill slide to spring. So who in their right mind would be fighting to stay out of the sun? What was I thinking? I wasn’t.

“Most aspects of our culture currently lead us to try to reduce uncertainty: we learn so that we will know what things are. Instead, we should consider exploiting the power of uncertainty so that we can learn what things can become.” – Ellen Langer.

Mindfulness is all about being in the moment, and it took me half this sunny day to be reminded of this. But we’re all human, and how often do we mindlessly behave in a way contrary to logic, for instance, turning away from something that might bring us joy? We all have what psychologists refer to as “pre-programmed scripts” that guide our day-to-day behavior, a kind of autopilot of behavior. For instance, the sun usually doesn’t shine in Omaha in January; I’m not used to it shining in my face, so I’m going to shield myself from it because, in my mind, it’s not supposed to be there. Mindless!

What does this have to do with writing? Consider the mindset we bring to each writing session. How many pre-conceived ideas and assumptions do we make each time we sit down to write (or participate in any creative activity)? How might our creative choices change if we were to take ourselves off auto-pilot and let go any pre-conceived notions about how we think writers should be or act or do? What if forcing ourselves to sit our butt in a chair for however many number of hours a day or pages a day other writers say that “real” writers should sit and write was found to be counterproductive?

In the wonderful book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron says, “As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. By its very nature, discipline is rooted in self-admiration. . . . We admire ourselves for being so wonderful. The discipline itself, not the creative outflow, becomes the point” (153).

Do you sit in front of your computer screen, running on auto-pilot until you’ve met your pre-determined word count? Do you pull the curtains shut because the sun isn’t supposed to be shining in January (guilty)? Consider that stopping to enjoy a rare warm, sunny day in January instead of BIC (butt in chair) might, just might, be much more productive in the long run than trying to ignore the miracle that it is.

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Recent sunset behind my house.

In her book, Cameron goes on to explain that for creatives, enthusiasm is much more important than military-like discipline: “Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us” (153). Perhaps the universe was simply trying to get me to stop and appreciate the beauty that was surrounding me – and get my butt out of the chair. Snow is in the weekend forecast. I’ll be grateful I did.

 

Mindful Writing and the Power of Observation

Each morning this winter, I have entertained myself (and fought off Seasonal Affective Disorder!) by bird watching. (You know you’re middle aged when you resort to bird watching for entertainment!) I’ve spent a good chunk of change on high quality bird seed and kept the feeders full outside my kitchen window. The first thing I now do when I rise is throw on my bathrobe, go to the kitchen, and watch the birds breakfast outside my window.

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A winter’s day at my bird feeder.

 

As I’m outside the city, my bird population might be a bit larger than most urban neighborhoods. I have a rather large population of blue jays, the biggest, fattest blue jays I have ever seen. Yesterday we counted nine at one time. I was a bit surprised to find they’ll feed on the ground alongside other birds without running them off as they are known to do. Most mornings also bring a few sparrows and flocks of juncos. A family of mourning doves live close by, and my favorite downy woodpecker comes once the others have had their fill. So many others come and go that I haven’t identified as of yet.

This morning ritual has become habit for me, and I find if I don’t take the time to simply sit and observe the feeding birds for at least a few minutes, my day is a bit “off.” I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel as if the powers of observation help to center me, help to rev up my brain for the day. Recent research has shown that perhaps there is something to the powers of focused observation. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam found a connection between observation and creativity. In their studies, the better observers, whether inherent or learned through training, were measurably more creative than those who were found to have weaker observation skills. I do find that I am much more creative in my writing after even a short time at the window.

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” –  Susan Sontag

The simple act of just observing something, especially an object from the natural world like an insect or animal, and watching it as if you are seeing it for the first time (a mindfulness practice) can not only regulate emotions but also can improve cognitive abilities, so it makes sense creativity can be enhanced as well. Mindfulness is observing without judging. In this focused observation, our minds don’t get hung up on what we notice. We just notice.

For years I have told my writing students that if they want to be a writer, they must be an astute observer. The best observers simply notice without passing judgments or imparting their opinions or perceptions of what something should be or look like or act like. But this can be sooooo hard to do, especially with our minds always set to make meaning out of everything we see and hear. How can we possibly turn that off?

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

When I first saw the flock of blue jays foraging alongside the juncos and sparrows, I began to wonder why they weren’t exhibiting their usual unfriendly behavior and scattering the smaller birds. Why were these blue jays being so nice, so un- Blue Jay-like, so outside their known behavior? As morning after morning passed and I witnessed this same scene, I finally quit questioning and simply enjoyed it. I’ve let go my expectations of the way it should be and simply observe what is. Perhaps this is the first step toward joy.


(Read the research at http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/23/0146167214535813.abstract)

Filling the Well

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We are in the throes of another cold winter here on the Plains of Nebraska, where the wind whips through the leaky windows of my 1905 farmhouse in a rolling sea of chilling waves. I shiver under my blanket as I write this with my fingerless gloves, my breath not quite visible but lungs catching with each breath of winter air.

On this old former farmstead, we’ve improved, updated, and remodeled what we can to make our lives easier and more convenient, though our modern conveniences don’t always work to our modern-thinking expectations. Just the other day, I stood in the shower with no water; perhaps, I suspected, the well-pump had frozen, or worse – I couldn’t consider worse naked in the shower with no water.

The well company came after our desperate call for help, discovering the emergency switch had shut off to prevent the well from running dry. It was a switch we didn’t know, in our city-living ignorance – even existed. The well water was low, so to prevent it from going dry (the absolute worst problem, I’m told) this switch shuts the well pump down so the well can, I suppose, generate more water. I’m not sure I’m even describing it correctly, but with the flip of a switch, we had our water back.

As I sat down to write after a hot shower, I considered how with the flip of this miracle switch, we had our water back. How simple, I thought (though still relieved it wasn’t a frozen well pump!). Wouldn’t it be nice, I surmised, if writers had an emergency shut off when their writing well was running dry. How many hours, days on end sometimes, we sit in front of a computer screen wringing out every last word we can muster until, eventually, we dry up. We pump the well and pump the well without pausing to replenish ourselves, squeezing every last drop from our dwindling supply of words and verses and imaginings until there is simply nothing left. Our mind, depleted, spent, worn down and out, cries surrender. Through our selfish attempt at milking every last drop of creativity we might have with no time for rest, respite, or restoration, we’ve thoughtlessly depleted our creative well. Then, you guessed it: writer’s block.

But what if, instead, we had a built-in emergency alarm that would shut us down before we drained ourselves dry? What if that alarm sounded when it sensed we were working ourselves into writer’s block (or worse), notifying us that it was time to stop and refill the well?

I follow a few writing groups on social media, and it’s often a competition to see who can out-write the other. I’m not sure the ability to write yourself into exhaustion is something to brag about; however in our American I-can-work-on-three-hours-of-sleep-a-night culture, we buy into the notion that it’s something to strive for, or even be commended for. I wonder how quickly those writers burn themselves out. I wonder.

What if, on the other hand, we stopped doing, in our case, writing, when we heard that internal alarm (and we all have one, we just ignore it) when we find ourselves tired or worn down, and took care of our needs? Consider, what if, before you run your well dry, you give yourself the gift of rest? What if you took some time away from the act of doing for some restorative work, like yoga or meditation or a walk outside, or even a nap? When was the last time you let yourself take an afternoon nap? Stephen King says he takes one every afternoon, and his well seems to stay pretty full.

Losing time when you’re writing is the ultimate high, the perfect state of mindfulness, but in this state, your well is full. Pushing yourself past your limits and running your creative well dry is mindless, and can cause not only creative blocks, but health problems as well. An African proverb says that we only think of water when the well is dry. Let your well regenerate to keep the writing flowing.

How do you regenerate your creative well?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindful Writing: Get Your Head Out of the Way

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How often have you sat down to write with the perfect mix of inspiration, motivation, and a great idea, and after a few paragraphs or pages, the negative self-talk begins. You hear voices in your head saying things like

“What made you think that was a good idea?”
“Why do you think you can write anything worth reading?”
“This is one fat piece of crap.”
“You’re a lousy writer.”

Those are some harsh words, yet I’ll bet you’ve said them to yourself plenty of times. Think about this: if someone else said these horrible things to you, how would you respond? I’ll bet most writers would tell this nasty person to jump off a cliff. However, when it’s our own internal voice spewing out these insults, after a while, we start believing it.

Everyone has experienced negative self-talk at one time or another, but artists –  and especially writers – are most susceptible. Why? We often make false assumptions or interpretations of our talent or aptitude with little to no reflection on reality. These interpretations are rarely, if ever, based in fact, but are based on our own prejudices. Many writers judge their writing talent with little attention toward reality. Truth: How many times have you judged your first draft in comparison to a published book? Yep, thought so.

If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage. — Cynthia Ozick

As you pile on the negative self-talk, damaging thoughts and pointless fears begin to emerge. Artists are an insecure bunch of creatives, and all insecurities are based on a firm foundation of fear. Fear kills creativity. Fear even kills inspiration and motivation. All of these negative, fear-based thoughts not only squelch your writing and crush your creativity, but can even undermine your well-being.

Taking a mindful approach, a daily practice of mindful meditation, of training your brain to interpret what’s real and not what’s imagined or fictional, can alleviate self-made fears, creating a solid foundation of loving kindness (a tenant of mindfulness) toward your writing. Look at your early drafts as you would a new puppy or newly planted seedling. It needs time (and many drafts) to germinate and develop. Don’t give up on your writing before you’ve had a chance to grow and mature as a writer. And quit comparing yourself to Annie Proulx or Stephen King. They’ve had a lot of practice at being Annie and Stephen.

I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters. — James A. Michener

The next time your head gets in the way of your writing (or anything else!), stop and examine the specific thoughts you are thinking, and consider if these thoughts are grounded in reality or are perhaps your faulty assumptions and interpretations of your talent grounded in anxiety and fear.

Then tell them to shut up and go away. You’ve got work to do.