Gut Instincts

Have you ever felt confused? I mean really confused, like mind-numbingly confused. Literally paralyzed from confusion. Everyone, at some point, and sometimes too often for many of us, have experienced intense confusion. In the midst of the confusion, you probably felt lost, alone, possibly depressed, or maybe even panicked or frightened.

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Feelings of confusion come from our thoughts, and some of us can really work our thoughts into a tizzy. When we are confused, we are mentally suffering, and thoughts of confusion breed more thoughts of confusion. Our brain dogpiles on the junk we are thinking until we are drowning in confusion.

Sound familiar?

But if we stop and consider what’s going on, most of our thoughts aren’t real. They’re just thoughts. When we are in the middle of these thought shit-storms, it feels very real, but the confusion is really an illusion. I’ve spend a lot of time being confused, especially confused about which direction to take in my writing. Should I finish my book, or focus on my freelance career? Should I put more time into my creative writing, or my business writing? Should I write for 4 hours, 5 days a week, or take a break completely? Should I go to a writing conference, or spend the time writing? Should I revise it one more time? How will I know when it’s done? Ugh! I’m so confused!

“What is important is to spread confusion, not eliminate it.” ―
Salvador Dalí

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For those of us who suffer from bouts of confusion, we spend way too much time in our heads and not enough time in our guts. (And it goes without saying, not enough time on the cushion.) The answers we may be searching for are actually there, but our thinking mind, our monkey mind, is so busy, we can’t feel what’s in our gut. If you are suffering over a decision, try out the possible answers. Sit with it. Ask yourself, how does X or Y feel – in my gut – when I think about it?

As thoughts come and go, it’s important to be aware of them, but avoid getting caught up in them. Notice the thoughts, then let them pass. Thoughts are fleeting, so let them flit.

Your head lies to you. Your gut doesn’t lie.

Sowing Seeds

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A view of my spring garden & sprouting gladiolus.

 

After a very cool, very wet spring here in the Midwest, the ground is finally warm and dry enough to plant. As I’ve waited for the ground to ready, I’ve gathered quite a collection of seed packets – coneflowers, marigolds, blue fescue and Karl Forester grasses, wildflower mixes, and even a pumpkin pack just for fun. I’ve never had much luck with spring bulbs, but I threw in two rows of Gladiola and Oriental Poppies. I am normally a very impatient gardener, so I typically would prefer to pay more for plants than wait for seeds or bulbs to germinate. But since the weather has forced patience on me, I buried the Gladiola bulbs in the muddy soil and with each new packet, I sprinkle the seeds wherever I can find a spot.

While waiting for decent weather, I decided to revisit the book I’ve been “working” on for – four years, maybe five – years. Ugh. It’s a unit of words, but it needs revision, deep, painstaking revision. But once I was back into it, I was surprised how quickly and dare I say, easily, the work went. Because I had laid the groundwork over the course of the past few years, the book began to take shape, with much less effort and much more pleasure in the work.

While taking a break from the book, I walked to my still-saturated garden to find another spot for more seeds. From the brown mulch I had laid, spouted green shoots of Gladiola stalks – 4 or 5 inches tall! The bulbs I had given scant thought to were bursting through the earth. Though it seemed some of the seedlings had washed away, others were beginning to sprout.

Gardening, like writing, is hard work. Sometimes, circumstances conspire that are out of our control that makes both more challenging. Sometimes we have to plant the seed and trust that it will come, being mindful, letting go of attachment to the outcome. But sometimes letting go is exactly what we need to do to move forward. Just as I couldn’t force the weather to cooperate to plant my garden, I couldn’t force my book into completion, and the more impatient I became with my book, the slower was the process. However, I had laid the groundwork, and when it was ready, it came easily. I know from experience that tomorrow it may not come so easy.

My seeds of coneflowers and prairie grasses and wildflowers will need the right environment, the right weather, and time to germinate – the coneflowers, I learned,  won’t germinate until next year! Some won’t make it – the oriental poppies seem to have rotted away – but I love gardening and the beautiful flowers that come from it too much to give it up. With gardening and with writing, things aren’t always going to turn out the way we’d hoped, and sometimes our visions don’t pan out. We can do what we can do, but then we need to let it go. Neither gardening nor writing always bear fruit. The joy is in the work.

The Illusion of Work/Life Balance

I’ve just returned from a wonderful writer’s conference that left me extremely inspired, motivated, and exhausted. Though I had intended to keep up with my blog writing, book revisions, as well as an online class I’m taking, I’ve fell woefully behind. It’s always wonderful to get away, but it’s always a bit painful to return when work has piled up and the afterglow of time off turns to flushes of frustration. Sound familiar?

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Many people who fear drowning in work that has piled up while they’re away often choose not to take time off, feeling that a vacation, or even a few days off, is more trouble than it’s worth. Some of us even feel guilty for taking time away. The problem isn’t taking time for ourselves, but perhaps it’s our mindlessness.

If you continue to do something at work the way you’ve always done it because it’s always been done that way, this is the essence of mindlessness. Letting work pile up while on vacation because you think you’re the only one who can do it may be creating the problem you’re trying to avoid. Social psychologist, Ellen Langer, author of eleven books and over 200 articles on mindfulness, believes that when it comes to work/life balance, we often are quite the opposite of mindful. Perhaps rules have been put in place by others or even ourselves that are too rigid or unattainable. Langer says rules and goals should guide you, not govern you.

“Question the belief that you’re the only one who can do it, that there’s only one way to do it, and that the company will collapse if you don’t do it. When you open your views to be mindful, the stress just dissipates,” Langer says.

Sometimes there isn’t any way to “balance” it all, and if we think we can, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Although my time off didn’t lead to a company collapse, it did cause a lot of anxiety as I worried about what waited for me on my return. Now that I am back, I have to decide which writing job to tackle first while finding time to finish a drywall project, reseed my yard, spray the fruit trees, and plant a garden. In the past, if I choose to write, I’d feel pangs of guilt for not cleaning house or mowing the yard. By approaching each task mindfully, procrastination and regret, Langer believes, fade away. “. . . If you know why you’re doing something, you don’t take yourself to task for not doing something else. If you’re fully present when you decide to prioritize this task or work at this firm or create this product or pursue this strategy, why would you regret it?”

Tonight, I’ve decided I’m going to work in the garden, and I’m going to do so with my full attention and energy. Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll get back to the book revisions with my full attention and energy, unless the day unfolds with a different priority. If it does, I’ll adjust, and I’ll leave the feelings of guilt buried in the garden.

(Excerpts of Langer interview from Harvard Business Review)

Declutter your Writing Space & Increase Your Productivity

Last week, I mentioned to a friend that I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted, but couldn’t motivate myself for some reason. Curiously, she asked what my writing space was like. After moving into a rural farmhouse last year, I said I still hadn’t fully organized my writing space yet. I still had boxes of papers and files, and lots of junk piled around I thought I needed. To even get to my “office,” I had to climb a steep, 1905 set of stairs that left others dizzy. Some days after climbing up and down those stairs, I literally had calf pain. I guess, I admitted, I wasn’t crazy about the space, so had neglected making it the perfect writing space.

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If you want to stay motivated to write, she advised, you have to make your space special. The next day, I crawled up the stairs and analyzed my writing room. Papers were piled in all four corners, though in neat stacks, but still piles of old notes and essays and receipts I’ll never need again. The outdated smoke alarm was dangling from the ceiling, waiting to be replaced. The ceiling light didn’t even work half the time, and it was just downright ugly. My desk, my cute little yellow desk I brought home from the Ozarks, held an outdated, monolithic computer monitor that I didn’t even use.  Just looking around depressed me.

A recent article in Mindful Magazine suggested that decluttering your home also declutters your mind, and research into the brain’s functions and how we process information backs this up. So I thought I’d try my own research and see if it would make a difference. I took on one task at a time, and still need to install my new girly crystal chandelier, but the next day, I wrote more than I had in months. The next day, I couldn’t wait to get back to my decluttered writing room. By the third day, I bounded up the stairs I could barely bring myself to climb a week earlier.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if your writing space is a separate room or the kitchen table, as long as you have a space that makes you want to go there to write. If it’s overwhelming, start small and tackle one corner at a time. Notice how you feel both mentally and physically  before you declutter, and how feel after. To read more of the research, visit unclutterer.com.

 

 

 

 

Are You Writing too Much?

Too busy concept.
While scanning through the comments on a couple of Facebook writing pages I follow (avoiding writing?), people were responding to the questions, “How many hours per week do you write?” and, “How many pitches do you make per week?” I was shocked to read that many of the writers who responded sent over 25 magazine pitches per week to magazines, and many writers were logging long hours every weekend, all weekend long. Honestly, this didn’t sound like fun to me.

When I hear these kinds of numbers from other writers, initially I feel a pang of guilt that I don’t log that many hours. But then I consider, even though writing brings me joy, what kind of person would I be if I spent my nights and entire weekends at my desk, behind my computer, buried in writing? I’m sure I would be exhausted, stressed, and probably more than a little grumpy.

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I just returned from a writing colony where I spent 8 days in the woods writing. I rose early, wrote until lunch, took a walk (or nap), wrote a bit before dinner, then a bit more after dinner until bedtime. So for those 8 days, I knew I was going to spend the majority of my days and nights writing. However, I know myself, and I know I couldn’t possibly maintain that schedule on a regular basis. This week, it’s 70° in Nebraska. There is no way I can sit in my office all day and night. I would be miserable, looking out my window at the gorgeous weather and feeling shut off from the first days of spring. No way.

Some people are obsessive about writing every day, seven days a week, and that’s great, as long as they aren’t headed toward burnout. But often, we become burned out before we even notice how stressed and exhausted we are. We become angry with the concept of time; there is never enough. But, in fact, what we really need is to stop filling up all our time.

“When we feel like there isn’t enough time in the day for us to get everything done, when we wish for more time… we don’t actually need more time,” says Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness. “We need more stillness. Stillness to recharge […] So if you are feeling overwhelmed and time-starved: Stop. Remember that what you need more than time (to work, to check tasks off your list) is downtime, sans stimulation.”

All artists, actually, everyone, are creative beings. But to flourish creatively, we must have downtime to replenish our creative well, to stimulate thinking, and to recharge our batteries. Running on empty for too long is not only bad for our writing, but bad for our mental and physical health. If you’re feeling stressing, overwhelmed, or find yourself angry with the concept of time, maybe it’s time to stop doing and just be.

To read more about the science behind why we should be less busy, visit Mindful Magazine at http://www.mindful.org/news/4-reasons-why-you-should-break-free-from-being-too-busy.

What do you think?

Do you feel guilty when you don’t write (or any other creative endeavor)?

How many hours do you log in a chair, and how is that working for you?

Do you schedule downtime around your writing?

 

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/