The Mindful Writer - How ten minutes a day can boost creativity (and so much more...)
We are living in turbulent times.
Uncertainty and fear can make us feel rudderless. Being removed from our social networks, our habits of work and play, from close friends and family is a new norm that none of us want but for the greater good in a Covid world, we will adhere to.
As writers, all of this can affect our ability to be creative. Big time.
Writing romantic comedy, I've found the motivation to pen those fun-filled love scenes a struggle when I know there is so much suffering in the world.
So I've come back to a skill I learned (and taught in my pre-writing career as a health professional).
The simple but profound practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness has become something of a buzz word in our increasingly busy world, touted as a way to find peace and equilibrium in amongst all the busyness.
So what is mindfulness really?
"Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to our present moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is"
UCLA Mindfulness Program.
Doesn't sound very life-changing does it?
And yet... and yet... if practiced regularly it can be.
Research indicates that a daily mindfulness practice (and even ten minutes makes a difference), can have quite astonishing effects on our state of mind and body. It can shift the emotional centres of the brain, particularly a part called the Amygdala that monitors threats in our environment, towards a calmer, less reactive state. It can contribute to lower blood pressure, help to balance hormones (PMS and menopausal symptoms particularly), improve mood disorders such as depression and even slow down aging.
Quite some list. For a very modest practice.
When writing, I need my mind to be clear, not bogged down by constant worry and heavy emotional states. I want to be truly present with the creative process. And as a human being, I need to stay of sound mind for the benefit of all around me.
So I've started once again to practice mindfulness on a daily basis. And I'm noticing the effects. I'm calmer, more focussed, less likely to be dragged around by my emotions and thoughts. More able to plan and when I write, to immerse myself for the duration of time I've given over to it.
How can mindfulness practice achieve these benefits?
Firstly, Let's get something straight, mindfulness practice does not lead to an empty mind, a float tank of blissful nothingness. Far from it. Mindfulness requires active engagement to stay present and to understand the way our mind and body work. In fact, mindfulness meditation originates from the Buddhist practice of Vipassana, meaning "Insight."
Mindfulness, therefore, is a focussed practice to both calm and comprehend the content of our minds. A busy, chaotic mind is like being constantly flung around in a tsunami of thoughts, emotions, and body states. We can be lost in the past, or in plans for the future, very rarely present here, now. In this automatic pilot mode, we may not realise how very draining living like this can be. (Think of the time it takes to find those car keys we know we put down somewhere!)
One thing that is incredibly important to me—and I'm sure to all my fellow writers—is for the words to flow onto the page; to harness that delicious creative process fully. Twenty daily minutes of mindfulness allows me to sit down with a clearer head and to get those ideas onto the page.
So, maybe if the above reasons convince you ten minutes a day is worth it, below is a simple beginners' instruction.
Set a timer for five or ten minutes. You will gradually increase this. Between twenty and thirty minutes a day is optimal.
Sit in a comfortable seat, your back supported if need be, but try to maintain an upright alert posture. Hands in lap are good, (if you tend to get strained shoulders, put a cushion under your hands to lift your arms a little). The most important thing is to be as comfortable as possible without being so comfortable you fall asleep!
Close your eyes, or if this is hard for you, focus on a point in front of you and keep the eyes soft.
Bring your attention to the rhythm of your breath. Don't try to change the breathing (there is no right way to breathe here), just notice it; for example, where you feel the breath expand and contract in the body. Notice the rhythm, is it fast and shallow? slow and deep? (our breathing connects directly to our emotional state, so it will reflect the emotions that are present for you right now). In this way, we use the breath as an "anchor" to return to when our mind or other senses wander (and they will, often).
Gently notice when you have gone off into thoughts or emotions or been distracted by other body sensations, such as itching, or discomfort. When you notice this, without judging it in any way, simply return to the anchor of the breath. Initially, you will probably find you have barely noticed one breath before, oops - off you go. In mindfulness, we refer to this as "monkey mind". It is this crazy mind of ours that we are gradually learning to calm through mindfulness practice.
Stay with this process, gently anchoring back to the sense of the breath, without judgment, each time the mind wanders for the duration.
And that's it. That Simple.
A quick tip. If the breath is hard for you to focus on, you can choose another anchor point. Maybe the sensations in your hands, or feet, the light of a candle, or the sense of sound. For me personally, sound is very calming and grounding. So I will often move between awareness of the breath and awareness of sound. As long as you can find an anchor that suits you, that you can return to when you get distracted, you are on the right track.
And finally, the attitude that you bring to practicing mindfulness is the key. Kindness, non-judgemental curiosity and gentle humour even, are essentials. Don't beat yourself up and say it doesn't work if you can barely focus for a second on your anchor point. That is normal, particularly in the early days of mindfulness practice.
I took up mindfulness because my own mind never shuts up. Living more mindfully I still have a busy mind, but I understand and can work with it better. I'm taming the monkey. I know that regular mindfulness practice slows the busyness down and allows me to achieve greater peace and focus.
The simple, modest practice of just being present to whatever shows up inside my mind and body really is my best friend in hard times.
If you want to find out more about mindfulness, here are some useful links and free programs to try.
Drop me a line with any questions, or just to share how it's all going.