If meditation is something you’d like to master but it seems you’ll never find the time–or develop the skill–this post is for you.
One of the cool things about being human is our ability to be self-aware. Because of that ability, we can very thoughtfully direct our behavior. We can recognize patterns leading to low productivity, trace back the days, and map the chaos. We can consciously choose a different path. We can remember how to control our days. We can embrace stillness.
The benefits associated with meditation make for a long list, including improvements in attention and memory, a drop in stress, and–most relevant to this series–less of the switching behavior we so often see with multitasking. A recent study suggests that meditation can even help us retain gray matter as we age.
It may even help nurture creativity.
Hang with me for a second while I present an analogy. I spoke with my eye doc recently about the amount of time I spend in front of a screen. “You’ll need to stretch your eyes at least every few hours, otherwise you may experience a worsening in your distance vision,” he said. It’s called Computer Vision Syndrome. One of the easiest ways to “stretch your eyes” is to look out a window every twenty minutes or so, for at least thirty seconds, at things that are a greater distance away than your computer screen. A treeline. A yeti. Whatever it is that you see out there. This simple break helps you to preserve your long vision.
Excuse the pun, but you see where this is going. Taking a break to meditate–learning how, doing it regularly–is a lot like looking out that window, and it may be the best way to preserve the natural vastness of your mental terrain. After all, you can’t nurture an expansive territory if you spend your days chasing your tail.
Stop, Look, Listen
I am not an expert on meditation. Far from it. But I’ve long admired Zen Habits, home of bestselling author and blogger Leo Babauta. Zen Habits, with its clean appearance and simple-wise posts, is a hugely popular site–a top 25 blog with ~a million readers. I took a chance and reached out to Leo and was thrilled when he agreed to answer a few questions about meditation for Writer Unboxed. This is our conversation:
Therese: We writers have hopping minds, and thinking of nothing for even two minutes may seem impossible. Recently I heard a friend say something enlightening, though: Meditation is simply about recognizing your leaping thoughts, then directing them back to center. That seems do-able. How do you define meditation?
Leo: Meditation is a practice for living, but done in a simplified way. In our daily lives, our minds are always active, distracted, worried, fantasizing, making up stories, and so on. And that determines our reality, our happiness, our unhappiness. So meditation is about paying attention to one thing for a little while — let’s say your breath — and then noticing when your mind wanders. With this simple practice, you start to see how your mind works, become more aware of when your mind is acting a certain way, and at the same time get better at staying in the present moment. Those are incredible skills for living.
Therese: We’ve been focusing a lot on the busy-ness of our 21st century online-all-the-time lifestyles at Writer Unboxed, in particular the issue of multitasking. Our worlds are filled with so many things, so much of it online, so much of it demanding our attention, and as a result some of us can’t attend as deeply to things as we may have in the past. This has long-reaching implications for the novelist who has to go down the rabbit hole while researching for a story, and in terms of understanding and relaying characters on the page, among other things. You have written about how our behavior shapes–becomes, truly–who we are. Applying that idea to online behavior is a little frightening; I don’t think any of us wants to become Facebook. Do you see meditation as a remedy, of sorts, for our crazed lifestyles, and if so, how?
Leo: Well, it’s more of a way of being more conscious about what we decide to do and be. When we aren’t aware of how our mind works, and we’re immersed in our reactive thinking, and distracted by a million things at once … we are living reactively. We go for whatever is shiny, online or off. But what if we could pause for a moment and decide to write that novel, or be present with a loved one? We have the ability to consciously choose how we live, and that ability is cultivated through practice.
Therese: I’ve heard it said that meditation can make time rather than take time. Is this your experience, and if so, can you explain the idea a bit?
Leo: If we go “down the rabbit hole” as you so nicely put it, we can spend hours doing little things, unimportant tasks that aren’t how we really want to spend our time. Being aware of when this is happening, and consciously choosing to be present and to focus on what’s important … that doesn’t “make” time but it helps us to spend it in a way that’s more in alignment with the way we want to live.
Therese: When I think of the physical aspect of meditation, I immediately picture someone sitting in a half-lotus position in a quiet room, eyes closed, ommm. What does it look like for you, and would you be willing to offer a simple beginner’s guide to the Writer Unboxed audience, for anyone who’d like to try it?
Leo: I always say to start as small and simply as possible.
So try this: every morning after you wake up, before you open your computer or phone … just sit on a chair or couch for two minutes. Commit to sitting still for those two minutes, every day. During this time, all you have to do is try to keep your attention on your breath as it comes in and out, following it into your body and then back out. When your mind (inevitably) wanders, don’t worry about that — there’s no goal to “empty your mind” or be “perfect” about being present. Just notice when your mind wanders, and try to gently come back to your breath when you notice. That’s all — try to stay with your breath, notice when your mind wanders, gently come back.
Practice this daily if you can.
Therese: Writers can be fearful creatures. We may be fearful of our goals (we can’t do it!), or of criticism (they won’t like us!), or that we won’t be heard (crickets!). How can meditation help to combat fearfulness and instill bravery? Is this essentially retraining the brain?
Leo: Fears are based on fantasies (I want to be an amazing writer who impresses everyone!) and the worry that they won’t come true. The antidote, in my experience, is to let go of the fantasies and just be present in the moment. Stay with reality for a little while, and appreciate how great it is without the fantasies. If you’re a writer, instead of worrying about what people will think of you, just be present in the moment of writing. Just notice how lovely it is to be able to write, to have a little quiet time to explore, to express yourself, to find yourself. This is a gift to be treasured. Stay in this moment as much as you can, and when the fears come back, just return to the moment, just as you return to the breath in meditation. In this returning to reality, the fears evaporate and joy is born.
Therese: Why else is meditation worth a writer’s time?
Leo: Great question.
Meditation is an incredible habit for writers because it helps shine a light on some of our most difficult problems: procrastination, fear, self-doubt, being too busy to write, distractions, not being able to focus. Every writer deals with these problems, but they’re easier to deal with if you can pause and see what’s going on. Meditation helps with this — it gives us the tools to sit still, to see the urges and rationalizations and fears and frustrations and negative self-talk that normally go unseen in the back of our minds. Shining a light on them — becoming aware — removes the power of these things over us, and allows us to act more consciously. That’s the power of mindfulness and the pause, and it is awesome.
Thanks so much, Leo!
WU’ers, if you have yet to discover Zen Habits, I hope you’ll click over and see what all the fuss is about. It’s well worth your time.
And now some Qs for you: What is your experience with meditation? Do you find it easy, or difficult? What does it do for you? When do you do it, and for how long? The floor is yours.
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Final Thoughts: Nature-Nurture