Lately I’ve been blogging some about how mindfulness has helped me become a better writer, but saying I practice meditation is like a restaurant saying they serve food. Allow me to explain and to share how I’ve come to treat writing as meditation.
Insight meditation is the practice of attempting to see things as they are, in the present moment, without judgement. That’s it. I sit quietly, eyes closed to minimize distraction, and simply notice what I can notice. To give myself something to focus on (and come back to when my mind wanders), I use an anchor. Sometimes it’s my breath. Sometimes it’s the sounds in the room.
What I notice most often is that my mind is racing. I settle my attention on my breath and almost immediately I realize I’m planning dinner. So I come back to my breath. Then suddenly I’m caught up in a memory from when I was eight years old. Back to the anchor. Re-focus. Begin again.
The idea is not to try to keep thoughts out, but rather to notice what thoughts arise, acknowledge them, and then let them go. One of the hardest parts is the “without judgement” bit. Being kind with myself is a big part of the practice. It is both very simple and very challenging.
I often get asked about chanting, visualizations, candles, and special sitting postures. While there are meditation traditions that embrace these things I don’t personally use them in my practice. I do use a bell to mark time if I’m leading a meditation, simply because I like the sound of it. But I always keep in mind that it’s decoration, not essential to the practice of mindfulness.
Writing as Meditation
When I’m writing, I try to treat it as I do meditation. I make the writing the anchor. I start typing and I notice that, all of a sudden, I need to move the laundry along. But instead of mindlessly getting up to move the clothes to the dryer (which would totally derail my writing) I simply notice the thought arise and let it go. I come back to the anchor (my writing) and keep going.
And what about that little voice in my head that likes to tell me that everything I write is crap? If you’ve ever had the experience of writing a sentence, deleting it, writing it again, deleting it again, you know what I’m talking about. When I’m more mindful of the thoughts running in my head I notice the impulse to erase and rewrite. I can give a little mental bow to that inner critic, say “thank you for your opinion, you can f*ck off now” and just keep writing.
Once I get in the flow, that part of my brain stops pestering me. In fact, that’s what flow is. It’s the quieting of that inner chatter and a complete focus on the task at hand. Hours can fly by and often do. It takes practice. And the more I practice, the more easily I can get into that state of flow where my creativity flourishes.
Side note: that inner critic is a glorious editor. I would never banish her forever, only for first drafts. Once I’ve got a draft down and it’s time for editing, I let her run like an ostrich across the savanna. For more on that check out this post I wrote about Right View for Better Editing.
Quieting the Monkey Mind
In a recent podcast interview on the Ezra Klein show, George Saunders (author of, most recently, “A Swim in the Pond in the Rain“) talks about treating his writing like an anchor in meditation and how “rumination falls away” when he’s writing. He uses a phrase often used when describing our buys brains: the monkey mind – always swinging from one branch of thought to the next. He talks about how writing can quiet that monkey mind.
In the interview, Saunders shares many insights on the intersection of mindfulness and writing. It’s definitely worth a listen if this is something you’re interested in (and if you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you are), but the part I’m specifically referencing begins around minute 11, in case you want to jump right to it.
Meditating for a few minutes before I begin writing is the best way I have found to find the flow of my writing. It’s a sentiment that I hear over and over again at A Very Important Meeting. People who have never meditated before, or who have never used meditation to quiet their minds before writing are floored to realize how the two practices go so well together.
If you feel you could use some guidance, please consider yourself invited to A Very Important Meeting. I’m also thinking about recording some short meditations so that I can make them available on my website here. Drop me a note in the comments if that’s something you’d be into.
I hope you enjoyed this piece and learned a little something. If you found the content valuable, tips are hugely appreciated.