By: Christopher Fox Ph.D
“…Writing entails a period of forced solitude that enables us to meet and conduct a searching conversation with our authentic self. This contemplative dialogue with our true self is transformational. Writing is not a mere act but a journey of the mind into heretofore-unknown frontiers of the self.” ―
Calming the Writer’s Mind
Like almost every writer, at times I struggle with distraction. Thoughts fail to come to mind, or rather, too many thoughts and impulses come to mind, and then thoughts fail to come from mind.
To break through distraction, I often try a meditation technique related to various forms of “emptiness meditation.”
There are many approaches to emptiness meditation, but here is a basic template you can use, even without making it into a writing exercise. Some meditation experts may disagree, but I think it’s a distraction to worry about getting it “right” or following the precepts of a particular approach or tradition.
- Find a quiet place to sit where you will not be disturbed. You don’t have to sit in any special position, but it is much better to sit upright with your back straight if you can.
- Keeping your eyes open, take three or four deep breaths, in through the nose, and out through the mouth. While you do this, settle into your intention to meditate.
- Close your eyes and shift to regular breathing through the nose. Gently let go of your thoughts.
- As you sit, thoughts will naturally come into your mind. You don’t have to struggle to control or eliminate them. Instead, catch yourself and simply observe, “I’m thinking.” You can think of your thoughts as simply a passing cloud in the clear sky of your calmness.
- Return to breathing and a calm mind. Some people find it helpful to count the breaths as a way to focus, just a simple 1-2-3-4.
- Without thinking about the thought too much, whenever thoughts arise, notice the fact that you are noticing your mind thinking. This helps because it shows you that there is more to your consciousness than your thinking mind.
At first, even just a few minutes may feel quite long. Over time, you may find yourself going from just a couple of minutes to ten, fifteen, twenty minutes or more.
In the writer’s version of this practice, you follow similar steps to sit and pause your thinking. Even three to five minutes can suffice. As normally happens in this sort of meditation, thoughts arise. Remember that the technique calls us not to repress them, but simply to notice them and return to meditating. Through this process, however, a thought or phrase will coalesce as you gently allow it to do so. Instead of letting it gently go, instead you let that phrase become the seed for continuing the meditation.
You’ll know your phrase when you hear it in your mind. Once it coalesces, begin to think through the possible nuances of the phrase, looking for subtle implications, multiple levels of meaning. Click To Tweet
Even a phrase can tell a story, if not multiple stories all condensed into a single flutter of language. The 20th century French writer Nathalie Sarraute was a master of this in her fiction, starting with her first collection Tropismes (read more about it here).
Let me give an example. When sitting down to work on this column, I found myself doing everything but working on it. I would go to my email every time I saw a notification and pick up my phone every time one app or another beeped at me. So I withdrew from my desk to sit and meditate.
Following a few minutes of emptiness meditation, the phrase “let the baby cry” began to coalesce.
At first, I thought of it in the context of responding to notifications and alerts. They really do seem like crying babies, provoking a response, insisting that we not ignore them. A crying baby may provoke a deep physiological response in the brain. Both crying babies and the alerts in our many apps and devices trigger a burst of activity in the same regions of the brain as other immediate “fight or flight” response scenarios; they also tap into the brain regions that handle emotional processing and neurochemical rewards (link). Don’t doubt for a minute that this is no accident, by the way — this cycle of provocation and addictiveness is built in by design.
Rather than falling into the immediate reactivity of needing to respond, my meditation went, why not let the baby cry? I mentioned this idea to a first-time parent friend of mine and she challenged me to try it myself one day if I ever have kids. I might not be so cavalier about crying babies. So, perhaps easier said than done, but nonetheless…
I also thought of it as an appeal to one’s own inner emotions. I’ve written in Two Drops of Ink before about the importance of vulnerability and a healing mindset for writers. The phrase “let the baby cry” can also mean letting your own inner emotions run their course, both emotions in the moment and those stemming from deep-set emotional patterns. These can be equally powerful factors underlying the reactivity and resistance that express themselves with the surface behavior of procrastination. Procrastination, too, can be thought of as a baby not being left to cry.
Many other aspects of the phrase emerged, but these two give a good enough sense of the technique and how it works. In this situation, it resulted in the topic for this piece.
As this meditation helped me realize, as writers, we need to calm our minds in order to write. We have to let the brain be the brain and the past be the past in order for our voices to shine through.
Bio: Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D
Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D. is a writer and communications strategist living in Los Angeles. He works with executives and subject matter experts to help them build reputations through messages, conversations, stories, and thought leadership.
He is also the creator of Kindness Communication®, which promotes the idea that the worlds we move in can be better places if we make kindness the core of how we operate.
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