Training yourself to notice sensations in the body while writing (and sitting) will allow you to form a stable ground for your practice. You may need to make adjustments as you write, but over time you will become more adept at simply noticing bodily sensations while they arise and fall away. The nonjudgmental witnessing of the body is training for the next level of experience: the mind.
For many of us, it's difficult to recognize — let alone accept — that what is happening in our mind is different from actual reality. In fact, many people assume that their minds are reality. As we slow down and sink more into practice, however, we see that it's possible to distinguish what happens in the world around (and inside) us is actually different from what we think about it.
Take this simple example: I am writing and a cramp develops in my wrist. Mindfulness teaches me to simply be aware of the multitude of sensations found within this cramp, noticing how they change over time, how they respond to shifts in motion, pressure, and activity. This is reality – what is happening right now in my body. What isn't reality, however, are the thoughts that might arise as I do this observation. What if I injured myself? I'm never going to be a writer if I have to live with this pain? Am I going to need surgery?
While there is nothing inherently wrong with such thoughts, if I am not careful I may soon find myself lost in scenarios and feelings way beyond what is true in the moment: contemplating who will drive me to work when my wrist is immobilized; feeling anxious about losing the dream of publishing a book; criticizing myself for not doing more yoga to prevent injury. We've all been there; it's what the mind does. The real question is: Why do we choose to stay
My answer: because we don't know the difference.** We've never been asked to consider that thoughts are not facts, that we have the capability to recognize when our actual experience has been usurped by something that actually doesn't exist. Anyone who has ever been caught on one of these "thought trains" — a ride far beyond the territory of the here-and-now — knows the experience of suddenly realizing just how far they have drifted. It's when you were a kid, fell asleep in the back of the car, and woke up at Grandma's house. Wait. How did we get here? While the thoughts may appear in myriad forms — memories, plans, questions, desires, hopes, dreams, etc. — the common denominator they are not the present experience. (Unless, of course, they are. But that topic — mindfulness of mind — is for a different day!)
So what to do? Does being mindful mean "not thinking." Of course not! The mind is made to think; it's what it does, and it does it well. But one who is mindful has learned to recognize when that thinking is, in fact, taking him or her away from the present moment, and in doing so may be creating emotions, worries, problems, and other bothersome things that are simply not helpful, especially if they are based on projections, judgments, assumptions that are simply not true.
Consider how worried I might have been about my impeding wrist surgery. What effect might that stress — totally fabricated by my mind — have had on my system?
A teacher of mine once said that the way to measure progress in my practice was not to not how long I could stay focused on the present moment, but rather how long it took me to recognize that I had drifted away so that I could call myself back. This is where the practice of noting comes in handy. The next time you are sitting, practice noting when your mind has drifted away from your anchor point, be it the breath or bodily sensations as a whole, by "saying" to yourself in a very soft internal voice, thinking, thinking.
that's all. Simple, but not easy. Once you have noted the thought, come back to next sensation at your anchor.
And then wait until the mind drifts again, and again, and again. This is mindfulness practice.
** Writing this makes me recall one of my favorite scenes from the film The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Michael J. Fox. Douglas's character, President Andrew Shepard, has refused to address the volatile public accusations being put forth by his chief rival, Senator Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Fox, who plays Lewis Rothchild, Shepard's Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, is challenging Shepard's silence. The climax of the scene:
Lewis Rothschild: "Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."
President Andrew Shepherd: "Lewis, we've had Presidents who were beloved who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand 'cause they're thirsty. They drink the sand 'cause they don't know the difference."
Ouch. But then again, I wonder...Who is the one doing the talking in my head most of the time? And am I thirsty enough to drink what it is offering, even though it's usually only sand, not the water I truly crave? And how is it that it took me so long to even realize that I don't actually know the difference?