Mindfulness is an ancient practice that is fast being integrated into many facets of modern life. It’s happening in places you’d expect — yoga studios, meditation centers, and high-end spas where people go to “get away from it all” — but it’s also being taught in schools, hospitals, prisons, and even at high-tech companies like Google and Apple. The world, it seems, is hungry for the present moment, not to mention lower stress, increased productivity, and more happiness.
So how about the writer? Can mindfulness help those of us who pick up the pen, be it to write a business report, a legal brief, a poem, or a novel? Can paying attention to the present moment really counter the forces of procrastination, impatience, or perfectionism that dog even the most productive creators? Well, perhaps. But not without some effort.
Simply stated, mindfulness is a “bare attention” to the present moment offering an unobstructed view of what is happening — in your body and mind — right now. Mindfulness feels the pen in your hand. It sees words forming on the paper, hears the tapping of computer keys, and notices the activities of your mind: planning, excitement, confidence, resistance. What it does not do, however, is react. Mindfulness does not interpret those physical sensations or draw conclusions from a passing (or persistent) thought. It does not judge, chastise, indulge, or blame. Instead, it acts as a sentinel, a grounded observer of the ebb and flow of constant sensory experience.
Buddhism teaches that all experience originates via one of six sense-doors: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, and mind. Once an external (or internal) object — a sound, a smell, a worry, a wish – is sensed, the mind moves beyond bare attention, labeling the sensory experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral and setting the stage for reaction: move towards, move away, or remain unbiased. At its core, mindfulness trains us to linger in bare attention — after noticing but before reacting — in order to become pure observers, less deeply influenced by habitual, conditioned patterns.
Writing often triggers myriad expectations, hopes, fears, and beliefs. You may have strong memories of the English teacher’s red pen. You may doubt your depth of knowledge or experience paralyzing resistance to certain topics or types of writing. Of course there are times when the writing flows freely — and these are wonderful — but when challenges arise, mindful writing offers concrete skills to counter the resistance.
Body awareness, the cornerstone of all mindfulness, can help keep you grounded throughout your writing process. Before beginning a writing session, sit in a comfortable position and take a few deep, conscious breaths. Spend a few moments in bare attention, letting your focus be drawn to the various spots in the body that signal for attention, be it through tingling, heat, pressure, pulsing, tightness, or outright pain. Explore these spots, noticing how they respond to inhalation and exhalation, and releasing as much tension as possible. Continue this observation of the root level of sensory experience for 3-5 minutes. If the mind drifts, gently return your focus to noticing what is going on in your body in this very moment. Try not to judge yourself or what you discover (or don't) during this process. Instead, try to just notice how all sensations arise and eventually fall away.
Once grounded, set a timer for 5 minutes and begin writing about the experience that is going on in your body as you continue to observe it. Stay connected with your awareness of the body as you write. What does it feel like to hold the pen in your hand? Move your arm across the page? What muscles are engaged in writing? Where is there heat? Coolness? Sweat? Tingling? Cramping? Are the sensations uniform or uneven? How long do they last? Does your mind jump from place to place, all over the body? Again, if you start to think about something that is not happening at this moment, gently bring your attention back, as you might guide a wayward puppy that wants to stop and sniff every piece of grass.** As you continue to write, note changes in your posture, the depth of your breath, the level of tension in various spots in your back, shoulders, neck, or jaw. Are these changes in any way linked to certain observations of your body or thoughts about those observations? If possible, relax and breath more deeply into any tension while continuing to write.
Mindful Journaling is a cornerstone of the Mindful Writing practice. By simply noticing what is happening in the body while you write, you will start to understand the impermanent nature of all phenomenon. Sensations arise; sensations fall away. As you expand your journaling into observations of sounds, smells, and thoughts in the mind, you are exercising the muscle of objective awareness that we all possess yet struggle to use. Ultimately, you can begin using this information to not only cultivate greater ease and acceptance of your unique writing experience, but also to steer yourself towards the writing that truly matters.
** Not that there is anything wrong with puppies stopping to sniff everything. In fact, I hope more of us can let our puppies (and dogs) explore what they find exciting rather than stick to the "expected" route. That said, I know we all have schedules and lives outside of dog-walking. Now, whenever I drag my housemate's dog, Lulu, in a direction she doesn't want to go or away from something she is really into, I thank her for "doing what I want to do." I like to believe that this is a small token of acknowledgement of both our needs and her willingness to help me out by relinquishing her short affair with whatever scent or object she has discovered. And that's another thing about dogs: they seem to recover from not getting what they want pretty quickly. Amazing, really.