Mindfulness and Writing #1

These days, mindfulness seems to be ever-present. Neuroscience has reported on new findings from research on the effects and benefits of mindfulness and meditation practice. The media turn these reports into stories. And – a sure sign of its arrival in the “mainstream” – companies and organizations offer their employees mindfulness programs or hire companies to do them. Whether this is a current management fad or a long-term transformation in society I’m not able to say. But, what’s most important is that, for many people the practice of mindfulness changed their lives for the better.

What I’m interested in most at the moment is how people integrate mindfulness into their everyday and work life. And that’s the reason why I want to explore the potential of mindfulness for (academic) writers. As usual, I won’t be the first person thinking and writing about the connection between mindfulness and writing. So far, I’ve found a few websites for fiction writers and two books. Dinty W. Moore, a fiction and non-fiction writer and professor of creative writing, published The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life (2012, Wisdom Publications). He mainly comments on quotations from different writers in the light of Buddhist teachings such as mindfulness. Peter Boice, a psychologist who did extensive research on writing problems, wrote the book Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus (1999, Allyn and Bacon). I’m still waiting for the delivery of my copy. The reason I ordered it is that Boice writes about mindful writing as a way to avoid writing either in binges or not at all. Once I’ve read the book, I will talk about it here.

But what is mindfulness, you might ask. There are different definitions of mindfulness, depending on the background of its author. Buddhist scholars draw on different “sutras”, the Buddha’s discourses. With the knowledge of the Buddhist perspectives, others adapt the definitions to contemporary, secular life. Jon Kabat-Zinn has pioneered such a view on mindfulness. He founded the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in the 1970s. Still other authors don’t rely on the Buddhist tradition, but define it in relation to psychology. For the present purpose I won’t discuss the debates and definitions. Rather, I would like to suggest a slim working definition of what mindfulness can mean in order to use it to explore its potential in the context of writing; other aspects I’ll leave aside for the moment.

To be mindful means to be aware of what is happening in the present moment. While it may sound easy, you’ll soon find out that it isn’t at all. Usually, we are not aware of the present as it unfolds but are occupied with the past or future. Being aware is one aspect. Another aspect is suspending judgment of what we experience and, for the time being, accepting what is. Again, our mind usually produces a running commentary about what we experience. We judge others and ourselves. I find it surprising how my mind constantly judges what is happening. Sometimes I even notice that I judge my judging. The suspension of judgment, however, does not mean suspending it all the time. It means being aware of how we judge and to uncover our mind’s commentary. Being mindful, thus, makes it possible for us to be aware of the experiences and events in a given moment, without already judging them as good or bad. We are aware of the present moment as long as possible. We will lose ourselves in our thoughts again after a fraction of a second or a few seconds. Mindfulness, however, means to come back to the present moment as soon as we notice being lost. One of the original meanings of mindfulness is “to remember”. Thus, mindfulness means remembering to come back to the present moment and being aware of what’s happening in and around us.

If I recall correctly, Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote somewhere (propably in his book Full Catastrophe Living) that being mindful is simple but not easy. You can find out yourself by being mindful of your breathing (the classical “anchor” for meditation). Try to be aware of your breathing without interfering with it and without judging it (“Why is it so shallow/deep? It shouldn’t be so fast.” etc.). Just try to be with your breath. Whenever you notice that you are thinking about breakfast, the tasks you should do, or last year’s holidays, you come back to your breath again. But don’t judge yourself if you can’t focus on your breath for more than a second. Simply be aware of your breath and then, if you get distracted, be aware of being distracted and come back again to the present moment – time and again.

As simple as it sounds and as hard as it may be, mindfulness has some potential we can draw on for writing. One of the potentials I already talked about in the post Writing Schedule #4 is how to deal with distractions during a writing session. Mindfulness may also help us develop our concentration, be aware of our writing habits, and it may support us when faced with criticism. I want to explore these and perhaps other aspects of mindfulness for writers in the next few weeks.

Next week, I want to talk about the similarities between mindfulness and writing.

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