Mindfulness and Writing #4: Being aware of thoughts

In the last post, I wrote that it is possible to be mindful of everything we experience, whether positive, negative, or neutral. This includes our thoughts, which shape our view of the world. Thoughts can emerge as daydreams, evaluations, or a running commentary of what we experience. Usually, we don’t notice our thought process or it’s content; we are immersed in it and often swept away by it. Mindfulness, however, allows us to be aware of our thoughts and see them in a different light – as thoughts that come and go. It also allows us to change negative or unwholesome thoughts into positive or wholesome ones.

While writing we have to think. Otherwise we won’t be able to put any words on paper. Ideally, as described for the writing schedule process, we always know what we will want to write about in our next writing session the day before at the latest. Knowing what to write about we can focus on how to say it. Nevertheless, we seldom think exclusively about a specific topic; our mind produces many thoughts unrelated to our writing topic. These other thoughts manifest as daydreams and other preoccupations, which just pop up in our minds whether we like it or not. They may occupy our minds for several seconds or minutes until we notice that our thoughts wandered. We usually react to this by judging ourselves as unable to concentrate; we tend to mentally punish ourselves for the self-distraction. When we practice mindfulness, however, we take a different approach. When we notice the presence of thoughts unrelated to the task at hand, we become aware of it and, without judging, return to the task. Whenever we lose our focus and notice this, we refocus – time and again. We don’t need to punish ourselves for losing control over our minds, because we can’t control it anyway. All we can do is to notice and accept the wandering thoughts and refocus. By being aware of our thoughts, we come back to the present moment and don’t get swept further away by daydreams etc.

Some thoughts are positive and enjoyable, yet still distracting (“This paper will be widely read and win an award…”). Many other thoughts, however, are negative and turn out to be obstacles. Perfectionism and the inner censor represent two related kinds of thoughts. The former demands that we produce perfect sentences, paragraphs, or drafts the first time and doesn’t allow us to rewrite what we drafted. The inner censor is the running commentary that evaluates what we write. Although we might write something, it won’t ever be good enough. As soon as we write some words or a sentence, the censor judges the work and tells us to rewrite right away. Instead of writing what we have in mind and not caring about mistakes or bad sentences, both kinds of thoughts hinder us to produce text. The problem with these and other kinds of thoughts is that we get swept away by them. We believe the inner censor or buy into our perfectionism and let ourselves get impeded. The good news is, however, that we don’t have to. As daydreams, evaluations and so on, they are only thoughts that arise in our mind and, sooner or later, disappear again. If we believe and hold on to them, they will dominate our minds. If we are aware of them, accept them for what they are, and let them go, they won’t stay long. No doubt, when we write they will emerge time and again. Our job is to be aware of perfectionism, the inner censor and other obstructing thoughts as soon as possible. If we do that each time they arise, they will soon start to emerge less frequently, until they don’t bother us anymore.

First, we need to accept that these kinds of thoughts are normal while writing. In a second step, however, we need to do ourselves the favor of not believing them anymore. When thoughts don’t help our writing, we should take care of them with mindfulness. With patience and perseverance, we will exchange the habit of censoring or impeding ourselves with the habit of being mindful of our thoughts. We won’t try to shut down our thoughts, but will try to control them so that they support rather than obstruct our work.

Next week, I talk about emotions such as fear, self-doubt, and guilt.

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