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My heart beats faster, I get nervous and anxious, and defensive thoughts arise and cloud my mind – that’s how I usually feel in the first few seconds when receiving feedback and criticism on a text. When I receive the proofread blog post, these symptoms start to arise even before I’ve opened the file. You might know similar symptoms when you get an evaluation of your work. But you might also be unaware of such symptoms and not worry about them much, since you have to worry about the comments on your concepts, empirical research, or interpretations. Depending on how flattering or dismissive the feedback turns out to be, the symptoms will intensify or be of a different kind. Critical and negative comments may discourage, or worse, for longer periods; positive comments may motivate.
I remember well the moment when I received the first assessment of my PhD thesis. The committee needed longer than planned so I was already anxious about their evaluation. After reading the first few sentences in the e-mail from the head of the doctoral school, I knew that the committee wasn’t yet satisfied with my thesis. They gave me a few months more to revise parts of it. That, of course, was the first attack on my scholarly ego. Now, my symptoms were in full bloom. I couldn’t believe what I read, because I expected to pass the first assessment. After hesitating, I opened the assessment report. Still nervous and anxious, my body tense and producing my usual stress signals, my mind was in a debate with the comments and criticism by the committee. With certain comments I agreed – above all, the acknowledging and flattering ones. With many critical comments, however, I did not agree at all. How could they possibly have understood it in a different way? Hadn’t I clarified this point? How could they say this? Did they even read the entire thesis? My mind was in defensive mode.
You might remember similar experiences when receiving peer-reviews on an article, a grant proposal, or individual chapters you gave to your PhD supervisor. Do you also remember whether and how you dealt with your reactions? It is difficult not to get involved with the bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise when we get criticized. When we get involved too much and identify ourselves with our work – taking a defensive position – we will make the experience worse than it has to be. When we try to be aware of our experiences, however, we may decrease the impact of the evaluation.
Whenever I remember to do so, I try to be aware of my bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions as I described in the last three posts when receiving feedback. Although it didn’t help much in the first minutes of reading my PhD assessment, I was fully aware of what was going on in my body and mind. I wasn’t able to shut down my automatic reactions. That’s not the goal of mindfulness anyway. But I learned something about how I reacted and how I tried to defend myself. Whenever I feel these symptoms start to arise, I try to be mindful and try to relax at the same time. The reaction might still be the same, but my approach is different.
Even if it sounds impossible to change a natural reaction pattern, we can take the edge off. We try not to overidentify with our work so that we can accept and appreciate the feedback. We don’t have to agree with every comment, but we can approach them with a non-reactive attitude. Instead of getting too emotional and dismissive, we see the feedback as a good opportunity to refine our thinking and writing.
After the first shock and a few days after reading the assessment, I started to plan how I would act on the criticism that I needed to deal with. It didn’t take me long to rewrite and expand some sections. I still didn’t agree with most of the committee’s comments, but they allowed me to strengthen my arguments and defend my choices in the place most appropriate: in my thesis and not just in my mind. While I expected the committee to discuss the same arguments at the PhD defense, they didn’t do so. They accepted that I hadn’t entirely agreed with them and that I therefore kept on defending my position. The final assessment still contains many of their original criticism, but I can live with it. I’m sure that the symptoms might return should I reread the assessment of my PhD thesis. But by being mindful, I know what I’m dealing with and don’t take it too personally. The symptoms arise and, sooner or later, will disappear.
Writers often struggle with fear, self-doubts, guilt, discouragement, and other emotions that may hinder their writing – accomplished novelists, published and not-yet-published scholars, and students alike. Perfectionist thoughts, for example, may lead to fear of failure and eventually to writer’s block. As Ralph Keyes shows for novelists and poets in The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear (1995, Holt), though, fear and other strong emotions can not only impede writers, they may also be a source for writing. Instead of fighting anxiety, writers use the power of these emotions for creative purposes.
Emotions often emerge in combination with thoughts and bodily sensations. This may make it difficult to differentiate between them. To deal with both the negative and positive emotions while writing, however, we can use our awareness to identify them. For example, when we notice resistance to writing when our schedule says so, we can be aware of what we feel like in this situation. There will be thoughts that tell us why it is okay not to write – and as suggested in the previous post, we don’t have to believe these excuses. At the same time, we may feel anxious about the scheduled task and would like to postpone it to a time when we “feel like it”. Or, we have self-doubts about our writing skills. Whatever our emotional state in this particular situation, mindfulness allows us to just observe it. We don’t need to fight it or try to change our emotions into positive, better ones. If we feel anxious or discouraged, then that’s how it is in that particular moment. If the emotions don’t lose their grip on us, at least they won’t get worse. Instead of fighting the present state, we accept it for the moment.
Not being in the grip of negative emotions, our writing isn’t dependent on them and we don’t wait until they’re gone. The same applies to strong positive emotions. We have to be able to write independently of positive moods such as joy, happiness, or “feeling like it”. If we wait until we are in the mood for writing, we may not write as much. Even if we feel motivated and write with joy, we should not let ourselves be swept away by this emotional state. It may lead to writing in binges and to a dependence on good moods. It’s certainly okay to enjoy the happy writing sessions, but we shouldn’t long for them.
Mindfulness, thus, allows us to notice strong emotions, whether positive or negative, and to deal with them non-reactively and nonjudgmentally. For the time being, we accept them for what they are – emotions or moods that arise and disappear. With awareness, we don’t fight, suppress, or indulge our emotions; we don’t give them more fuel. While different emotions will still arise, they may not occupy our attention for as long as they did in the past. And if we’re lucky, they may not visit us as frequently anymore or even stay away completely. But whatever the outcome may be, we practice mindfulness of our emotions while writing to be independent from them. Then, we will be able to write as scheduled, whether we are feeling sad, anxious, and doubtful, or elated, happy, and motivated. We don’t have to wait for emotional states to arise or disappear – we write as planned.
Although I’m repeating myself, to be aware of our emotions and moods, as well as our bodily sensations and thoughts, we need to cultivate mindfulness on a regular basis. Don’t judge yourself if you can’t be mindful more than once or twice during a writing session. Be patient and keep on coming back to the present moment. Practicing mindfulness will increase your ability to be aware of what is happening – until it constitutes another habit.
Next week, I will try to show what may happen when we receive feedback or criticism (on a dissertation or article) and how mindfulness can help us deal with it. For this purpose, I will draw from my own experiences.
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.
Mindfulness does not depend on special circumstances or experiences. We can be mindful of everything we experience, whether positive, negative, or neutral. That is why it may help us to better understand our experiences of the writing process. Today, I want to talk about mindfulness of the bodily sensations we encounter while writing.
When I transcribed interviews earlier this year I started being aware of the bodily sensations involved in writing. As usual my experiences run on autopilot, only thinking about them or watching them more closely if something goes wrong. While transcribing, however, I tried to be aware of how it feels to write. This kind of exercise allowed me to be mindful because I would listen and simply type what I hear. Transcribing becomes more or less an automatic task. Although I try to avoid multitasking, I succeeded in both transcribing and being mindful of the bodily sensations I experienced (this is more demanding when I write new text, such as a blog post). I discovered that my hand movements felt different during the first hour of writing than afterwards. During the first hour or so, my fingers moved smoothly over the keyboard, rarely typing wrong letters. Afterwards, however, my fingers started to feel stiff, producing more mistakes. While I first wrote without great effort, it became more demanding and, due to the increasing rate of mistakes, more irritating the longer I transcribed. Of course, this wasn’t the case every day. Some days, my fingers felt clumsy right from the start.
By becoming aware of how my fingers feel when I write, I got some insights about when it might be wise to stop typing. If I constantly mistype and, as a consequence, become irritated about my inability to type the way I expect (including the mental commentary judging my clumsy fingers), it might be time to take a break or stop writing for the day. Since I write for about an hour a day at the moment, I don’t get irritated by my fingers that much.
We can also be mindful of other bodily sensations, because it is not only the fingers but also many other body parts that help or obstruct our writing. Usually, I become aware of sensations when certain parts feel tense or different than I expect. The shoulders, buttocks, face, feet, or the eyes may all produce such sensations. Being aware of them, accepting the experience of a sensation without trying to change and judge it right away, enables us to find out why it feels the way it does. If we notice the signals our body sends, we might be able to change bad postures or habitual movements and learn new and ergonomic ones. Or, we become aware of them when the time has come before we get tired, irritated, and tense. If we learn to stop before our bodily experiences of writing become negative, we won’t connect writing with fatigue, stiff fingers, and an aching head and therefore try to avoid writing. Rather, we connect writing to positive bodily experiences. While not every writing session feels the same way, we know how to interpret our body’s signals by being mindful. Getting irritated by them won’t help to improve our situation. But when we try to be aware of your body while writing, we may learn something about our habits and ourselves. Only with these new insights we may change things for the better.
Next week, I continue with the topic ‘mindfulness while writing’ and will talk about the kinds of thoughts that arise when we write.
To be effective and productive writers, we need to make writing a habit. To be mindful people, we need to make mindfulness a habit as well. Both writing and mindfulness can be learned and developed. We can make them part of our everyday and professional lives. To be able to write well and to be mindful, however, we have to cultivate them both.
In the case of writing, as discussed in the previous posts, we need to commit to a schedule of regular writing sessions, whether or not we feel like writing or have the desired equipment. Only by writing do we learn how to write good prose, well crafted articles or dissertations. Although we have to think about what and how to write, we won’t improve our skills or develop our voice as writers unless we sit down and write.
Being mindful is similar. Thinking about how mindful I would like to be won’t help, unless I try to be mindful time and again. As I suggested in the previous post, mindfulness means being aware of one’s experiences in a given moment, while not judging them (including bodily feelings, emotions, and thoughts). Being mindful, we try to be aware and accept what is at the moment. Later of course, we can try to change our ingrained reactions and automatic patterns of experience by means of reflection. But first, we have to notice what is happening by being mindful. In contrast to writing, however, we don’t make a schedule that tells us to be mindful for an hour at a certain time (only if you want to meditate). We also don’t need special equipment. All mindfulness demands from us is that we try to be aware of what happens as often as possible. To become more mindful and to develop this quality of our mind, we need to cultivate it.
We can be mindful anytime and anywhere, from right after waking up in the morning to the moment before we fall asleep in the evening. In order to make it easier to remember to be mindful, we can choose specific actions or situations in our daily life that we connect with mindfulness. Aside from opening doors, brushing teeth, walking to work, or talking to someone, I would like to suggest that we can also be mindful while writing. We thereby establish a connection between two habits that demand a similar disciplined and regular approach. From the perspective of writing, we take the scheduled session as an opportunity to write with a clear, focused and awake mind. From the perspective of mindfulness, writing represents a recurrent action that allows us to remember to be aware of what happens. Both habits can feed on the other as in a symbiotic relationship (of course, this doesn’t apply to writing and mindfulness alone).
Cultivating both writing and mindfulness, whether separately or in connection, they remain a challenge for most people most of the time. Perfection, though, isn’t the goal. Just stick to your schedule, whether you meet the planned goals or not, and stick to being mindful whether or not you succeed for more than a few seconds. To become good writers and mindful people, we have to persevere even in the face of bad moods or adverse circumstances. Then we will notice how our writing and mindfulness improve, and we will be able to notice and enjoy what we accomplished. Cultivation of both, then, becomes an end in itself.
Next week, I want to talk about how we can apply mindfulness while writing and what insights it may produce.
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.