I have been meditating since I was eighteen years old, and I’d venture to say I’ve only scratched the surface of its benefits. My mind is too active, needing engagement at all times – books, articles, television, writing, talks with friends, anything. My thinking is never still. It is not exactly conducive to the zen state many of us associate with meditation. But that’s probably why writers need meditation more than anyone, because we’ve always got characters and plots and a thousand questions running through our minds at once.
For maybe the first fifteen years I meditated, I was sure I was doing it wrong. I never got my thoughts – the “monkey mind” as it’s called in mediation circles – to quiet down. Never, ever. It just kept chattering, like a kid trying to distract you from the fact it’s bedtime. “That itch is really itchy! Oh my god, it’s unbearable. Scratch it! Scratch it now… oh no! No? No scratching? Well, are you sure you didn’t leave the oven on? Oh, and you know what you should Google? 1940s pick-up trucks. For that scene, remember? If you don’t stop what you’re doing right now and Google it, you’re going to forget and that whole scene will be ruined. Maybe the book. Maybe your whole career, and possibly your life. And isn’t Game of Thrones on tonight? Are you sure it’s not tonight? Man, that scene with the army of the undead was awesome. Maybe you should go replay that. Go! Do it now!”
Twenty straight minutes of that, without stop. That’s what it’s like to live in my head and, I’d venture to guess, the heads of a lot of writers. Probably a lot of humans in general.
So, the fact that I wasn’t able to shut my mind up felt like a failure, until I understood that meditation isn’t about controlling. It’s about observing. You can’t do it “wrong.” While your brain might try to distract you away from sitting in stillness a thousand times in the course of one meditation, it’s not about your ability to make it stop, but your ability to notice it and bring yourself back to your meditation anyway. Over and over again, the way you’d correct a kid until they got it. (Although, full disclosure, in nearly 30 years of meditation, my monkey mind has yet to stop trying to butt in).
The power of meditation is not in succeeding in getting the mind to stop, but in developing the discipline to keep bringing it back on task time and again.
So, if you’re a writer, I’d greatly encourage you to try meditation. I try to do it about twenty minutes a day and, if I’m feeling particularly frazzled, thirty. (Sometimes the thought of going that long is unbearable and I do it for ten. The idea is to get through it, not make it impossible on yourself).
Here’s what’s magical about meditation for writers: it clears the cobwebs. Yes, you notice how much your mind chatters at you, but it’s like you give it a vacation anyway in those tiny “moments between thoughts” where you really feel like you’ve grown still. I find I’m much more creative after meditation, much calmer, much more likely to be able to access the most imaginative parts of me. We’re really just meant to be still sometimes, but when you’ve sitting in front of a screen all day, that can be hard.
So… how? Entire books and audio programs have been filled with wise instruction from people far more qualified than I am to give instruction on the topic, and I encourage you to look up stuff from Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg. Even a quick search in YouTube will get you a lot of great, free resources. There are podcasts and blogs. Believe me, if you want to meditate, you’ll find lots of information.
But if that all sounds too daunting, it’s simple to start. You can do it right now, exactly where you are. (Bonus points if you can get out in nature. I try to meditate in a park or the woods at least once a week, year round).
Sit comfortably, spine straight. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, but don’t too fixated on controlling your breath. The idea is to observe, not change. Give yourself the gift of non-judgement for just this short time. When the thought comes that you’re doing it wrong, thank it and let it go. When the thought arises that there is something else crucial you should be doing right now (believe me, your brain will get very creative when it wants to make you stop being still), thank it and make a mental note that you will have plenty of time to deal with everything when your meditation time is over.
The exercise of meditation is to focus on one thing and to keep coming back to it every time you get distracted. Some people like to focus on the breath, a simple noticing of “in” and “out.” I like to do that sometimes, but if I’m particularly wound up it sometimes makes me start breathing funny, and then I get crazy about trying to make my breath “normal.” Other times I like to visualize a calm lake, and my mind becoming like that lake. I must have read that somewhere, and now I often picture a lake when I’m meditating. But, if I’m not feeling like I’m in a particularly visual mood, trying to see the lake is more frustrating than it is helpful. I also sometimes like to repeat a mantra (you can Google it and find a ton, or just use a word you like that brings you peace, like “rest” or “health” or something that resonates for you).
Sometimes, in one meditation period I find that I go from one technique to the other as I get fidgety with one. Sometimes one takes me the whole way through. Other times, I’m just miserable and restless and nothing works, but I sit through it anyway. I am always rewarded, as one is always rewarded by exercise (and writing), even when you start off kind of cranky and lazy.
The benefits of meditation are being uncovered all the time, from lower blood pressure to better mood to overall improved happiness and creativity. As writers, we need all those things. But, more than all that, meditation is an exercise in accepting yourself as you are, which is priceless. I’ve found that it’s hard to write things that are true if you’re trying to make yourself look good or keep out the embarrassing bits. Meditation is about self-acceptance, and self-acceptance is critical for telling the truth. And what is writing but truth telling?
Here’s my favorite book on the meditative journey. Check it out. Funny, accessible and slightly gossipy (the author is an ABC news anchor): 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story