Writerly Things I’ve Learned from Navel Gazing

March 12, 2021 § 21 Comments

By Rick Brown

Meditation—a practice often shackled with the uncomplimentary term, “navel gazing”—is considered by some to be an esoteric waste of time. The pursuit of writing is similarly maligned, especially in our hurry-up-and-produce Western culture. The rewards for both often amount to private victories, after all, and the labor expended may not be conspicuous to the critical observer.

But make no mistake: both involve difficult and dedicated work.

No one will reap the benefits of meditation simply by thinking about it, even less so by talking about it. Instead, we must cultivate the solitary habit of returning to the cushion time and again, preferably every day. On some days, our thoughts will bounce around like sugared-up preschoolers and we wonder what we are doing wrong. Other times we will meditate like bona fide gurus.

Writing is no different, especially on the positive side of the experience. For are there not moments when we become so embedded in a story or essay that the “real” world around us drops from our awareness, if only for an instant?

As creative writers, we live for times like these. It is the paramount blissful state of our craft. Yet, amid the bliss we also have days, often many of them, when we find ourselves distracted by refrigerator noises, mischievous cats, or those irksome patrons who dare to walk into our café and shake our concentration.

But if we work in spite of it all, then we are on the right road; for showing up to stay is the first and most necessary step. Over time, and with dogged repetition, we will develop the ability to deal mindfully with distractions when they arise. After all, it’s not the distractions that shake us so much as our thoughts about them, right? And what are thoughts? They are electro-chemical impulses to which we assign meaning, and from which our bodies react physically. But the mental events need not always play out in the same way. In meditation, we learn to consider stray thoughts as ephemeral—cottonwood seeds in a breeze. Without judgment or excessive mental strain, we simply “observe” them as they float across our consciousness and out of sight.

The same tack can apply to writing. Rather than fighting those errant thoughts when they arise, or heaping shame upon ourselves for thinking them, we can adopt a basic technique from meditation practice: “return to the breath.” For this we pause, breathe deeply once or twice to re-ground ourselves; then, for a while longer, we do so more naturally, noticing each in- and out-breath with mindful intention. Sit apart from any wandering thoughts we might have, label them as simply thoughts, and let them travel on their way. Finally, we return to our work and pick up where we left off. If the distractions return (and they will) just repeat the process.

I know, it’s easier said than done. But it can be done. And the more often we employ this technique, the easier and more natural it will become. Return to the chair. Return to the breath.

Another axiom to both meditation and writing is that it is wise to come to each new session relatively free of expectation. As we know, expectation implies an attachment to a specific outcome. In some instances this is reasonable: we can expect that the sun will rise again tomorrow. But in the interminable play of the universe, even this is not an absolute; and in any case, it is not an outcome we can control by way of human power. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but we experience this truth on many lesser, everyday levels as well. We cannot, for instance, expect that our next meditation or writing session will be as “good” (or as “bad”) as the previous one. We can do our best to ensure a positive outcome—perhaps by reading something inspiring, by not eating directly before sitting, or by first engaging in a stretching or yoga routine.

But in the end, the session will be what it will be. If outside forces conspire against us, that is just the situation we face.

Some writers are good at disciplining themselves to achieve an outcome—siting on a certain number of words per session, for instance. Ernest Hemingway is said to have jotted down his daily tally in pencil on the sides of the cardboard boxes stacked alongside his writing desk. But many more of us approach the desk with trepidation. Are we up to the task? Will we ever publish?

Often, the mood we bring to the task depends upon forces outside our influence or control, such as past performance, the weather, or the needs of others. There is peril at the extremes too. Both overblown and undernourished attitudes can undermine us. If we begin with an air of pomposity, for example, especially one that is not earned, we can almost count on not performing anywhere near the level of our expectations. Likewise, sitting down with no confidence at all will yield predictable results.

Perhaps it is better to arrive without a predetermined outcome in mind, aside from the decision to arrive and remain. We might turn out a masterwork; we might stare at an empty screen for an hour. In either event, we will have faced the reality of our task at hand. In the final accounting, that is an accomplishment.

In this way, too, we treat the act of writing as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve something “higher.” And if we make ourselves available in this way through the cultivation and practice of a dedicated awareness, then any added windfalls—like publication, book deals, or even enlightenment—will appear as whipped cream on the pie.

But in the meantime, return to the chair, return to the breath. Repeat as necessary.

Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

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§ 21 Responses to Writerly Things I’ve Learned from Navel Gazing

  • This was what I needed to read this morning. Thank you.

    More than fifty years ago, my high school PE teacher taught my class what she called “bio-feedback.” It was meditation and relaxation, a strategy for diving inward and away from the world. It was the only useful thing I ever learned in PE. Later in birthing class, I recognized a reversal of those same strategies—moving out of the body in labor.

    That ability to let go, to mindfully discard the turmoil in my mind has allowed me to go many places in my past and invention—that moment the character demands broccoli when I’d planned a dinner of soup. Allowing the brain a sort of effortless drift, is a necessary discipline. I should have taken up meditation decades ago. Perhaps I did.

    • Rick Brown says:

      I remember bio-feedback! And I’m glad you had such an early experience with these techniques. I started meditating seriously as an adult, in my thirties. I’m 57 now, and some days are easier than others. But I suppose that’s the point, right? Thank you so much for sharing your comments, Jan.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Gee, I’d forgotten the “navel-gazing” term, though it may fit if you’re doing certain types of Buddhist breath-centering. You do have me realizing that it was about 50 years ago now, give or take a month, since I was introduced to meditation through yoga, a practice that has continued both solo and as a Quaker in a circle of kindred souls.
    You are right, both “sitting” and writing are work, and there are many times when settling down in them is difficult, even after decades of practice — I do love the word “practice,” by the way, in its many meanings. That is, there are days when that’s difficult and hasn’t gotten easier, except for a knowledge of the deep water ahead. Curiously, though, both also feel natural, as streams of my life, and also essential.

    • Rick Brown says:

      My wife, (a yoga instructer and a person younger than me by a stretch), didn’t recognize the term, “navel gazing.” So maybe it is no longer in the collective lexicon. Good riddance if that is true: It never made sense to me anyway. I LOVE the last paragraph of your comment, where you discuss the similarities between writing and the practice of meditation. Beautifully stated! Thanks for reading and commenting, Jnana.

  • kperrymn says:

    Great post, Rick, thank you! I am pretty good at getting myself to the chair, but it is that expectations thing that trips me up.Oh, yeah and the distractions! When I first started thinking about writing as a practice, a wonderful teacher named Rosanne Bane taught us to deal with distractions with the mantra, “Not this, not now.”I need to get back to that. Thanks for your essay.

    • Rick Brown says:

      Oh that is awesome: Not this, not now. I will use that one for sure. Here’s to a future of minimum distractions for both of us. Thank you for your comments!

  • joellefraser says:

    My new mantra: “Return to the chair; return to the breath:

  • Nita Sweeney, Author says:

    Gratefully we meditators have come a long from being cast as “navel-gazers” but I love that you used that term to lure me in. Such a great reminder of the overlapping skill sets in both meditation and writing. Thank you for your efforts. Deep bows.

    • Rick Brown says:

      So glad “navel-gazing” is disappearing as a term while actual meditation practice is more widespread than ever. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • Love the term nazel gazing actually Rick!
    As a regular meditatior that has a nice ring to it! 💖

  • Eilene Lyon says:

    A good reminder of two things I need to re-work into my daily life. It’s so easy to fall into a web of distractions! Disentangling is harder than avoiding getting caught in the first place.

  • lgrizzo says:

    Thank you for this reminder. Breathe, write.

  • Maddie Lock says:

    As one who both meditates and writes, I so understand what you are saying! Some days the focus is there, some days not. Some days the thoughts flow gently through, like clouds, some days they hammer like a storm. But sit we must, whether it’s on the cushion or in front of the computer, in order to find out what kind of day it is.:) And, I just read the term navel-gazing in a new book (the name escapes me) but it’s still in use.

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