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.
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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.

Seven Wellness Tips for Writers

March 1, 2019 § 10 Comments

By Sweta Srivastava Vikram SwetaVikram_headshot_Brevity

For the past six months, I have been going through different doors of hell when it comes to my health. At one point, I wasn’t sure if I would make it alive. For almost five months, I couldn’t read or write for the most part—the fear of not being to write, ever, was right at the same level as my fear of not being able to survive. But I am here, and today I am writing this article. Such is the power of the human mind and body.

Life happens suddenly and mostly when we aren’t planning it. Towards end of summer 2018, I went from winning an award and organizing a book tour for my novel Louisiana Catch to hiking 12 miles to suddenly ending up in the ER. And this is when I eat right, exercise daily, meditate, teach yoga, say gratitude, and lead an overall mindful life. One could argue that what’s the point of living a healthy and balanced lifestyle if you are going to end up in the hospital fighting for your life. Fair enough. Here is my counter-argument: I came back from the dead and my body is healing because I have made it a point to prioritize my physical and emotional health. I went from not being able to open the front door to our apartment to taking the subway last week. Even my family physician as well as the surgeon were shocked (in a good way) that I wasn’t depressed despite everything I have been through. I always remind them (to not jinx it) that none of this is per chance. Yoga has taught me that if I can’t change my situation, I better learn to alter my attitude. I attribute my journey of healing and recovery and staying mentally strong and re-establishing my relationship with creativity to the six things below:

Make the right food choices: How you eat is as important for your overall health as what you eat. It’s easy to get distracted with a plethora of information and diet trends out there. And if you are a foodie like me, things get even more confusing. Should I eat gluten? Leave gluten? What about dairy and grains? Is Keto good? How is it different from Paleo? If you have a health issue, that’s different; otherwise, listen to your body since it holds the ultimate wisdom. Pay attention to how foods react with your body. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel emotionally. Revisit the food intelligence your grandma shared. We are all busy…I know…so keep it simple. But pay attention to what you put inside your body. For instance, avoid caffeine and alcohol and other stimulants close to bedtime as they can interfere with your sleep cycle. Avoid eating heavy and spicy meals late at night.

Cultivate a daily meditation practice: Meditation is a writer’s best friend. It can change both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control. Meditation can calm the nerves, lower anxiety, alleviate stress, protect your energy, offer perspective, create stronger focus, help better connect with your creativity, formulate newer ideas, and teach you about acceptance. Bruce Lee explains meditation beautifully, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Soothe away stress: Think about what happens to our body when we’re stressed or anxious. It reduces the immunity and turns our body into a host of diseases. The heart rate increases as our mind races. A combination of the above affects the quality of our thoughts. Stress activates areas of the brain that make us more alert. It also elevates production of hormones, including cortisol, that interfere with and disrupt normal sleep-wake cycles. One can reduce stress and anxiety through meditation, yoga and, sometimes, chamomile tea.

Power of positive thinking: Our mind is always occupied by thoughts and they influence our every action. Can you imagine how much we limit ourselves in every aspect of our lives if we give negative thoughts too much power? We don’t write that book because we think our work is too unimportant and nobody would want it. We don’t send in our essay or story or poem to any publications because we assume rejection in return. We don’t live the life of our dreams because our negative thoughts have decided for us that we aren’t worth it. We don’t take care of our health because we believe we are too weak to push our limits and will never feel better. So, do you see how we become our thoughts?

This doesn’t mean that we pretend all is well and there is sunshine everywhere. It just means that we fight our inner demons—the ones that nudge us about our failures and fears and insecurities and end—with our positive thoughts. For every negative thought that emerges, we respond to it with a positive thought. Say your gratitude for the good in your life. I promise, it makes the most arduous of days bearable.

Exercise with joy: Not everyone wants to run a marathon. Not everyone cares about doing a headstand or showing up to a Barre class or a CrossFit session. Good news: you don’t have to. Find out what works for you. It could be walking or running with a buddy or climbing stairs or some other form of physical activity. But exercise with joy because it can help with your brain health and memory. Exercise can improve the quality of your sleep and energy levels. Overall, it can make you feel happier. Yes, as writers, we don’t need to dwell in darkness and depression to be creative because that kind of mindset is both dangerous and unproductive.

Get your sleep on: There is a stereotype about writers and poets (maybe, creative professionals overall) that we all need the silence of the dead night to be at our creative best. Bouncing off of walls as we carry our sleep-deprived bodies through deadlines, it’s romanticized. Not all of us are night owns. If anything, research shows that night owls might have to deal with health consequences of their lifestyle. Research shows that messing around with your sleep cycle can disrupt hormonal balance in the body. It can birth pessimistic thoughts. Research shows that “night owls are nearly twice as likely as early risers to have a psychological disorder and 30 percent more likely to have diabetes. Their risk for respiratory disease was 23 percent higher and for gastrointestinal disease 22 percent higher.”

Move your body: As writers, we sit for extended periods of time. Refilling cups of chai and coffee. Looking out the window, talking to our characters, mulling over ideas, doing research on our laptops, and reading through piles of books. While the coziness of this arrangement might sound good, research showsthat too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Set an alarm and get up from your seat. Do some stretches or neck and shoulder rotation or get a drink of water. Whatever it takes, move.

Nothing is more important than your health. If you nurture your mind and body, they nourish your creativity. To quote Jim Rohn, “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”
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Sweta Srivastava Vikram featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time,” is a best-selling and award-winning author of 12 books, social issues warrior, and a certified yoga & Ayurveda counselor who helps people lead creative and healthier lives. Louisiana Catch (Modern History Press 2018) is her debut U.S. novel and won the “Voices of the Year” award. She lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of violence and trauma. You can find her here: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta).

 

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