When I saw MEDITATION on the daily schedule at my writers’ retreat my first thought was: that hippy crap will never work for me.
My brain runs one-million miles per hour with no exit ramps or stop signs. There is no way in hell I’d be able to sit and chant “ohm” for an hour a day without obsessing about how stupid ohm-ing was. Luckily my judgy-brain continued down the one-billion mile per hour trail and flew by a reminder that whenever I judge something without trying it first I’m being a judgmental dunderhead who only stays in her comfort zone and therefore never learns anything new. Followed by a brief pause at being a know-it-all bitch does no one any good. Besides, what’s the harm that can come from sitting still and saying “ohm” for an hour anyways? I raced along at one-trillion miles per hour to the time I went to the Iowa state fair, and I thought it was going to be a premium suck fest, but that didn’t turn out all bad, and I got a pretty good story out of it, to boot. I finally landed at I can’t judge meditation properly until I’m on the other side of trying this whole “hippy meditation nonsense” out, so sign up for the retreat and quit worrying about it.
The first day of meditation class I pushed preconceived notions from my head. Heather talked about all the ways you could sit. (There are a lot of things to learn about how you can sit. Chances are you have been sitting in the most thoughtless manner, without any consideration for how your body actually feels about sitting.) Somewhere in between how to sit and ringing a bell that’s really a bowl Heather said this very important thing:
“Your mind is going to wander. The important part of practice is the instant you realize your mind is wandering and that moment you pull your attention back to your breath.”
Lightning bolts full of smart went off with that little tidbit. See, as soon as she said that, I realized what my real hang-up with meditation was. I was worried I was going to do it wrong. I would be bad at it. I would fail. I don’t like being bad at things, and while I have gotten very good at failing over the past few years, I can’t say I particularly enjoy it. I knew my mind and my mind was going to wander, and when Heather told me that very important thing that meditator people understood—my mind was going to wander—something inside me said it’s okay to try this weird-ass meditation stuff.
Furthermore, lightning brain really liked the realization that the split second redirect of attention was the whole purpose of meditation. Combine that little revelation with the word practice and I had wandered into mind-shattering territory. I wasn’t going to be perfect, but I could practice and get better. And I understand practice. I believe in practice. Decades of piano lessons made me a firm believer that practicing helps you suck less.
Then smash all those lightning bolts of smart together because immediately I saw the very real benefit this would have in my writing life. 99% of writing is blocking out reality so I can focus on the imaginary world my characters live in. Blocking out that real world can be extremely hard, as in insanely difficult. But meditation taught me to focus on one thing—an object of meditation. The world is still swirling around, and you acknowledge it’s there, but it’s just doing it’s own thing, while you and your object of meditation are over here in a nice little microcosm doing your own thing. And when my writing goes really well I do the exact same thing. Essentially successful writing days were days when I had unknowingly sat down and turned writing into my object of meditation.
Thank God all those lightning connections happened on the first day, because I went in to every meditation session with an open mind—even when we were walking like zombies in slow motion, and I’ll have you know I had lots of stories coming to mind on that day, but I just kept redirecting to the feel of my feet on the carpet and how it felt to move my leg. I was surprised on the day I meditated lying down, because I thought I’d be all sleepy time—but at the end of our session I was wide awake.
My flight home got canceled and I was stuck in Scranton—that’s the first time I meditated by myself. I downloaded the Zenso app, put my phone in airplane mode, and sat in a decently nice hotel room in silence for five minutes, and then I wrote. On the airplane ride home I tried it again, and then I tried it again. I got home, looked through my handouts from the retreat and found the Refinery 29 thirty-day meditation challenge and decided to try it. I slowly built up my meditation time from five minutes to twenty.
Somewhere in all this experimentation I thought, Can I Pavlov dog myself with this and solve some of those writer problems I’ve worried about? One thing I’ve always struggled with is how I could write when traveling or outside of my normal element. It’s always been extremely difficult for me to work away from home. I couldn’t focus as well. I wasn’t as productive. It was harder to find the energy, blah, blah, blah. Well it occurred to me if I meditated right before I wrote it would prime the blocking out of the world part and provide me with a burst of energy. Furthermore meditation is a hands free, very portable type of thing that I could do anywhere. So even if I wasn’t sitting in my perfect writing chair, in the sun, with no worries in my head, and my ideal computer set up with the uber-big monitor, I could at least take an element of that perfection with me, wherever I went.
I decided I was going to science the shit out of this and guinea pig myself with it for the next year.
The experiment: One daily fifteen to twenty minute meditation session.
Five minutes of meditation in my writing seat (wherever that may be) prior to any writing session.
Since I write in forty-five minute timed blocks that would mean sit, five minutes of meditation, forty-five minutes to write, fifteen minutes free time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Start in the controlled environment in my house and then change my environment. I would challenge myself to write in places I wouldn’t normally, while using the meditate and write method.
I’m a month into the experiment and at the moment I’m writing in a basement in Arkansas. Five dogs stampede across the floor upstairs, and a very affectionate black cat named Tara tempts me with purrs. It’s Thanksgiving day and in a few hours I’ll be wearing my expand-o pants and gorging myself on turkey. I know there’s a house-full of people upstairs, but all of that exists around me. At the moment I am here, in my writing bubble, writing with green ink on unlined paper.
First experiment outside of controlled environment a success.
I no longer think meditation is hippy crap. It already helps me manage stress and has taught me how to walk around in my mind as opposed to taking that billion mile per hour train ride. The kind of meditation I’ve been doing just requires me to breath, and since I’m still alive I must be doing that part all right.
p.s. There were no “Ohm’s” used in the making of this essay, or at the retreat at all.
I wrote this over the Thanksgiving holiday in November of 2017. I’ve been practicing meditation steadily ever since. Recently Heather Demetrios interviewed me for her The Lotus and the Pen interview series. Yes that’s the same Heather I refer to in the essay. She’s the person who taught me to meditate, and she also happens to be a talented, prolific writer as well. Keep your eye on https://mindfulnessforwriters.com/ and https://wildthings.vcfa.edu/ blogs for my interview. I know meditation isn’t for everyone, but I’m really glad it turned out to work for me.