Dear Friday Five-O:
I am so hard on myself when I go back over something I have written. I am almost never satisfied, even when others praise me. How do I know if something is good enough? How can I shut off this hyper critical/self-doubting voice in my head?
– Round Robin
I swear this is an answer to your question.
I started meditating to become a better writer. Pretty much everything I have done in my life has had “becoming a better writer” as its ulterior motive. Therefore, I hope what I am about to say does not sound preachy.
Articles on meditation often begin with how long the author has been a meditator — as if that alone conveyed an expertise about finding a sense of inner calm — or what tradition they belong to, but I’m not going to get into any of that.
All I’m going to say is that I started meditating to become a better writer, and that meditating improved not only my writing, but my perfectionist mindset. What follows here are my five tips for learning to meditate as a writer. I trust that in the end we will find we are talking about the same thing.
ONE. Make the time to meditate.
We hear a lot about how no one has any time, but this is not advice on time management. This is about how if you have three hours to write, you should take the first 20 minutes to do nothing. It seems counter-intuitive, but the efficiency gained from doing nothing (until the urgency to do something passes) can been quantitatively measured. Try it some time.
Meditation increases efficiency because it slows time down. Or, it shows us how slow time is time when we aren’t trapped in our heads. Those thoughts you express above can be so damning–but they can also be damn charming. That’s why I find it useful to replace them with other thoughts at first, rather than just hold my breath and try to cease all thought.
TWO. An easy meditation to remember.
An easy meditation that switches your mind over to something else, in this case counting the breath, is called the Mindfulness of Breathing. (A great version of it can be found here.)
Basically, it has four stages:
- Breathe in and out ten times. Count at the end of each breath (1,2,3, etc.). When you get to ten, go back to one.
- Breathe in and out ten times. Count at the beginning of each breath (1,2,3, etc.). When you get to ten, go back to one.
- Stop counting and focus instead on the point where the breath enters your body (the tip of your nose, above the top lip…)
- Focus on the full length of your breath, from where it enters your body (found in the previous stage) and goes all the way down to your lower stomach.
THREE. Find a comfortable way to sit.
That’s something all writers can relate to. The last stage of the Mindfulness of Breathing can show you the full range of your breathing, especially the bottom of your breath — where you draw all of your power from.You can drink all the coffee you want, turn the music up as loud as your work space permits, but nothing will beat the crisp efficiency or the sheer endurance that a series of deep breaths brings to a writing session.
FOUR. Return to your breath.
This rich breathing can recur regularly the whole time you are writing. Coming back to the breath is the same thing as bringing the reader back to your unfolding logic.
Tangents are normal, and sometimes fruitful. But your progression through a piece depends on paragraphs that stack like disks along an aligned spine.
FIVE. Don’t seek non-attachment.
Attachment is what this question is really asking about. Its opposite, non-attachment (or equanimity) is the highest flourishing of a functioning human being, but you can’t seek it. Too bad, I know.
The reason you can’t seek it is because non-attachment comes as a result of a meditative practice; it is not the cause of one. A meditation where time has been consciously entered into, where habitual thinking has ceased or at least been stymied, and where the full range of one’s experience (symbolized here by the breath) is available does not guarantee that your work will be suffused by genius. But it can guarantee that the circular games of the mind will make way more often for moments of an understated joy.
Over to you,