“Once you can communicate with yourself, you’ll be able to communicate outwardly with more clarity.
The way in is the way out.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
I was staring at the blank page, my mind a cluttered jumble of words and ideas, when I accidentally discovered the obvious.
To make my writing flow, I need to treat it like a mindfulness meditation.
It was one of those miserable writing sessions. I’d done the research and I knew what I wanted to say. But somewhere between the finger-waving inner editor and my wandering mind, my words got stuck. I lost my writing mojo. I was blocked. In agony.
So I did the one thing that always calms that busy monkey mind of mine. I set a timer and for 15 minutes I focused on my breath.
Gradually, I felt the noise quieting and the jumble in my head unravel. My jaw un-clenched and I felt clarity returning.
As soon as the timer rang, I set it for another 15 minutes. I was greedy to hold on to the spaciousness and sense of calm of my meditation.
I continued to focus on my breath. But this time I watched my pen glide across the page. I watched it form words and sentences until I had the outline of the piece I’d been struggling with. There was no effort. There was only flow.
Nowadays I start any writing session with a meditation. It’s become my secret weapon. I use it with my writers group and in my own writing practice, whether I am writing professionally or just for myself.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I’ve become a writing machine. I still struggle. But meditation has definitely made me a much better writer. And it continues to do so, every day.
Here is why.
Meditation creates focus and awareness.
Focus and concentration are limited resources. A quick Google search, a repeat visit to the fridge and the day’s concentration is shot to pieces. Meditation trains us to watch the wandering mind and to bring our awareness back.
The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says our true home is the breath.
Last September I spent a week at Plumvillage in Thay’s presence. I learned that when I really pay attention to each individual in-breath and out-breath, focus and calm become physical sensations. I am present and awake to what happens to my body and to my thoughts. A writer needs to write with all five senses awake.
Focus is what allows us to push through resistance. Because, let’s just say it again, writing is hard work. It can feel like a form of sweet torture.
Meditation trains us to sit with the agony that is part of the creative act
Watching the breath rise and fall, observing emotions and thoughts coming and going, learning to sit with discomfort, is good practice for any writer.
The creative despair that accompanies the act of writing, is the price we pay for the joy of looking at a finished piece of work. Between the two is an ocean of frustration, deep enough to make many an aspiring writer give up.
Meditation trains us to accept that we can’t have one without the other. Everything is impermanent. Meditation has taught me to be patient and accepting of myself. Especially on those days when everything I write sounds like crap.
Meditation let’s us tap into the creative flow
When I allow the thinking mind to be in charge, my writing tends to be slow and frustrating. You can’t will inspiration to visit during office hours. The best ideas usually come when we are not sitting at the desk.
But meditation can be a way to create an uncluttered stillness of mind that makes us more receptive to insight. I like to think of it as a way of tuning in with myself. To borrow Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, meditation is a form of deep listening.
Beyond the idle chatter of the analytical mind flows the voice of our intuitive, creative mind. When I meditate before a writing session, I allow myself to hear that voice.
Flow writing makes you more productive and less intimidated by the blank page
I first discovered the benefits of combining meditation and writing when I started Morning Pages.
Freewriting, or stream-of-consciousness, was first advocated by Julia Cameron to help blocked creatives. It’s an excellent way to train the writing muscle.
The idea is simple. Write without stopping to think or edit for a set amount of pages or time every day.
I’ve been doing it for a few years. It’s helped me become a faster writer. Staying in the flow of writing is a way of silencing the inner editor. It’s the most liberating way to write.
Now I no longer have to face the blank page with panic. Free-writing has shown me what I am capable of, day after day. All I have to do is show up. And go for it.
Of course not all of it is great. Far from it. But that’s not the point.
It’s about creating momentum and making writing a regular habit. Because the simple truth is, the more you write, the better you get at it. Like any habit, if we do it every day, it becomes automatic.
How to treat writing like a mindfulness meditation:
- Set-up & meditation
I have a designated meditation nook decorated with Himalaying Singing Bowls, my favorite incense, my meditation cushion, yoga mat and bolster. My meditation paraphernalia comes traveling with me. You could call it my pop-up altar.
It doesn’t matter whether you are sitting in cross-legs on a meditation cushion or at your desk. The important thing is to be comfortable and aware of your body. If you are sitting on a chair, pay attention to your feet pressing into the ground. Feel the alignment from your sitbones to the crown of your head.
Set your timer. 15 minutes works for me. 10 or even 5 minutes are also good. Focus on your breath. Feel it enter and exit the body. When you get distracted, bring yourself back to your breath. You may want to repeat the words ‘in and out’ in your mind to help you stay centred.
Sound bowl meditations are one of the most effective ways to create deep relaxation. I use them with great results in my workshops, yoga classes and retreats. Here is a free one you can use.
2. Freewrite immediately after your meditation
Have your writing utensils handy .
Write soon after coming out of your meditation. I pick up my pen immediately and start to write. It’s the best way to capture the voice of my unedited mind.
I set a timer for 15 minutes. I try to hold on to the meditative calm and stillness by continuing to focus on the breath.
When I am writing a specific piece, I write the heading at the top of a blank page. If I am working on a creative piece or to reflect on something, I’ll use a writing prompt. Often I do neither and just start to write.
I become a disembodied scribe, catching thoughts, ideas and words. Sometimes an opening paragraph appears. Sometimes I have nothing to say, but I continue regardless.
When I am stuck, I simply write down boring things like what my yoga practice was like that morning or what I had for dinner the night before and then I watch as my pen leads the way. It’s like going on an adventure. Every day I end up in a new place.