A blog for everything bookish

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Reflections on writing: mindfulness

I’ve been thinking about mindfulness a lot recently. Or rather I have been thinking a lot about how mindfulness is cropping up a lot recently. It seems to be a bit of a buzz phrase, which is a shame because I find there’s a lot of value in being mindful but its prevalence in the daily media seems to be turning it into a parody of itself. I am thinking, in particular, of an article I read about the ‘mindfulness of eating’ which was referencing a new App by Headspace who seem to be turning the world mindful one activity at a time. The idea behind mindful eating is centred on taking time to experience and appreciate your food. Instead of just guzzling it down, take a moment to appreciate the sight and feel of your food, savour the different tastes and textures, hold it on your tongue, chew slowly, smell as well as taste. There’s a lot of merit in this advice, in fact it brings to mind the approach in Japanese fiction (not just Murakami, though Murakami readers will recognise him here) in which the protagonist prepares a simple meal in an almost ritualistic, procession-like manner to the point where even those who would generally balk at the idea of pickled cauliflower are left itching to take a bite. So I’m on board here, yet still I can’t shift that shuddery feeling that comes over me every time I hear the term. 

Perhaps it is the term itself that I struggle with the most. It has a catch-phrasy tone to it. In the past I have dabbled, frequently, with meditation. I enjoy meditation, though it was not always so. I find it settling, peaceful. Perhaps it is because I am often so busy, often planning every spare moment of my day - starting this, scheduling that – that even just ten minutes of sitting and simply existing, without focus or intent, brings me back to the experience of Not just a doing machine (I feel like this often). When I read Ruth Ozeki’s marvellous A Tale for the Time Being I enjoyed reading about how old Jiko helped Nao to develop a habit of sitting zazen which is another word for meditation, though of a particular type as espoused by Zen Master Dōgen. Yet this term mindfulness seems somehow unfitting, and perhaps its wide ranging application (you can be ‘mindful’ in pretty much anything) is what discomforts me so greatly. I am sure it is irrational, but there it is.

So whilst I have titled this blog ‘mindfulness’ I think it’s more true to say that what I’m interested in here is present awareness or in more blunt Northern-Englandy terms ‘paying attention’.  Whether or not you indulge in meditation (and I’ll get onto that, bear with me) there is significant value as a writer in spending time in this activity of paying attention to what is happening right here and right now. I think as we grow older we spend a lot of time learning to phase out the ‘unnecessary’, those things which are repetitious or commonplace, those things that don’t contribute towards what we are trying to do, where we are trying to go or what we want to achieve. We lose the childish appreciation of the world, where each experience is seen as new and unique. It is called ‘growing up’ and yet it seems a terrible punishment for growing older. For a writer such obliviousness is a handicap; failure to observe, to feel, to experience even the seemingly ordinary in life separates us from the richness of the world. It is often in these hidden spaces, in the minutiae of detail, from which great literature is born. One quality which unites all the greatest writers is their ability to see and elucidate those things that other people overlook, adding to it, of course, their unique perspective and insight and hopefully some sharply written prose.

Being mindful is harder than you imagine, just try spending the next ten minutes paying attention to everything that happens inside and outside of you. It’s exhausting. It’s also especially difficult in a world which seems to be moving, through the aid of technology, to a more virtual life experience. Think about all those people you see walking through the streets on their way to work in the morning, chatting away on their mobiles or walking staring at the screens as they send a text message or read the latest news or Facebook updates. This sight is now commonplace, and those of us who eschew such technology (I despise mobile phones) have become adept at avoiding collision with such people whose bodies may be present but whose minds are clearly inhabiting some different plane entirely. I do not blame them. I don’t think people can be faulted for becoming entranced with these magical little boxes which they did not invent and never asked for and which allow you instant access a dizzying array of things you never imagined existed or that you wanted.  Yet I also think it is true that such technologies go a long way towards separating us from experiencing the world that we are in now; they engender a weirdly passive yet searching mentality, in which we go seeking the next thing to absorb or to react to: a tweet that enrages or a comment that demands a response. I know this to be true because I have experienced it; I am not beyond the allure of the internet, the way it instantaneously gratifies or outrages. I have spent many hours reading twitter feeds or internet articles, checking for e-mails or messages. Yet I also know it is dead activity, that to unearth my creative and creating self I need to be here and present and alert to what is happening.

I think this is perhaps why mindfulness has become such a thing recently, that people need gently reminding that they are more than just all-consuming beings, being fed information or experiences or goods at a distance. That it is easy to spend your entire life reaching out for something, when the really valuable experience is right here, in this moment, the one you are living. I recognise the irony in communicating this via an internet blog. In a way I’m saying the best thing you can do is stop reading and start feeling and experiencing.  In a moment, of course, when you’ve finished reading what I have to say. Pay attention.  

This is what mindfulness is about, and perhaps I have not explained entirely clearly why I think it is so important a tool if you’re setting out to be a writer, perhaps because I think, at its root, mindfulness is a valuable tool for life. But for a writer it is particularly valuable because it enables you to take time to empty yourself of all influences, forget the article that enraged you or the odd comment your mother left on your Facebook post, and let yourself become open to what is happening right now. It enables you to focus more closely on how you are feeling, unusual tensions in the body or perhaps a general sense of sadness or joy. It enables you to notice the little things: warmth, a soft breeze, an ache in your left shoulder (that’s me), the sounds of the air conditioning or heating running through the pipes in your building,  the regular ticking of your heart, the sensation of cloth on your knee, the way your body quivers unexpectedly when you sit cross-legged, the way the mind wanders, how it roams curiously seeking out experience, experience that, on the whole, you largely block out. All these things become present and clear and suddenly you start to see yourself forming from the blank space where your outward seeking – defensive mind would normally be. Subjects, reflections, meaning begin to form, not reactions but identity. Maybe your mind wanders to that argument you had with your partner that morning and you start to see what it was about what they did (or didn’t do) that enraged you, not the thing itself but the source of your own insecurity, your fear. And the great part about meditating, about mindfulness, is how it is not about dwelling on these things or judging, but about acknowledging their existence. That’s all. Translate that activity into story-writing and you have a path towards a great observational piece in which you don’t judge or steer your characters too heavily but instead allow them to unfold and create the story through their actions. Suddenly you have show not tell, that great and often shared piece of writerly advice. And those little details are the difference between writing that is superficial and a story that is authentic. Those little details are what makes stories worth reading.

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone tries mindfulness because it is cool or popular or the buzz phrase of the minute. It is more difficult and in some respects much too scary to attempt lightly. When I tried it with my daughter she found it very discomforting, and it has taken me many years of trying before coming to feel at peace when meditating and I don’t doubt there will be future occasions when no matter what I try I can’t settle to it. It is not predictable or easy. But if you’re interested in becoming a writer, it is a powerful way of revealing to you your own feelings, of being present and observant and receptive to what the world has to say which makes it a valuable tool and a worthwhile activity, even if only used occasionally. 

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