The first time I remember using the art of mindfulness I was in an extremely stressful meeting with a drug addict.
At risk of losing her children, the woman’s behaviour had become loud and abusive to everyone, including me. Threats were made and accusations were thrown. After one particularly volatile, screaming outburst aimed at me, I felt an acute sense of fear wash over me and grip my heart like a vice.
My breathing became more rapid and my fight or flight response kicked in – the door to the meeting room had never looked so inviting.
But I was a professional. Someone who was part of the team supporting the children in our school. We were their voices when they couldn’t be heard. Walking out would let them down. It would let my headteacher down.
I clasped my hands tightly under the desk and focused on my Moleskine diary. Trust me to seek solace in a notebook! My heart was thudding so loudly I thought the lady next to me must be able to hear. Heat rose from my chest and up into my face. Tears burned my eyelids and I blinked furiously.
I kept my gaze on that Moleskine and nothing else.
It dawned on me that I had to take control. With much difficulty, I attempted to regulate my breathing. I closed my ears to the rest of the room and counted each and every breath. Gradually my heartbeat slowed to a more normal pace and the pain in my chest subsided.
I talked quietly to myself – repeating the word ‘breathe’ over and over in my head. What was said during the meeting at that point, I have no idea. Nearly three years later, most of the meeting is a blur, to be honest.
But the memory of my body’s response will never leave me.
The Power of Mindfulness
At the time, I didn’t know that I’d practised a simple form of mindfulness. What I did know was that counting my breaths and focusing my mind on the rise and fall of my chest saved me from a professional disaster. It also began my journey into meditation and a greater desire for overall wellbeing.
But what exactly is mindfulness? And, as writers, how can it benefit us? After all, we don’t often find ourselves in situations like the one mentioned above, so is it something we can use?
Well, to put it simply, yes.
Mindfulness is used by many people for many different reasons. You don’t have to be religious. You don’t have to follow a specific programme. It really is what you make it. There is no right or wrong way to do it. All these things make it very appealing and very easy to start.
All it requires from you is a little bit of your time. Time to focus on the present moment when things are feeling overwhelming or stressful. Time to focus on the present moment without judgment.
For writers, we can focus heavily on things that have happened in the past that we may still feel discouraged and upset about. Or we worry about where our writing is going in the future and whether we’ll ever be published in one form or another.
Mindfulness enables us to eliminate the thoughts about the past and the future, and simply focus on the now.
So What Exactly Is It?
Mindfulness is focusing your attention on the present moment. It uses what you’re directly experiencing via your senses to focus your mind on what is happening right now, rather than what has happened in the past or might happen in the future.
It can also be influenced by your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions. You stop judging yourself for the way you feel and simply feel it. You begin to notice what your body is telling you and start to create space between you and your thoughts.
When you feel overwhelmed or stressed, you find somewhere quiet to sit and focus your thoughts on your breathing, creating that gap between your thoughts and emotions. When those negative thoughts start to invade, you bring your focus back to your breathing to calm those emotions down.
For writers, it can help us with the feelings of overwhelm, doubt and fear that we all experience from time to time. Instead of worrying about what might happen with your manuscript, you focus on what you can control today, right now. You are mindful of the experience of writing and all the emotions that come with it.
How Can I Do It?
As previously mentioned, there is no ‘right way’ to be mindful. It depends on your personality and how you like to adopt a mindful approach.
Personally, I use meditation every morning to ensure I practise my mindfulness in an organised way (yup, I’m a nerd). Before I begin the day, I sit at my desk, close my eyes and focus on my breathing. When my mind wanders, I gently coax it back.
This useful infographic can show you other ways to be mindful, if meditation isn’t for you or you want to try something new.
Humans are goal-orientated creatures and writers often have many goals. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking constantly about what the future holds for your writing – I know I do. Mindfulness can stop the constant pull towards worrying about the future and lets us focus on what we can enjoy right now.
It also enables us to enjoy the process of writing itself – with all the emotions that go with it. You can become fully immersed in your book and just enjoy the ride you’re on. By realising that it’s okay to have these range of emotions, you can focus your thoughts on your breathing when times get tough.
Creating that gap between your thoughts and reality can help you rationalise your emotions.
It will feel hard at times and your thoughts will sometimes seem to constantly invade your focus, but you’re training your brain to be mindful – these things take time and practice.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
As well as encouraging us to enjoy the writing process for what it is, mindfulness has many overall benefits too. They include:
- A greater sense of self-awareness.
- An understanding that there are choices in how to respond to thoughts and feelings.
- Feeling calmer and less stressed.
- Helps you cope better with difficult or unhelpful thoughts in all areas of life.
- Encourages you to be kinder to yourself and to accept that negative things happen to everyone.
- You show greater compassion for yourself and others.
Scientific research also shows that mindfulness is linked to improved creativity and that long-term use of the technique leads to a change in overall happiness and wellbeing.
It really shows you that you are in control.
And that sense of control leads to greater confidence and improved self-esteem. So not only will your writing improve, you’ll soon be singing about it from the rooftops!
People can often turn their noses up at mindfulness as it sounds a bit ‘out there’ and something that people who ‘chant stuff’ might do. But actually, that isn’t the case at all. It can have so many benefits for writers both for their craft, but also for their general mental health and wellbeing.
Taking the time to focus on the present, even if it is only for a few minutes each day, can make you a stronger, more confident writer who can tackle the setbacks that come your way.
You can begin to approach those setbacks with an understanding that, by gradually detaching emotions from them, you can only learn and improve and become a better writer because of them.
Don’t shy away from becoming a mindful writer. It may just be the most positive step you take this year.
- 6 Ways Meditation Can Help Improve Your Writing.
- Getting Started with Mindfulness – mindful.org
- Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World – franticworld.com