“All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” –Blaise Pascal
Here I am, writing a piece about mindfulness after an over-scheduled week of interruptions, deadlines and unexpected stress. The scribbles that cover my daybook make people recoil. But my ever-changing dayplanner doesn’t really cause me anxiety anymore. Not since I started meditating for 15 minutes each day, after my doctor said that doing so could significantly help with all sorts of issues, from insomnia and stress to depression and pain. Over the past nine months, I’ve noticed a calm stillness replace the previous reactivity I used to experience in the face of frustrating circumstances outside of my control.
The practice of mindfulness meditation is essentially like taking your brain to the gym to strengthen it as though it were a muscle. Doing this—training our attention to be exactly where we want it, when we want—is scientifically proven to change the architecture of the brain. Grey matter literally shifts and becomes denser (like muscle) within weeks of initiating a daily practice. Sitting in meditation for as little as 2 minutes a day kickstarts new pathways in the brain, increases psychological clarity, enhances global compassion, and sharpens our emotional intelligence.
Despite my own (humbling) practice, I caught myself in a state of distracted monkey-mind while walking my dog along a riverbank last weekend. Our usual route takes us along the riverside and through a rock garden of inuksuks that a local man has been expanding on for years. Normally, we meander the path around his rock statues, appreciating the creativity and balance of his work, breathe in the fresh pine air, and listen to the bubbling rush of river (ah, the now).
Not so last weekend. I marched through the inuksuks preoccupied with thoughts of everything I needed to accomplish before the end of the month. I forgot about using my breath as an anchor to the present. I failed to notice the sensation of my body meeting the earth with each footfall on the sand. I came out the other side and stopped short, realizing that I barely remembered our wander through the rock garden at all. I’d been in my head and not in my physical environment. We took a walk through the inuksuks a second time, more mindfully. I reassured myself that *noticing* when my mind wanders off is the first step toward living mindfully. The second is cultivating the ability to bring my attention back to the present moment every time I notice that my thoughts have drifted off again.
In my last post, I promised to discuss the book (and TED talk) The Art of Stillness, Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer. The title of this post, Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There, is drawn from this book. The phrase is used in Kyoto as a reminder to allow our minds to be quiet in order to let problems solve themselves through stillness. But as most of us will admit, sitting still and doing nothing is not exactly our instinctual ‘go-to’ when it comes to solving the daily trials and tribulations that pop up like inevitable gophers over the grassy hill of human experience. Right?
So then, what precisely is the definition of mindfulness? Living mindfully means living in the moment, non-judgmentally aware of our environment, thoughts, and emotions. In this state, we accept ourselves exactly as we are; we accept others exactly as they are (i.e. we’re not inventing conversations or arguments with other people in our heads, jumping to premature conclusions, or dwelling on past/future). We breathe. We listen. We taste and appreciate our food. But what’s more: it is said that mindful meditation helps us be happier, healthier, and more resilient beings, better able to concentrate, face fears, and discover and live-out our true purpose in life.
The Art of Stillness is a short, enlightening book intended to raise awareness and understanding of how the accelerated nature of our lifestyles contribute to the modern epidemic of stress, anxiety, insomnia–and even inflammatory conditions in the body (!)–and how the simple practice of meditation can be our most powerful antidote.
Instead of zooming around from place to place in search of peace, Iyer encourages us to Go Nowhere instead: To simply practice the art of sitting still, and to allow our thoughts to come and go without emotional attachment. Our thoughts do not define us, and so we can notice them, and decide to let them go. Notice them, let them go.
Many of us look forward to vacations to reset, enrich, inspire and relax us, but Iyer argues that we don’t need trips abroad or cottages to rest and inspire our minds. Instead, he invites us to think of stillness as a “second home” during the week, to view a calm, present headspace as a place in itself. He writes, “…it can sound selfish to take a break or go off to a quiet place, but as soon as you do sit still, you find that it actually brings you closer to others, in both understanding and sympathy.”
Our experience of new places and cultures, he explains, is entirely influenced by the spirit we bring to them. “Nowhere is magical unless you can bring the right eyes to it.” And what are the right eyes? Attentive and appreciative eyes. The ability to experience the world through a curious and compassionate lens. This notion reminds me of the old cliché that is nothing but true: wherever you go, there you are (which also happens to be the title of a famous book about mindfulness by one of the leading researchers on the subject, Jon Kabat Zinn).
Okay, so how does being mindful benefit writers and apply to the writing life? Again, Iyer says it best. As writers, we are “obliged by our profession to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.”
It seems to me that the stronger a writer’s capacity for mindfulness (the ability to focus our attention exactly where and when we want), the more seamlessly we can transition from practical-life-brain to creative-process-brain, get into the creative zone, and stay in this zone for longer periods. “Only through sitting still,” Iyer adds, “can we have lasting insights.”
Another gem from The Art of Stillness reminds us to (seriously) shut off our phones, pinging notifications, and social media pages while working on creative projects, “Research in the new field of interruption science has found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover neurologically from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes—which means we’re never caught up with our lives.” He explains that nowadays it’s the ability to sift through information that is more important than the ability to gather information.
During my second walk through the precariously balanced inuksuks, I noticed new stones that the rock gardener had added since the week before: new towers and driftwood artistically distributed in the sand. I had refocused my attention for a while, soaking in my environment and feeling physically at peace within it. But again, before too long, I caught my thoughts drifting back to things to do and people to call. I noticed my mind drifting, and brought myself back to the moment. I had everything I needed to remember scribbled out in my daybook, so I wouldn’t forget anything, and it would all be there when I got home. I shook off the self-imposed sense of urgency. I sat on a big rock with my Chihuahua on my lap, her large ears opening up to the sky, her warm body against my belly, her little head rested on my forearm, tiny leg draped over one elbow.
Could there be anything more precious than this exact moment, right now, holding my beautiful dog, a loving sentient creature, on a riverbank in the foothills, clouds parting above our heads, mellow sun streaming down on our faces after weeks of summer rain? Nope, this is it. Bliss.
Samantha Warwick is Program Director for the WGA Calgary Office. Her first novel, Sage Island, was a finalist for the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction and named one of CanLit’s Top 10 Books on Sport. Her nonfiction and poetry have been broadcast on CBC Radio and appeared in various literary and commercial publications including Geist, Event, The Globe & Mail, Alberta Views and FASHION. Her Chihuahua Lulu is the Chief Executive Officer of the office, where she oversees room temperature, snack supply and screens untrustworthy visitors. samanthawarwick.com.