Right Here, Write Now

Part 5 in a weeklong series of blog posts written by undergraduate students from the 2017 spring-semester class, “Mindfulness & Compassion: Living Fully Personally and Professionally” at the University of Virginia.


Because writing is listening, I am a listener first.

And long a lover of words — the way they dance off the tongue and across the page — I am a writer. Yet this birthing process of rich and honest communication can be dry, draining, a bit too cerebral sometimes. Trying to write authentically, full-heartedly, is, whether scribbling loosely in a leather-bound journal or perched behind a blue-white screen, challenging.  And more times than not, our everyday lives aren’t conducive to creativity; they aren’t particularly inviting to imaginative streams of consciousness. No, we who love words run rampantly fragmented, frazzled, unfocused, and then force ourselves to sit suddenly alone with our words, these swirling, swirling storms of thought that exhaust and overwhelm us in moments of respite. And I wonder: how might I make peace with the pre-creative process — that procedure which is the pulse of communication but at the same time turbulent, messy, and just plain loud? Indeed, the best writing comes from honest, quiet listening: that listening comes generally from the listening to the soul — and also, of course, to the body in which the soul makes its home. Might mindfulness, then, the very act of paying attention to bodily sensations over time, improve focus and fuel creativity when I sit down to write?

In his candid exploration of “Why Write?” English professor Mark Edmundson explains the necessity of pre-writing routines: they prepare us emotionally, mentally, and physically for the craft before us. Specifically, he lauds those that manage to simultaneously soothe and spark the mind before putting pen to page. “How do you slow yourself down [before writing]?” He muses and — answering himself moments later — shares with us one particularly helpful method: Meditation. He writes, “The idea of meditation is to calm [the] habitual self and get it to stop planning and worrying,” so that it may start writing more intuitively, drawing from creative experience rather than mundane routine (Edmundson 20). Certainly, we know that these moments of non-planning and non-worrying prove cognitively, and even creatively, beneficial: yet going even further, beyond “calming” the “habitual self,” we must learn to enjoy the slowness and seeming slothfulness of rest, because it is precisely during these “lazy” moments that our mind is truly free to explore and store what it has learned. According to the Scientific American, “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.” Thus, by “checking in” with our physical and mental selves, attending gently to our particular needs, and, almost paradoxically, relaxing, are we best able to be productive, inspired, and focused in each of our creative endeavors.

However, perhaps the most important impact of mindfulness (in regards to writing) is the vibrant connection it allows us to form between inner and outer environments. While self-calming is significant to the writing process (in that it allows us silence, the medium through which creativity can speak), the acts of listening and mentally transcribing our physical and emotional sensations are of utmost importance. This is, after all, what writing is: putting the sensations of body and mind powerfully on paper.

Likewise, affirming this concept of synchronicity between outer sensations and inner workings of the mind, Jon Kabat-Zinn in “Mindfulness: The Heart of Rehabilitation,” writes that the particular word “rehabilitation” connotes a dualistic, deeply layered, almost creative, type of thinking about our bodies and brains. He says, “The richness of meaning embedded within the word rehabilitation (“learning to live inside again”) invites us to be exquisitely sensitive to both the outer and the inner domains in which the work of rehabilitation unfolds, their intimate reciprocal interconnectedness, and to the various roles that health professionals and patients are called to in furthering that work and optimizing potential outcomes” (Kabat-Zinn xiii). Literally, “learning to live inside again” suggests a certain sort of familiarity, a certain sort of comfort, in dwelling in one’s own consciousness— and the coinciding desire to share that purpose with the outside world; for this, to be sure, there is no better expression than creative communication. To live comfortably and wholly within is to listen to our needs and to respond to them. Without a doubt, it is the merging and marrying of these “outer and inner domains” that bring us health, empowerment, and personal awareness— and these most clearly in our writing. And, ultimately, the words we choose matter.

In this regard, according to a study by American and Polish professors, Izabela Lebuda, Darya L. Zabelina, and Maciej Karwowski, “meditation training enhances creative thinking and creative performance as well as improves the ability to solve insight problems and facilitates creative elaboration. Experienced meditators also outperform others in verbal fluency and are better at finding novel solutions to a given problem.”  This means that meditation (and its effects on verbal fluency) affects how and what we write, not just the method by which we come around to writing in the first place. Indeed, throughout chapter eight of “Leaves Falling Gently,” Susan Bauer encourages us in this way, claiming that those who write with grateful intention, “People who write down and track aspects of their lives for which they are thankful, feel better physically (have fewer symptoms) and mentally (are happier and more optimistic),” and these gratitude-minded writers “are more likely to attain personal life goals than those who write about other things” (Bauer-Wu 94). In this way, we see that mindfulness not only helps harness our ability to create, but the process of writing itself can also offer a positive return on our mental, emotional, and physical health. Specifically, the process of gratitude journaling or the thoughtful act of writing of thank-you letters can cause us to be more conscious of (and as a result, grateful for) what passes in and out of our lives.

Writing is then, for me, a transcription of meditation: a written record of “being,” if you will. The pages show me where sensations have flitted, where thoughts have bubbled to consciousness, and most importantly, that I have felt these things at all — a proof of my vibrant humanity, my working consciousness. My own mindfulness practice holds me accountable: if I cannot first listen to my body, can I be trusted to hear the wisdom of my soul? I think no. So as I kneel, I focus. My knee is tight; my lower back aches; my mind barrels like a freight train. Write it, write it, I think. Tell it from a new perspective. And here, positioned just so, I give voice to my sensations—the ones that have been crying out so long, unheard, unanswered. And I listen. And then I write, because writing offers a fresh distance between me and these thoughts that swirl, swirl: these thoughts that overwhelm and exhaust. Writing gives new meaning to these physical feelings that have been, for so long, unfelt — because, indeed, to write at all is to listen first.


Footnotes

  1. Jabr, Ferris. “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.” Scientific American, 15 October 2013, <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/>.
  2.  Lebuda, I., et al., Mind full of ideas: A meta-analysis of the mindfulness–creativity link, Personality and Individual Differences (2015), <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.09.040>.

References

  1. Edmundson, Mark. Why Write? Bloomsbury, 2016. Print.
  2. Jabr, Ferris. “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.” Scientific American, 15 October 2013, <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/>.
  3. Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “Mindfulness: The Heart of Rehabilitation.” Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Rehabilitation, E. Leskowitz, (Ed.), Churchill. Livingstone, St. Louis, MO, 2002. pp xi-xiv.
  4. Lebuda, I., et al., Mind full of ideas: A meta-analysis of the mindfulness–creativity link, Personality and Individual Differences (2015), <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.09.040>.
  5. Bauer-Wu, Susan. Leaves Falling Gently. New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2011. Online.

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