Mindfulness for the Writer

Photo of Cheryl ReifsnyderBy Cheryl Reifsnyder

Lately, I’ve begun a practice of mindfulness meditation. I didn’t do it for the sake of writing, either, except in the general sense that when I’m healthier, happier, and less stressed, I’m better able to write. (Yes, it’s sad, but that’s how my mind works: I might not pursue healthy habits for the sake of being healthy, but in the name of writing, now, that’s another story….) I’m not talking about a religious practice here, but the type of meditation taught by the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. If you aren’t familiar with mindfulness meditation, I’d encourage you to read more about it, since research shows that the practice helps people combat stress and depression, cope with chronic pain and stressful situations, lower anxiety, and other useful stuff.

But as a writerly-minded person, I was particularly delighted to discover that mindfulness meditation has a number of benefits that apply directly to my writing life:

  1. It helps me to put other stresses aside when I sit down to write, so I can focus on the work at hand.
  2. It provides me with practice observing my physical and emotional reactions, giving me first-hand “research” to help create characters with rich and believable inner lives.
  3. It helps me learn to live “in the moment”—to enjoy the process of writing without worrying about publication, marketing, sales, and other future issues.
  4. It gives me practice noticing when I’m sidetracked or distracted. In mindfulness meditation, when you notice that your mind has strayed to other thoughts—worries, fantasies, memories, plans—you practice pulling your mind back to your breath. To the present moment. When writing, this practice enables you to pull your mind back to your story.
  5. It helps me notice when my inner critic starts distracting me from my work. (Okay, this is a subset of #4; but the inner critic is a distraction worth its own bullet point.)

I also wonder if sometimes mindfulness meditation—which is the practice of repeatedly bringing your mind back to the breath and preventing yourself from getting lost in your thoughts—helps me to do the opposite. That is, when I write, I want to be lost in my story world. I want the movie to play so vividly that I completely lose touch with the present moment…which is kind of the opposite of mindfulness.

Or maybe it’s the same concept. Instead of being mindful of the real-world present, sometimes I want to be mindful of my imaginative world. However it works, though, I’ve noticed that I can fall more easily into that writing-dream state since beginning my meditation practice.

It’s worth noting that although mindfulness meditation gurus such as Jon Kabat-Zinn recommend meditating for forty minutes a day, I’m nowhere near that disciplined in my practice. Some days I don’t meditate at all; when I do, it’s rarely for forty minutes. In fact, if you’re anything like me, the idea of adding another forty-minute commitment to your day makes you want to hide under the bed covers and not come out again.

Luckily, mindfulness is a skill, and meditation practice is simply one way to practice that skill. If you don’t have forty minutes a day, try twenty—or ten—or even five. Every bit of time spent practicing is a baby step toward your goal.

What goal is that? Only you can tell, but if you’re reading this, I’d bet it has something to do with becoming a better writer.

If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn gave a presentation to Google that’s worth taking time to watch:

1 Comment

  1. Hi Cheryl,

    It’s so interesting that you posted this because I’ve been looking for these classes in the Denver area. I’ve read some of Kabat-Zin’s books and really enjoyed them.

    I found one of these classes at a local Buddhist center but it started over a month ago, so I un-mindfully stressed that I missed the deadline to register!

    Very cool to hear how the practice filters over to writing.



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