How I work

A couple of months ago I had a significant and slightly chastening talk with a friend which went something like “if you want to write, you just have to write, that’s what a writer does”. There was more to it than that, but that was the take-home message. I’ve been talking about my desire to write a book about meditation for, oh, maybe five years, perhaps more. Since that conversation, I’ve been writing regularly for a couple of hours most weekday mornings. It is not a massive amount but its a big jump from the irregular ‘when I feel like/up to it’ approach I was working too beforehand. I’ve made it a priority, one of the ‘big stones’ in my jar, and, as much as I can, I work other things – the little stones – around that time.

Any change in habits gives awareness new things to observe and new insights about one’s own tendencies of mind. So what I’ve noticed is not shiny new information but further weight and understanding added to a general way of being ‘me’, but perhaps more universally too. And anything that’s about the mind and awareness is not just about the object – writing – but about meditation too.

I’ve noticed how I procrastinate to getting started on that 2 hours of writing. Checking FaceBook, emails and the news are favourites. Not for long, I’m not answering the emails or reading whole articles, but just long enough to give the mind a little skip around. It then seems inclined to settle to writing.

Years ago I read an autobiography of the great writer Doris Lessing. I was amazed at the procrastination she described between taking her son to school and getting down to writing; it included taking a nap, having a post-breakfast snack, and, if my memory serves me, doing her ironing! It made me wonder how she ever finished a novel, and yet she’s incredibly prolific and has sold millions of books. For her, procrastination was part of the process, it was what helped her get into the mindset to write.

So, I don’t worry much about procrastination as long as I keep some sort of boundaries around the time and word count. I do have to actively engage and have some discipline or I would never write anything – and the same goes for meditation – but there needs to be receptivity too, to what the mind needs to come more naturally to the object, in this case, the activity. The balance of active/receptive, discipline/procrastination will vary from person to person, depending on their own mind and tendencies.

Another great artist on the receptive end was the genius cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. She was known to do very little practice on her instrument, whereas it was usually expected a student would work for above 5 hours a day. Her teacher was of the belief that for certain temperaments “it was enough to think about the music”, to let it run through her mind and allow it to move her. Too much physical practice would introduce a lot of tension by going against her natural temperament, to the detriment of her playing.

There is another parallel here with meditation; where we’re trying to let the mind be natural and observe it in that state, without pushing and pulling it into pre-conceived shapes and forms. Allowing something to just be as it is, is itself a deeply creative act.

I think what my own mind is doing with its procrastination is that it is finding a way to feel safe with creativity. Within the uncertainty, and the delight of the mind that is writing or meditating, it also can’t take too much of it. It is drawn to grounding in a familiar routine. When I had a highly creative and highly stressful job, as project manager and fundraiser I thrived on it. It was a wonderful experience, but I also had times in that role when all I wanted to do was some filing or another simple task that required little thinking about. Some zero creativity time. It can be challenging, and certainly demanding, to always be in creative mode. The mind needs downtime. The trick is to find ease without switching off or numbing out.

Even when I’m engaged in something really enjoyable and fulfilling, like singing in the choir I go to every week, I often check the time, ‘how much longer to go’? It’s mad, but enjoyment and engagement take energy and a bit of me is always looking for an out.

Steven Covey in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” uses words like ‘unpredictable’ and ‘ambiguous’ for creative processes. To be engaged in them we have to let go of structure and certainty, to let go of a mental and emotional safety net. This isn’t comfortable and so we return to what is habitual and less exerting; the safety of the word count, or the breath count.

This is OK. We need to know our temperament and respect our capacity for ambiguity rather than override it. Over time we learn to gently train in noticing ‘clock watching mind’ or ‘word count mind’ to feel what they’re like. Maybe there’s a tired feeling, or we feel overstretched, and by noticing it we can stay with it, and come to understand it. Bringing the same quality of awareness to what’s new and unknown we might learn to do the activity in a less ‘out there’ kind of way, with more natural balance and wisdom.

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