The Opposite of Mindfulness

I’ve been slowly reorganizing my desk over the past week and came across a handful of printouts and worksheets about Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). I was first introduced to MBCT about seven years ago and since then have become very interested in the topics of mindfulness and awareness. I’ve studied the ever-expanding array of available literature, tried to teach myself the graceful art of tai chi, and began an on-again/off-again relationship with meditation. (I’m terrible at it, by the way. Staying still with nothing to focus on but my breath is like an open invitation for my thoughts to shift into overdrive.)

I’ve mentioned mindfulness in other posts with regards to writing (See: And Then Syndrome), but really there isn’t an aspect of life that wouldn’t be improved by learning to be present in the here and now. Regardless of my knowledge of this fact—and because I’m still a WIP in this area—this sense of awareness tends to elude me and over the years, rather than accumulating evidence of what mindfulness is, I’ve amassed a whole lot of examples of what mindfulness isn’t.

For instance, mindfulness is not:

  • Ruminating or dwelling on the past
  • Obsessing about, fretting over, or fearing the future
  • Anxiety
  • Multi-tasking
  • Having a conversation (in person or on the phone) while doing absolutely anything else
  • Shallow breathing
  • Rushing
  • Thinking about something other than what I’m doing
  • Driving on autopilot

It might seem negative or counterintuitive to tune into those actions that are presence-opposed, but sometimes it’s easier to define something by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. And this awareness, especially when it comes to my own instinctive behavior, is a necessary first step to promote growth and change.

What does mindfulness or presence look like to you? Or, if you’re like me and have a tendency to lean toward anti-mindfulness behavior, what doesn’t it look like?

Reading Deprivation: An Experiment

I recently read a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s basically a twelve-week course centered on a number of suggested activities and writing exercises meant to unleash blocked creativity.

(As a side note: Even as a writer, I don’t really believe in writer’s block—at least not as a condition in and of itself—but I have experienced firsthand the anti-inspirational power of Resistance. Although you could argue that the two are closely related, the term writer’s block implies that only writers suffer its symptoms. Whereas Resistance is a force that is alive and well in all of our lives. It comes in sizes, shapes, and manifestations that are different for each one of us, but its sole purpose is singular in nature: To hold us back. Whatever our personal form(s) of Resistance, be it unfounded beliefs or unhealthy patterns or outdated thought processes, until we identify, acknowledge, and face the root cause, we risk the possibility of never reaching our fullest potential.)

In the first few weeks of reading this book, I was so determined to uncover my own hang-ups that I diligently completed each and every task whether or not I felt they pertained to me. But later on, as the source of my perpetual lack of progress became more evident, I began to focus mainly on the exercises that I felt needled into my deeper-seated issues. During that time, one of the recommended tasks that I skipped over was something called reading deprivation (i.e. one week of no reading).

As you might guess, as an avid writer, I’m also an avid reader—as of the publishing of this blog post, I’m in the process of reading my 29th book for the year—so the thought of not reading for seven whole days nearly made me hyperventilate. Not only are published books highly educational and motivational for an aspiring novelist, but they also make up a large part of my day and even a large part of who I am. But it wasn’t until I viewed my reading habit from this dependent, nearly addicted perspective that I really began to wonder if I might benefit from taking a break. So I decided to give it a try. Seven days without reading.

Here’s what I discovered:

  • The sound of my own voice. Before this experiment, it wasn’t uncommon for me to read more than one book (and sometimes as many as six) at one time. With that many other voices in my head—along with those from other forms of media—it was often difficult to tune into my own and after one day of no reading it became clear to me why I spend so much time drowning it out: I often don’t like what I hear. As I’ve mentioned before, my inner self-talk has a tendency to spiral into negativity and can become downright detrimental if left to its own devices. But on the plus-side, without the benefit of reading to distract me, I was forced to manage this head on (believe me when I tell you there was a great deal of prayer involved) and when I was able to interrupt the flow of disruptive thoughts, I noticed that my writing became clearer, more concise, and I accomplished in hours what previously took days.
  • I had an uncomfortable amount of free time. As a writer, reading is a must. It’s a form of study, research. In fact, the best way to figure out how to write a novel is not by reading How To manuals—though many do offer loads of good advice—but by simply dissecting the work of the thousands and thousands of already published authors. So, as a necessary part in improving my own work, I am conscientious about scheduling in time to read every day. Beyond that, it’s just something I like to do, so it also bleeds into other parts of my life. When I’m working out on the elliptical, there’s a book in front of me. Ditto for when I take a break for lunch or want to unwind before bed. But with that option taken away, I felt almost lost. Not to mention the poor planning of this reading deprivation landing squarely on top of my White Space rest day. A day that would have been much easier to handle with a book in my hand. But, ever a purist, I didn’t want to cheat on my own experiment. Which brings us to the next point of discovery.
  • I developed the tendency to fill the void with other noise. I began listening to podcasts while exercising and writing during lunch. I clicked on Spotify playlists and watched TV before bed. This penchant for other media went on for three days before I realized that I was following a path of distraction which Julia Cameron had distinctly warned about in her book and once I became aware of it, I stopped. But without books and TV and radio and podcasts the only thing that was left filled me with a huge amount of unease: Silence. But as we humans tend to do, I adapted, and after a short time, I found that I preferred the quiet.
  • I remembered other buried passions that I still enjoy. I realized I had all but abandoned my piano practicing efforts. I remembered my love for the sounds of nature and actually being out in it without earbuds to keep me company. My inner child reminded me how much I adore the art of coloring. (Huge shout out to the purveyors of the adult coloring book trend!) And I recognized that with the large amount of solitary time I spent writing and reading, I was missing out on opportunities to interact with other people.

In the end, I determined the experiment to be a success. I’m back to reading again, but on a much smaller scale—one book at a time, thank you very much—and I am much more careful not to let it take over my life. I also gained insight into two areas of growth that I’ve been focusing on this year: clarity and gratitude. I realized that when I’m spending less time tuning into the chatter of the world around me and more time actually participating in life, both are not only possible, but easier to achieve.

Do you have a similar tendency to fill your life with noise? Do you lose hours on Instagram or Pinterest? Numb out with Netflix? Or perhaps Candy Crush is your crutch? Whatever your mediaddiction of choice, I dare you to try a one-week deprivation of your own. After you get past the initial discomfort, you just might uncover a long-lost piece of yourself or a neglected passion that you still enjoy, or like me, maybe you’ll find that silence really is golden.

Finding Balance: White Space Amid the Chaos

Over the years, I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with white space.

As an adolescent and young adult, when an active social calendar seemed to be indicative of one’s value, I despised a schedule that wasn’t jam-packed with places to be and things to do.

As a writer, staring at a blinking cursor on a blank Word document is often terrifying. What if the words won’t come? What if I run out of things to say?

As an adult nearing middle age (GULP!), I’m learning to appreciate and even look forward to those little boxes in my monthly planner that have nothing written in them except the pre-printed date in the upper left corner. But I still struggle with the urge to fill them up.

It is my nature to stay busy. To do and achieve and run from one thing to the next. And in today’s society, where busyness seems to be a badge of honor, I fit right in. I like making to-do lists and more than that, the satisfaction of checking items off of them. I am uncomfortable with down time, find difficulty relaxing when there is something that needs doing—and really, when isn’t there a task that needs completing?—and have a tendency to measure the success of my day by how much I accomplished.

With all this doing and achieving and running, I do get a lot done in a given day, but it’s not without cost. I am often exhausted, anxious, and easily irritated when something unexpected upsets my plans. So with this in mind, and with all that I’m learning about the value of rest, I decided to take one of those empty calendar squares and leave it as is. That is, empty. I didn’t plan anything on paper and tried to just let the day unfold organically. And although I didn’t totally succeed in this area—my mind was constantly abuzz with all that I could do and should do and wanted to do—I did come away with some interesting insight.

First, I learned that the ability to take a break to rest and recharge is as much a practiced habit as adopting a consistent writing schedule (and that took me years of trial and error to develop). I realized that I have become so reliant on my busyness and my discomfort with down time has become so deeply engrained that it is going to take more than just one or two or maybe even a dozen attempts to truly let myself rest without an underlying feeling of guilt.

Second, I figured out that my constant tiredness isn’t going to be alleviated by an occasional and forced full day of rest. What my body, soul, and mind crave more than anything else is a permanent move toward balance. But defining what that means and what it looks like and how to implement it on a regular basis also requires creating and embracing enough white space within the chaos of what has become my daily norm in order to pause, pay attention, and put into practice a new way of doing things.

So I’ve come full circle. My much-needed, but kind of forced, white space day led to the realization that what I really need is balance, which produced a plan to find that balance. And as I thought about it further, it dawned on me that my strategy is, in and of itself, a sort of inadvertent step in the direction of balance. Now all I need is the intentionality to go with it.

What about you? How do you find balance amid the chaos of your own life?

Practice Makes Perfect and Permanent

I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the piano, so about a decade ago, armed with a few beginner books given to me by a friend, I began to teach myself. Having been involved in band in junior high and high school, I was already well-versed in the language of music and made it through those first books fairly quickly. After that, though, time to practice became an issue and it wasn’t until last winter when I invested in lessons, that I actually made real progress.

My lovely new teacher taught me by example the things I couldn’t necessarily learn from books. Things like emotion and style, the importance of scales and chords, proper mechanics and use of the pedals. Under her tutelage I showed immediate improvement. But I improved because I was practicing more often. Our weekly sessions provided new incentive as I was paying for her expertise and didn’t want to waste her time any more than I wanted to waste my money.

But after a handful of months, my priorities shifted, the weather got nicer, and I knew my time and interest in practicing would dwindle, so I stopped the lessons, fully intending to continue practicing on my own as much as possible. As it turned out, without her weekly assignments to hold me accountable, those practices became few and far between.

A really interesting thing happened, though. When I sat at the keyboard, regardless of whether it had been a few days or even a few weeks since my last practice, my fingers still knew exactly what to do. I still ran through the scale and chord progression warmups as if I’d done them the day before. I could still play through many of the songs that I had learned, including one that was more advanced than my skill level at the time. I attribute this easily recalled ability to something my teacher mentioned during my very first lesson: muscle memory.

I had played many of the songs so many times that all I had to do was set the music on the stand and rest my fingers on the keys and the muscle memory from all that practice took over. The same concept is true in the creation of any habit, goal, dream, or passion.

One of my high school teachers often used the phrase, “Practice makes perfect and permanent.” But I’ll take it a step further and say that, “Practice makes perfect and permanent and provokes progress.” It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a book or incorporating a healthier lifestyle or learning a new skill, the process is identical. If you invest the time to practice consistently enough to make the activity a permanent part of your routine, you are guaranteed to see progress.

So stay persistent, dear friends, and that goal you aspire to achieve, that talent you desire to acquire, that obstacle you yearn to overcome will be yours for the taking.