Have you ever driven somewhere and not remembered the drive?
It’s common. Your mind is so busy you get lost in your thoughts. And as you replay past events and worry about tomorrow, the road whizzes by.
You don’t pay attention because you’re on autopilot. You’re not present because you’re daydreaming. We’re all prone to it, including me.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing until you don’t see a car pull out in front of you. And as a writer, it can definitely impede your progress and affect your work.
Practicing mindfulness can help.
What is mindfulness?
If you’re familiar with relaxation techniques, meditation, or yoga, you’ve probably heard of mindfulness.
But if you haven’t, here’s a basic definition.
Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn.
It’s not anything magical. It’s not a spiritual or religious thing (unless you want it to be) or some mysterious state of being. It’s just focusing on what you’re doing and experiencing without thinking about anything else.
It could be paying close attention to the taste and smell of your food—and enjoying it—without talking or other distractions. It could be walking or taking in a sunset or a landscape.
It might even be something unpleasant, like a destructive storm or two people yelling at each other. You observe without habitual judgment or reaction.
When my dog suddenly collapsed a year ago, I rushed her to the animal hospital. She was dying, and I had to make quick decisions. Instead, I blabbered on and on about whether I’d screwed up her medication.
The ER vet chastised me. “You’re not present!” he boomed.
He was right. What happened a week ago, yesterday, or that morning didn’t matter. Right now mattered. I shook my head, breathed in deep, and exhaled slowly. I took a moment to focus, to practice mindfulness.
“Okay. I’m here now,” I told him. Only then could I make rational judgments about what was best for my dog and what was best for me.
Practicing mindfulness helps you keep your focus.
The goal of mindfulness practice is not to shut off the inner dialogue that makes you lose focus. There’s no switch to flip into the “off” position. Rather, it’s about practicing being present and choosing to pay attention to an activity or task, even if you’re just focusing on your breathing. The mind-chatter slows down when you do this, which allows you to focus.
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written a lot about it:
“Our mind may be caught in the past or in the future, in regrets, sorrow, fear, or uncertainty, and so our mind is not there. . . . During the time you are practicing mindfulness, you stop talking—not only the talking outside, but the talking inside. The talking inside is the thinking, the mental discourse that goes on and on and on inside.”
Try counting your breaths silently as you breathe in and out. If you’ve never tried it before, you might not get far before you lose count. Why? Your mind has started thinking about something else. With practice, though, you learn to not latch on to those random thoughts. This slows them down. And then you can count your breaths (or focus on something else) as long as you like.
That’s how you become more aware of the thoughts that distract you from whatever you’re doing. And you can apply that skill to almost any task so you’re fully present. This is mindfulness.
Mindfulness can help writers build confidence.
Many writers, especially beginning writers, are held back by fear, insecurities, worry, and a lack of self-confidence. These are thoughts and beliefs fueled by those thoughts.
When you practice mindfulness, however, it becomes easier to recognize thoughts for what they are: just thoughts, not absolute truth. And realizing they’re just thoughts helps you set them aside and get going—and keep going—with your writing.
Mindfulness helps you overcome writer’s block.
Believing you’re “blocked” is a thought. If you can ignore that thought and just get to writing, suddenly you can write. Maybe it’s not your best, and you might need to start with an outline or freewriting, but it often kick-starts the engine. And practicing mindfulness is how you learn to ignore thoughts.
Writer’s block can also be caused by a cluttered mind. It’s a lot like a PC: if you’re running too many programs and, at the same time, a gazillion websites are shooting cookies at your browser, your PC’s random access memory or RAM can’t cope. And your PC gets slow, freezes, or “hangs.” It just can’t handle it. And neither can you.
So much going on, too much to do, and way too much worrying can make you feel overwhelmed. Read on to learn how mindfulness can help you
shut down those apps process those thoughts and declutter.
Mindfulness makes you a better editor.
I find copyediting—whether it’s my own writing or freelance work—enjoyable and relaxing. As I work, I’m intentionally present and practicing mindfulness, and that’s partly why I’m good at it.
With practice, you’ll know when extraneous thoughts kick in, and you won’t skim over an awkward sentence or convoluted reasoning. Instead, you can start over at the beginning of the section and re-focus, even if you’re tired and need to make extra effort. Or you might need a break. There’s just no way to get the job done while thinking about other things.
Mindfulness is essential for accurate proofreading.
Have you seen lists of tips and tricks for editing and proofreading?
I’ve seen plenty, plus I’ve written a couple myself and an ebook that includes them. It’s not easy to stay on task with such detailed work. And any experienced, professional proofreader knows you’ve got to have some tricks, especially when you’re proofreading something really long and boring. Mark Twain famously wrote:
And then there is that other thing: when you think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.
The antidote to “filling them from your mind” is knowing when you’re not being mindful, even for a moment. You’ll know when you’re in a hurry and just want to get the job done. That’s when you start skimming over your writing instead of reading and evaluating every single word, phrase, clause, sentence, paragraph, space, and punctuation mark.
But by practicing mindfulness, you don’t have to worry so much about your attention slipping because you’ll know when it does.
Here’s a simple way to practice mindfulness and declutter your brain.
Before I learned about mindfulness and meditation, I called this “processing.” All you do is stretch out comfortably on a sofa, the floor, or your bed. A comfy chair with a footrest or ottoman is fine, too. Don’t get too cozy, though, because it’s not a nap.
Close your eyes, and focus on relaxing each part of your body (or count your breaths). Let your mind wander, and observe your thoughts. Notice what you’re thinking about from moment to moment, but don’t get involved in it. (If this is new to you, it might not be easy at first.) Just stand by, so to speak, as you focus on relaxing or breathing.
As you observe your thoughts, let them meander as thoughts do. When you start actively pursuing a line of thinking, just let it go, and gently return to the nice feeling of relaxing. Pretty soon, the thought that you focused on will change into something different (or you can intentionally change it), and all or most of your thoughts will eventually get sorted and quiet.
With a clear and less cluttered mind, you can get to work feeling refreshed and energized. You’ll feel much less blocked, anxious, or worried. And best of all, you’ll be able to focus on your writing the way you want to.
Disclaimer: I’m not a mindfulness or meditation teacher; I’m just sharing my way of practicing, how it helps me, and how it helps others. If you want to learn more about mindfulness, check out these or other resources.
Psychology Today “Mindfulness”
Mindful “Mindfulness: Getting Started”
Wildmind “What is Mindfulness?”
What do you think? Have a question? Are you experienced with mindfulness? Add your thoughts in the comment area below!