“I’ve Been Doing It Wrong All of My Life” – North and South of the River, U2
“Make use of the things around you” – Sunday Night, Raymond Carver
I was well into my thirties before I recognized that I had been living my life wrong.
It went something like this.
First off, writers must pay attention to our senses, to the world around us, and writers must disappear inside ourselves to mine our memories, our pains, our regrets. (We writers have a lot of regrets.)
Writers must be present, in the moment, right here with the people surrounding us, and writers must hide ourselves away physically, mentally, and unplug from friends and family so that we can bleed off the welled-up waters.
If these actions and states seem contradictory, they of course are.
A writer lives in at least two worlds – the imagination carnival touring its 24/7 rave inside our skulls, and the world at the tip of our noses, the one where the rest of humanity lives that is as close as a breath and yet as far away as drowned Atlantis.
Navigating the separation between these two worlds is essential to our survival. Bridging the two even better.
I turned to practicing mindfulness after my first son proved to me how unprepared for fatherhood I was. When it became clear how disconnected I was from the world. Sure, I was taking in details, feelings, snatches of dialogue – all writers have their senses attuned, their vulture-like ravaging of the present, active at all times for later use. But I wasn’t living in those moments. I wasn’t living at all.
And what is living? I believe it’s as simple as being present with whatever is happening to you right now (however pleasurable or painful).
If nothing else, an infant is going to grind your protesting face into the present no matter how much you fight it. The infant will win.
It’s a simple request – that a father should be present with his son. That my child should need me with him in the messy, loud, exhausted moment. But for someone who was used to paying half-attention to reality, someone who could spin in the thrall of his own imagination for days, my son may as well have been asking for me to pluck a star out of the sky and hang that raging ball of gas and heat on his ceiling. The toll was immediate, both on my relationship with my son and with my wife, and as with most things, it took reaching to a critical juncture—the marriage dismantling kind—before I acknowledged that I needed to change, get with the program, engage.
I turned to mindfulness.
I’m terrible at it. Really fucking awful. Even now, years into this ‘practice’ I have maybe a few minutes of every day where I am present in the, well, present. Being both artist and anxiety-sufferer, the RPM of my thoughts is always in the red. The effort to let those thoughts flow past without spinning down into a quagmire of memory-riddled emotion is herculean, and I often fail at it. But I am more aware of when I get snared by past or future thinking. I recognize better when I’m caught. That may not sound like much, but it is in fact huge.
Practicing mindfulness has made me a better artist. Being in the present moment has helped my ability to observe using all of my senses. I can better take in stimuli without judging or naming it. And when it’s writing time, when I’ve more constructively disengaged from my family, mindfulness practice helps me focus on making art. Less spinning, more producing.
Mindfulness also helps with the anxiety. When the discomfort—the shortness of breath, the drum-soloing heart—comes for me, embracing the fear rather than fleeing it relaxes me. Quite a bit, actually. To the point where I almost want my quivering fear beside me so that I can name it, know it, acknowledge it and then let it go on its way. Mindfulness isn’t a cure for anxiety, but it’s a worthy tool to have in your toolbox.
So if you’re interested, I offer this: The artist Jon J Muth has a wonderful children’s book called ‘The Three Questions’ which is a Zen-Inspired translation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story. (Yes, I think a children’s book is the perfect vehicle for a lesson in mindfulness.) When you find your thoughts racing, when the intoxicating song of your imagination calls you away from the present moment, ask yourself the three questions:
When is the best time to do things?
Who is the most important?
What is the right thing to do?
I’ll let you discover the answers on your own. But often just asking the questions is enough.