The Bait and the Hook

For several years now, I’ve been working on incorporating a mindfulness practice into my daily (hourly) life.

I began the practice to deal with anxiety; as any sufferer of anxiety will tell you, being in the present is the antithesis of fear and panic, which depend on a tacky combination of circuitous inner dialogue, self-denigrating thoughts and a repetitive regurgitation of previously-felt emotion.

There’s usually a bevy of compulsive behaviors that come bundled in there, behaviors that are meant to drive off the fear and panic.

One of my challenges is that the primary way of coping with anxiety—using deep breathing and other grounded senses to bring me back into the present moment—runs counter to the work necessary for being a writer.

For me, writing requires a deep dive into memory and imagination that often means plunging into that very quagmire of inner dialogue, destructive thoughts and stale emotion that typically trigger anxiety, panic attacks, etc.

Fun.

I discovered Pema Chodron’s work near the beginning of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve found tracking on the Tibetan concept of shenpa to be useful for navigating these seemingly contradictory states of being. Here’s an excellent break-down by Chodron herself.

I’ve written many times in this blog about how very much I suck at noticing that I’m hooked. That doesn’t negate the fact that my goal is to pay better attention, to feel those triggers and those urges and not bite. 

I will fail, of course. And that's why I must begin again.

 

The Play's The Thing: Rethinking the Concept of Play in Art and Life

“Why would you want to kill animals?” The hippie dad of one of my playmates asked.

Sunshine’s dad was a real hippie – long hair, massive beard, dazed speech patterns, and he had no qualms about approaching a marauding group of four-and five-years-olds in order to teach us a life lesson. The fact that he was nude didn’t concern him, even as it alarmed us.

“Why are you pretending to hurt animals?”

We had been pretending to hunt animals. There was a context that is now lost to long-gone decades. Killing animals hadn’t been the point, it was a sub-plot, a tossed-off detail. It felt strange being called out for a facet of the imaginative narrative that we had put little stake or thought into. And I remember thinking, even as five-year-old, that the hippie dad was missing the point. We knew well the difference between play and real life. None of us would actually harm an animal.

Nothing could have been clearer.  

Years later, my fiction-writing instructor, Richard Cortez Day, said to us on more than one occasion that writing should be ‘play.’ I was initially insulted by this. How could my life’s passion, my purpose, possibly be labelled something as insignificant as ‘play.’ I am an artist! I require serious validation!

At the time, I thought I understood what Day meant by this. Be adventurous, try new approaches, take risks. And I suppose he did (probably) mean those things, but as I’ve aged and endured more of life’s sometimes painful lessons, I think he was getting at a deeper and more essential truth.

Stuart Brown has for years studied the effects of play on its participants. It’s easy to discount his field of study as being the problem of affluent Westerners, until he points out that play is integral not just to a human’s initial development but also to his/her life-long maturation and growth, regardless of race, economic status, or region. Play is important. Play is serious. Play is necessary. To all of us.

Left on my own, I tend to take the activities I do involve myself in—be they family time, work, writing—seriously. I don’t mean that these activities don’t have weight or import, but my approach, my attitude, is often one of serious purpose. That adventurous five year old pissing off hippy dads is, alas, long gone. I now know too well the risks, the consequences of failure, and I often choose safe inactivity over the unknown because I have kids, a mortgage, responsibilities. Plus, fear is my go-to response to just about everything, and I don't like to feel afraid.

But re-framing even my most serious endeavors—executing in my job so that I don’t get fired, let’s say—as play, as an activity in which I inject more experimentation and risk as well as potential failure, could I then find fresh fulfillment in that work? Could I cast off the persistent pressure and shake off the fear? Could I enjoy my life more?

I don’t know, but I suspect it’s worth the attempt.

Six - The Kid Just Keeps Getting Older

My oldest son turns six this weekend.

Certain ages are watersheds—well, as a pretender in this often awkward role as parent, every age is a watershed—and I can well remember being six. It was the year my parents split up, the year my dad moved from place to place until finally leaving town. I was one of those kids who was certain that I’d done something wrong to drive my father away, and the high-water line of that adult-level guilt left a mark right here.

Six.

One of the first lessons you learn as a new parent—and my friends warned me about this, but I didn’t or couldn’t acknowledge the fact until I was in it—is that your child arrives as her or her own being. You can look for yourself in your child, and you will certainly unearth scraps of you and your partner’s components, but the essential mix—the core design—is already in place the moment you embrace your child for the first time.

Yes, the nurturing that you will apply will certainly shape and evolve this child, but that’s the best you can do or hope to do. Shape. Guide. 

My son has inherited from both his parents a vibrant, all-consuming imagination, and along with that voracious creative energy is a corresponding self-doubt and anxiety (not to mention a quick-trigger anger and a habit of cursing…yep, guilty). It’s heartbreaking to see a child in battle with himself when he has barely gotten himself out into the world, and yet, the challenges are already lining themselves against him. Already.

Some days his resilience is shocking, some days his frailties are wounding. As one of his fierce protectors, it’s often difficult to know how to coach him when I dealt so poorly with the same challenges when I was his age.

To grossly over-generalize: You can break parents into two large groups – the first is the group who had children as a natural extension of the familial love and support they themselves received as children. The second group feels drawn to this endeavor because their own childhoods were fraught with discomfort and pain and there’s a wrong to be righted there somehow.

Being part of the second camp (surprise), I was one of those who contemplated not having children at all. I didn’t want to fuck it up. I didn’t want the burden. But falling in love with someone can open portals that never opened with anyone else, and the choice to have children just became a certainty. You soon realize that the love you have for your partner is nothing like the love you have for your children, which is such a basal, feral creature that there is no separation between your love for your kids and yourself.

Amidst that churn and swoon of intoxicating irrational feelings, you are supposed to stay calm and lead by example. Right.

But that’s the task. Whether he and I want to acknowledge it or not, my son looks to me as an example (an example for how to be, or an example for how not to be, but an example nonetheless). As I (still) struggle with an overactive imagination, a tendency to be anywhere but in this present moment, a sometimes debilitating fear of…well, what have you got?, I am a model for how my son will comport himself in this world. God help him.

Six. Only six. Already six. For what it's worth, son, I’m here. 

If/Then Thinking – That Spinning Mind Trap

We simply don’t have enough time.

Take that statement however you wish to apply it: this moment, today, this week, this month, this year, this decade, this lifetime.

But no matter how much time you attempt to claim, it will never be enough.

Time is that one resource we can feel pour off us in sheaves, never to return. If you’re like me, you chart the disappearance of your time like a climatologist might bemoan an ever-depleting snow-pack  – with that combination of dread and anxiety. We cup these moments in our hands, these moments where we can do what we’re passionate about or even these moments where we can just relax, take part in what those who study such things call ‘leisure time.’ But we rarely get there because of our To Do lists, our other responsibilities to home, work, family.

Worse. Not only do we not have enough time, but how we perceive our lack of time makes us more miserable.

Among the several observations and lessons learned discussed by Brigid Schulte in her recent and excellent Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, the one that resonated was how Schulte had to confront her prevalent if/then thinking.

You recognize this thinking: If I get the house clean, then I can write. If I get the grocery shopping done, then I can relax. If I can just get the kitchen clean, then I can spend time with my children. If I get a better job, then I can take up that mountain-climbing hobby.

I slip easily into this mind-trap, and doing so—this punishment/reward leveraging of my time—not only postpones (or ensures that I never get to) the then activity. Doing so also demeans the if activity. Being present in one’s life means being present in the mundane or unpleasant tasks just as it means being present in our more passionate, enlivened pursuits.

I work on this every day because I’m old and mentally slow and my feeble brain doesn’t work this way naturally. But, much like Schulte, in my better moments I’ve found that addressing this thinking has calmed me down, made me less anxious, and allowed me to identify areas of my life that are more fulfilling than I’d originally believed.

And on rarer days still, I almost feel like I’ve got enough time.

Doing It Wrong All of My Life - Mindfulness and the Creative Life

 

“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.

There’s more.

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.