When you think of meditation, what comes into your head? Ancient chanting monks on a mountaintop, pretzel-y cross-legged yogis in a sunny room, Instagram-worthy shots of bathing suit-clad models looking out over the ocean? Fortunately for the rest of us, meditation is actually much more accessible than it might seem. While the “breathing” part seems easy – so easy that it hardly seems worth it – the “meditating” part can be filled with vague and deceptive preconceptions that make meditation seem like it’s for OTHER people, but definitely not you.
Here’s my favourite simple definition: meditation is simply concentration. When you meditate, you choose something to concentrate on. This can be anything: a candle flame, the sound of your breath, the plot of your story. Once you decide on the object of your concentration, you focus on it for a set period of time.
This is where it gets difficult; as one of my yoga teachers once said, “the mind is like a drunken money that’s been stung by a scorpion.” Accurate description, don’t you think? Suits my mind, anyway. Because of the drunken monkey that is our minds, the moment we say to ourselves, “I’m going to focus on my breath,” our mind says, “ooh, look at the pretty bird. It’s blue like the sky. The sky is clear. I wonder if it’s going to rain tomorrow? If it does then I’ll wear my new rainboots.” And so on.
All of this means that concentrating can be hard. That’s why, when you first start out, I want you to start small. Start with focusing on 10 breaths. That’s it! Recite the number 10 on your inhale and again on your exhale, and make your way all the way down to 1. If you lose track or get distracted, go back to the last number that you remember counting and continue.
It’s really easy to beat yourself up during meditation. Here’s how it can go: “10….10….9….ooh I’m itchy….9….I think…did I seriously just lose count after two numbers? I’m the worst at meditating. Where was I? Oh yeah…8….8…..7…..7…..Did I take the laundry out of the dryer? Did I invite Jack to the party? Did I remember to lock the door? Does the dog have water? Crap I have a lot to do. I should probably give this up – who has time for this? I breathe all day every day anyway. I should go check the laundry. I guess I won’t have time for writing – damn housework.”
Something important to remember: you are not alone in your state of extreme distraction. We ALL start here when it comes to meditation. The thing is that if you persist, you can reap the benefits of a regular meditation practice, which include lowered stress levels, increased creativity, increased empathy and generosity, and increased ability to – you guessed it – maintain focus on important tasks (like writing your novel).
So if you want those benefits to be a part of your life, start now. Your first exercise is to take 10 breaths as described above, and spend one or two weeks doing that every day. After that gets a little more comfortable, here are a couple more options for you to try:
This is my favourite kind of meditation. When you do a noting meditation, you are noticing and narrating specific things that are happening in your mind. On each inhale, you’ll say the word “breath” to yourself. On each exhale, say the word “breath” again. In a magical ideal world, you’ll spend the entire time saying “breath…breath…breath…breath” to yourself, but other things will likely come up. When you notice yourself thinking, label or note it as a “thought,” then let it go. You can let it float away like a cloud or put it in a box labelled “thoughts” – whatever works for you. Label it, let it go, come back to “breath.” Lastly, notice “sensation.” Whenever you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that distracts you from your breath, label it “sensation,” let it go, and come back to breath. Set a timer for anywhere from 2-10 minutes (or longer if you like) and keep coming back to the word “breath” for that amount of time.
This is a simple meditation/breathing exercise to help you balance the two sides of your brain. We’ve all heard of the right-brain/left-brain differences in function, and although that is an overly simplistic view of neurological processes, this exercise can start to bring all of the brain to bear on a project or problem. The exercise is called alternate-nostril breathing: sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor and make sure your back is supported. You’re going to use your thumb and ring finger on your right hand to plug one nostril at a time; your left hand can rest on your left knee. Fold the first two fingers of your right hand down into your palm. Take two deep, regular breaths, then plug your right nostril with your right thumb. Inhale for a count of 4, then release your right nostril and plug your left nostril with your right ring finger. Exhale for a count of 4, stay where you are, inhale for a count of 4, then switch. The rhythm works as follows:
- Inhale left (plug right)
- Exhale right (plug left)
- Inhale right (plug left)
- Exhale left (plug right)
- Inhale left (plug right) etc.
Switch at the end of each inhale. You’ll usually find that one nostril is a little more plugged than another at different times of the day – conventional yoga wisdom says that one side of the brain is always dominant and that it switches around every 45 minutes all day. Again, we now know that that split-brain view is not quite on the money, but this breathing exercise is still wonderfully calming and balancing for when you’re needing to focus and write. For this exercise, set yourself a timer for 2-5 minutes, and then get ready to write!
Have you ever noticed how solutions and plotlines come to you just as you’re falling asleep? There’s a reason for that – your mind can work through problems and find creative solutions more easily when you’re relaxed. You can replicate this intentionally with a plotting meditation: lay on the floor or on a mat and take a moment to choose a thorny problem that you’re running into with your novel. This problem can be anything from feeling uninspired about what happens next to working your way out of a tangled plotline. Make sure your body is comfortable, but avoid lying down in bed – you don’t want to just fall asleep. Set yourself a timer for 10-20 minutes in case you do fall asleep on the floor. Start by taking 20 deep breaths as described above: recite the number 20 on the inhale and the exhale, and count your way down to 1. Once you finish your breaths, let your mind roam around the possibilities for your story. Imagine strange and unlikely possibilities as well as realistic or serious options – there is no limit here. Once something sparks, follow it through as long as your mind can stay focused. At the end of your meditation, roll to one side and sit up slowly, then write away!
Do you have a regular meditation practice? Do you have tips for the writers in your life? Share them in the comments!