If you’re embarking on the NaNoWriMo adventure this year and are slightly (okay, REALLY) worried about how you’re going to manage 50K words in a month, I have something that might just take the edge off. Instead of barreling through the month surviving on nothing but coffee, chocolate, and the will to survive, you could do something totally insane and counter-intuitive: slow down. Many of us come from cultures of all-nighters and increasing caffeine intake when the heat is on, but these things only serve to fray our edges even more. In today’s high-stress world, there’s a reason why contemplative practices like mindfulness and meditation are finding a foothold. We’re exhausted and over-scheduled and over-stimulated enough as it is—now try multiplying that by a thousand when you set out to write a novel in one month (or a good chunk of one, anyway). Taking a little bit of time each day to sit and breathe—and do nothing else—might seem like a luxury you can’t afford when you’re trying to write thousands of words each day at the beginning of the holiday season, but studies have shown again and again that meditation is a game changer when it comes to performance. Think increased memory and sharper focus, not to mention all those practitioners who report less depression and more immunity.
And we have good reason to believe that it’s also a boost to your creative juices, since what happens in your brain during meditation mimics the brain when it’s in creative flow with the deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that hosts your sense of self. In layman’s terms, that feeling of being totally absorbed, lost in your story, forgetting all about yourself and surroundings—this happens when you meditate, too. It stands to reason, then, that meditation not only primes the brain for creativity, it actually gives writers a way to train for flow. Do I have your attention now?
As a professional author who’s had her fair share of creative blocks and frustrating writing sessions while under deadline, I’m always on the hunt for strategies to get un-blocked, in flow, and inspired. After a particularly difficult creative period, I finally gave in and tried meditation. One guided session later, I was hooked. So hooked that I’m getting certified to teach it to my fellow writers. In addition to the slew of benefits you’ve probably read about in a dozen articles, such as decreased stress and deeper connection to others, I’ve found that meditating before I write makes my sessions at the laptop way more productive—I’m talking thousands of words as opposed to hundreds. I come to the page with a clarity I didn’t have before I sat on the cushion that day, and any anxiety I had going into the day’s work is, if not absent, is greatly diminished. I’m able to write with more focus, coming much more quickly to that elusive state of absorption we long for. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of frustration or existential angst when I’m writing, but it does mean that I’ve got a better shot at writing words I’m actually going to keep. It’s easier to make connections between ideas, to see the places where the stars align in my story. I have less moments where I stare at the screen with nothing but four-letter words in my head and I call that a win.
After one week-long meditation retreat, a story I’d given up on two years before suddenly came to me once more—this time making sense. There are loads of other benefits, as well: the decrease in my stress allows me to be more accepting of the uncertainty in the artist’s life, more patient with my stories, and gentler with myself. My inner critic and fears over whether or not my current project is going to work no longer rules the roost. The bottom line: when I have more flow and worries over my work and myself as a writer don’t take center stage, then it’s easier to write my books. I suspect that if you were to integrate some meditation into each day of NaNoWriMo, you’ll have less stress, more flow, and enjoy the process more. Writing is hard any time of the year (or, at least, our inner critics make it hard), but NaNo is a whole other ballgame. To write the amount of words you need to in order to successfully complete the NaNo journey, you need to bring your A-game. So how do incorporate meditation into your writing process without it turning into just one more thing to do that keeps you from actually writing?
Start slow. Meditate for five minutes each day for the first week. Don’t dive right into twenty-minute sessions. Grab a free meditation app like Headspace to help you get started—you’re much more likely to develop a practice if you get help from a knowledgeable teacher who can guide you through the process. Do five minutes, even if you want to do more. Consistency is key here. The more you meditate, the more likely it’ll become a habit.
Try to meditate before you write. This gives you a chance to recalibrate and get into the zone. You don’t need a cushion unless you want one. A simple chair will do. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and don’t lean back in the chair. You’re going for a dignified, elegant posture—upright, but not uptight. Palms on your thighs. Breathe. Eyes closed, or open with a soft gaze looking about four feet in front of you. By the way, you look fantastic, you’re totally rocking the Buddha pose.
Don’t worry if your mind is racing—the point of meditation is not to eliminate thoughts, it’s to understand how our minds work, to observe what’s going on in there. You will have lots and lots of thoughts. Even the masters do. The brain’s job is to think. All you need to do is watch it. Let the thoughts be like clouds passing in the sky. You acknowledge them, and then they go by.
Don’t stop meditating when you get a good idea. Just don’t. If the idea’s worth keeping, it’ll come back. Promise.
Keep track of how meditation is affecting your writing and your life. Note your stress, flow, sleep, headaches—anything you want. Then watch the magic happen. Journaling through these early days is great, but if the idea of adding one more thing to your plate is too much, then just do your level best.
Next week I’ll post about how the practice of mindfulness is different than meditation, and give you some tips on how to rock your NaNo mindfully. Until then, good luck! May the words flow, the thoughts roll by, and the magic happen.
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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