As the twists and turns of the pandemic continue to unfold, we have all discovered different dimensions of ourselves. One question we might ask ourselves: how do we handle all that is coming at us each day?
Writer and author Janis Cooke Newman found that a creative form of expression called “free writing” helped her stay present and grounded while helping her notice judgment, the quality of her attention, and her breathing. We asked her to share the story of this “zen” form of writing in advance of her upcoming workshop, Writing & Mindfulness: A Practice for Difficult Times, October 18-22, 2021.
By Janis Cooke Newman
For several years now, my mornings have looked like this: I wake early — often when it’s still dark outside my windows — brew myself a cup of tea, and set a timer for 10 minutes. Then, I open my computer and write.
Some mornings, this free writing is what will become the next scene in the novel I’m working on. Other times, it’s not much more than a stream of consciousness rambling — what Julia Cameron calls ‘morning pages.’
Once the 10 minutes are up, I close the computer, light a stick of incense, and settle onto my meditation cushion, where, for the next 20 minutes or so, I concentrate on my breathing.
Over the years, these daily practices have nourished me and nourished each other. There’s a lot of science behind the idea that a consistent meditation practice literally changes your brain in ways that bolster creativity. And, the concentration of writing is not so very different from the concentration of meditation.
Since the pandemic, I’ve noticed something else. During those months I was in lockdown, worrying over the many things we all worried about during that time, I found that my daily practices of writing and meditation kept me from spinning out of control.
Which, I suppose, shouldn’t have surprised me. Both meditation and writing allow us to take a step back from our lives, to view what is happening around us with more perspective. The very act of writing about something necessitates that we put a little distance between it and ourselves. At the same time, meditation encourages us to be in the moment — a very useful practice when you consider that emotions such as anxiety are always future-based, always focused on what might happen.
The writing I do in the morning is always free writing, mainly because free writing is the most Zen form of writing. Like meditation, free writing happens only when you’re entirely in the present. And like meditation, free writing works best when you’re not judging yourself.
My morning meditation, at its heart, is an exercise in mindfulness… one I try to take with me when I get up from the cushion, because so much of writing is about paying attention. How can I expect to render the world on paper, if I’m not paying attention to the world? Mindfulness reminds me to be fully present in my life, to experience every bit of it in all its messy richness. The better I am at inhabiting my life, the better I will be at writing about it.
Now that I’m (more or less) back in the world, I find that my daily writing and meditation practices continue to ground and center me. My morning ritual is not an obligation, but something I do to take care of myself — something meant to nourish me — which is why, each time I settle onto my cushion, I repeat my favorite quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn: “It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself.”
“Remembering to be as self compassionate as I can and praying to the divine that we're all a part of.”
“Prayer, reading, meditation, walking.”
“Erratically — which is an ongoing stream of practice to find peace.”
“Try on a daily basis to be kind to myself and to realize that making mistakes is a part of the human condition. Learning from our mistakes is a journey. But it starts with compassion and caring. First for oneself.”
“Physically: aerobic exercise, volleyball, ice hockey, cycling, sailing. Emotionally: unfortunately I have to work to ‘not care’ about people or situations which may end painfully. Along the lines of ‘attachment is the source of suffering’, so best to avoid it or limit its scope. Sad though because it could also be the source of great joy. Is it worth the risk?“
“It's time for my heart to be nurtured on one level yet contained on another. To go easy on me and to allow my feelings to be validated, not judged harshly. On the other hand, to let the heart rule with equanimity and not lead the mind and body around like a master.”
“I spend time thinking of everything I am grateful for, and I try to develop my ability to express compassion for myself and others without reservation. I take time to do the things I need to do to keep myself healthy and happy. This includes taking experiential workshops, fostering relationships, and participating within groups which have a similar interest to become a more compassionate and fulfilled being.“
“Self-forgiveness for my own judgments. And oh yeah, coming to Esalen.”
“Hmm, this is a tough one! I guess I take care of my heart through fostering relationships with people I feel connected to. Spending quality time with them (whether we're on the phone, through messages/letters, on Zoom, or in-person). Being there for them, listening to them, sharing what's going on with me, my struggles and my successes... like we do in the Esalen weekly Friends of Esalen Zoom sessions!”
“I remind myself in many ways of the fact that " Love is all there is!" LOVE is the prize and this one precious life is the stage we get to learn our lessons. I get out into nature, hike, camp, river kayak, fly fish, garden, I create, I dance (not enough!), and I remain grateful for each day, each breath, each moment. Being in the moment, awake, and remembering the gift of life and my feeling of gratitude for all of creation.”
“My physical heart by limiting stress and eating a heart-healthy diet. My emotional heart by staying in love with the world and by knowing that all disappointment and loss will pass.“
Today, September 29, is World Heart Day. Strike up a conversation with your own heart and as you feel comfortable, encourage others to do the same. As part of our own transformations and self-care, we sometimes ask for others to illuminate and enliven our hearts or speak our love language.
What if we could do this for ourselves too, even if just for today… or to start a heart practice, forever?
Sign up for Newman’s workshop, Writing & Mindfulness: A Practice for Navigating Difficult Times, October 18-22, 2021.