Capturing the Sensual Art of Now

cup of coffee on bedside tableThe air is chilly this early January morning of 2017 as am I, having just brought coffee back to the bedroom from the cold kitchen.

My husband turned on the heated mattress pad as well as a space heater during my absence. I hop back in bed and sitting up against an abundance of pillows, I snuggle closer to my husband, sipping my coffee. After a bit, I set the timer for twenty minutes. We always start the day this way: coffee in bed followed by meditation.

When my mind wanders during meditation this morning, I bring my attention back to the sensations of Now. I notice a slightly bitter taste lingering on my tongue. I notice the rushing sound of the space heater as it persistently fills the void. My husband’s arm rests gently against mine, offering comfort and additional warmth. My chest and belly move of their own accord with each breath. I relax and allow the thoughts that had swept me up moments before to gently drift away on their own—to “self-liberate.” The room stills. I open my eyes, keeping the gaze soft and allow my awareness to expand to the edges of my peripheral vision: I catch snatches of color from the Indian saris draped around the four posters of our Malaysian bed frame and notice small movements of leaves fluttering and birds flittering about outside the window.

In this same way, we writers can help our readers feel the Now in our scenes, by drawing attention to the senses, not only the visual details. Each important scene should have a snippet of at least three of the five senses. Is there the whiff of something in the air of your scene? Is there an all-consuming background noise or only intermittent bird chirping? Paying attention to the sensations of the moment draws our attention and makes the scene a complete experience.

At a workshop, I teach, called “Awakening the Senses for Writers,” we practice focusing on our senses by experiencing them blindfolded and then writing about it. A sense nakedly experienced may evoke a fresh and vibrant—potentially entirely different—description. One of my favorite examples came from a woman tasting carrot juice while blindfolded. She did not immediately recognize the flavor of carrot juice—people rarely do. Instead, she wrote, “This is what green tastes like,” which I find to be an oddly perfect description of the orange beverage.

This type of exercise helps us to pay attention to the sensual details that are present in every moment and then to infuse our writing with that—capturing for our readers too the “Sensual Art of Now” in our scenes.

Try this:

Working with a partner, or even in a writing group, participate in an “awakening the senses exercise.” One person introduces sample sensations one at a time (taste, smell, sound, touch, sight) to the blindfolded others. Each sense is experienced on its own for some moments with the blindfold on. Then the blindfold is removed, and the participants are immediately invited to do a timed three-minute stream of consciousness writing. (In the case of sight, you start with a blindfold on while a visual phenomenon is placed in front of you; then you remove the blindfold and focus only on that item, before doing the timed writing.)

You may try to describe what has been experienced, possibly without even “knowing” even what it is as in the carrot juice example above. This encourages new and creative descriptions. Sometimes this exercise will evoke a memory or fantasy, and a story will unfold naturally and easily.

Whatever the case, bringing our attention to just one sense at a time, helps us isolate each experience—to pay attention not only to the minute details but to the ways in which we are moved by them—a practice that later enriches our writing.

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/photo=m0l5J8Lqnzo

Want to be a Feisty Writer? Sit Down and Shut Up.

man scolding happy dogMeditate that is.

But that’s just sitting still, inner peace, no thoughts, and silence, right?  What’s feisty about that?

It takes true courage—that’s what. Meditation puts us in direct contact with the self-critical voices in our head. You know, the voice that says, “I can’t write!”, “I have nothing to say.” Or maybe the voice that says, “You can’t write that!” The voice that pulls us back from the hard truth, from the gory (or glorious) details. Meditation helps us to see these conditioned, self-critical voices for what they are and to disidentify from them. Through meditation, we learn to turn our attention away from those voices and listen instead to our authentic voice. This is the magic of meditation and a great benefit for writers.

I call it, “how to become a feisty writer,” but scientists these days call it rewiring the brain and mindset. Did you know that meditation has been proven to significantly alter the regions of the brain associated with stress, overall well-being, and fluid intelligence?

For my part, I’ve discovered that meditation and writing, in particular, are fundamentally complementary. Meditation works by employing a writer’s best friend: the power of paying attention.

We sit in meditation and learn to notice everything as an observer—a witness: bodily sensations, sounds, smells, tastes, visual phenomenon, emotions, and thoughts. This is particularly true if we are suffering. Instead of being consumed with our emotions, we act as a journalist, taking detailed notes to describe this phenomenon accurately, freshly, without cliché—outside the realm of our conditioning. As meditators, we pay attention to see how we cause ourselves to suffer so we can drop that. As a writer, we pay attention so that these details can become rich fodder which we can later employ to make our writing honest, rich, and vivid.

Sure, developing a meditation practice requires commitment. But commitment is something we writers need. Bottom line, to enliven the feisty writer within we have to commit to a practice of writing. And, to be free from the self-critical voices that keep us from writing, it helps to meditate.

You game?

To start:

  • Make a commitment to meditate five minutes per day for two weeks. Then just show up. That’s all.  I call it, “making it to the cushion.”
  • Arrange for an undistracted time and quiet place; find a comfortable position.
  • Below is an audio recording of a short guided meditation to use if you choose.  (Note: you can email this audio recording to yourself and listen from your smartphone if you prefer.)
  • Alternatively, read the guidelines below and guide yourself.  If you do it yourself, SET A TIMER. (This is critical for it keeps the mind from incessantly worrying about “how long has it been?”)
    • Start by closing your eyes and taking a couple of long slow breaths through your nose to center yourself.
    • Then, still breathing through your nose, start to count your breaths deliberately until you get to ten. If you notice that you have gone off on a train of thought, don’t worry, everyone does! Just bring your attention back to the breath and continue. Breathe in deeply, silently count “one” on the exhale. Breathe in again, silently count “two” on the exhale, and so on.
    • Once you’ve reached ten, bring your attention from your breath to your bodily sensations. Notice the feeling of the ground or chair beneath you; notice any discomfort anywhere.  Pay close attention to what it feels like:  prickling, heavy, tight, etc.  Scan your body for tension.  Are your shoulders hunched?  Is your jaw tight? Gently relax any physical tensions and repeat silently to yourself, “I release any tension, any pressure, any thoughts, any desires.”
    • When the timer goes off, bring your hands into prayer position and bow, honoring yourself for keeping this commitment.

Being a feisty writer takes courage and commitment. By doing this simple exercise, you acknowledge your intention. Critical voices berating you? Bring on the meditation!

Photo credit: nos.twnsnd.co/post/151194502526/a-man-and-his-dog