Monday, December 29, 2014

The Art of Walking

I’m heavily into the revision of the water poems that I’ve been posting about for the last year, and trying to get more fully into them. The most important aspect about this part of the project is focus. My poems can’t reach their potential unless I’m focused completely on them and completely in the moment. That means I have a strict policy of not multitasking while writing.

The thing about it is that once people start to multitask, they have a hard time focusing on only one thing. I do. Our minds are always at four places at once, so as I am in my deep revision, I have a policy of not multitasking at all, and I think it’s a policy I’ll keep after I’m done revising too.

This kind of mindfulness is not as easy as it sounds, and it’s been taking me a good deal of practice. One of the activities that I’m getting back into is mindful walking.

For years, I walked. When I lived in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead, I walked up to Strawberry Peak nearly every day with my dog. We loved it. He loved it so much that as soon as the sun began to blue the sky, he’d crawl on my bed and stare at my face. The moment I opened my eyes, he was on me, pulling me out of bed. We had an hour or two every morning to live completely in the moment, to be in nature. When we moved down to the city to be closer to work, he followed the same procedure every morning.

I had loved walking in the forest completely isolated from other people in the dawn hours of the morning for all those years. We’d see bears and other animals. We’d walk through meadows and watch the city from five thousand feet. However, the walks we had when we lived in the city were not worse. They were just as calm, just as introspective, just as interesting because I was turned inward at those points. 

There is a joy, of course, in seeing a bear. The mood of the world changes for that moment, and it passes by quietly or crashing through the underbrush. Either way, I always felt blessed by it. There were a lot of moments like that in the mountains. I saw a coyote playing by himself with a rag, and a bobcat asleep on a warm stone. There were moments in the fog when I’d look around and realize that I was surrounded by a coyote pack, and unafraid of the animals who were there just to check me out, I would talk to them.

However, there were moments in the city as well, the everyday moments that go by and people tend to miss their specialness, like Christmas mornings when I’d always walk through one of the local colleges. These giant building were abandoned completely, and I was left alone in a fully formed ghost town. There were mid-century modern houses that were revelations but whose beauty had been camouflaged by everyday use, and of course, there was the daily walk over the freeway. Where else in the world aside from Los Angeles is that possible.

More important than the special moments were the moments in between when I was able to become fully invested in what life is most of the time. There is beauty and significance in the silence of those moments, and they were what helped me focus.

My dog has gotten old. It’s a trial for him to hobble from one side of the living room to the other, so I stopped walking. It seemed wrong to do without him, but of course, that’s ridiculous. The first and best thing I can do to help my revision is to start walking daily again, and seeing the world for what it is rather than trying to see it through the warped and tragic lens of multitasking, this lens that keeps us always in that place of our worst fears for ourselves, that place where we are always preparing for tragedy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Western Tradition of Mindfulness

Now that I have finished the rough draft of my poetry collection, I’ve moved into revision mode. Rather than discuss the minutia of revision, I’ve decided to discuss the way that I can get into the state of mind that I need to be in in order to revise. My mind needs to be free of pointless distraction and that means mindfulness. I’m not claiming expertise here. I’m muddling through trying to figure things out.

Mindfulness almost always comes with some level of meditation. It’s pretty difficult to do one without the other. A lot of people feel resistance to meditation, but it is not something that is completely divorced from Western culture. We just usually call it something else. There are a number of meditation practices that we do all the time without calling it that.

I come from the tradition of Quakerism. My father and his side of the family were all Quakers who attended unprogrammed meetings. What we call praying is sitting in a large circle silently and not speaking until the spirit of God moves us to speak. I’m not a regular attender, but I go every once in a while, and it has to me a double kind of significance. The first is the communal sense of peace that all congregations strive to achieve. The second, of course, is the benefit that meditation gives any person.

In this kind of praying, which is simply meditation, I notice and acknowledge my thoughts, not judging them but allowing myself to be open to them. If there is a religious message, I am open to it. If not, that’s fine too. The wonderful thing about it is that when people meditate in this way, they become more realistic about what the stresses in their lives really are and should be. It is when we slow down and begin to investigate what life really is that we begin to see things realistically.

Our daily struggles seem to pile up, one on another, until they seem too large to manage. However, each one is really nothing. Of course, there are real problems in our lives and the world at large, but these don’t tend to be the things that weigh us down. At least, that is true for me. When the big things happen to me, I take the time and energy to focus on them and deal with them. They are resolved if they are resolvable, and if they are not, I deal with them emotionally.

The small sniggling things are never resolved until I take the time to focus on the moment and know what their true significance is. That is the role in part of most religions. They give perspective in our lives in order to help us achieve meaning.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Deleting Distractions


If you have been following this blog, you know that I’ve been working on a collection of poems about water. I’ve written those poems, revised many of them as well, but I’m now going into deep revision.

I’m not going to go into how I make the choices I do. That’s personal and trivial. However, the hardest part of revision for me is putting myself in the state of mind I need to be to revise. The difference between one word and the next can make the poem, so I have to be in a place where that can happen.

Instead of writing about revision, I’m going to write about mindfulness and the steps I take to put me in a calm state of mind. I tend to work far too much. With the state of non-pay for professors in California, most of us are scrambling for extra income. I also help to run a non-profit and am trying to gather donations as much as I can. This creates a great deal of anxiety and often depression in my life, and since I tend to eat and drink my emotions, it’s led to weight gain.

I suppose there are any number of ways to define mindfulness, but I think the most important part of it is to be in the present, here at this moment. I began my quest for mindfulness years ago, not by doing anything, but by resisting certain things.

Most importantly, I’ve spent my adult life resisting multitasking. As far as I am concerned, multitasking is the fastest and easiest way to sink into a depressive state. It is the idea that nothing a person could possibly be doing at this moment is good enough and that the best we can possibly achieve is just to be done with our tasks. That’s a dangerous way to approach life. In fact, it is the opposite of the way that life should be approached. Each moment can be a blessing, a meditation, and a prayer. Each task should be approached with complete attention not only because we owe it to ourselves to do things well, but also because there is joy in the completion and in the action.

For me, this has meant resisting some of the pleasures of modern life, the first of which is the cell phone. I shouldn’t be dogmatic about that. I do have a flip phone. It’s a burner phone with no contract and no access to the Internet. Aside from the fact that my cell phone bill is at most $50 a year, I am also never tempted to spend time on the Internet when I am waiting in line or talking to other people. No one breaks my concentration while I am reading. When I am on a walk around the neighborhood, I am there completely.

I would never make the argument that cellphones are bad. People have children to take care of, and jobs with emergencies. That’s just not the reality of my life. I teach English, and I have found that it’s rare that there is a grammar emergency that needs to be taken care of immediately. My wife has my number, and I have no children. I would rather live in the moment than constantly wonder what is happening elsewhere. That way lies madness.

The Internet is a distraction as well. It used to be that I would wake up and immediately check my emails. I would check them before I went to bed at night, making sure that I answered all emails immediately. Most of them were from students. Although I try to return emails within 24 hours now, it’s important that I don’t fill every waking hour with them. Checking them as I did meant that I was effectively working every moment that I was awake including on weekends. That approach to life is insane.

These kinds of communication are distraction, and the kind of subtle approach to writing that I need during revision and really all of my life requires that I am not distracted. It’s impossible to be mindful when I am at work or dealing with other people all day long. Work is important, and other people are important of course, but I cannot be present for either effectively if I am not present for myself.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mindfulness and The Art of Revision

If you have been following this blog, you know that I’ve been working on a collection of poems about water. I’ve written those poems, revised many of them as well, but I’m now going into deep revision.

I’m not going to go into how I make the choices I do. That’s personal and trivial. However, the hardest part of revision for me is putting myself in the state of mind I need to be to revise. The difference between one word and the next can make the poem, so I have to be in a place where that can happen.

Instead of writing about revision, I’m going to write about mindfulness and the steps I take to put me in a calm state of mind. I tend to work far too much. With the state of non-pay for professors in California, most of us are scrambling for extra income. I also help to run a non-profit and am trying to gather donations as much as I can. This creates a great deal of anxiety and often depression in my life, and since I tend to eat and drink my emotions, it’s led to weight gain.

Mindfulness is the idea that if you stay in the present you tend to be less unrealistic about the world around you. My friend Bonnie Hill Hearn gave me the best example of this. She talks about why people become so agitated when they are late for something. What is happening on the top of their minds is that they don’t want to miss a meeting or event. However, what they are worried about really is irrational and terrifying. Behind that fear is the idea that if they miss this meeting a whole string of devastating events will happen:

  • They’ll anger their boss.
  • They’ll lose their jobs.
  • They won’t be able to find a new job.
  • Their spouses will leave them.
  • They’ll lose their homes.

These are the unconscious assumptions that anger and anxiety at being late suggests, and we make these kinds of irrational jumps constantly. It’s part of the human experience.

Anyway, I can’t revise with these kind of fears swirling through my head, so the first job is to learn to be present in the moment. The blogs that follow are going to discuss how I achieve this mindfulness.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Week 37

I’ve been chronicling my project with my wife on this blog. I’m writing a poetry collection about the creation of California. I’m trying to tell the story of water in California, what really made it what it is. Ann’s a visual artist, so she’s going to do the graphic art work for it.

This is my last blog post about this project. I have never really thought about the way I approach an artistic project, and I am a little surprised at how much work goes into it. Of course, it’s not really work. It’s mental game play, and if it weren’t, I wouldn’t do it.

Now, I’m going to start revising the collection. I’ve been doing that all along, but I have to do it in a more focused and serious way. I suppose I could chronicle that too, but discussing the minutia that goes into choosing one word over another would be kind of horrible.

These blog posts have saved me and kept me focused. I’ve had to work a lot of overtime in the last year, and I know that I will have to continue to do so until June. These have kept me sane and focused on producing new work even when I’ve been overwhelmed by life. After the poems and short stories appear in magazines, I will start to post them here.

As I go into the revision process, deeply into it, I’m going to start focusing on mindfulness in these blogs rather than the actual work of revision. Why mindfulness? I need to be in a particular mindset to be effective in revision. I need to be calm and not focused on all those little things that make people anxious.