Editor’s note: the original version of this post was first published in 2010.
Of the many challenges that come with writing, one of the most challenging is trying to write while dealing with the chaotic world around us. For instance, the turmoil that we witness on television or the painful images we see online can have a negative affect on us, causing us to feel anxious, panicky or depressed. The chaotic thoughts and emotional distress that these images create can interrupt and sometimes thwart our ability to sit down and be at peace with the writing process. Therefore, it is important to understand that the key to finding peace when you sit down to write is to establish a sense of peace and tranquility throughout your day and not just at the time you decide to write.
Now, the first step to establishing peace throughout your day is to become increasingly aware of what is causing the chaos in your life. Thich Nhat Hanh would say that whenever we feel worn out, anxious, upset or filled with turmoil then that means we have come into direct contact with toxins.
Toxins make us feel angry, upset, anxious, hopeless, restless, they make us feel bad about ourselves and worst of all they cause our mind to bound around in chaos.
Many of you understand the concept of toxins in relation to our food. For instance, there is a growing awareness that much of what Americans eat is actually not good for our bodies, and that many of today’s health problems originate from diets that are high in fat, sugar and chemicals. This growing awareness is slowly chipping away at the ignorance surrounding our understanding of the toxins that we ingest through our mouths.
Although many of us are aware of the toxins in food, not many of us are aware of the other types of toxins that exist in the world. These toxins have the same negative side effects that eating increased amounts of fat, sugar and chemicals can cause.
In general, toxins enter our body through all our five senses, and it’s important to protect each of these senses from exposure. We have to be like security guards protecting a one-of-a-kind treasure. This treasure is our overall sense of peace and well-being.
It is important to note that the concepts I am sharing with you are not new, but are my unique take on a very ancient concept that was first introduced to me by Thich Naht Hanh. I am only taking the concepts I learned from him and applying them to my specific situation.
Okay. Let’s take a look at each of our senses and examine what types of toxins may be affecting them.
I’m starting to learn that taste is something that involves the entire body, and not just our taste buds. If we follow our food from our tongue to our stomachs then that’s when we really know what we are tasting. For example, when you have a lot of greasy food your taste buds might signal to you that it enjoys the flavor, but if you keep on paying attention to the food as it drops to your stomach, you’ll notice the rest of your body will give you a different signal. You might start to feel sluggish, depressed, or lacking in enthusiasm. If you feel this way, then your sense of taste is telling you that you have ingested toxins.
On other hand, when you eat vegetables and fruits, you might notice that your body feels refreshed, energized, and light afterwards. This is why it is important to monitor your sense of taste by making sure you pay close attention to the way your whole body responds to what you are eating.
When you are eating well and avoiding toxins, you body will always feel at peace when you start your writing day.
Children teach us so many things we tend to overlook. For instance, children know the power of touch. Whenever children feel afraid, they’ll clutch to a warm blanket or cling to the warm body of a parent. Take a cue from these children, then, and wrap yourself in a warm blanket when you sit down to write. Touch the cool, chiseled surface of a paper weight on your writing desk. Crush a fallen leaf in your hand. Touch the stem of a live plant. Touch the objects around you that are at peace, and allow them to bring you feelings of warmth and tranquility.
In today’s world, our sight is bombarded with visual toxins on a consistent basis. Advertisements flash at us from everywhere, sending us messages that we’re not fit enough, lovable enough, rich enough, good enough, popular enough unless we buy their product. Then there’s the news, always telling us that on every street corner we are certain to meet with disaster. Television and movies repeatedly show us a world in which complicated problems are solved in just under an hour, giving us unrealistic expectations about the way life really works.
These visual toxins affect the way we feel and what we think about the world around us. Plugging into these images and pictures is like plugging into The Matrix. In that film, when you were plugged into The Matrix you were led into a fabricated world where everything is either way too perfect or way too chaotic. That’s what happens when you watch too much TV or stay too long on the internet.
If you want to find peace when you sit down to write, then, you need to unplug yourself from The Matrix. Start off by going without any news for two weeks, and see how much happier and lighter you feel. (Trust me, if there is something that is ACTUALLY an emergency, the people around you will let you know.) Instead of watching the news, go to the park and look around and ask yourself: “Is the sky really falling?” Then look up and check in with the sky for the answer.
You will discover that–unless you are living in a war-torn country–the sky is, in fact, NOT falling. Once you realize this, move your attention over to the butterflies in the park and let their flapping wings remind you that, in truth, the world around you is at peace.
We live in a modern world and, unfortunately, smog, gasoline, and grease is just part of the many toxic smells we have to encounter every day. If this is all we smell, however, we might forget the peace that arises within us when we smell air that is not toxic. That is why it’s important for a writer to take some time to go hiking and smell the freshness of the mountain air, or run by the sea and smell the saltwater. Or, if you can’t do this, then light some incense by your writing desk. Keep some flowers nearby and smell their petals. Allow their soothing smell to bring you to a sense of wonderful peace.
Too many unpleasant sounds can be toxic. Unfortunately, the engines of several cars roaring all at once is so loud it can overwhelm everything else. That’s why we need to frequently visit places where the jack hammers of the world cannot reach us. I already mentioned taking a trip to the beach, or to the mountains, or to the park, but if visiting these places is not possible then just tune into the soothing sounds that surround you. Take a walk in your neighborhood and try to tune out all the unpleasant noises. Then, tune into the birds singing, the wind blowing, the leaves rustling, the rain falling, the people humming, whistling, singing, laughing, whispering…
Along with becoming aware of the noises we hear, we also need to be aware of the words we hear. Words can also carry toxins. For instance, if you walk away from a conversation feeling more upset, angry, or worried than before, you know that the person you were talking to said something to you that was a toxin. It might have been a statement about the bad state of world affairs, or a backhanded comment about your appearance or lifestyle. Whatever it was, acknowledge that it was a toxin and then work to reverse its effects.
How do you reverse the effects of a toxin? I will discuss that next.
Becoming a Tree
(I’ve read a lot of books on meditation and although some of them provided some great methods, I’ve had to fashion out a unique meditation routine for myself. Nowadays, whenever I’m faced with a problem, I try to create my own meditation exercise to address the issue. The following is one that I created for myself and that has been working for me. I hope it helps you maintain a sense of peace throughout your day. Read my article entitled “Patience“ to learn more about meditation and how to use it to help you in your writing process.)
I would like you to pay attention to a tree today. If you pass a particular tree every day, I want you to put all your focus onto that particular tree. If you don’t pass by a single tree on a regular basis, then visit a local park and examine a tree there.
Today, I want you to pass this tree as you usually do, but this time, I want you to notice your mood. If you are angry, notice that you pass this tree with anger. If you are sad, notice you pass this tree with sadness in your heart. If you are happy, pass this tree with your joy. If you are indifferent, pass this tree with your indifference. After you pass this tree, carrying whatever thoughts or feelings you might have, I want you to look back and notice whether the surface of that tree has changed.
If you passed the tree with anger, you might notice that the tree did not become angry. If you passed the tree with joy, you might notice that the tree did not become joyful. Whatever you brought to the tree, the tree still remained at peace and grounded firmly to the earth–in the same state it was before.
Now that you saw that nothing changed on the surface of this tree, think of what happened just underneath the surface. You might realize that when you passed this tree, you exhaled toxins across the tree’s leaves. The tree took these toxins you exhaled (carbon dioxide) and turned them into something that will not only help the tree live on and grow stronger, but will help you live on and grow stronger, too. What did that tree turn your toxic carbon dioxide emissions into? Oxygen, of course.
Now, as you go about your day, I want you to take on the habit of this tree.
Try your best to avoid the toxins of life, but if a toxin does arrive, inhale this toxin and meditate on it for a moment. Be present with the toxin. Give it your attention, your love, and your warmth. Then, focus on your breath, and watch as your breath begins to wipe away at this toxin. Once the toxin is completely wiped away, smile and go about your day spreading happiness, love and a sense of peace to those around you.
If you feel at peace and grounded after this cleansing process, then congratulations! You have successfully become a tree–a being which not only lives in peace but who takes the turmoil that passes by and transforms it into peace, turning poison into nourishment for others.
Remember: those who want to cause chaos in this world may be powerful, but they are not as powerful as you are. As long as you turn their toxic outlook into pure oxygen, your sense of peace will be far too great for their chaos to overtake your tranquil world.
Now, with this sense of warmth and tranquility still within you, sit down and begin to write.