More often than not

I took some time off over the last couple of weeks to spend time with family and friends, go camping, and attend a meditation retreat. I’m now settled near Athens, by the sea.

That’s part of the reason I haven’t been writing here. The other is that I’m suffering, once more, from a spell of anxiety and doubt.

There are two habits I have to expend effort to maintain but which, if I don’t do, I’m utterly miserable. One is meditation and the other is writing.

I’ve been meditating daily, but not for as long, nor as deeply, as I would like. I feel anxious, distracted and peevish. Meditation often serves as a balm for such feelings, but recently they’ve been driving me off the cushion. 1 I’ll insist on sitting every day and hopefully, moment by moment, this anxiety will settle down. What else is there?

On the other hand, I’ve hardly been writing at all these weeks. Even before my break, I’d been busy with work and other matters and haven’t been paying as much attention as I’d like to my novel-in-progress. I’m past the half-way point of the first draft, but every time I look at it I see all the things that are terrible with it, especially those dubious decisions that are so embedded in the story or the style that cannot be salvaged in editing.

But that was the challenge: to try and write a novel — not A Great Novel, mind you, just a readable one. That still seems possible, and writing it is teaching me a lot about how to better approach the next one. But it’s a painful process, one which I enjoy with decreasing frequency. Every time I start writing it feels like I’m starting all over again. I feel sluggish and uninspired. Everything is a fight, nothing falls into place.

This experience reminds me of what exercising infrequently feels like. Every time you go to the gym, or go for a run, or whatever, it feels unpleasant — both during and, especially, after. There are good moments usually, but mostly it’s a slog.

When I was practising Ashtanga yoga regularly, a big changed happened when I switched from practising two or three times a week to four or more. Not only was my body more pliant due to the regular practice, but it was easier for me to get into the mental state that best supported that practice. A state of focus both disciplined and open-hearted, bearing within it a mix of precise technique and exploratory playfulness.

There are lots of articles on the internet espousing that the key to success in such matters is building daily habits. Doing something every single day — preferably at the same time, the same place, and with the most expensive paraphernalia available on Amazon.

I have some objections to this approach, and I’m not just talking about its consumerist underpinnings. My chief objection is that I just need a goodly chunk of time to get into a supportive mode for whatever it is I’m doing. There people who can write in twenty-minute chunks, or meditate for ten minutes here and there. That doesn’t work for me. It’s probably got something to do with how my attention works (or doesn’t).

When writing, it can take me up to half-an-hour to get into a groove, to fall into the daydream of the scene I’m writing. I’m almost equally slow in meditation, where my mind often needs ten or even twenty minutes to settle down.

At the same time, there is significant value in maintaining a regular practice. I’ve long made my peace with meditation and just sit every day. Even when the meditation doesn’t feel productive, I find that if I skip a day or two, which sometimes happens when travelling, I feel out-of-sorts. So the daily habit itself is crucial for me.

I’ve never managed to cobble together a habit of writing. My experience hosting a weekly writing group over the last year has shown that I need long sessions of about two hours to write in, and that anything less than three such sessions per week is too little. Even this amount of about six hours feels limited — progress on the novel is so slow. I’ve tried several times to establish a writing habit of about ten hours per week, but it didn’t stick. Too many things tug at my attention. The balance between regularity of practice and depth (or, in this case, length) eludes me.

For now, all that I know is that for a core habit, one that is part of my identity, such as meditation or writing, I need to work at it more often than not. In other words, I should work at it on most days of the week. I haven’t found an easy path to get there. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe the only path is this to insist.

  1. These days I sit on a pink yoga brick, because it’s easier to travel with. This ease is related to the size, not the color. ↩︎

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