This is usually how it goes.
As I’m writing, the words come easy and life is peachy. I like what’s coming out, and I think to myself, Damn, I’m good.
Then I hit upon something tough. Either it’s hard to put into words or I don’t have a complete idea in my head or I don’t know what comes next. I’m suddenly faced with a problem to solve, and my inspiration doesn’t have enough juice to fix it. This is resistance.
I consider my inability to move forward, and I perceive it as a threat. I tell myself, this is a terrible idea, I ran out of things to say, I don’t know what I’m talking about, who do I think I am writing about this? This is fear and doubt.
And instead of solving the problem, what do I do? I go to Facebook. Facebook is a very effective distraction in moments like these. Breaking through resistance is work. It takes creativity and ingenuity, and harder still it demands that I dig deep. It means answering some tough questions. Facebook is mindless and requires nothing of me. I don’t have to do that deep inner work. This is avoidance.
Along the way I’ve picked up a few strategies for dealing with these things. When I first noticed this urge, I installed Self Control on my computer, so I can’t look at Facebook and other distracting websites.
Then after using Self Control for a while, I noticed situations when I had an urge for a distraction, and that’s when I figured out that I use distractions to avoid things that are hard.
The next step for me is to push forward. When I have the urge for the distraction, that’s when I know that I need to push forward, answer the tough questions, and keep writing.
But I couldn’t have done this without mindfulness.
My Zen teachers at Dharma Rain typically teach new practitioners that they need only notice when the kind of feelings and urges mentioned above come up. If you’ve been working with an individual teacher for a while, then they might suggest something to practice with. But for those new to Zen practice, the first step is simply to have awareness. Nothing more is needed.
Sometimes people are completely ignorant of the strategies they use to cope with something difficult. And if you do it enough times, then that habit owns you. You don’t even know that you’re doing it. Studies show that habits may actually create neural pathways in the brain. Over time the more that neural pathway is used, the bigger it becomes, and it’s easier and easier for your brain to send messages down it.
But this means that you can create new neural pathways. When you have that awareness of a bad habit (such as going on to Facebook to distract yourself from writing or drinking to cope with stress or watching TV to numb your emotions), then you can make the choice to do something different. Rather than submit, you can keep going.
I’d be hard-pressed to suggest how to practice mindfulness without meditation. The two go hand in hand. Silent meditation practice gives you space to notice the crazy shitstorm of thoughts, feelings, and distractions. Sitting still and silently gives you the space to notice these things. Without interruptions, technology, other people, alcohol, and Facebook, you can truly be present with yourself. I find that when I mindfully notice the shitstorm in meditation, I am able to mindfully notice it in my daily life. But I couldn’t have done that without sitting my ass down on a cushion in a quiet zendo.
Someone once asked me what you need to meditate. I told them that all you need is a chair and a quiet room. Spend some time with mindfulness and meditation and you’ll notice all sorts of bad habits and strategies. There’s tremendous power in sitting still admist such a shitstorm. Practice enough and you may find what you need to fight resistance, fear, and avoidance.