Mindfulness – awakening to the specific, infinite perfection of the moment we’re in right now – is the key to spiritual growth and everyday contentment. But it isn’t always easy to achieve mindfulness or to hold onto it for longer than a few minutes at a time. Whereas we can’t always control our states of mind (and trying to control them can make it paradoxically harder to arrive at the ones we want), writing is something we can do and therefore can control. And when we observe life’s moments closely knowing we’re going to be writing about them, we automatically shift into a state of heightened awareness.
Mary Allen offers classes in Writing Mind, in which students learn how to use writing as a powerful, accessible, easy-to-use tool for becoming more mindful. If you’re interested in taking one of her classes you can email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s how Writing Mind came into being:
One day about six years ago I was driving through the Missouri countryside with my thirteen-year-old stepson. It was the second day of our vacation; we were going to a lake near Little Rock, Arkansas, with my stepson’s dad and older sister. We were coming from Iowa City and had spent the night before in a motel somewhere in Missouri because the drive from Iowa to Arkansas was much too long to do in one day.
We were going on vacation in Arkansas because we thought we could drive there and we didn’t have enough money to fly anywhere. Plus, my partner and I had just, very unwisely, bought one of those time share memberships where you get points you use like money to stay at various resorts owned by the time share company, and this place in Arkansas was the only one they had with available space that we could get to. Although it was turning out that we couldn’t get there nearly as easily as we’d thought we could. We’d been much too optimistic – in denial might be another way to put it — about the distance we had to travel from Iowa to Arkansas, and we were in my ancient Honda Civic and I was doing all the driving. (My partner didn’t know how to drive a stick shift; I can’t remember any more why we’d taken my car instead of his, but it probably had something to do with my control issues around his driving.)
In the motel room in Missouri, my stepson announced that he’d forgotten to bring his bathing suit. Pretty much all there was to do at the resort in Arkansas was go swimming, in the resort pool and in the nearby lake, and I said maybe we could find a Wal-Mart in the morning where we could buy him a bathing suit. Which is how I came to be driving through the flat Missouri countryside in the middle of nowhere, searching for a Wal-Mart that was supposed to be down this road, according to the phone book, but didn’t seem to be there after all.
It was hot already, even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning. We were already running way behind. I was a little bit mad at my stepson’s father for dillydallying back at the motel and then snapping at me when I tried to get him to hurry it up a little. My back hurt as a result of yesterday’s long drive and I was anxious about today’s long, long upcoming drive, the drive we were going to have to do when we got back from this drive. And now we were probably lost on the way to Wal-Mart. Or maybe that Wal-Mart didn’t even exist!
Then something came to me out of the blue. I could write about this, I thought, and in an instant the whole scene changed before my eyes. I had suddenly stepped back a little — as if the observer part of me that Eckhart Tolle talks about in A New Earth had been activated — and I had begun to see. About twenty years ago I read a book called Intoxicated by My Illness, in which Anatole Broyard says that if you can turn something that’s happening to you into a story, even something as awful as having cancer, which he did when he wrote the book – he died in 1990, two years before it was published – that transforms whatever’s going on into something interesting, bearable, maybe even kind of fun. And now I see that that was what I was doing in that moment when my stepson and I were speeding miserably through the Missouri countryside and I thought, Oh! I can write about this! As a memoir writer and a writing teacher I knew that to write about something well, to tell a good story, you have to include the specific concrete details, and at that moment I started noticing all the details: the straight gray paved two-lane road, the rangy swamp maples growing up to the very the edge of the road, a menacing black four-by-four pick-up going too fast in the other lane, the humid air and the white sky, my stepson with his wavy dark bangs and intelligent brown eyes and cheerful manner in the bucket seat beside me. I started telling myself a story about it all, a story that included my sense of urgency and the absence of Wal-Mart and my anxiety about the long drive ahead, and everything that was happening suddenly became funny and interesting, something I was participating in, even though I was telling myself a story about it, because I was telling myself a story about it, instead of something I was rushing through to get to somewhere else.
I still remember that moment to this day: It’s the only thing I remember from that entire vacation, in fact it’s the only thing I remember from any of the vacations my partner and I went on with his kids during that era of my life. We’re not going on vacations together any more; the kids are grown up and my partner’s now my ex, but I’ve still got that one moment – that one silly, nothing, late-and-on-our-way-to-somewhere-else moment – emblazoned in my mind, like a virtual photo, a moment full of life and texture and feelings and details, that I can enter when I want to reexperience it.
And that’s how what I call Writing Mind was born.