Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Right Attitude - Heather Dyer

I’ve just spent a week at beautiful Trigonos in North Wales, on a mindfulness retreat with 25 others. (Photos courtesy of Charlie, who has an eye for beauty.)


Mindfulness can be defined as ‘paying attention on purpose to the present moment, without judgement’. Sounds easy, but it requires practice. And it can change the way we live – and write.

For seven days we switched off our phones and tablets, and engaged in mindful meditation and movement exercises. The days were long; up early to get a shower before tai chi at 7am, and finishing at 9pm.


One whole day was spent in complete silence, sitting about, laying in the grass, wandering in the fields like children – just ‘being’, rather than ‘doing’.


I’m aware how fortunate I am to have been able to take time out like this. Most of the time (like many of us) I feel like a hamster running on a wheel, driven by some form of underlying fear – a fear of not being good enough, perhaps, or of falling behind, or failing.  I tend to feel anxious or guilty if I’m doing nothing. And yet, all good things, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of mindfulness, come out of ‘non-doing’.

Usually, instead of simply 'being' we busy ourselves in a fearful ‘doing’ mode – which is detrimental to living fully and deeply and to being creative. Practicing mindful awareness helps us become alert to our thoughts and emotions, and thereby gradually achieve more objective distance from whatever fears are driving us to 'do'.

There are several key attitudes that are conducive to mindful awareness. As a writer I am fascinated by how these  attitudes apply both to living and writing. Here's my own interpretation:

  • In Life: Judgement of oneself and others are co-dependent attitudes, and lead to alternate feelings of inferiority and superiority.
  • In Writing: If we think our work is great, we can’t revise – and thinking it’s rubbish stifles our creativity. Remember that rubbishy first drafts are allowed – even essential.
  • In Life: Less haste, more speed! We miss opportunities and force outcomes by rushing.
  • In Writing: Forcing things leads to rushed and misshapen outcomes. Let things unfold organically.
Beginner’s Mind
  • In Life: Seeing freshly, newly; without learned prejudices, conditionings and assumptions.
  • In Writing: Exploring with an open mind, not attached to fixed outcomes, conventions or clichés. Letting the story reveal itself to you rather than shaping it according to your preconceptions.
  • In Life: Trust that magic will happen and your life story will weave itself, in the process of living.
  • In Writing: Trust that magic will happen and that your story will weave itself, in the process of writing. Shaun McNiff says that creativity is ‘an intelligence that knows where it needs to go’.
  • In Life: Relates to patience. When we try too hard it’s counterproductive and leads to a deficiency in all the other attitudes.
  • In Writing: Relax. If we have an agenda or are trying too hard, we aren’t receptive to the story that ‘wants’ to be told. All good things, says Kabat-Zinn – including creative insight – come out of ‘non-doing’. Write rubbish first drafts. 
Letting Go
  • In Life: All things change and are impermanent. Let life move through you and don’t try to hang onto things, people or moments. Hanging onto good things immediately leads to fear of losing them.
  • In Writing: Don’t hold onto any fixed ideas, plots, outcomes, ideas of success. Let go of outcomes and just immerse yourself in the process of writing. Be prepared to throw your work away.
  • In Life: Note what is beautiful in your life.
  • In Writing: Pay attention. Notice beauty (not just prettiness) and use it in your writing.
  • In Life: Suffering is inevitable. Resistance only makes things worse. 'Acceptance' is a subtle mindset to achieve, and is usually misinterpreted as 'condoning' something or 'trying to like it'. Acceptance is neither of these. Acceptance is when we  truly acknowledge or admit what is actually happening. Then, although the situation itself might not change, we can achieve a slight objective detachment to it, rather than using all our energy wishing it was otherwise. Eckhart Tolle says that if we can accept anything – even if only the fact that we can’t accept it. Acceptance doesn’t mean you condone a thing. It’s simply an act of recognition: this really is the situation and this is how I feel about it.
  • In Writing: Acceptance leads to all of the above attitudes. You are where you are with your writing. Things  change. Be fluid, don’t force things. You are allowed to write rubbish, it’s part of the process. No need to suffer over it. Writing, like life, is a creative journey. Engage and explore, and don’t insist that it has to be ‘perfect’ – at least in early drafts. You might be surprised how things unfold, and it will always be in a way you couldn’t have predicted in advance. That’s the magic of it.

I’m starting to introduce mindful awareness into my creativity workshops, and I really recommend taking one of the 8-week mindfulness courses that are popping up all over the place. It’s a real journey of self-discovery.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced mindfulness to the West, talks about mindful attitudes on YouTube.

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Sue Purkiss said...

Beautiful pictures, and wise words - thanks, Heather!

Hilary Hawkes said...

Lovely post. Thank you. Your retreat sounded wonderful and you describe mindfulness well. I also love mindfulness and meditation and discovered it some years ago. I attended one of the eight week courses (one evening a week) in Oxford so my journey of discovery started there. It led me to making all sorts of discoveries about myself, others, life in general and is the inspiration behind my Story Therapy series/project for children. Like you, I recommend it!

Rowena House said...

A lovely exploration. Thank you.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks all - Hilary have you a link to your Story Therapy, sounds interesting!

Hilary Hawkes said...

Heather - will send a link to my little project. Your creative workshops sound wonderful though, just the thing:)

Helen Larder said...

Brilliant! Thanks xxxx

LuWrites said...

Really love this post - and like the idea of bringing mindfulness into creative writing workshops. Thank you!