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Mindful Self-Care

Lisa Rivero mindfulness Leave a Comment

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Or Meditation for Over-Thinkers

Focus on the center point. You will see other distractions and stimuli at different parts of your vision in varying degrees of intensity. When you see one, note it, but do not switch your attention to it. Be mindful of the center and only the center. All else is peripheral. 

Photo credit: Pascal via (CC BY 2.0)

Photo credit: Pascal via (CC BY 2.0)

While hearing a version of the above instructions recently, I was not sitting in lotus position on a picturesque Himalayan mountain. Instead I was leaning forward on a rather generic looking office chair, a pirate-like patch tied over one eye, my chin and forehead wedged against hard plastic. Anyone who has had a visual field test, which screens for loss of peripheral vision, will recognize the process of looking straight ahead at a center light while clicking a hand-held remote every time another light flashes anywhere else on the screen. Unlike previous versions of this test I had done, this one used a state-of-the-art machine that not only mapped what lights I noticed but also continually monitored how well I fixated on the center dot.

Meditation Is Like a Visual Field Test, But It Is Not a Test

I have found that many highly intellectual people are wary of meditation. They think it will make them less serious or less creative, that meditation is too unscientific, too new age, too religious, or too, well, nonintellectual. However, especially for people who are thinkers first and foremost, meditation can be a valuable part of physical and mental health.

Meditation is not easy, and it can be scary. We are forced to be alone with ourselves without our intellect as a safety net. Our minds will balk and stray. We will fail to attend to our breath or the center or loving kindness over and over and over, and we will need to bring our attention back again and again and again. That is in fact the point. While we strive to get better, we also accept this aspect of our being human. This is not a test that we can fail, even while we are failing.

My husband and I have been meditating twice a day for a few years now. Those ten minutes at at time, each morning and evening, are as much a part of our self-care as good food or brushing our teeth or the occasional piece of dark chocolate. Here are a few reasons why.

Meditation Teaches Us That We Are Not Our Thoughts

An October 14, 2014 article in Scientific American by Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J. Davidson, “Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits,” outlines three different kinds of mediation. The first is “focused-attention meditation,” in which we attend to the sensations of our own breath, and when “the mind wanders,” we then just “recognize this and then restore attention to the gradual rhythm of the inhaling and exhaling.”

The goal is not to block out the rest of the sensory world, but to note it while maintaining our thought-free focus. The distractions that clamor for our attention, including our own thoughts, are treated as peripheral to the core of our experience, not forever or even for most of the day, just for the few minutes we are meditating.

I find this kind of meditation extremely liberating, a reminder that I do not have to identify with or even pay attention to the doubts, judgments, confusions, defensiveness, opinions, grudges, or any other thoughts bounding in my head like a caffeinated squirrel. What if I were incapable of language-based thought? Would I still exist? Of course I would. I would notice. I would witness. I would be aware.

Meditation Helps Us To Become More Aware

The second type of meditation is “open-monitoring meditation,” more commonly known as mindfulness:

“[Mindfulness] requires the meditator to take note of every sight or sound and track internal bodily sensations and inner self-talk. The person stays aware of what is happening without becoming overly preoccupied with any single perception or thought, returning to this detached focus each time the mind strays. As awareness of what is happening in one’s surroundings grows, normal daily irritants—an angry colleague at work, a worried child at home—become less disruptive, and a sense of psychological well-being develops.” (Ricard, Lutz and Davidson)

So much of life right under our nose happens without our noticing, especially in our hyper-connected, multitasking lives. The late author David Foster Wallace put it this way in his 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College graduates: “Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.”

You can read the full speech transcript and listen to Wallace deliver the speech in its entirety, in which he spoke of the real value of education, “which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time.” It is this awareness that allows us to make wise and compassionate choices.

Meditation Can Make Us More Compassionate and Self-Compassionate

Finally, there is the meditation of “loving kindness and compassion toward other people, whether they are close relatives, strangers or enemies. This practice entails being aware of someone else’s needs and then experiencing a sincere, compassionate desire to help that person or to alleviate the suffering of other people by shielding them from their own destructive behavior” (Ricard, Lutz and Davidson).

This compassion also extends toward ourselves, as author and Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön explains in her short video on “Maitri” or unconditional friendship with oneself (see the Pema Chödrön Foundation website for excellent articles about compassion and mediation):

Sitting alone with ourselves for even a few minutes each day engenders a special kind of compassion, for ourselves and by extension to others. Breathe in: take in the suffering of the world around you or a particular person. Breathe out: transform that suffering to loving kindness and compassion.

Meditation Makes Me Feel Like a Jedi, or At Least a Padawan

I have much to learn as a meditator and am truly at a beginner’s level, but those ten minutes of practiced awareness each day leave me feeling more capable and hopeful than any more tangible or worldly accomplishment.

Remember that visual field test I took on the fancy machine? The technician told me afterward that in all the years he has been administering the test, he could count on his fingers how many patients have had perfect “fixation” scores, meaning that their eyes never wandered from the center point. I was one of them.

“You could be an Air Force jet pilot with that laser focus,” he told me. Yes, he was conveniently forgetting the degree of my myopia, or maybe that’s the line he delivers to all 50-something patients in need of a pick-me-up, but my minor accomplishment nonetheless made me inordinately happy. For a few moments, I was a Jedi.

Now, if only I could channel that focus while writing.

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The Power of Story Across Millennia

Lisa Rivero humanities Leave a Comment

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Whoever neglects the arts when he is young has lost the past and is dead to the future.” – Sophocles

What is the value of the humanities? One powerful answer comes from an innovative project called “Theater of War,” which presents readings and discussions of two of Sophocles’ playswritten over 2400 years ago about events and characters of the Trojan War—to modern audiences.

According to the project’s website, since 2008 a dynamic, ever-changing cast has given “over 200 performances of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes for military and civilian audiences throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan.”

“Plays like Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes read like textbook descriptions of wounded warriors, struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries to maintain their dignity, identity, and honor. Given this context, it seemed natural that military audiences today might have something to teach us about the impulses behind these ancient stories. It also seemed like these ancient stories would have something important and relevant to say to military audiences today.” Read More

US Army 53737 'Theater of War' compares historic and current reintegration challenges.jpg

US Army 53737 ‘Theater of War’ compares historic and current reintegration challenges” by Parker Rome – United States Army. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Theater of War project combines story, the arts, empathy, and communication to address issues of mental health such as suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Watch the video below to learn more (and see links at the bottom of the post).

See Also

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Creativity Boosters for Writers

Lisa Rivero Get Serious About Writing Leave a Comment

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As we come to the end of our series on Getting Serious About Writing, I want to share some ideas for ways to enhance our creativity that have nothing to do specifically with writing. The point of creating a writing life is that our everyday choices support and enhance our writing for the long-term. After all, writing is about so much more than words.

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry, for publication or for pleasure, these suggestions will boost your creativity on and off the page.

Be willing to fail. By now, most of us know that failure is an inherent part of the creative process, but taking the next step from knowing to allowing ourselves to fail is not always easy, especially for perfectionists. We can start with baby steps that may not even involve writing, such as cooking and serving a new, complex dish that we are bound not to get right the first time or learning a new sport or hobby that requires that we expose ourselves as beginners.

Design a creativity-friendly work space. Within our available budgets and space we can recreate our work areas in ways that inspire rather than hamper our ideas.  Especially important is to have all of our writing tools—books, paper, pens, computers, whatever else we use—within easy reach rather than something we must “get out” each time we decide to write.

View constraints as creativity enhancers. A bare-bones writing environment, on the other hand, can also be good for creativity, as can time constraints. See Ben Chestnut’s video “Creating an Environment for Creativity and Empowerment” for more about the value of subtracting time from the creativity equation.

Learn something new. Dan Pink calls it “symphony” and “border crossing.” Tina Seelig uses the term “cross-pollination.” What they both are referring to is making connections between unrelated fields or topics to come up with something new. If you were an English major, broaden your horizons by reading some physics. If you are a technical writer who usually enjoys non-fiction,  a mystery novel or some poetry.

Dare to be complex. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has found that creative people often have complex personalities—they can not easily be pigeonholed as introvert or extrovert, for example, or disciplined or playful. They allow themselves to be whatever they need to be for the creative work at hand. If you normally think of yourself (or others think of you) as being the far end of one of his ten dimensions of complexity, make a point of “tryout out” another way of being.

Make friends with routine. Csikszentmihalyi also reminds us that routine is not the enemy of creativity. Far from it. Having a routine frees our mind from having to make dozens of time-sucking decisions—what to wear, what to eat, when to eat, when to exercise, whether to exercise. Those questions are already answered so that we can use our thoughts for more creative work.

Allow yourself to play. Having a playful attitude helps to loosen inhibitions and drive innovation, not to mention we have more fun! Making time in our day for games, humor, and other forms of play (when was the last time you made homemade playdough—for yourself?) a valuable investment in our writing life.

Pay attention. Tina Seelig, author of inGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity, explains that paying attention—simple but not always easy—gives us valuable knowledge we would otherwise miss and fuels our imagination. We can get better at paying attention “by actively looking at the world with fresh eyes, by seeing the ‘water’ in your environment, and by capturing your observations.”

Believe in your own creativity. Another of Seelig‘s reminders is one that many of us overlook: In order to be creative, we have to believe we can be creative: “Your beliefs are shaped by the language you use, and the language you use is shaped by your beliefs.” What is your personal, internal narrative about your writing and your creativity, and how can you change the words you say to yourself?

Blog posts here will slow down to two or three a week, and, as promised, once Create a Writing Life is ready in a few weeks, subscribers will receive information on how to get a free pre-publication copy. Have a creative start to September, everyone!

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In a Blogging Rut? 7 Reasons To Do a Blog Series

Lisa Rivero Get Serious About Writing 1 Comment

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http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Photo credit: By Cortega9 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Thank you to everyone who has followed along, shared, and commented on the Get Serious About Writing blog series (one more day to go!). I have done several blog series in my four and one-half years of blogging, and each one teaches me something new. Especially if you are in a blogging rut, a blog series can give you focus, energy, and direction.

Blog Series: A series of blog posts tied together by a theme or purpose

My definition of a blog series is looser than some others because I want it to include “blog marathons” of consecutive blogging days not necessarily tied together by a theme or topic but defined by a purpose. For example, your blog series might just be blogging every day for a month (a “September Blog Series”), with no chosen topic but with the purpose of daily (or some other regular) blogging schedule.

Another difference is that a lot of advice about blog series focuses on marketing—reaching your audience, selling a product, establishing a brand. While all of those things can be important for writers (do a Google search for “How to write a blog series”), I am more interested in what blog series can offer us as writers—what we personally get out of committing to a blog series.

So, without further ado…

7 Reasons To Do a Blog Series

1. To establish a blogging habit.

There is no better way to jump into the discipline and routine of blogging than to plan and commit to a blog series. Set a schedule, announce your intention, and stick to it, no matter what. You will build confidence and find your blogging rhythm. See BlogHer’s NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) for some good examples.

2. To practice imperfection.

Blogger extraordinaire Leo Babauta writes that a couple of ways to overcome our self-doubt are to “Stick to a habit, not listening to the negative self-talk that normally holds you back” and “Learn through repeated attempts that it’s okay to fail, that you can be okay in failure.” Actually, all of his other suggestions apply to blog series, too, so be sure to read “How To Get Over Your Self-Doubt.” Blogging is by its nature imperfect. As careful and thorough as we try to be, at some point we have to stop at a convenient point and move on to the next post.

3. To find your voice.

One of my informal (unbeknownst to her!) mentors, Joanna Penn, recently talked with Trevor Young about how blogging changed her life and helped her to find her voice:

“It took me quite a long time to get going… I only developed my voice over the years of blogging. So it all just takes time, and I think the best advice for people is just to start, and be aware that it will be crap for the first year, and then you’ll find yourself by trying.” ~ Listen to full interview

In the same interview, Trevor Young agrees that “the sheer act of blogging” helps us to find our “true voice.”

4. To discover themes and passions.

Once again quoting Joanna Penn,  “If you don’t blog or podcast about what you love, it won’t last very long.” However, discovering what we love is often easier said that done. A blog series can help us to know what feels authentic and what doesn’t, what resonates with readers (often a good sign of authenticity), what makes us excited.

5. To learn more about a topic.

Most of the bloggers and other writers I know are life-long learners (aka knowledge nerds). We love to learn, and we never stop asking questions. When our lives get busy, though, as they are apt to do, finding the time to indulge our curiosity can be a challenge. A blog series helps us to set aside time and mental space to indulge our curiosity (for a terrific example, see Katherine Wikoff’s “The Northern Soul Project“).

6. To share knowledge.

Writers also are generous with the knowledge they have, and a blog series is a great way to share that knowledge with others. Whether you are learning while blogging about the topic or writing a series about a topic you’ve already researched, you can free your inner teacher and connect with your audience at the same time (see, for example, the multi-author “Gluten-Free in College” blog series).

7. To kick off a new book or other project.

Finally, you can use a blog series as I have done here to announce and preview a new book or other project. In this case, I’ve been writing the blog series as I’ve been putting the book together, and the posts are meant as a taste-testing of sorts rather than a strict outline, as much to help me to organize my thoughts as to give you an idea of what’s to come, but such a series could also be much more formal and tightly organized.

What is your experience with blog series?


Thank you for reading! This post is part of the “Get Serious About Writing” 50-day blog series, created for anyone who wants to get more serious about his or her writing.

The series is also a preview of and will culminate with the publication of my new book about how to create your writing life. I am very excited about this new project, as it brings together my work as a writer and creative thinking teacher, as well as my interest in psychology.

Anyone subscribed to this blog (either daily or weekly) will receive future information about free preview copies and other promotions, so please pass the word!

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The Farmers Wife

Why Write? Because Ordinary Life Matters

Lisa Rivero Get Serious About Writing 1 Comment

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When I get discouraged about my writing, especially the unrelenting everyday-ness of it and its ultimate solitary nature, I think of my great aunt Hattie. Her Great Plains diaries span the years 1920 through part of 1957. During that time, she wrote literally every single day. No exceptions.

For whom was she writing? That is a question that has plagued me as I work to transcribe and write about her life’s words. She raised no children. As far as I know, while she did not keep her diaries a secret, she also did not share them widely.

Not until doing this blog series did the answer—which was there all along—become clear: She wrote for herself. Because ordinary life matters.

whiting_siblings-for-blog.jpg

Harriet (far right) with siblings

For family and friends and anyone interested in history, I post daily excerpts from her diaries at “Hattie’s blog.” This year, I’ve been sharing her entries from 80 years ago, 1934, a year of Depression and the Dust Bowl, a year between a Great War still fresh in people’s memory and a Second World War yet to come. On this otherwise uneventful day (below) we learn about the weather (always the weather), “fixing” plums, dark everyday dresses, the Farmer’s Wife magazine, clothes needed to protect workers from mowing and raking thistles during a dust bowl year, farm machinery, family birthdays, and how long it took for Hattie to begin to recover from having broken her leg 15 month prior.

I am convinced that Hattie wrote to remind herself of the details of everyday, ordinary life that are so easy to forget and take for granted but that can matter more than anything else. Maybe that’s why I write, too.

1934 August 29th, Wednesday

Cool night, a south breeze all night and continued strong this a.m. but bright until towards eve clouded but no rain, only a strong S.W. wind and some dust. I fixed the plums, started to put through colander for butter but too slow so I pitted them and cooked late p.m., also slept in p.m., looked at catalogs a lot as I want dark everyday dresses and read late p.m. the Farmer’s Wife. Maggie got meals, cleaned the kitchen and front room, baked bread and baked a lemon-pie, cleaned kitchen windows, ironed and put curtains up on same also got dinner for Hank (Henry) and George Haukaas who came for the body of Wm Whiting’s car, also Thomas Whiting stopped where they were working. A car passed going to B. J. Wagner’s. Mr. Chauncey, Billie and Fritz mowed and raked thistles. Mr. drove tractor. Fritz on trail mower. Billie raked. Elmer and Will tried stacking with slings but nothing doing so came home for stacker. Elmer and Billie go clothes at home to protect from thistle thorns. It was 15 months today I got my leg broken so walked considerable without crutches, to-day also Louise’s and Papa’s Birthday.

Lisa’s Note: Learn more about The Farmer’s Wife at “Celebrating The Farmer’s Wife Magazine” and “This is YOUR Magazine”: Domesticity, Agrarianism, and The Farmer’s Wife,” and browse a 1932 issue of the magazine below.


Thank you for reading! This post is part of the “Get Serious About Writing” 50-day blog series, created for anyone who wants to get more serious about his or her writing.

The series is also a preview of and will culminate with the publication of my new book about how to create your writing life. I am very excited about this new project, as it brings together my work as a writer and creative thinking teacher, as well as my interest in psychology.

Anyone subscribed to this blog (either daily or weekly) will receive future information about free preview copies and other promotions, so please pass the word!

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on TumblrShare on LinkedInEmail this to someone