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  • Jan Flynn

Is This Nirvana?

Or do I just have writer’s block?

Those who meditate seek to quiet their internal chatter

Practitioners of mindfulness — and I can claim only a guest membership in that serene population — will tell you that the goal of meditation is to slow the random traffic of thoughts that normally clog the brain’s thoroughfares. Doing so allows for some space on your internal roadways. It allows you to make a considered choice as to which of those passing mental conveyances you want to travel in. With practice, you have the option to sit back and simply watch the thought-vehicles come and go, without being carried away by any of them.

Easing the congestion in your neural pathways allows for a clearer head and a more peaceful mindset. But most mindfulness gurus will tell you that trying to empty your mind of thoughts entirely is not the goal. For one thing, short of slipping under general anesthesia, it’s pretty much impossible.

Unless, that is, you’re a writer. Particularly a writer with a deadline looming, or a major project that you’ve committed to but have yet to begin. Or you’ve made a decent start on it, but then you hit, say, Chapter Seven. Suddenly it’s as if you’ve been paddling your boat across a lovely mountain lake that has, without warning, become a vast and featureless ocean. There is neither a shoreline nor a guiding star in sight. And your last oar has just slipped from your grasp and sunk into the deep.

At that point, your mind is a thing of purity. A crystalline desert. An untrodden, snowy field. Nothing but white space. The closest thing to a thought you have is the impulse to eat a cookie.

It just goes to show, one person’s nirvana is another person’s hell

The brain is a perverse creature. Ask it for silence and it responds with cacophony. Ask it for ideas and it maliciously takes you at your word, gleefully spewing forth a random and unrelated parade of topics: obscure philosophical questions; incoherent musings on the nature of consciousness; tuna sandwiches.

Ask it for good ideas, and you get — zip. A mind freer of mental constructs than an enlightenment-chasing hermit could only dream of. It’s like you’re a radio host conducting a live, up-close-and-personal segment with the world’s worst interviewee.

You: “So, brain, given your unique perspective, what are your thoughts on the current phase of the pandemic and the prospects for a post-COVID world?”

Your brain: “ . . .”

You: “Okay, how do you feel about tuna sandwiches?”

Your brain: “ . . .”

The harder your internal broadcaster pushes, the deeper the radio silence. If this is nirvana, you can have it. Give me back my monkey mind.

The answer seems obvious: stop pushing

When the mind is in a mulish mood, trying to goad it into performing is only going to get you kicked in the teeth. At least that’s true of my mind, and I daresay yours, especially if you are someone who dips regularly into your well of invention.

After all, it’s not reasonable to assume you can keep pulling up bucket after bucket of inspiration if you never replenish your creative aquifer (can I torture a metaphor, or what?). Some of the most often recommended methods for doing so involve exactly the things we can’t do right now: travel; visiting a museum; gathering for a lively conversation with good friends. No wonder many of us are feeling inspirationally parched these days.

The other oft-touted suggestion is more possible: spend some time outside, in what they call “nature.” Nature, presumably, refers to any space in which cars and screens are not the dominant species. If you’re lucky enough to live where you can step out of your front door into a vista of mountainous grandeur or ocean-front splendor, well then, don’t come crying to the rest of us. But even if the closest thing to nature you can access without driving for a hundred miles is your neighbor’s bird feeder, that’s something.

The point is to distract your mind from your demands on it. Give it some time to play. Since you’ve spent a lifetime in a culture obsessed with linear thinking and productivity, it won’t be all that long before your mind has had enough of farting around and wonders if it isn’t time to do something meaningful.

That’s when you play your ace

Use what you know about your mind to outwit yourself. As you find yourself beginning to form a plausible narrative about something, anything, tell your brain to stop.

Nope, you say. No thinking. We’re not doing that right now. Look at us, we’re meditating! Before you know it, your brain will be weaving ideas faster than a spider on crystal meth. And some of those ideas might even be pretty good.

This almost always works. And when it doesn’t, don’t fight it. Celebrate your achievement of mental liberation. You’re a Zen warrior, a regular Yoda. Look at you, thinking about nothing! How awesome are you?

If that doesn’t kick your ego into thinking mode, nothing will. Go find yourself a mountaintop and let the world come to you.

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