Thinking About Nothing

Sometimes there is so much stuff in my head—the two TV shows I keep up with, the three books I’m usually reading, the plots of my own books, marketing strategies, ideas for new stories, the classes I teach, when we’re going to move all the boxes of books I’ve packed for the library—and I really just want to think about nothing for a while.

I have tried meditation. The nearest success I had was about twenty-five years ago, during a yoga class. After leading us through a series of postures designed to constrict and then release the blood flow through vital glands, our instructor would wait for us to settle into shavasana—our gently exercised bodies covered with a light blanket—and lead us through a ten to fifteen-minute meditation.

Usually, we would start by tensing various muscles and letting them go, moving from the feet all the way up to our heads. Then our instructor might talk us through a visual landscape or encourage us to build one ourselves. Then we’d do some finger wriggling and blinking, roll over, and sit up, apparently refreshed.

Shavasana (otherwise known as “corpse pose”) can be very refreshing. I’m a huge fan of lying down and being covered by a blanket. But I always had a lot of trouble following the meditation part. My mind tended to wander. The one time I did manage to stay with the instructor’s voice was actually kind of frightening. I “woke up” up suddenly with a memory of a black and yellow place and with the feeling of having been suspended between the known and unknown.

I’ve always thought of the incident as a pretty good illustration of my struggle to let go. I’m not very good at letting go. At the beginning of a yoga class, when we’re encouraged to empty our minds, I’m usually going over my to-do list. When we’re lying down, letting the thoughts that snag pull free, I’m usually plotting the next chapter I want to write. Or the next book. Or thinking about my characters. Or wondering what’s for lunch.

Often, at night, I’ll wake up sometime after midnight and lie there for two to four hours, thinking. I try to think about nothing or to tell myself some sort of bedtime story. To let my mind wander, snagging sometimes, but pulling free, and it’s so danged hard. I’ll think about the movie I just saw, a character type I’d like to explore, about the fact my daughter plans to go away to college next year. I’ll wonder if I remembered to close the oven at the bagel shop (where I work afternoons) and if the cats have food and water. Did I forget to put a muffin in that last customer’s bag? Do I have everything I need for the Teen Writers’ group I’m teaching tomorrow night? Oh, and you know what would work for that scene I was struggling with this morning…?

Sometimes I just get up and read for a while. Filling my head with someone else’s words is usually a good way to quiet my own thoughts for long enough for me to fall asleep. But all these thoughts are still there in the morning.

I’ve tried morning pages and I’ve had some success with them—in that they do serve as a good way to get all this stuff out of my head and onto paper at least. I often find solutions to problems that nag at me by writing them down, including my feelings about an issue and questions to myself about what I can do about it. I also do a lot of plotting and planning in my morning pages.

I try to go for a walk every day and usually listen to an audiobook as I circle the neighborhood. It’s about the closest I get to thinking about nothing on a day-to-day basis, but not always successful. Sometimes my mind will wander and I’ll have to restart a chapter and listen to it again. It’s amazing how much I can miss, too. It will be as though I’ve never heard the words before.

Interestingly enough, however, I cannot sit and listen to an audiobook. I have to be doing something or in motion. I can be driving, traveling as a passenger, walking, mowing the lawn, or cleaning the house. I cannot do a jigsaw puzzle and listen. I can color and listen.

But, back to my quest for nothingness—when I sat down to write this, I planned to share the one thing that worked, but when I got to this part of the ramble, I realized there are two things, but only one I can do year round. The first is for summer only: lying on the beach. I usually take a book to the beach with me, but my favorite thing to do (aside from riding the waves) is to lie in the sun and listen to the sounds of people playing in the water. The vague crunch of bare feet against the sand. The sigh of the wind over the sea, and the roll and hiss of the waves. People talking. All the different music. I find all that listening extremely restful.

The thing that works year-round is going hiking. While I often listen to audio books on my daily walks, I leave my headphones behind when I’m on the trail. Instead, I do the same thing I do on the beach: I listen. To the leaves crunching under my feet and the wind through the trees. The skitter and chitter of forest animals. The rush and trickle of water. Other hikers talking to each other, or their dogs. The sound of the world taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I look at the color of the bark on the trees and the different shapes of the leaves. I make note of the mushrooms growing alongside the trail. I look for flowers, especially in the spring, and interesting patterns in the fallen leaves during the fall. I’ve hiked through snow, counting the different sets of tracks crossing my path. I’ve hiked in the summer when it’s ninety degrees and all I want to do is take off my shoes so I can stick my toes in the creek.

But I especially love hiking when the air is cold and the sun is warm. Just last week I hiked to the top of Mount Tammany in New Jersey. It was thirty-seven degrees when I started out and pretty chilly. But when I got to the top of the mountain, the sun broke properly through the clouds and bathed my face in this incredible warmth. It felt almost unreal. It also felt joyous. The only way I can think to describe it is… okay, you know that scene in The Sound of Music where Maria is up in the hills spinning around and swinging her arms out? Of course you do. There are a million gifs of it on Twitter. I felt like that. I’d climbed a mountain, the sun was shining on my face, and I felt amazing! Happy, light, purposeful, refreshed. And guess what was going through my mind?

Absolutely nothing.

So you can see why the idea of meditation fascinates me. I’ve heard that successfully meditating for ten minutes can be like an hour of sleep. That being able to empty your mind and relax like that will add years to your life. It seems like the perfect way to combat stress. But all that sitting … I just can’t.

Maybe not all meditation is about sitting still or necessarily traveling somewhere in your mind. Maybe for some of us, thinking about nothing requires a little more something. For me, it seems either my body or someone else’s has to be in motion. For me to clear my mind, I have to listen to something—either the sound of someone else’s story, the world moving on without me, or that not-quiet quiet of the forest.

I don’t have to climb a mountain every time, but the view is so often worth it. And then, on the way back down the other side, when I’m drawing close to the parking lot and thoughts of what I need to do for the rest of the day start to filter through, I can think about posts like this where I can at least talk about thinking about nothing for a little while.

45654211291_3c026e7a49_h
The view from the top of Mount Tammany.

To view more of my hiking photos, visit my Flickr gallery.

Salute to the Sun – A Chaos Station story

Salute to the SunSalute to the Sun

A Chaos Station story

For Felix, finding peace has always been about staying in motion—about running faster than his demons, and enjoying a small reprieve before they catch up. For Zed, peace is finding the center of the storm and sitting it out. Embracing stillness. Felix wants that. He’s determined to learn this meditation trick. He’d like to stop running. But sitting still isn’t as simple as it looks.

“Salute to the Sun” is set shortly after Skip Trace. I actually wrote it before we finished writing Skip Trace, as a Christmas gift for Jenn. In preparing to share it with our newsletter subscribers, I had to go back and edit in a few details such as nipple rings for Zed and mention their much needed therapy sessions!

I hope you enjoy this extra little episode with the guys.

Read Now | Download

For more short stories, extras, excerpts and previews of the Chaos Station series, visit our website: http://chaosstation.com

Right Here, Right Now

The practice of yoga is, essentially, the practice of breathing. In preparing to exercise, we first concentrate on our breath. Become mindful of it, use the stir of air through our lungs to feel out our body and expel anything problematic, whether thought or that niggle in the lower back. I have a lot of those. Niggles. As such, I find the beginning of practice difficult.

Part of it is the sitting. I’m…getting on…and sitting cross-legged is really only comfortable for toddlers and people with mechanical knees. My thighs hurt, my ankles feel as if they’re being crushed, my skin itches and my back…oh, my back. When my mind isn’t wandering among myriad hurts, it’s skipping and bouncing through plot problems, my to-do list, and what I want for lunch. And I’m supposed to be breathing. Finding those points of tension and loose thought, collecting them into a bundle of insignificant noise, let’s say a hum, and breathing them in and out.

iStock_000015971554Small

It sounds hard and it is. It’s pretty rare that I get through the beginning meditation without switching position ten times and having to chase after my thoughts eleven or twelve times. But you know what? That’s why we call it practice. Also, the very act of trying is a meditation of a sort. Really, it is.

Once we’re on our feet we move through a series of more physical exercise, again using our breath to direct and power these motions. It’s ALL about the breath. In and out. Find that point of contention and breathe through it. I do much better at this part, even when I think something might snap, because I enjoy movement. I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to sit through a three hour film because, for the love of all the cheese in the universe, who can sit still for that long?

After moving comes another round of meditation. I like it when we lie down on our backs and imitate a corpse. I often feel like one at that point. The final meditation is designed as a cool down period, but also to ‘set’ the changes wrought by the preceding exercise. It’s also another chance to find your breath and use it for good (as opposed to thinking up ways to destroy the yoga studio).

Last week, after making like a corpse for a bit, we listened to some final thoughts from our instructor. I always find these thoughts…instructive. After twisting this way and that for an hour, chasing my breath and sometimes finding it, it’s nice to hear something encouraging. Something I can take away from practice—other than pain.

(Gale, if you’re reading this, grant me artistic license on that last part, I usually feel pretty good after practice!)

The final thoughts that week were about the practice of breathing, and how by simply taking a moment to think about breathing, we can practice yoga. Wherever, whenever. We can exist only in that moment, right here, right now.

The pace of our lives might seem very much in line with this. We do a lot of living in the right here, right now. We’re all about instant gratification. We can 1-Click just about any book ever published. Same with music. We can stream TV and movies. We can video chat with our friends and family. We can Google things we never needed to know, or could have quite happily lived without knowing. FOREVER. We Tweet about what we’re doing right now. All the time. Twenty-four hours a day.

But none of that is, well, breathing. That’s simply living. When was the last time you took a step back from all that instant gratification and existed in a moment of…nothing? When was the last time you had a conversation with someone where all you did was listen? Do you always watch TV with contingencies plans and distractions close by? Phone, book, laptop, remote, knitting?

How often do you miss what someone said because you were looking at your phone?

These questions and situations all come from my own life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up from one screen or another and thought “was someone just talking to me?” And I often have to compete with the same when talking to someone else. And sometimes I get really tired (not just because I’m, er, getting on). I think it’s because so often my days are filled with INPUT and I haven’t taken the time to make like a corpse for a bit. To just sit still for one minute or five—right here, right now—and let it all ‘set’. To pay attention to my breath, follow it through all the information, sort it, get rid of what I don’t need and file some for later.

So, yeah, to me “right here, right now” has taken on a new meaning. Sometimes we just need to take a little time to breathe.

For breath is life, and if you breathe well you will live long on earth. ~Sanskrit Proverb

If You Plant Your Heart, What Will Grow?

My Thursday yoga class always begins with guided meditation. I find it difficult to let my thoughts roam. They tend to buzz around me like flies. Whatever I wrote that morning is usually dead centre in my brain. A character might be bouncing around in there, too, leaving an echo of unfulfilled emotion as they wait for me to write that scene. Crossing my legs hurts, and I am aware of it. My back is usually sore—which is why I’m sitting cross-legged on a Thursday morning.

More often than not, I am unable to shoo away these flies, these surface thoughts, and focus on the meditation. Though, the very act of trying might count. That’s an awareness of a sort, isn’t it?

Last week, we were asked:

If you plant your heart, what will grow?

Despite the fact my legs felt like hard, brittle pretzels, my thoughts immediately latched onto this suggestion. My heart went into an imaginary hole and was buried. Out of that little mound of dirt grew a tree. The tree was large and bore fruit of a very particular shape: red, rounded hearts resembling apples.

"Shaki Khan Palace Interier" by Urek Meniashvili
“Shaki Khan Palace Interier” by Urek Meniashvili

I thought to myself, gee, Kel, this is super original. You planted your heart and grew an apple tree. That has got to be the most simplistic and naïve answer to the question. Here you are, sitting with your hamstrings stretched to breaking point, twitching as your back spasms, and all you can imagine is an apple tree. And you call yourself a writer.

Disappointed, I examined my metaphor a little more closely—with the intent of making it deeper and more creative—and something interesting happened. I got it. The meaning of my tree became clear. Yes, it was a simple idea, but it was so very me. The apples on my tree were hearts, and I expected them to be picked. Taken away and used to nourish someone. I wanted to share my heart. Give it away. Distribute my care in the hope it would fill a need in someone else, make them feel nurtured.

I liked this idea. I still do. I don’t always feel like a good person, but I like to think I am there for my friends and family, for people I barely know, even if it is only to listen. To simply be there. That I imagined myself as this tree full of hearts I wanted to give away affirmed that for me.

When asked to expand our vision, imagine it encompassing the space outside ourselves, I pictured an orchard. With the first hazy stand of trees came another wisp of self-mockery. My orchard was very regular. The trees were in precise rows, each trunk equidistant from the others. The canopies intersected in a repeating pattern and each tree probably bore an equal number of fruit. I had produced a forest of manufactured trees.

Or had I?

No, I’d simply done what came naturally. I had organised my forest. I thrive on regularity and uninterrupted lines. To me, angles are restful. I cannot relax in a room where the curtains are half pulled, or a blind rests askew. If the remotes are not lined up on the coffee table, I will fidget until they’re in a neat row. I sit straight and I form a precise envelope with the bed covers every night. My pillow must be perpendicular to the angle of my neck.

Obviously I am insane, but besides that, I know that order pleases me and so I strive for it. As I get older, I cope better with disorder. Writing full time helps with that. I can’t keep a perfect house and meet an editorial deadline both.

Nature is chaotic, but there is a pleasing symmetry and order to the chaos. If you study an orchard, the trees might not be exactly six feet apart, but from a distance, their trunks form a regular line. Their branches intersect in a tangled canopy that appears to follow a pattern. Fruit has a near symmetry and so do leaves. Nature tries.

"YGGDRASIL World Tree" by Jen Delyth, Celtic Art Studio
“YGGDRASIL World Tree” by
Jen Delyth, Celtic Art Studio

So, with a small mental shove, I let go of my forest and let it grow. It didn’t become completely chaotic, but the trunks thinned and fattened, stepped just out of line with their fellows. Intersecting limbs shifted a little so that some dipped lower and some wove higher. I managed to almost randomise the distribution of fruit.

My forest had never been fenced, so I didn’t have to open it. And I had never placed a limitation on size, so it extended for as far as those who needed my care—shelter and shade, the nurturing fruit—could have it.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I connected my meditation with a concept, a motif, that I have always liked: the tree of life. Rather than decide that my tree had been an entirely unoriginal construction, I embraced the meaning of what I had imagined, that connection with my fellow human beings, with my world, and the feeling that I wanted to share myself with both.

Next week I will probably fail to meditate properly, as is the norm for me. Or maybe I will simply revisit my tree, my forest. I have finally found a mental landscape that works for me, one I can return to when I need to quiet the noise inside. Who could blame me for wanting to return?

Featured image: The Tree of Life, 1905 by Gustav Klimt