When the Words Breathe

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A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

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Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!

The Abundance by Annie Dillard

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Growing up, did you have that slick and sneaky friend who lured you through the slit chain-link fences or the windows left unlocked, into restricted zones, behind the STAY OUT signs, into the smoky dim rooms packed with music so loud it turned your senses sideways? Annie Dillard is that friend.

Dillard, Annie. The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (essay collection)

Summary: The collection mixes and mingles Dillard’s classics, such as “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” with newer narrative sojourns. Every essay delivers on abundance. Profuse ideas. Overflowing sensory experiences. So much world and so much life to experience and notice and not always fully understand.

Critique: Reading Dillard is a lot like trailing that trickster friend. The bad boy or girl who—with nothing more than a casual c’mon shoulder flick—convinced you to abandon your good sense and go on a reckless adventure. Back then, you would have kept this friend around to piss off your parents. These days, you likely need someone like Dillard to free you from reality’s constraints. Her prose white rabbits you down a dark tunnel where space and air run out. Suddenly, you’re twisted into impossible positions and too disoriented to find your way out. Here, and only here, can you begin to reconstruct your life, reconfiguring your self’s shape to suit the alternate universes floating around you at all times.

For example, in the opening essay, “Total Eclipse,” Dillard escorts the reader up a hillside to watch the sun disappear from the sky. The next thing you know, she’s oiled you into a sideways experience of the eclipse. The sky doesn’t go dark, it saturates. The surface colors of all things go platinum or bronze plate about to peel. Then Dillard peels time. She scrapes off the present moment because the world is now a patina’d photograph, evidence of a civilization long gone. The whole framework of the essay shifts and the reader is no longer in a familiar contemporary setting—the typical and common reality—but some prehistoric time warp.

To be fair, Dillard warned the readers about the tilt when she explained, “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him….” One event may precede the other, but it doesn’t prepare you for the second.

Some critics like to tout how Dillard is a nut. She’s crazy and thus her prose go crazy (see the “Forward” to The Abundance…er, don’t actually. It is academic treacle and will give your brain a tummy ache.) I agree that Dillard’s perspective is skewed. All her dials her cranked to “bizarre.” But, I also think Dillard gives voice to the mad-hatter moments we all encounter but then keep pocketed, far far away from our social media status updates. She is willing to admit that reality bears side doors—all of them unlocked.

“The Weasel” illustrates this common, momentary madness. Dillard and a weasel startle each other in the woods. Both freeze. They examine each other, assessing the threat level. In that instance of scrutiny, their brains merge…or more accurately, trade places. But then a blink severs them. The weasel darts into a burrow. Anyone who has had an encounter with a wild animal (not in a zoo, but actually out in the wild) knows this exchange, but only Dillard is willing to admit it happens. She even wishes she’d had the instincts to lock her jaws around the weasel’s throat because one can learn from the wild animals “something of the purity of living in the physical senses.” And from the encounter, she formulates a glorious maxim for how to be truly alive:

The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.

She goes on, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”

Oh boy, if that isn’t fine advice for anyone running down a dream!

Dillard returns to this notion of the fearless, dauntless lifestyle in “A Writer in the World.” She coaches all writers to “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Why?

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

True to her word, Dillard delivers. Like any good, slick, trickster friend, she gives countless opportunities to shirk the norm. The Abundance is replete with fresh ways to see and experience the world. Every essay is an invitation from Dillard to slip past the caution tape and delight the senses. Not only that, but to develop entirely new senses streamlined for stalking, sneaking, and fully soul’ing your existence to life’s varied realities.

Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

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At last—the recipe for limitless, lifelong learning (and remembering) is here! Ingredients include: bean bags, buckets, Mark Twain, England’s monarchs, and some elbow grease.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2014. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel compile recent findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Writer Peter Brown translates the science into laymen terms as the experts combine the results to reexamine what learning is how best to facilitate it.

Critique: Despite roaming through complex fields like neurology and psychology, this book never feels dense or esoteric. In arranging the content for each chapter, the co-authors also cleverly employ the optimal learning methods they discover. As a result, information snowballs. The reader re-encounters and continually retains more and more of the book’s core concepts. Done poorly, this technique can become a broken record. Here, it always arrives fresh as Farmer’s Market produce.

The authors’ primary goal is to upend the “golden rules” about how we think we learn. Conventionally, we believe that learning anything “the hard way” is a waste of time and effort. The student and teacher are better off when the learning is fast and easy. We also believe that practice makes perfect. Repeat something over and over AND OVER until you have it down. However, like nearly all the revelations arising from fMRI (real-time observations of living brains) evidence, the takeaways on learning are counterintuitive and quite opposite from the quick-and-easy conventions.

The Make It Stick authors reveal that when it comes to learning, easy in equals easy out. For example, whenever someone tells you a phone number, you might repeat the number over and over until you can plug it into your phone or jot it on a piece of paper. If asked to recite the number again later that day, odds are good you would succeed in the memory task. But, if asked to recall the number days or weeks later, odds are you will have forgotten the number entirely.

Why?

Image by Bryce Miller. (CC BY 2.0)

Because the brain stores quick and easy info in short term memory. Think of short term memory like a chalkboard. It’s as easy to mark on as it is to wipe clean. Long term memory is more like a safety deposit box. It will cost you to put anything in it, but once there, it will endure.

The cost required to store anything in long term memory is effort. Learning actually needs to be effortful if it’s going to last, expand, and enrich.

How can we make learning meaningfully effortful? The authors recommend “interleaving” or mixing the tasks and skills to be practiced. Their example comes from a study of youngsters challenged to master the art of chucking a bean bag into a bucket two feet away. One group of kiddos practices exactly that: lobbing bags at a bucket set two feet away. Over and over in the usual “practice makes perfect” style—or what learning specialists call “massed” practice. The other group interleaves their learning. Their buckets sit three feet and four feet away and they can shoot at either or both targets as mixed or as methodically as they wish.

“Tossing the Bean Bag” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On an immediate skills test, the first group nailed the two-foot bucket more often than the second group. However, within a few weeks without additional practice, the first group missed the target while the second group nailed it. The interleaved practice was more difficult and did not produce desired results immediately, but it built a wider range of skills thanks to mixed targets. Over time, the brain massaged all that learning into the physical finesse needed to land the shot, regardless of the bucket’s distance.

Another vital point which contradicts convention concerns forgetting. We assume forgetting stems from a flaw in our ability to remember, or that the way we acquired the information was somehow flawed (otherwise, we would remember it). On the contrary, forgetting is what the brain does naturally and needs to do in order to acquire information for the long term.

How can we encourage beneficial forgetting? Build open spaces or gaps into the learning process. Following a lesson, allow for a gap in time and attention on the topic. Allow the brain to erase some or most of what you acquired. Then quiz yourself. The effort you put into reconstructing the lesson strengthens the wiring in and across your brain. To recall what you learned (and partially forgot), you must tap various regions of the brain—those governing sound, smell, touch, taste, and so on. Your prior learning and experience will also feed the reconstruction process, which in turn, bolsters the wiring (synaptic connections) around the new information. More connections equal deeper storage and longer retention.

So, how do Mark Twain and England’s monarchs factor into durable learning? You’ll see (and likely never forget) when you read the book.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

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Imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother…

Barnhill, Kelly. The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Summary: A doddering witch rescues the sacrificial babies abandoned in the woods. Normally, she feeds them starlight before adopting them out to new families. But on one occasion, she feeds a child moonlight, thereby creating a new witch and consequently kicking off an avalanche of other troubles.

Critique: Even though this is a middle grade text (and the 2017 Newbery winner to boot), the narrative primarily shares the parental perspective. That is to say, rather than tell yet another story of a young child coming of age with magic powers, this story examines what it is to be a step-mother…er eh, a step-witch to an adopted and accidentally enmagicked child. Also, what it is to be the godparent…uh er, god-swamp monster to that child. And what it is to be the mother who went mad when her child was taken for sacrifice. And finally, what it is to be the boy who sees the mother go mad and then grow up to have his own sacrificial child.

I guess imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother with Harry getting his own say somewhere in the last quarter of the story.

Ultimately, any budding Terry Pratchett fans will appreciate Barnhill’s wink-and-nod magic rules and fantasy world building. Nascent Patrick Rothfuss or Lev Grossman fans will find the convenient inconsistencies and glaring contradictions frustrating.

Most consistent throughout is that inspiring and unyielding sense of familial love.