Finals week is approaching at my daughter’s high school. If you have teenagers, you know how stressful this time of year is. Our children are led to believe that their whole lives are at stake. Even though we’ve found a low pressure school for Shira, a community that has opted out of the crazy and emphasizes the arts without requiring a professional track, and even though we put absolutely no pressure on our daughter about her grades, between her own ambition and the fact of having to take four exams in two days, she is stressed.
Watching Shira brings back memories of my freshman year of college, petrified by my first finals week. I believed then that my grades determined my future — admittance to graduate school, a good job with a good salary, plus my parents’ approval, which I craved more than anything. In pursuit of good grades, every night after dinner in the dorm, I’d down a pot of coffee and pedal to the library, where I remained most evenings until midnight. When I was a sophomore, I learned to pull all-nighters, strolling into morning exams with the material fresh in my head and ready to download for the “A.”
It took decades to learn to pace myself and it took getting sick to see that my ambition was killing me. I’m trying to prevent my daughter from going down the same road.
Of course she has something I didn’t acquire until much later in life : a notebook to pour her thoughts into.
Yesterday morning Shira and I went to a nearby coffee shop so she could study. As we were pulling out of the driveway, she turned to me and said, “I was worried when I woke up, but I feel better now. Writing helps.” She has figured out that when you face your feelings on the page, you develop compassion for yourself. She wouldn’t put it this way, but she was meeting herself in the moment. She could see her anxiety on the page and discern that was the problem and not her ability.
We all have something we want to accomplish in our lives — a novel, a series of quilts, a dance program — and our desire for excellence, our big ambition, can get in our way. Like a teenager who believes that an “A” in algebra is the next rung in a ladder to her dreams, we can get hung up when we start thinking only about outcomes. I’ve made this mistake so many times in my life, it’s embarrassing.
The well of desire runs deep.
It runs particularly deep at the annual Agents and Editors Conference, hosted every summer in Austin by the Writers League of Texas. Every time I attend one of these events, I come out hyperventilating. So much ambition and desire descending on one hotel. To help attendees settle their minds, the organizers have asked me to teach a session on meditation and mindfulness this year. In between periods of sitting, we’ll review the seven attitudes mindfulness, helping attendees put the conference into a context and not make it the one event on which their writing future hinges.
I first learned about the Attitudes of Mindfulness at a retreat with Natalie Goldberg, and she has included them in her book, The True Secret of Writing. They are also the pillars of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, founded by John Kabat-Zinn and laid out in his book, Full Catastrophe Living. I list them here and invite you to think about how they are relevant to your creative life:
It is good to study these attitudes but even better to notice when you’ve veered from them. That happens for me in writing practice, when I’m facing myself on the page. But I think any mindfulness practice that you pursue regularly will awaken you to your striving and judgment and lack of patience with yourself.
We’re about fifty days into this round of Continuous Practice, but the truth is you can join anytime. Practice is always now. Ready to face your own mind, to learn about beginner’s mind and letting go? Information here.