A flexible approach to planning

We can sometimes focus too closely on following a particular plan while a more flexible moment-to-moment approach can be more effective and help to get more done.

A flexible approach to planning
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It wasn’t impossible to see a whole show on this scale, but it was difficult. It took work. You had to be systematic, go aisle by aisle, moving up the hall in a zigzag, giving every stand some time but not so much time that it diminished the time given to others. That used to be my approach, but I found that route planning and time management occupied more of my thoughts that the content of the show itself. I was lost in the game of trying to see every stand, note every new product and expose myself to every scrap of stimuli – the show as a whole left only a shallow track in my memory. In being systematic, I saw only my own system. Completism was blindness; it yielded only a partial view.

So I threw away my diligent systems and timetables and started to truly explore. Today was typical of my current method of not having a method – I would strike out into the centre of the hall, ignoring all pleas and distractions, and from there walk without direction. I would try to drift, to allow myself to be carried by the current and eddies of the hall, thinking only in the moment, watching and following the people around me. Beyond that, I tried to think as little as possible about my aims and as much as possible about what was in front of me at any given time. I would give myself to the experience.

Will Wiles. The Way Inn.

‘Present-moment awareness is the process of bringing flexible and deliberate attention to one’s experience as it happens. Clients are encouraged to maintain attention on experiences in the moment and to dispassionately observe these experiences, rather than falling into content about events of the past or fears and expectations about the future. Through this process, ACT promotes ongoing nonjudgmental contact with both psychological and environmental events as they occur, strengthening more direct and immediate interaction with experience and undermining the effects of language. The goal is for clients to experience the world more directly so that their behavior is more flexible and consistent with the values they hold.

Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari. The Big Book of ACT Metaphors: A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

Label your thoughts as they drift by

It’s normal that your minds drifts off from time to time. If it does, it can help to recognise the thought and even give it a name as you return to the present moment.

Label your thoughts as they drift by
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Moody returned to the present with a jolt, and saw that Thomas Balfour was still looking at him, with an expression of intrigued expectation upon his face.

‘I beg your pardon,’ Moody said, in confusion. ‘I believe I must have drifted off into my own thoughts—for a moment—’

‘What were you thinking of?’ said Balfour.

What had he been thinking of? Only the cravat, the silver hand, that name, gasped out of the darkness. The scene was like a small world, Moody thought, possessed of its own dimensions. Any amount of ordinary time could pass, when his mind was straying there. There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere. How strange, that Balfour had been watching him; that real time had been passing—revolving around him, all the while—

‘I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular,’ he said. ‘I have endured a difficult journey, that is all, and I am very tired.’

Eleanor Catton. The Luminaries.

‘Inevitably, there will be times when you get caught up in your thoughts. You may start daydreaming, or you may get trapped in your psychological pain. You may think about what you had for breakfast, what time the kids are due home from school, what movie you want to watch that night, or an ex-girlfriend you haven’t seen in years. As you know, your mind is extremely adept at creating thought. It’s likely you’ll find when you sit quietly that it seems as if your mind’s already natural talents have been amplified. You may have millions of thoughts flowing through your mind, and it’s likely you’ll get caught in them from time to time.

When this happens, simply notice that it has happened, and try to bring yourself back to the present moment and your observing self. Note that you have been in a thought and then return to the here and now.

One technique that is particularly effective to use while sitting is to label your thoughts. As you watch your thoughts pass before your mind’s eye, you may say, “I am having the thought that I had eggs for breakfast,” or, “I am having the feeling that I am sad.” It is also useful to note when you have drifted off, and even the thought that you have drifted off with: “I have been daydreaming about my ex-girlfriend. I am having the thought that I have been daydreaming.”

This can be particularly effective while you sit, because it is brief but still allows you to notice your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they come and go.’

Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith. Get out of your mind and into your life: the new acceptance and commitment therapy.

Writers: free you inner voice!

We can all benefit from taking the time to listen to our inner voices. Writers, especially, need to free those inner voices to remove inhibitions and write honestly.

The Dark Half. Directed by: George A. Romero. Writers: Stephen King (novel), George A. Romero (screenplay). Starring: Timothy Hutton.

‘Learning mindfulness (like life in general) will always present difficulties and obstacles. Perhaps you’re pretty nasty to yourself through excessive self-criticism when things don’t work out how you want them to. The way to deal with this harsh inner voice is to listen to it, give it space to unfurl and bring to it a sense of curiosity in a gentle, warm way.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook for Dummies.

Hemingway and mindful attention

Despite his reputation as a rogue, Ernest Hemingway advocated mindful techniques for writing and for living, and he offers good advice on how to be considerate to others.


Hemingway and mindful attention
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When people talk listen completely. Donʼt be thinking what youʼre going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When youʼre in town stand outside the theatre and see how people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.’

Ernest Hemingway. Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter.


‘With mindful attention, we bring a nonjudging, open attitude to our experience. We also refer to this way of relating to feelings and thoughts as acceptance, defined as opening to up and allowing your experience to be exactly as it is, without trying to avoid it, escape it or change it.’

Jan E. Fleming and Nancy L. Kocovski. The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness – Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Free Yourself from Fear and Reclaim Your Life.

How to get ideas for writing

It’s easy to get an idea for writing, said playwright Lajos Egri. Find inspiration by taking a quiet moment to observe the world around you and within you.

How to get ideas for writing
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To get an idea for any type of writing is the easiest thing. Look around you and be observant. Be observant and you will be forced to admit that the world is an inexhaustible pastry shop and you are permitted to choose from the delicacies the tastiest bits for yourself.

Lajos Egri. The Art of Dramatic Writing

‘The capacity to observe change is severely limited by the fact that much of our time is spent in incessant activity that does not provide a stable reference point. Encouraging “just sitting” is a simple way of quieting the body long enough so that that one’s focus can shift to other objects of consciousness, including the mind. Moving around and doing things requires a certain amount of cognitive processing capacity that tends to narrow the scope of attention to instrumental concerns. Sitting quietly, on the other hand, produces an interesting and somewhat paradoxical state of relaxed awareness, which in turn reduces cognitive demands and frees the resultant capacity for other purposes.

‘Quiet, relaxed awareness provides an ideal vantage point from which to observe change processes that are otherwise typically obscured. Manifestations are everywhere. Observation of the breath reveals phasic change from breathing in to breathing out. Observation of inner states reveals both regular and intermittent interoceptive sensations signifying a myriad of changes in underlying physiological processes. Observation of sights and sounds reveals a constant but often subtle flow of energy states captured by sense organs that are themselves constantly changing.’

Paul G. Salmon, Sandra E. Sephton, and Samuel J. Dreeben. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Understanding and Applying the New Therapies.

Witness your own thoughts

Take a moment to listen and be aware of your thoughts, then ask if those thoughts are really you, or are you just the witness to those thoughts.

Witness your own thoughts
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The fundamental text of the Hindu tradition is, of course, the Bhagavad Gītā; and the four basic yogas are described. The word yoga itself, from a Sanskrit verbal root yuj, meaning ‘to yoke, to link one thing to another,’ refers to the act of linking the mind to the source of mind, consciousness to the source of consciousness; the import of which definition is perhaps best illustrated in the discipline known as knowledge yoga, the yoga, that is to say, of discrimination between the knower and the known, between the subject and the object in every act of knowing, and the identification of oneself, then, with the subject. I know my body. My body is the object. I am the witness, the knower of the object. I, therefore, am not my body.’ Next: ‘I know my thoughts: I am not my thoughts.’ And so on: ‘I know my feelings, I am not my feelings.’ You can back yourself out of the room that way. And the Buddha then comes along and adds: ‘You are not the witness either. There is no witness.’ So where are you now? Where are you between two thoughts? That is the way known as jñāna yoga, the way of sheer knowledge.”

Joseph Campbell. Myths to Live By (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)

‘Recall something that happened last summer. Anything that comes to mind is fine. Remember what was happening then. Remember where you were and what was happening. See if you can see, hear, and smell, just as you did last summer. Don’t remember the scene as if you were someone else looking at the scene from the outside. Do it from inside the body of the person called “you” who was there, looking out from behind your eyes. Close your eyes and take a few moments to imagine this scene.

Now notice as you remember the scene that you were there. There was a person behind those eyes, just as there is now. And although many things have happened since last summer, notice too that there is an essential continuity between the part of you that is aware of what you are aware of now, and the part of you that was aware of what you were aware of back then. We call that person the “observer-self.”

Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

The roles we play: mindfulness and the wisdom of Joseph Campbell

We all adopt different masks depending on where we are and who we’re with. Behind them all is an individual who can observe each of the different roles we play.

The roles we play: mindfulness and the wisdom of Joseph Campbell
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To become—in Jung’s terms—individuated, to live as a released individual, one has to know how and when to put on and put off the masks of one’s various life roles. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ and when at home, do not keep on the mask of the role you play in the Senate. But this, finally, is not easy, since some of the masks cut deep. They include judgement and moral values. They include one’s pride, ambition, and achievement. They include one’s infatuations. It is a common thing to be overly impressed by and attached to masks either some mask of one’s own or the mana-masks of others. The work of individuation, however, demands that one should not be compulsively affected in this way. The aim of individuation requires that one should find and then learn to live out of one’s own center, in control of one’s own for an against. And this cannot be achieved by enacting and responding to any general masquerade of fixed roles.”

Joseph Campbell. Myths to Live By (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)

‘The practice of personal development usually focuses on changing your thinking. You’re told to think positively, optimistically, bigger and differently; to let go of negative thoughts and think yourself happy. The belief is that if you change your thoughts you change yourself, implying that you are your thoughts. Mindfulness offers a different perspective. Note that the word ‘personal’ comes from the Latin persona, meaning ‘mask’ (referring to the masks actors used in theatre to represent different characters) and ‘development’ comes from the old French word desveloper, meaning ‘to unveil’. So, interestingly, personal development is about unveiling your mask to reveal your true self. You wear different masks every day: mother or father, husband or wife, teacher or writer, footballer or driver. But underneath all that is another dimension that’s easily missed – the fact that you’re able to observe all these different roles implies that you’re separate from them. We call this the observer self.’

Shamash Alidina and Joelle Jane Marshall. Mindfulness Workbook For Dummies

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Character growth

Find the essence of your fictional characters, their roots, to see how they will grow. It might reveal something about yourself too.

character development
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The soil above the seed is hard to push through, but this very handicap, this resistance to the soil, forces the young sprout to gather strength for the battle. Where shall it get this additional strength? Instead of fighting ineffectively against the topsoil, the seed sends out delicate roots to gather more nourishment. Thus the sprout at last penetrates the hard soil and wins through to the sun. According to science, a single thistle needs ten thousand inches of root to support a thirty- or forty-inch stem. You can guess how many thousands of facts a dramatist must unearth to support a single character. By way of parable, let a man represent the soil; in his mind we shall plant a seed of coming conflict: ambition, perhaps. The seed grows in him, though he may wish to squelch it. But forces within and without the man exert greater and greater pressure, until this seed of conflict is strong enough to burst through his stubborn head. He has made a decision, and now he will act upon it. The contradictions within a man and the contradictions around him create a decision and a conflict. These in turn force him into a new decision and a new conflict.”

Lajos Egri. The Art of Dramatic Writing

Ask the question, “Who am I?” The question should be deeply rooted in you, like a new seed nestled deep in the soft earth and damp with water.

Thich Nhat Hanh translated by Mobi Ho. C

Could Wuthering Heights’ Cathy have been mindful?

Was Cathy from Wuthering Heights practising mindfulness all those years ago? Was she able to quietly reflect on her faults when people were critical of her?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights

At fifteen she was the queen of the country-side; she had no peer; and she did turn out a haughty, headstrong creature! I own I did not like her, after infancy was past; and I vexed her frequently by trying to bring down her arrogance: she never took an aversion to me, though.

Emily Brontë. Wuthering Heights

Over the years, quite a few people have called me arrogant (especially my wife). I used to deny it, discount it, or counter-attack with a criticism about the other person (I won’t tell you what I called my wife). These days, I usually respond differently (alas, not always); I tend to pause, notice and reflect, considering whether there is something valid in the criticism; to look with openness and curiosity at the way I’ve been behaving. And if the criticism is valid, I consider: what’s working, what’s not working, and what could I do differently? Finally I (often, but not always) respond mindfully, acting on my values – which usually means apologizing for my arrogance and expressing myself more respectfully.

Russ Harris. The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt