April 5, 2014

The Art of Turning Back & Making Real Progress. ~ Julie Tallard Johnson

Turning Back

How many times have you been on a trip, or on holiday and passed something and said, “oh we should go in.” “I should turn around.” Or, “let’s do this before you leave” to a visitor.

Last October my writing partner and I went away for a needed “fiction” writing retreat. I emphasize fiction because the writing momentum for my novel had nearly come to a screeching halt.

Actually, it was more of a halt without the screech. We were nearly finished with our three hour drive, with a couple hours of an October afternoon sun left. As we watched for signs we passed a beautiful winery, the Villa Bellezza in Pepin Wisconsin. It looked a bit like we were transported to the Mediterranean. We could have used the stop. As I drove past the winery I said, “we should stop.”

My friend nodded but I kept driving.

A few more minutes down the road I turned the car around and went back. We enjoyed a wine tasting with some wonderful cheeses as the sun warmed us on the back patio. This willingness and ability to “turn back” set the tone for the rest of our writing retreat. Turning back made room for what was next. I returned to my novel, got back into my daily walking routine and felt restored.

Care to turn your metaphorical car around with me?

As my writing partner Kathy Steffen warned me (author of 3 romance thrillers and also a writing instructor): “It’s hard to get back into writing a book once you’ve left it.” I find the longer I don’t write in my novel, the harder it is to return to it. It’s as if I’ve driven too far past to go back now. But once I turn myself around, return to the page as it were, I find myself returning to the story and the craft.

The thing is, I spend a great deal of effort returning to the page just as I do returning to the breath in my meditation practice. (in my meditation practice I rest my awareness in the physical sensation of the breath.) I realize that there are writers out there that are with the page consistently every day; Stephen King, for instance. And there are meditators who likely rest in the breath without wandering off to other places, and having to remind themselves to return to the breath.

His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama comes to mind.

My creative and spiritual paths are more often in a state of returning to the empty page or breath in my meditation practice than actually being engaged in writing or mindfulness. The truth is that in meditation we spend a great deal of our time returning to the breath. Our practice is to rest in the breath, have our attention on the breath; but, oh, how our mind wants to wander to and fro.

Such, too, is the life of the writer, the artist, and the spiritual practitioner.

The page or canvas calls to us, relying on our ability to give our ideas our full attention. But our attention is often elsewhere. Life interrupts the best of our plans. Then something remarkable happens—we realize that we are off the breath, which itself is a moment of awareness, and so we then return to the breath. This happens again and again, if we are truly practicing.

This returning is an integral part of the meditation practice.

Now, into my forty-some years as a writer and meditator, I can trust that I will at the very least return to the page, return to my meditation, return to the breath. I will never wander off so far that I cannot find a way back. The way back to the breath or the page or the canvas, or to whatever creative promise you have made, is in becoming aware in the moment of where you are, and then, where you want to be. Turns out that returning is an essential part of our spiritual and creative life.

What matters is that we give ourselves something to return to—and that we do so when we find ourselves wandering too far out beyond the boundaries of our creative and spiritual life. When we ask ourselves what is it I want—really want, this gives us something to return to.

I frame it like this: It’s not so much that I should stop eating so much sugar, but that I want to return to a healthier diet. Or in my writing life: I know I want to finish the novel. It will feel better when it is finished and sent out than not. I want the benefits of meditation, so I keep returning to the practice. And once in meditation, I keep returning to the breath.

Focus on what you want to return to, be it a writing project, winery, or your meditation practice.

Then turn your car around.

“The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.” ~ Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

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Apprentice Editor: Sarvasmarana Ma Nithya / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Flickr


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Julie Tallard Johnson