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When I was in 4th grade, my teacher did something that changed my life. She gave me a coloring book and a box of crayons before she started reading aloud. All of my previous teachers had read aloud too; but in 4th grade, I started listening. Having a coloring page and permission to use it prevented me from getting distracted. Suddenly, I could focus; I could pay attention to every word coming out of her mouth. The act of chewing gum has been shown to improve concentration and based on my experience, I suspect coloring works in much the same way.
I don’t know if I have attention deficit disorder or not. It runs in my family, but I was never diagnosed. What I do know is that focusing on anything is challenging for me; and living in a digital world of endless possibilities doesn’t help. Even when looking directly at someone and trying to listen, my mind drifts. I’ve taught my children to be very direct with me, “Mom, this is important, I need you to pay attention.” And then I try. Sometimes I even succeed.
As you can imagine, meditating is difficult for me. I can’t focus on my own thoughts long enough to remember that I’m supposed to be focusing on my own thoughts, or my breath, or the present moment. But the benefits of mindfulness are well documented:
- It increases self-awareness.
- It improves the ability to regulate your behavior.
- It’s associated with a decrease in stress.
- It’s associated with a decrease in mood disturbance.
Clearly, mindfulness is worthwhile. Perhaps with enough guided practice, I could learn to meditate. There is mounting evidence that brains can change; but I’ve found I can get many of the same benefits another way: through writing.
My 4th grade teacher changed the course of my scholastic career by giving me something to do while I listened, and I want to do the same thing for those of you who, like me, find it challenging to listen to yourself.
I don’t mean sit down at a keyboard and attempt to pound out polished pieces ready for publication. I mean sit down with a pen and paper and write without concern for spelling, punctuation or even a subject. Just write. See where your pen takes you when you have no intentions behind it. Even if you have to write, “I can’t think of anything to write,” several times until a thought actually enters your mind, keep writing. The thoughts you have a hard time paying attention to will naturally show up on the page.
I love starting my day with a thirty minute brain cleanse (that’s what I like to call unedited, stream-of-consciousness style writing). When I take the time to do it, I learn a lot about myself, including: why I do the things I do, how I feel about recent and not so recent experiences, and the direction in which I want to take my day, and my life. I credit the majority of my self-awareness to morning brain cleanses. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests writing with these two themes in mind, “Why did this happen and what good might I derive from it?”
Prayer and meditation offer many of the same benefits, but writing has the added bonus of being recorded. Over time I can look back and identify patterns and gain insights I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
For example, I hung out with boys a lot more than girls when I was young, and I got teased a lot, just like the rest of the boys. Most of the time, the teasing was affectionate and for most of my life I told myself I didn’t mind. After a few months of brain cleansing, though, I could see that even good natured, affectionate teasing hurt my feelings (and still does). I hated to admit that. I wanted to enjoy the banter the same way the guys around me seemed to, but I couldn’t deny the sentiments I had written. Unedited words from your mind don’t lie.
My morning free writes showed me I had years of built up hurt, and that the scars were interfering with my ability to be me. Rather than being the passionate, carefree, sometimes eccentric, personality that I am, I had become timid, inhibited, and unsure—all because I wanted to avoid being teased.
I am not unique. This happens to many, if not most, junior high school students; including boys. But if we’re not mindful about it, if we squash our feelings and pretend they don’t exist, then this state of avoidance can become permanent and change who we are.
If we acknowledge we’ve been hurt though, we can recover, no matter how long it’s been. In fact, research showed that people who wrote like this—uninhibitedly, introspectively—for just 15 minutes a day and used it as a learning opportunity to make sense of their lives actually healed old emotional wounds, decreased their stress, improved their relationships, and boosted their immune systems.
Just like cuts and wounds heal with proper care, feelings can too. We can look for reassurance and evidence that the shame we’ve experienced does not define us, that we are valuable and worthwhile. We can cleanse the wound so it will heal without a scar, or help our preexisting scars fade.
Can you imagine what your life would look like with nothing holding you back?
Mindfulness shows you what your inhibitions are and where they come from so you can begin the work of unwinding your truths and unlocking the carefree child inside you, releasing countless ideas that pain and shame have kept hidden away.
I remember the energetic and creative little girl that I was, and you know what? I like her! There are people who don’t, of course, but that’s okay, because the connections and relationships I make when I’m being true to myself are meaningful and fulfilling enough to heal the hurt I feel when I’m rejected. And I’m not sure I would have realized that without writing every day. The act of cleansing my mind unearthed my soul.
This, is the power of mindfulness.
So, grab a spiral notebook and pen and start scrubbing. You might not be aware of any scars yet. When I started, I wasn’t either, but there’s a good chance you have some. Write to become aware. Write to embrace your best self. Write for your health, for your family, and for your friends—you deserve it and so do your relationships.
Write to set yourself free.
Photo: Getty Images
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