I’ve been in therapy for 13 years, and the most potent thing I’ve learned from my doctors is the value of being aware of my own thoughts and feelings. This awareness is called mindfulness, and it’s the very meta practice of monitoring your mind’s activities in order to stay grounded in reality. Your feelings are important; they inform your decisions. If you examine how your feelings want you to behave, you have more agency when you’re deciding whether to listen to them. It works, I swear.
But now I can’t turn it off.
I say that hesitantly, because I hardly ever want to turn it off. Mindfulness has been indispensably helpful to me as I struggle to make it through life with borderline personality disorder. I’m much better about controlling my angry outbursts and self-sabotaging impulses now that I’m decently aware of them. And positive sensations like joy mean more to me now that I can step back and appreciate how lovely and special they are. Mindfulness is a tricky practice that I’m extremely grateful to have studied all these years.
Except when I’m writing. When I’m writing I want to shut it off.
That’s because I want to achieve a state of mind called flow, which writers and other creative types talk about a lot. Flow is when you get so involved in what you’re doing that time seems to stand still, you lose track of your surroundings, and you just create. It’s a highly sought-after state of deep productivity. Needless to say, it just feels really good.
I think the most important component of flow is that it’s stress-free. When I’m in one, all my anxieties melt away. I don’t worry about whether my work is good enough for my own standards, or whether anyone else will like it. I just make stuff because it’s fun.
And that’s hard to do when I’m constantly monitoring the emotional traffic in my brain. Therapy has taught me to frequently check in with myself and map out how my thoughts and emotions are telling me to feel and behave. Unfortunately, that kills my flow. Practicing mindfulness makes me aware of the anxious tension in my chest, the voice in my brain that tells me I’m not enough, the dark corners of my imagination that are reserved for playing disaster scenarios on repeat.
Normally, having an awareness of the unpleasantness in my mind is the first step toward managing it. However, flow is about not feeling anxious to begin with. It makes me forget about my stressors completely, at least for a short period of time. As soon as I become mindful of my brain’s activity, I fall into the spider’s web of flow-destroying anxiety. I start to have obsessive thoughts about finding that lovely inspired headspace. But of course, like a particle of light, flow disappears as soon as I try to locate it. A stressless state of mind is quantum in that sense: I know it exists, but it can’t be measured or predicted. It can only be observed when it decides to reveal itself.
In the meantime, I try to be creative outside the flow, which is about as fun as getting teeth pulled sometimes, but it’s worth practicing. If I don’t write until that perfect moment when inspiration strikes, I’ll never make anything. I want to be like the experienced artists who can turn their ideas on at a moment’s notice and begin creating, not because they can channel flow, but because they apply themselves outside the flow. It’s a skill that takes practice and patience to master.
And I want to hone that skill. I want to learn to write even while staying mindful, despite my insecure brain, despite my taut heart, until flow finds its way back to me again.