Big Box Mind Walk

For a few days back to back last week, the wind was ranging from twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour. The average human female runs six and half miles per hour, and this human female is a rather light object. Woman vs. wind? If I were to have gone for a run, it was clear who would win. But I needed to get out and move. My tiny apartment in perfect for everything except cardiovascular exercise. T or C lacks an indoor track for days like this. There’s a gym with treadmills, but I’m not a member. I like to move through space. So … off I went to walk in Walmart, the only large indoor space I could think of.

I expected this walk to be boring. I’m not a recreational shopper. In fact, I have an aversion to shopping. Normally, I run for an hour or longer, but my expectation was that I’d last twenty minutes, the minimum necessary for cardio benefits. The first few laps were almost oppressive, with all the consumer goods surrounding me, but then I got into a groove, keeping up a brisk pace, switching aisles if someone was browsing in my path. The sharp turns were fun, and the scenery began to amuse me. A packet of something called Dirt Cake. Day-of-the-Dead-themed exercise shorts with fancy, decorative skulls on one leg. A big poster for black lipstick. In April?

Once I got into the rhythm, I shifted into walking meditation of a sort as the visuals flowed in a stream of awareness, and it became like a walk through the contents of my mind. Automotive thought. Back to the sensation of moving, feet pushing and landing. Music thought. Back to breath and movement. Whoa, look at the great facial expression on that lady—can I describe it and use it for a character? Return to walking. Spacious aisle. Narrow aisle. Pivot and turn. Ah, good, people are eating veggies; look at the crowd in the produce section. Back to body and breath. Hula hoop thoughts. Return the mind to walking. Office supplies, cross-cut shredder. That’s my brain:  a cross-cut shredder. Walk. Breathe. A seven- or eight-year old girl is skating in her sneakers on the smooth cement floor of the meat section. Can I use that behavior for Mae’s stepdaughters? They would skate in a store. Resume body and breath.

After a while even those thoughts softened, and all I saw were words, signs, colors, shapes, fellow humans in the midst of their lives. The passing slices of their experience and my steps became all one flow.

I finally checked the time after I encountered a yoga student I hadn’t seen for a while, and we chatted briefly. I found I’d walked for forty surprisingly mindful minutes.

 

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Kufwasa

I discovered this beautiful concept while researching Zambian culture for my work in progress. Kufwasa is a word in the Tumbuka language that means a blend of patience, mindfulness, flow, enjoyment, and something unique to the understanding of people who live in a traditional African culture which may be hard to put into English words. My goal in reading about Zambia was to understand more about a minor character, Mwizenge Chomba, who has been in my series since book two, Shaman’s Blues, but is about to play a larger role in the book I’m writing, the seventh in the series. I wanted to make sure I got his background right, his way of seeing the world. I’m not sure I’ll find a place for describing kufwasa in the book, but it should exist in the character himself, in the world view he grew up with.

Kufwasa implies doing one thing at a time, with full concentration and a kind of serenity, or it will be neither done well nor fully experienced. My character was raised in a remote village, so his family members would have planned one major activity a day. When you get around on foot, by bicycle, or in old and unreliable vehicles, travel and errands can’t be hurried. Cooking can’t be rushed, either, using traditional methods. A society without distractions enjoys taking time to talk and laugh and tell stories over these slowly prepared meals. In the twelve hours of equatorial darkness, married couples have plenty of time for kufwasa in their relationships. (I liked coming across this idea about marriage, because my Zambian character is married to an American woman who writes romance novels.) Love thrives on kufwasa.

It’s funny how I can discover something about a character that makes perfect sense even though I didn’t know it at the time I introduced him. Mwizenge appears in Shaman’s Blues as a singer and drummer in a world music trio. Live music of all kinds is a big part of Santa Fe life, and I’ve enjoyed African drumming and dance groups there, so he simply showed up the way characters do as someone likely to be in Santa Fe. I understand now why he feels at home there, so far from his village. He carved his own drum with kufwasa back in Zambia and grew up with music and dancing as community events. Compared to the high-pressure lifestyles of some parts of the country, the pace in New Mexico comes a little closer to kufwasa.

Next time I find myself trying to do too much too fast, I hope I can slow down and remind myself to practice kufwasa.

Re-Bodying: Movement and Play

runningI’m reading Full Catastrophe Living again. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this wise book, but every time, it makes me more awake and aware. The chapters on mindfulness of the body inspired this blog post. The author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, reflects on how the words remind and remember can be interpreted as re-mind—come back home to your own mind, and re-member—become a member of your own consciousness, and then he suggests we may need the word “re-body.”

Children and animals know: it feels wonderful to move around. It’s not natural to hold still and sit for hours. I recently took a trip to visit friends in North Carolina and in Georgia, and the long drive left me craving movement. My friends are walkers and yogis, not runners. Walking and yoga sustained me for a while, but by the last day of the trip I was craving full flight. My Atlanta friend brought me to a trail along the Chattahoochee, and she walked while I took off in an explosion of delight, faster than I normally run. The novelty of the trail added to my energy. I had no idea what was around each curve or over each hill, and had to stay one hundred percent in the present moment to dodge roots and rocks and poison ivy and still take in the beauty of the woods and water. The speed and surprises were part of my joy, along with the sensation of my feet connecting with the earth, the springy strength in my legs.

We don’t all take joy from the same things, but whether we walk, run, dance, practice yoga, lift weights, do tai chi or go ballroom dancing, it doesn’t matter. We’re designed to move. And when we find the movement that matches our spirit, it’s like coming home every time we do it. I like to think that people who say they hate “exercise” haven’t discovered the kind of movement that will make them happy. They’ve been made to do activities incompatible with their nature. However, somewhere in every human is that child who had to be told to hold still. That child loved to jump, skip, run, and climb. It was play. For me, that new trail was play, the game of finding the next footfall on an unpredictable landscape. Yoga is play in the field one’s self, exploring the organization and sensation of each asana, the interaction of the posture and the breath. After decades of practice, I still find even the most basic poses fascinating.

For some people, the word exercise takes the play out of movement. Years ago, I read a study on why women exercise and why they quit. Reasons for starting: weight loss and looking better. Reasons for sustaining exercise: the discovery that it reduces stress. Reasons for skipping exercise or quitting: time pressures and stress. In other words, movement reduces stress, but when women are stressed (and I would guess this is true for men, too) they tend to forego it, as if it were a luxury. It can feel like one, in either the negative sense of an extra that can be cut from the time budget or in the positive sense of deep pleasure. It can be a luxuriant sensation to move, to be fully embodied, present and in motion.

When I’m writing and the story gets stuck, I find that if I stand up and walk around, ideas come to me. It’s as if the stuckness of sitting starts to affect my brain, and the energy of movement clears it. Movement is as essential to mental and emotional health as physical health, but “it’s good for me” is the last thing on my mind when I’m enjoying a run or a yoga practice or just getting up from my desk and re-bodying for a few minutes. I’m playing, following my movement bliss. What’s yours?

*****

Image by Robin McConnell originally posted on Flickr

Flow, Lived Time, and Wasted Time

Alex_Jacobi_Boots_on_TVThis is another refection on the thought-provoking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In discussing leisure time, Cziksczentmihalyi observes that people experience the optimal emotional and mental state of flow fairly often at work, and yet they long to go home from their jobs and have leisure—where they tend to waste time. It’s strange how we tend not realize what makes us happy.

“Free time … is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. Hobbies that demand skill, habits that set goals and limits, personal interests, and especially inner discipline help to make leisure what it is supposed to be—a chance for re-creation.” Instead, many of us waste that free time on things that ask little of us, imagining that passivity will bring happiness. Cziksczentmihalyi mentions frequently throughout the book that if not given focus, our minds tend toward entropy and so do our relationships, and he is especially critical of excessive television-watching as an entropic behavior. He says we spend many hours watching athletes rather than engaging in sports, and “watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action. This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time.” The book was written prior to the development of binge-watching Netflix, an extreme example of the peculiar appeal of this kind of wasted time. Can you imagine a TV show in which the characters spent a lot of time watching TV? That would not be an entertaining story. Fictional characters are engaged in challenges all the time. That’s what interests us. Conflict, challenge, growth and change.

Flow activities make us deeper, stronger, and more complex, whether we are reading, dancing, gardening, talking with family and friends, engaged in community activism, or making art and music, and they result in something we can share that adds to the quality of others’ lives as well as our own.

Blogging about a book as I progress through it is a new approach—but this one is making me think so much I had to share the thoughts before finishing.

 

 

Why Reading and Writing Can Make You Happy

BookFlow is a state of absorbed, continuous attention in which skill and effort are perfectly matched. I’m half-way through reading the book on it, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmilahlyi, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought

If your skill is high and the effort asked of you is low, a task could lead to boredom. For example, folding laundry. Most of us probably use some sort of additional stimulus like music or television to make it less dull. Sometimes I work on plots or blog posts in my head while I do things that ask too little of my mind. Boredom is also likely when you’re not paying full attention to a task, due to the lack of effort. Students who skim their textbooks often complain that the book was dull. Oddly enough, according to Csikszentmilahlyi, the man who named and first studied flow, paying more attention to a presumably dull thing will make it more interesting. If I turned laundry into a contemplative awareness activity, it could create flow. His research is full of examples of people who turned repetitious jobs into flow activities by how they focused their minds.

However, even if you are focused and aware, if the required effort for a task is too high and your skill is too low, you’re going to be stressed and frustrated. I ran into this trying to follow directions for using Canva, a web site that supposedly lets even tech-impaired idiots create complex images. My skill was too low even for that!

If skill required and effort involved are both low, you’ll be relaxed or apathetic, depending on the circumstances—or you might have flow, if you’re mindful. A massage requires little effort on your part, and little skill, and the match is perfect. Relax and receive. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention to the experience. I’ve sometimes caught myself becoming absent and had to invoke the skill of mindful presence so I could relax and have a low-key flow.

Paying attention in an unbroken way is a rare blessing for a lot of us. Many of our jobs are built around interruptions. Studies have found that people who get interrupted a lot, when left alone, will continue to interrupt themselves for up to an hour before being able to focus again. Flow is lost.

Fragmented attention is the nature of social media. Each click is a new activity. I like chatting with Facebook friends, but the process is fractured, like conversation at a noisy party. It creates connections, but not flow. Books create flow, either a flow of focused ideas in nonfiction or the flow of a story in fiction. According to Csikszentmihalyi, reading is one of the most reliable sources of optimal experience, aka flow. Unlike more passive entertainment, it requires effort, skill, and imagination. Writers and other creative people know flow when we play our part in this exchange of vital energy. When we’re wrapped up in our work, we lose our sense of self, our sense of time, and become one with the creative process itself. Athletes, scientists, and mathematicians know it, too. What gives you flow?