Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ten Zen Seconds

Dr. Eric Maisel is a well-known creativity coach and author. Those of us in the art world are familiar with his work. He has written more than 30 books, been interviewed in numerous magazines and newspapers, and is an expert on creativity.

I have more than a couple of his books on my shelves, and also read his newsletter regularly. I just added his latest book, "Ten Zen Seconds" to my collection. This book provides a technique to help you get the most out of your life. Maisel refers to the simple technique as "dropping a useful thought into a deep breath.”

He says, "You use a deep breath, five seconds on the inhale and five seconds on the exhale, as a container for important thoughts that aim you in the right direction in life — I describe twelve of these thoughts in the book — and you begin to employ this breathing-and-thinking technique that I call incanting as the primary way to keep yourself on track."

Maisel is on a "blog tour" to promote the book, and I'm pleased that my blog is his third stop. I jumped at the chance to host him here, even without seeing the book first, because I knew it would be a quality product with useful information. I was correct in that assumption.

Dr. Maisel is generously sharing the 12 phrases on this blog. He selected these because he believes they go to the core of helping us all make the most of life.  The book, of course, gives much greater detail on each one, and is well worth your time to read it.

Here are the twelve phrases (the parentheses show how the phrase gets “divided up” between the inhale and the exhale):
1. (I am completely) (stopping)
2. (I expect) (nothing)
3. (I am) (doing my work)*
4. (I trust) (my resources)
5. (I feel) (supported)
6. (I embrace) (this moment)
7. (I am free) (of the past)
8. (I make) (my meaning)
9. (I am open) (to joy)
10. (I am equal) (to this challenge)
11. (I am) (taking action)
12. (I return) (with strength)
*The third incantation functions differently from the other eleven, in that you name something specific each time you use it, for example “I am writing my novel” or “I am paying the bills.” Maisel says, "This helps you bring mindful awareness to each of your activities throughout the day."

The idea of mindful awareness is central to zen practice. Regular readers here know I am passionate about the idea of living in the moment and soaking up every bit of life from every event, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I am not a practicing buddhist, but see the beauty of this approach to life.

I firmly believe that living in the moment, expecting joy, remaining thankful and realizing that everyday life - the little moments - are keys to happiness. As you know, how to increase our happiness level is something I study regularly. I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Maisel how "Ten Zen Seconds" could be used for the purpose of making us happier.

Dr. Maisel  responded:
Each of  the twelve incantations serves a different though related purpose, and together the twelve “hit the highlights” in terms of the kinds of cognitions that support mental and emotional health and increased productivity.

Happiness per se is not the goal of many of them, but it is the specific goal of incantation 9, “I am open to joy.” Many people do not remember that joy and happiness are available to them and even suspect that they aren’t any longer available, that those feelings “went away” in childhood and, with lost innocence and the realities of adulthood, can’t really be recaptured except by putting on blinders and a smiley face.

At the same time, and despite the fact that they doubt that joy and happiness are available to them, they nevertheless do experience fleeting moments of both — proof positive that joy and happiness are not gone forever.

When you use incantation 9, “I am open to joy,” you are in effect making a new bargain with the world and announcing that you no longer want to act as if joy is unavailable — instead you intend to consider it available, nearby, and maybe even abundant. This “cognitive shift” then allows joy and happiness to enter — to reenter — your life.

The 12 phrases, which are at the heart of this book, were things Dr. Maisel put considerable effort into selecting. He gave a bit of insight into how the process worked:

First, I tried to figure out what are the most important tasks that we face as human beings, then I came up with what I hoped were resonant phrases, each of which needed to fit well into a deep breath, then, most importantly — which moved this from the theoretical to the empirical. I tested the phrases out on hundreds of folks who agreed to use them and report back on their experiences. That was great fun and eye-opening!

People used these phrases to center themselves before a dental appointment or surgery, to get ready to have a difficult conversation with a teenage child, to bring joy back to their performing career, to carve out time for creative work in an over-busy day — in hundreds of ways that I couldn’t have anticipated.

I think that’s what makes the book rich and special: that, as useful as the method and the incantations are, hearing from real people about how they’ve used them “seals the deal.” I’m not much of a fan of self-help books that come entirely from the author’s head; this one has been tested in the crucible of reality.

Maisel has the credentials and the experience to put forth a well thought out plan for self help. He has a doctorate in psychology and has spent decades helping people reach their full potential. He says "Ten Zen Seconds" is, "actually a very simple but powerful technique for reducing your stress, getting yourself centered, and reminding yourself about how you want to live your life. It can even serve as a complete cognitive, emotional, and existential self-help program."

When contemplating the book, he considered two primary sources -  cognitive and positive psychology from the West and breath awareness and mindfulness techniques from the East.

He said, "I’d been working with creative and performing artists for more than twenty years as a therapist and creativity coach and wanted to find a quick, simple technique that would help them deal with the challenges they regularly face - resistance to creating, performance anxiety, negative self-talk about a lack of talent or a lack of connections, stress over a boring day job or competing in the art marketplace, and so on.

Because I have a background in both Western and Eastern ideas, it began to dawn on me that deep breathing, which is one of the best ways to reduce stress and alter thinking, could be used as a cognitive tool if I found just the right phrases to accompany the deep breathing. This started me on a hunt for the most effective phrases, each of which serves a different and important purpose."

Maisel says people have used people for all kinds of purposes he didn't imagine:
"One that I especially like is the idea of “book-ending” a period of work, say your morning writing stint or painting stint, by using “I am completely stopping” to ready yourself, center yourself, and stop your mind chatter, and then using “I return with strength” when you’re done so that you return to “the rest of life” with energy and power. Usually we aren’t this mindful in demarcating our activities - and life feels very different when we do.

If you want to experience some of what "Ten Zen Seconds" offers, go to http://www.tenzenseconds.com/test_photo_slide.html and use the slide show there to move through all the incantations, practicing your breathing. It's accompanied by artwork from Ruth Yasharpour. Each slide stays in place for ten seconds, so you can try the technique in real time. Take a few minutes and try it out. It's pretty cool.


I've realized lately that I'm really missing singing. Long ago in a far away life I was really into performing.

I was a music major in college, until I realized there were people far more talented and far more dedicated than me. Fortunately, I discovered this on about day two in the program at a university known for its arts programs. I decided I probably wasn't destined to have a career in music.

Of course, a lack of talent has not stood in the way of many of today's stars. Maybe I was a bit hasty when I left the program about halfway through the second semester. (Yeah, I knew early on, but I just didn't want to give up easily. I'm still studying French 20 plus years after I started but je ne parle pas francais.)

I was an OK singer - not great - but OK - sometimes decent, occasionally good.

After I left the music program at my first university and transferred to the University of Kentucky I sang in a band for awhile. There were five of us and two of us were really great. I wasn't one of them. I was OK. One of the other guys was good. The other guy was passable. The other two were really talented. We were holding them back. One went on to have a career in music. The other got married and settled down with his wife raising babies.

I quickly learned that being "with" the band was more fun than being "in" the band. You got the perks of it without the stress of performing. However, you also lost that rush that you get from performing.

Lately I've been thinking about how I'm missing singing. Some years ago I did a version of "Christmas for Cowboys" with Andrea for a radio Christmas program. Again, I was the weak link in that performance, but we sounded good. Really good. There's something magical about harmony and a guitar. I can't provide either of them - like Tim McGraw says about himself, I don't sing harmony - at least not well. But Andrea made it really good, and carried me along.

Maybe life will provide an opportunity for singing again soon. Life seems to work that way. It would be fun to sing again. I'm not giving up the day job to prepare for my music career or anything, but it would be nice to just sing some. It would be best with people - like Andrea - who are very talented and will let me come along for the ride - doing no damage and adding at least a little bit.