Saturday, May 05, 2007

Ten Zen Seconds

As promised on Thursday, here is my interview with Eric Maisel as part of his Ten Zen Seconds blogtour. I've been a fan of Eric's work on creativity for quite a few years and was happy to be part of this innovative book marketing project. Some of the questions and answers that follow are the standard ones provided by Eric, and some of them are ones I asked, that you will only find on this stop on the blog tour and nowhere else. I felt for those who come on this day only, I needed to present some of the standard part of the interview first, so if you have read that before on other stops on the blog tour, scroll down.

For more information on Eric Maisel's books and services
please visit

For information on Ten Zen Seconds, including the schedule for the blog tour, which will introduce you to a lot of fascinating blogs,
please visit

Catherine: What is Ten Zen Seconds all about?

Eric: It’s 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 built on the single idea of "dropping a useful thought into a deep breath".

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.

Catherine: Where did this idea come from?

Eric: It comes from two primary sources, cognitive and positive psychology from the West and breath awareness and mindfulness techniques from the East. 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 that I could find and eventually I landed on twelve of them that I called incantations, each of which serves a different and important purpose.

Catherine: Which phrases did you settle on?

Eric: The following twelve. I think that folks will intuitively get the point of each one (though some of the incantations, like "I expect nothing", tend to need a little explaining). Naturally each incantation is explained in detail in the book and there are lots of personal reports, so readers get a good sense of how different people interpret and make use of the incantations. Here are the twelve (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)

A small note: 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". This helps you bring mindful awareness to each of your activities throughout the day

Catherine: Those who are familiar with your previous work will know that you write in areas connected with creativity, and coaching creative people. Would you say that this book focuses less directly on creativity - that it is a technique that is useful in all areas of life?

Eric: Yes, exactly. It is a mindfulness, centering and meaning-making tool that anyone can use in a whole variety of situations - getting calm before a meeting or a medical appointment, getting centered so as to have a deep conversation with your mate or child, and so on.

The technique came out of my work with creative and performing artists and its uses for creative people are many - to help make the transition from day job to creative work more fluid, to reduce anxiety before a performance or marketplace interaction, and so on, - but it is meant to serve as a whole-life technique that provides "fast centering" and "instant stress reduction" for everyone in every situation.

Catherine: Some of us are not making a living in traditionally creative areas. We may have lives made up of many parts - we go to our day job, come home to cook meals and do the laundry, we may be involved in various voluntary organisations, find a family member needs help in a crisis, we may have health problems, or have no health problems and want to keep it that way by exercising and taking care of ourselves, and yet we still want to maintain creative pursuits as well. All these things are part of making our lives meaningful - we don't want to give any of them up, but it means we are constantly in transition from one thing to another. How can Ten Zen Seconds help with the stopping and starting that is part of such a fragmented life?

Eric: First, the creating ought to come first each day - that’s a big secret and a big deal. When we get to our novel at five a.m. and write for an hour, then we have made some meaning on that day and face the meaninglessness of some of our daily pursuits with much more equanimity. If, on the other hand, we spend a meaningless day and THEN try to get to our writing, we are usually both worn out mentally and drained existentially, since we have been with "too little" meaning all day long.

If the idea of getting right to your creative work first thing makes sense to you and you want to give it a try (that is, getting up an hour earlier, forgiving yourself for not getting up an hour earlier and trying again the next day, and so on), then using incantation 3, "I am doing my work" ("I am writing my novel", "I am working on Chapter 2", "I am turning to my poem", etc.), used as soon as you awaken and before you turn your mind to the day and its responsibilities, is a key to "creating first thing each day".

Catherine: One of your incantations is "I embrace this moment". As a poet, it has been suggested that I take a notebook everywhere and note things down as I see them. This seems to me to be an example of embracing the moment - being aware of what surrounds me at any time. And yet, there is also the temptation to multitask, which can lead to unawareness. Composing poetry while walking, or driving, or in spare moments at work, can take attention away from what is in front of me. It can also lead to difficulty in sitting down at a blank page and really focusing on the writing for more than a few minutes at a time. Could you comment on these issues, and suggest ways in which Ten Zen Seconds can help overcome the negative aspects of the tendency to multitasking which is common these days?

Eric: Always having your notebook with you, concretely and as metaphor, is a crucial part of the creative process. It’s the proof that you’re taking your own ideas seriously and the only way to capture some of your best ideas, which are entirely likely to come when you are aren’t sitting at your desk.

Taking attention away from what’s in front of you, unless that thing in front of you is of vital importance (say that you are in the middle of performing a surgical operation), is exactly the right thing to do and VERY different from answering an email with your left hand while taking a phone order with your right hand.

Stopping everything to be creative is not multi-tasking, it is the very essence of meaning-making. The incantations that especially support this process of "stopping everything" in the service of your own good ideas are "I am completely stopping", "I am writing this down" (a variation of incantation 3), and "I am open to joy" - open to the joy of living your life as the creative person you intend yourself to be.


Pat said...

For years I have been a believer in the efficacy of centreing, deep breathing, meditation, mantras, Yoga etc. I agree these are useful phrases and may they help many people to cope.

Janet Grace Riehl said...

"Taking your notebook everywhere, both metaphorically and concretely..." yes...that's what's required and you show that beautifully in your post about spiral and the white gulls spirally...and the other prompts and how these cued you in to another level of meaning around you. Meaning-making is aligned with art-making...we are shaping our circumstances and surroundings and offering these shapings as our gift.

Janet Grace Riehl, author "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary"

carmilevy said...

I'm clipping this out and keeping it in my notebook. Whenever I need creative inspiration, I'll pull it out and read it again.

You always have a way of making the creative process seem that much more attainable.

Anonymous said...

Your blog looks great Catherine. Thanks for this reminder of the good work Eric Maisel is doing. I liked your questions too. love sarah

Anonymous said...

Hi Catherine,

Ah, looks like Eric is in Christchurch! Later this week he will be at my blog Thousand Sketches I am also in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand.

I enjoyed reading your interview, particularly about multitasking and creativity and am just in the process of composing some questions - I have a few up on my blog already.

Anonymous said...

Your extra questions were very helpful Catherine. Eric is always very big on getting up early in the morning and doing the work the moment your feet hit the ground, but I have found this very difficult. Have recently started going swimming at 7 am every morning which has eased me into a discipline. From tomorrow on I will work at 7 and go swimming later.
Baby steps.
all the best, Helen-Anne

Jan said...

The incantations were superb; as you write in your blog, each one of us will interpret them personally (however we wish/need) but we can ALL relate to them.
Thanks, Catherine, for this.

Anonymous said...

“Creating ought to come first each day.” So true! The days that we place our creative time right after our quiet time are much more fulfilling and productive.

Thanks Catherine and Eric!

Ray and Bernadette
Publishers, "Bernadette’s Pages: An Intimate Crossroad,"