Much has been written about presence and mindfulness, so I won’t bore you be repeating it. Instead I’ll simply cut directly to a technique I use to bring myself into the present moment.
Presence is when we get out of the ramblings of our heads and fully occupy the world around us. Focusing on the senses is a common practice in mindfulness. But it didn’t occur to me until quite recently that I don’t have to focus on all my senses at once to experience presence. One sense at a time will do.
The one I use the most often is hearing. When I make I cup of tea, I listen to the water pouring into the kettle, the clank of the kettle as I put it on the stove and the chime of the spoon against the inside of the cup as I stir the sugar in. When I wash my hands, I hear the rush of the water and the flow of it down the drain. When I can hear them, I listen to my footsteps. Or the whirr of the fan in the space heater. Or the whisper of the leaves outside my window. I also notice the silences between each sound, and the murmury noises that keep things from being completely silent.
I also take in the things I see. I notice the colors and textures of things and look at their shapes. I can see how those shapes fit together–the table, the books on the table, the covers on the books, the shapes and colors on the covers of the books. The important thing is to see the thing and stop there, without getting caught up in what the thing is or how you feel about it. Writing is particularly distracting, but I can always read and then refocus on the visual.
We often ignore the sense of touch. We notice it when we brush our fingertips against things, but every inch of our skin is laden with nerves that detect heat, cold, pressure, pleasure and pain. Sometimes I go beyond my fingertips and feel my clothes against my skin. I feel the ground against the soles of my feet as I walk, even with the intermediary of shoes. When I’m driving, I’ll feel the steering wheel in my hands and my seat underneath me. I feel the heat or the cold from the heater or air conditioning. All of this brings my body and mind into the present, where everything happens.
The essence of rich living is to fully occupy your life, which you can’t do if you’re not paying any attention to it. Engaging your senses allows you to capture all the miracles around you without letting them slip past. Try it sometime and see how it works for you.
I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go
–The Beatles, “Fixing a Hole”
The mind wanders. Whether this is a bug or feature depends perhaps on when it wanders and where it wanders to. It can make tedious situations bearable and can bear the seedlings of great ideas. But daydreaming can also lead to spirals of thought that send one veering downwards into worry and depression, especially when it gets stuck on one particular thing.
There are a lot of techniques for pulling out of that tailspin–meditation, mindfulness and so on–but there’s one that I stumbled on that I carry in my pocket that may be of some use to you.
In brief, it involves talking back to the wandering mind. In detail, I’ve come up with a number of phrases–you can modify them to ones that work for you, of course, but feel free to use these as starting points–to interrupt the line of thought and shift myself back into the present.
“But that will never happen.”
“That’s not the way it happened.”
“It’s over and I can’t change it.”
But that will never happen
One of my most common wanderings involves conjuring up worst case scenarios for things in the future or somethings even in the present. They can be theoretically possible things, or completely outlandish ones. Either way, they are anxiety inducing and tend to catch up the mind in all kinds of ruminations–I’m going to fall and break this thing I’m carrying, they’re going to hate me, I’m going to say something incredibly rude. (These are examples of worst case scenarios that I have indeed gotten my head stuck on.) The antidote is a simple phrase: “But that will never happen.” All at once, the daydream nightmare (daymare?) dissolves and the mind, with nowhere else to be, returns to the present moment.
Sometimes the thing I’m thinking about is a future event that will happen to me. A meeting with the boss, for example. I might find myself rehearsing the things I’m going to say and imagining the things my boss is going to say. More often than not, I find myself mentally defending against the harshest possible questions. In this case, “But that will never happen” still works for me. Yes, the meeting with the boss is going to happen, but it will not happen in the exact way that I’m imagining it. My predictions of what the boss is going to say are likely to be way off base, for example. So I take a breath and let it go. Sometimes I do rehearse, but I try to do it mindfully and deliberately instead of letting it rattle about it in my head while I’m waiting in the checkout line.
That’s not the way it happened
Another place my head gets stuck in is the past. I rehash things that happened and often rewrite them so I can, for example, say the things I wish I could have said in conversation or restructure the sequence of events to the way I wish things had gone. When rewriting, I stop it with “That’s not the way it happened.” Once again, that stops the brain’s wandering and restores the present moment.
It’s over and I can’t change it
When I manage to rehash what did happen without amending it, it can be stopped with “It’s over and I can’t change it. Let it go.” (In point of fact, “Let it go” can work as an all purpose phrase to halt brain ramblings in their tracks. Though it does run the risk of getting a Disney song stuck in your head.) Accepting what was is crucial to one’s peace of mind. Going over what happened doesn’t advance you, particularly when the things you’re going over are only making you miserable.
The essence of it is to bring the brain back to the present, where all life happens. Spending your time in a swamp of negativity that is ultimately ephemeral doesn’t gain you much of anything. But with a regular practice of pulling yourself out of that swamp, you can spend more time in the now and savor its riches.
Naked City is something of a cross between an open mic and a game show. People sign up to perform, they are called up at random and they are given five minutes to do whatever. If they go over five minutes, they must spin The Wheel of Consequences, which can result in anything from free drinks (either for you on the hosts’ tab or for the hosts on your tab) to bags of booze and dollar store trinkets to being recruited for a short piece of performance art.
The view from my seat
Each show has a theme. The theme for this month was Courage. I could have told a tale or two about the times I’ve shown courage in my life but instead I decided to do something courageous as a demonstration. Instead of a written piece, I would do a performance of sorts–I would hand out my flowers to anyone who wanted them.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’ve been reasonably good at producing flowers but not so good as distributing them. Approaching people to offer them free art feels a little too much like salesmanship and I am not a salesman. But I worked up my nerve to sign up and when my number was called I went up and explained what I was about to do. I invited people to come up to the podium and receive a flower.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Or, rather, I had expectations, but they were contradictory ones. My pessimistic self claimed that no one would come up at all. My cautious self suggested a few would. My optimistic self predicted that lots of people would come and that they would be happy to receive the flowers.
My optimistic self won the bet. People were on their feet, lining up in what one person called a more fun version of communion. They were delighted and I was too. It happened so swiftly that I didn’t even have to spin the Wheel of Consequences either.
As per usual when I face down a fear, I felt a surge of bliss as a result. People thanked me for the flowers and congratulated me for my display of courage.
I still have hundreds to give away. I’ll just have to keep being courageous.
Click here to learn more about The Ten Thousand Flowers Project.
Just next to my local library, there is a labyrinth. Instead of a minotaur, the center holds a white post which says “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in a multiplicity of languages.
Not a recent picture.
The path is defined with brick and covered with gravel over bare earth. Over time, the gravel has thinned and weeds and grass have taken hold. In the thick of summer, the weeds can get so high that the path is obscured completely. So I started pulling up weeds.
But I came to the hardest conclusion I’ve had to come to, which is the realization that I can’t do this alone.
So, what are you going to do about it?
My plan is to recruit help with this enormous task and beat back the weeds so they won’t need to mow the place just to keep the path visible.
How do you plan to do that?
First, I’ve set a date and time–August 23rd, 2014 from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM. Next, I’ve put the word out in a few select venues that this thing is happening. And third, I’m putting up this blog post to spread the word that way.
Where is this, again?
It’s just behind Sandy Springs Library at 395 Mount Vernon Hwy NE, Sandy Springs, GA 30328. (Note: the parking lot closest to it only has an entrance on the Mount Vernon side of the library.)
What should people expect?
They should expect to come dressed for dirty work and bring whatever gardening implements they think may help. There’s plenty of weeding to go around. They should probably wear sunscreen and definitely bring water.
Why would anybody want to do this?
Because it’s a helpful thing to do that makes the place better for everyone.
Any other questions? Leave ’em in the comments and I’ll try to get to them as soon as I’m able.
I think if this peculiar project has taught me anything, it’s that I never would have made it as a professional artist. Because I can’t even give the stuff away.
In terms of production, I’m still slightly behind the rate of a flower a day that I’d originally set for myself, because the Head Gremlins managed to stop me for long stretches and I haven’t quite caught up yet. It probably doesn’t help that the number of Flowers As Yet To Be Given Away has stacked up to the point that a hundred people could suddenly hit me up for flowers and I’d still have another few hundred to spare.
I’m still figuring out the best way to give these things away in a way that doesn’t obliterate the message I’m hoping to send with this. I don’t want to market or monetize these flowers and I want to make sure they are led to places where they will be kept, rather than discarded like advertising flyers and other such free things we take for granted. (I found a few on the floor when I gave away a stack of them on New Year’s Eve and it absolutely broke my heart to see them there. I picked them up, dusted them off and later found them better homes.)
Until I catch the viral infection of Warhol Syndrome and get that precious fifteen minutes to spread the word in, I guess all I can do it what I’ve been doing so far in my tortoise steps to that finish line marked by the ten thousandth flower.
I finished Flower 680 today. I still have a ways to go.
Click this link to find out more about the Ten Thousand Flowers Project.
Today, according to my calculations, is the one year anniversary of the day I embarked on this mad project. The gremlins in the head did win enough battles, so that my current rate is a little less than a flower a day, but I hope to rectify that soon.
It was easy enough to keep track of things when I was mailing them out in the order I received requests, but when I starting going out into the world and handing them out personally it became a little harder to calculate what I’d given away and what I still had to give. Fortunately, I number and date each flower as I draw it, so it’s not impossible, it just takes a little more work.
I don’t keep track of what happens to each flower by number, other than this one particular exception, because Flower #71 has a different story than any other flower I’ve drawn so far.
When I heard about Free Art Friday in Atlanta, my first thought was “That sounds like fun! I want to play, too!” The only problem was, markers and index cards aren’t exactly the most weatherproof of mediums. My attempted solution was to paint up an empty Coke bottle, place the flower inside, cork it and wrap the cork in foil in the hopes of protecting the delicate medium from the elements.
I hope that someone gets my . . .
There turned out to be two fundamental problems with this bit of presumed cleverness. One was that it didn’t work. The other was that it didn’t work.
It didn’t work because I placed it somewhere where nobody was really looking. And it didn’t work because despite my best efforts to clean out the bottle and seal it properly, a bit of lingering moisture got in and when I finally extracted the flower from the bottle the results were not pretty.
This? Not pretty.
I held on to it for a few months, trying to figure out what to do with it. I felt awful about the idea of giving it to someone in the state it was in and even withdrew it from circulation until I came to a decision.
This was my solution:
...one day this will all be ashes...
I shot video for as long as I could manage before I needed two hands to light another match. By the end of it, I was reduced to spiking it on a hatpin gripped with pliers and holding it over a candle like a toasted marshmallow.
It felt surprisingly liberating. Now I can let my flowers go and know that whatever happens to them, it can’t be any worse than what I’ve already done to Flower #71.
Click the magic link to learn more about the Ten Thousand Flowers Project.
I’ve done a bit of tweakery to simplify the link to the Ten Thousand Flowers project and I decided to go ahead and register the domain 10KFlowers.com to point here. (I’m still keeping Wonderbink.com, though, because who else would want it?)
It’s been not quite a year since I embarked on this crazy idea and it’s a bit disheartening to realize that my current flower count is rather less than it would have been if I’d drawn a flower a day from the start. There were long stretches of time where the gremlins won out and nothing got drawn. I’m still hoping to make up for that.
Still, I am further ahead than if I’d done nothing at all. My little tracking system is still intact, and showing signs of some kind of progress.
...a progression of tiny dots...
And flowers 191 through 200 do look a touch better than flowers 1-10.
(and they were all drawn on the same day, too)
Now that it’s warm enough to venture outside, there are more art festival type events where I can plant myself and try to find more people willing to take these flowers off my hands and give them proper homes. I’m also glad to mail them to anybody who sends me a SASE. And if you’re reading this and you’re one of the lovely people who already has one, thank you from the bottom of my fractured heart.
Click here to obtain one of these ten thousand flowers.
How do you break into comics? Post your comics on the web. Poof! You’re in comics. How to make any money in comics? That’s the big question.
–Evan Dorkin, in a Twitter post.
Evan Dorkin is a comic book artist who is probably best known as the creator of Milk and Cheese and, more recently, as the writer of Beasts of Burden. If you know nothing about comic books beyond what arrives in the movie theaters, you more than likely haven’t heard of him. Nevertheless, I think that Dorkin’s Big Question is one that every creator in just about any artistic medium in this Internet age needs to start asking and coming up with better answers for.
How do you break into publishing? Write some books and upload them to Amazon or iTunes. Poof! You’re in publishing. How to make any money in publishing? That’s the big question.
How do you become an artist? Make some art and sell it online. Poof! You’re an artist. How to make money as an artist? There’s that big question again.
How do you break into film? Shoot a movie and put it online. Poof! You’re in film. How do you break into music? Record some songs and put them online. Poof! You’re a musician.
How to make money at it? That’s Dorkin’s Big Question.
I spent this past weekend down in Alabama for my third go-round at the Doo-Nanny. I made twelve bucks selling bottles of water and soda and somebody tipped me a buck when I gave him one of my ten thousand flowers. I didn’t sell a single piece, not even one of my wishing stars which I usually sell at least one of at these sorts of things.
The Monday after my return, I hung my art up on the walls, propped up what I couldn’t hang and decided to just leave them there. And it felt so good to do it I should really quit things more often. Not that I’m quitting the word art, exactly–I still have some ideas I’d like to try out and there’s one recent piece I’m quite proud of that I’ll be posting about Real Soon Now–but I’m giving up on any hope I ever had of taking this up as a day job.
And I’m finer than fine with that, and I’ll tell you why. Because even if this art thing had taken off as a day job, it would only have been to sustain my writing habit. So maybe I should just cut out the middleman and turn the writing habit into some kind of day job and then I’ll have this word art and flower-scribbling hobby to refresh myself when I need a break from doing that.
Now, how to make money writing? Well, that’s Dorkin’s Big Question again, isn’t it?
Yes, I will be at the Doo-Nanny.
Yes, I’m bringing art. And flowers.
Yes, I’m looking forward to it.
No, I haven’t finished packing yet.
Excuse me while I get on that.
It’s been roughly six months since I got it in my head that I would draw and give away ten thousand flowers and I think I’ve gotten a grand total of six envelopes mailed in my direction. When I infiltrated Flux 2011 and set myself up at a table, I was able to draw and give away nearly fifty flowers there. But now the flowers are starting to accumulate in my art supply bag and I haven’t been able to find a suitable venue to distribute them by hand again.
Knowing that the Internet thrives on laziness, I decided to make it just a step easier for someone to acquire a flower from me. On the Ten Thousand Flowers page you will now find a PayPal donate button, where you can send me the money to reimburse me for postage and envelopes and provide me an address to mail a flower to. For simplicity’s sake, round it up to $1.00 for a flower mailed inside the United States and $2.00 for a flower mailed internationally. If you want to round it up even higher, be my guest–any excess funds can go towards more index cards, internet hosting fees and maybe a cup of tea to sip as I draw.
So if you’ve wanted one of these scribbly flowers but you’ve been procrastinating getting it because you pay all your bills online and haven’t used a stamped envelope for anything in ages, I’ve now cleared a path for you to acquire one. Enjoy!
Click here to receive one of my ten thousand flowers.