The joys of mindful writing

"A pale blue milk–bottle filled with gypsophila. The tiny gypsophila blossoms are like scrunched up balls of white tissue paper, and they perch on the ends of thin candelabra stems."

Just an ordinary, humble bunch of flowers. And yet when I bring my attention to them in order to describe them to you, they take on luminosity. They become radiant.

This is the essence of mindful writing. The world is all around us, offering us great treasures, and yet we rarely have the time to pause and notice them.

I’d like to introduce you to a simple mindful writing tool called a ‘small stone’. The first paragraph of this article is a small stone. It is a few moments of concentrated attention, written down. A small stone doesn’t have any particular form – it can be written in prose or in verse or even a photo or drawing. It doesn’t have to be in poetic language and you don’t need any experience of writing to write them. It is simply a record of what you observe – the precise details of what you can see, what you can hear, what you can touch…

Writing small stones can have such a positive effect because it takes us outside of ourselves. We are often told that to find happiness we need to nourish ourselves, give ourselves what we want, and build up our self–esteem. This focus on ‘self’ can often include becoming more and more certain about ‘who we are’. We like to ‘know who we are’, because it counters the scary reality of impermanence.

When we cling to this certainty about ‘who we are’, we see the world more and more through ‘me–coloured’ glasses, seeking out things that support our view of ourselves, and cleverly avoiding evidence that points towards parts of ourselves we’d rather not see. This becomes limiting and cuts us off from the world, others, and parts of ourselves.

It is important to be kind to ourselves, but a Buddhist view on self–building is that it is actually more helpful to loosen our self structures, to allow them to become more flexible. Rather than becoming more dependent on thinking ‘this is exactly who I am’, we can stay open to the possibility of a broader definition of self. This is one of the things we do in therapy.

One of the best ways of loosening our rigid ideas of self is to allow ourselves to be influenced by what is outside us – to let information in from the wide world with as few filters as we can. The world will tell us what we need to know, if we allow it to. Opening up our senses, paying careful attention and writing small stones is a good way to do this.

The beauty of small stones is that you don’t need any special equipment or skills to write them – just yourself and a pen and a piece of paper. You don’t need an hour every day – five minutes is enough. You don’t need to go anywhere special. I wrote my small stone about the vase of flowers in front of me, but I could have written about the scored and stained wooden desk under my laptop, or the sound of my fingers on the keyboard or the scent of baking bread on the air. 

Writing small stones isn’t just about capturing beauty, either. We believe that a balanced life requires getting to know the darkness as well as we know the light. We can write small stones about the sour surprise of gone–off milk, the baby screaming, the thin long slug our cat brought into the house on his bushy tail. 

Outside, the clouds are sweeping across the pale sky, from right to left, as if they are moving on a river of air. Sunlight glints on a navy blue van. A car passes and the heavy bass from the stereo pulses through the walls and into my office.

Writing small stones will help you connect to the ordinary objects around you. It will help you see the world more clearly, without your ‘me–coloured’ glasses. It will help you snuggle up to the world, one moment of attention at a time. Will you write one today?

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