Will Travel for Words: A Mindful Place by Karen A. Chase
Where is your happy place? You know it well. It’s that spot on the planet where your memory takes you when you’re stressed or need a break. Perhaps it’s a beach. A forest? Home?
For writers, our happy place can be a reprieve from the time we spend with our shoulders scrunched up. Our backs are often hunched over a keyboard, tapping words on to pages. Breath quick. Sometimes worried. Sometimes blocked.
In those stressful writing moments, it helps me to go to my happy place. For a long time, that spot has been a lush green path on the eastern side of Emerald Lake in British Columbia. There, the air is Canadian clean. Not another soul rustles a single leaf. The sky above is wide. Expansive.
Yet, when I attended a mindfulness retreat this month, I realized that my happy place wasn’t very mindful.
Think of your happy spot again. Now tell me what happens to your body when you think of it… Do you breathe slower? Deeper? Maybe your jaw unclenches. Are you perhaps smiling? Your shoulders… do they drop away from your ears? This is the physical reaction you want when you visualize your happy place.
It’s not what I was getting. While my Canadian trail was visually gorgeous, when I was last there, I was also hiking it alone. Quite alone. A storm threatened at one point. I wasn’t sure if the people I was to meet at the end of the trail were impatiently waiting for me. I was arrested by the beauty, but also by some basic fears.
Even thinking of it now, my physical reaction matches what happens when our bodies are stressed. Our amygdala, or reptile brain, kicks in. Our sympathetic nervous system takes over. That back-of-the-head portion of the brain has an ancient history of believing we might be some creature’s lunch.
So it heightens our senses, and we begin to breathe in our chest, not our diaphragm. Blood pressure climbs higher. The heart thumps erratically. Eyes dart around. We get twitchy. We’re overcome with a desire to fight, freeze or flee. Not exactly a happy place, is it?
But mindfulness brings us out of that caveman state. Mindfulness causes our parasympathetic system to sweep in like a cool breeze. It brings us out of the reptilian brain, and lets us use our mammalian heads in our prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain regulates behavior, manages and analyzes data, and lets us act on reason. Calmly.
We can train ourselves to stay in prefrontal mode more and more. All it takes is a little practice (kind of like writing does), and a few tricks. Yoga and meditation are common practices, but some methods don’t involve the mat or sitting for hours at a time.
Deep breathing through the nose from the diaphragm is one method. If you lightly interlace your hands on your belly, you know you’re breathing correctly when you’re fingers pull apart on the inhale. As Sharon Salzberg says in Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, “Let the breath lead the way.”
For us visual people, a happy place can become an escape hatch to the prefrontal cortex. In order for that place to have a calming affect, it has to cause a physical reaction that ignites that parasympathetic nervous system.
Consequently, this Christmas I’m giving myself a new happy place. I’ll take my time picking it out. I’ll enjoy the act of giving, and receiving.
As the year turns, my hope for you, dear readers and writers, is that you will also find a mindful happy place. A place to breathe. A place to reside calmly. A place where you can and will travel for words.
See you in January.
Karen A. Chase is a regular contributor to Shelf Pleasure, sharing journeys near and far in the pursuit of stories and novels in her monthly feature, Will Travel for Words. She is the author of Bonjour 40: A Paris Travel Log, winner of seven Independent Book Publishing Awards for travel and design. She is currently working on an historical novel set during the American Revolution. Find Karen on Facebook or on Twitter.
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