Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A hard habit to break: Engaging the little Zen master within

My friend Paul is ending a 30 day fast from processed foods, sugars, red meat, dairy, and beer. He's admittedly a stubborn soul, and even managed to stick to the diet on an annual boys night out for steak and beer.

In Paul's latest post, he mentions trying to change up some other patterns in his life. Walking around the lake a different way, he had to fight the natural inclination to look for a familiar view on the right, now on his left.

In the November 2009 issue of O Magazine, Martha Beck writes about tapping into the oft-ignored right brain. In "Half a Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste," Beck refers to using deep practice to wake up your right mind, to build new skill circuits. "First, visualize an ability you'd like to acquire — swimming like Dara Torres, painting like Grandma Moses ... Then try to replicate that behavior. Initially, you'll fail. That's good; failure is an essential element of deep practice. Next, analyze your errors, noting exactly where your performance didn't match your ideal. Now try again. You'll still probably fail (remember, that's a good thing), but in Samuel Beckett's words, you'll 'fail better.' "

She then offers a few ways to engage in deep practice and wake up your right mind. I decided to practice using my nondominant hand (left) to have a bilateral conversation.

"For this exercise, take a pencil in your right hand (even if you're left-handed) and write the question: 'How's it going?' Then switch to your left hand, and write whatever pops up. Your nondominant hand's writing will be shaky — that's okay. The important thing isn't tidiness; it's noticing that your twin hemispheres have different personalities. The right side of the brain, which controls the left hand, will say things you don't know that you know. It specializes in assessing your physical and mental feelings, and it often offers solutions. 'Take a nap,' your right hemisphere might say, or 'Just do what feels right; we'll be fine.' You'll find there's a little Zen master in that left of yours (not surprisingly, left-handed people are disproportionately represented in creative professions).

Little Zen master, indeed.

How's it going? my right hand wrote.

And in shaky, childlike, almost illegible print, I wrote:

"I'm scared. I keep telling people (now, instead of continuing, I feel frustrated that I can't write fast enough, there's an inner critic mocking that I can't do this, that it looks like a child's writing. But a different, kinder voice (right brain?) is telling me to take my time, to laugh at myself, that part of me who thought I could do this perfectly. Okay to slow down. And that maybe — this is perfect."

For those who know what I fear, it's perfection, or really, the lack thereof. Perfectionist thoughts stop me in the middle of creating, of being myself. It's time to tap into that kinder right brain that tells me to slow down, to laugh at myself.


I first heard of nondominant practice at a Sundance screening of the film "Helen," where Ashley Judd talked about inhabiting the character of Helen. "I did a lot of nondominant hand writing," she said, "to get out of the way, and found the heart and emotion through breath work."

Have you tried this? What was the outcome?

1 comment:

paul thomas said...

This is what my spiritual director called "re-wiring the brain." Our synapses are so used to firing in long-used patterns that they resist a new direction. The path of least resistance, etc.

The writing exercise sounds interesting, I will try it.

The book recommended to me for changing brain (and body) behavior was Addiction and Grace by Gerald May. It's very good.