Sustaining the creative life: From the big picture to a single breath

Guest and topic: Eric Maisel and Ten Zen Seconds

Today I’m en route to the East Coast for the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference, followed by a quick stop at the fall sales conference for our distributor, National Book Network.

The photo shows part of what I’ve packed for the trip. The guest I have here today is Eric Maisel, the author of one of the books I’m taking along, Ten Zen Seconds.

Eric Maisel is a writer, creativity coach, psychologist, and more. The occasion for his appearance here is this brand-new book, just released by independent publisher Sourcebooks.

Yesterday’s post lists some of Eric’s publishing background and a few comments on how his work in general has helped mine.

Eric has developed a practical, simple set of techniques for centering the mind and clearing out clutter. (Wow, do I need this . . . and I can also say Eric’s methods work.) The techniques can be used quickly (ten seconds), unobtrusively, and anywhere. I’ve found these tools useful for transitioning to creative work—especially when my more mundane task lists are overloaded. They’re also helpful for times like being stuck in traffic, which I’m pretty good at but can always use more tricks to manage.

Today’s post here is part of a seven-week blog tour for Ten Zen Seconds. Throughout the tour, lots of people are looking at how Eric’s ten-second centering techniques apply to their creative activities and everyday lives. I’m looking forward to checking out some of the other participants’ blogs (and catching up on my blog reading in general!) while I’m on the road.

Because, like Eric, I have more ideas than time to implement them, one of the many things that interests me about this new book is how Ten Zen Seconds (both the book and the practice) has been derived from and is helpful to Eric’s own creative process. The breadth and depth that his work demonstrates obviously requires careful attention to his own creative impulses and methods.


DR: Hi, Eric! Welcome to The Independent Stitch. Thanks for taking the time to be here.

Here are a few of the things I’ve been thinking about your new book, along with a handful of questions.

Ten Zen Seconds merges Western with Eastern concepts. From the Western fields of cognitive and positive psychology, you drew the idea that we can strongly influence our experience of life by shifting our thoughts. From Eastern spiritual traditions, you incorporated breath awareness and mindfulness techniques.

In order to devise a simple and powerful synthesis like the one you’ve come up with, you needed to combine depth of knowledge about the outside world with personal experience.

I know you’ve got undergraduate degrees in philosophy and psychology, master’s degrees in counseling and creative writing, and a doctorate in counseling psychology.

In addition to your background in Western thought, how did you explore and embrace the Eastern ideas that are essential to your vision of the simple, powerful Ten Zen Seconds combination?

EM: By involving myself, in a peripheral rather than a “convert” way, in those Eastern practices. For many years I worked at a San Francisco counseling center, The Marina Counseling Center, with counselors who, in their “other lives,” were Zen dharma teachers, Reiki teachers, and so on. Because we were a training facility, we had regular access to workshops in everything arcane, occult, and Eastern.

At one point I teamed up with a Zen dharma teacher and abbot (now a Zen master) and we began offering a training called “Zen and Creativity.” So I have been a modest “student of Eastern practices” through my work in the transpersonal psychology world, rather than through any formal or regular practice—except that I have incorporated many of those ideas into my daily life in such a way that they inform my “everyday creativity practice.”

DR: In one of the interviews in which you’ve explained the Ten Zen Seconds process, you say, “I’m not much of a fan of self-help books that come entirely from the author’s head; this one has been tested in the crucible of reality.”

I participated in the online group that contributed to the development of the ideas in this book, so I know something about the ways in which other people have tested these ideas in the crucibles of their realities.

Can you talk a bit about how you have tested it in your own reality?

EM: As a creativity coach (and therapist) for more than twenty years, I have grown keenly aware—really hyper-aware—of what my clients say to themselves (as it comes out in their speech during coaching sessions) and what I say to myself, and how often those “utterances” and pieces of self-talk not only do not serve our aims and interests but really undermine our efforts. This, of course, is the central tenet of both cognitive psychology and Buddhism, that “we are what we think” and that we need to “get a grip on our mind” in order to function properly.

I am always noticing if something I say to myself amounts to me “getting in my own way,” and I credit the lion’s share of my productivity to the fact that I think few thoughts that impede me. I almost can’t think a “negative” thought without noticing it, disputing it, and substituting a thought that serves me better. The incantations—the thoughts at the core of Ten Zen Seconds—initially arose from a personal recognition of which of those “better thoughts” were proving most effective and were then tested on others.

DR: I’m a lot better at shifting my thoughts than I used to be, and I’ve found that everything I learn about it helps enormously. Even though I’m allergic to affirmations! What you’re talking about is different.

One of your comments in Ten Zen Seconds is: “As a cultural matter, you have little or no permission to incorporate ten-second centering into your life. . . . To center you will need to step outside the culture.”

How do you see that this perception arose from your own experience?

EM: It really hasn’t arisen so much from own experience, as I am always stepping out of the culture and “fighting” with the culture and not minding looking conspicuous. But in working with clients I see how much trouble they have “looking conspicuous” and dealing with powerful self-consciousness around such “innocent” matters as writing in a café or painting out of doors.

The more you care about how others view you, what others are thinking about you, how seemly you are looking, and so on, the less permission you will have to do anything “unusual” in public, whether that unusual thing is stopping to write a paragraph, do a little tai chi under a tree, or spend ten seconds centering.

DR: I’ve been writing in public for decades. Yet as we’re preparing this interview, I’m wondering whether I’ll be comfortable doing yoga in a corner of the boarding area at the airport (or uncomfortable but doing it anyway).

In another of your books, The Van Gogh Blues, you say “[Y]our life plan may still make all the sense in the world . . . , but the reality of your situation makes you despair.”

I’ve been challenged all my life by balancing the absolute necessity of creating (without which I do go nuts) with responsibility toward others—parenting, financial reliability, friendship, and other aspects of a full, well-rounded life. I’m also currently reading Jeannette WallsThe Glass Castle, about her experiences as the child of two determined creative spirits who did not successfully achieve these balances. It’s really amazing that the four kids survived.

Can you talk a bit about how Ten Zen Seconds might help others who strive to do their own work while still being good citizens and family members?

EM: One of the great tricks, tasks, and challenges that a creative person faces is “switching gears” between everyday life, where mistakes and messes are really neither wanted nor acceptable (you don’t actually want your checkbook not to balance or your customers to return their purchases) and creative work, where you must have complete intellectual and more importantly visceral permission to make BIG mistakes and messes, mistakes and messes on the order of spending two years writing a book that may never come alive (which, if you are wise, you chalk up to process and move right on to your next book).

Since switching gears between two diametrically opposed ways of being is really so difficult, you want some tools that make this transition possible—and that’s where the Ten Zen Seconds techniques come in really handy. You use incantation 1, “I am completely stopping,” to announce to yourself that you are “stopping” your usual work, where things are supposed to be mistake-free, and preparing to enter a world where anything can happen; then you use the name-your-work incantation, incantation 3, to say something like “I am writing my novel” or “I am painting now” to let yourself know that you are fully and actively entering that other world. By using this method, you can switch gears more easily—and ultimately effortlessly—between your “everyday life” and your “creative life.”

DR: I’m working on this, and I expect to get in some concentrated practice while I travel—with the intention of making progress on at least one of my creative projects despite the fact that I’ll be in strange places and will be juggling an unusual set of conflicting demands.

Thanks again, Eric. I always appreciate your insights and the tools you have figured out for the rest of us to benefit from.


1 thought on “Sustaining the creative life: From the big picture to a single breath”

  1. Deb, I love the photo! It’s a wonderful example of a creative life in its own right. You’ve also set up the interview and the information in a very helpful and cozy way. Good luck on your trip. May all be well.

    Janet Grace Riehl, author “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary,”

Comments are closed.