As a professional writer who is also a meditation teacher, I’ve used mindful writing exercises for many years. I find it improves all my writing, my poetry, my journalism, my novel writing, and, importantly, my enjoyment of all those things. Plus, it makes for excellent therapy.
According to Ruth Ozeki [author and Zen Buddhist priest] there is a direct relationship between writing and mindfulness. Both techniques are therapeutic. The meditative exercise of mindfulness has been scientifically proven to help with everything from stress to anxiety to blood pressure and, thanks to luminaries like Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn, has become incredibly popular of late. And on the writing side we have things like poetry therapy, mindful journaling, and of course writing therapy, which was devised by James W. Pennebaker in the late 1980s.
Mindful writing enhances our craft and strengthens our minds. It promotes open awareness and also heightens our appreciation of language. Daily mindful writing exercises can increase our self-awareness and help us to put our thoughts on paper. It also aids our self development. Writing down goals with pen and paper helps to make them more tangible, and journaling can provide us with a clearer sense of development. I find that when I write my feelings down I also accept them, which is a big part of both mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Although there is little research specifically on mindful writing exercises, we do know from science that there are benefits of journaling. James Pennebaker at the University of Texas, Austin, states the journaling strengthens T-lymphocytes immune cells [which is backed by further research (Murray, 2002).] and helps with stressful events [backed by Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005].
So let me share with you my favourite mindful writing meditation exercises. [You will probably want to read my guide to Meditations For Creativity too]
I’m going to presume that you already know just how darned brilliant mindfulness exercises are for your health and for your happiness. [READ: Best Mindfulness Meditation Exercises]
The Best Mindfulness Writing Exercises
According to the University of Virginia Mindfulness Center, mindful writing exercises “use mindfulness to access the inner voice that we all have, which leads to the authentic self.”
In my personal experience as a meditation teacher, the following are the best meditations for writers. And you might also like to read my article How To Improve Your Imagination.
1) Breathing Meditation Before Writing
Breathing meditations are the best place to start when you’re learning mindfulness. And if you are doing a mindful writing exercise I strongly advise that you to start with mindful breathing before you begin your main technique. In Buddhism this is called Anapansati, which is one of the main methods I teach in my online meditation lessons.
Try this simple method:
- Sit somewhere quiet and relaxing.
- Tell yourself you are going to sit and focus for 5 minutes.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- Focus on the sensation of your breath moving around your body.
- Take 108 breaths in this fashion.
- Notice how you are now serene and focused.
2) Vipassana with a pen (mindfully writing your mind)
Vipassana is essentially insight. It is one of the two main qualities of mind developed through meditation according to the Pali Canon. According to ven. S. N. Goenka, Vipassana helps you to recognise and understand your thoughts.
Vipassana helps you to:
- overcome any hiccoughs you have about your work
- make you more aware of your thoughts, which can help with characterisation (especially in first person writing).
The one difference between doing this exercise as a traditional meditation and a mindful writing exercise is that in mindful writing you write your observances on paper.
Try this technique:
- Continue from the breathing technique above
- Begin to notice where your mind wanders
- Label the thing your mind wanders to (see points below)
- If your mind wanders to a thought, say “this is a thought”.
- If your mind wanders to a bodily sensation, say “this is a sensation.”
- If your mind wanders to sensory information, say “this is vision / sound / touch / scent / taste”
- This technique trains the mind to be more aware of when it is wandering. It teaches us to regain our focus quicker (meaning less wasted time at the keyboard)
This mindful writing exercise helps us differentiate between the conceptualising self (which processes thoughts with experiences) and the observing self (which simply observes thins as they are).
3) Zen Walking
I use Zen Walking Meditation for one simple reason. After writing for ten hours (I write as a novelist and journalist and blogger = lots of writing) I have to get out of the house. And I also need to relax.
Zen Walking Meditation gives me a fantastic break that also helps me to relax and clear my mind.
4) Character Awareness (for creative writers)
As a creative writer, you want to understand your characters and get into their shoes. What better way than to completely clear your mind and focus 100% on your character.
It’s simple too.
Just close your eyes and focus on your breathing for 10 minutes, then bring your character to mind. Visualize every detail of them. Imagine what they look like, how they move, how they speak, the words they use, their thoughts and feelings, everything. This will improve your creative writing by helping you to step into your character’s shoes.
5: Stream-of-consciousness mindful writing exercise
When starting meditation, writers should spend at least ten minutes letting go of thoughts. Stream-of-consciousness writing can help.
“Stream of Consciousness” is a term coined by American philosopher and psychologist William James, whom you might know as the brother of the novelist Henry James. In the book “The Principles of Psychology”, James explains that stream-of-consciousness is spontaneous writing that gives you an opportunity to release thoughts onto paper.
To do this:
- Begin writing your thoughts. Whatever you think, you write.
Remember, the key is not to judge the writing but instead to let it flow freely.
This is a wonderful form of writing therapy. By transcribing your mind onto paper you gain an all new perspective on your thoughts and feelings. You will inevitably notice that much of your stress and anxiety is based on illogical thoughts. By seeing those thoughts in ink you will immediately recognise the delusional nature of the mind. This will help you to overcome negative thoughts and difficult emotions.
6: Mindfully write about beauty
Psychologists have proven that the ability to appreciate beauty is vital to happiness (*1). Indeed, the Apperciation of Beauty is one of the “Character Strengths” defined in Positive Psychology, created by psychology Martin Seligman.
One way to appreciate beauty is to describe it in written words.
- Get a pen and paper
- Sit somewhere relaxing and beautiful
- Take ten mindful breaths
- Notice anything around you that is beautiful
- Begin to write a realistic description of it. Perhaps there’s a beautiful flower with rich colours. If so, describe the colours. Maybe it’s a sound, like birdsong. If so, describe the tonality and melody.
- Move on to another beautiful thing
- Write a minimum of 1000 words
This mindful writing exercise trains the mind to recognise the beauty of every moment, which boosts happiness. And at the same time, it improves your still-life writing.
7: Self Awareness for both creative writing and mindful therapy
One of the essential novel-writing skills is the ability to describe emotions accurately. Usually, we write about the emotions of our characters. But to improve this skill, we can mindfully write about our own emotions.
This is a type of mindfulness meditation. And not only will it improve your writing, but it will also strengthen your mind.
Mindfulness meditation involves non-judgmentally observing our thoughts and feelings. This has been scientifically proven to help us control our emotions.
There is a better way for writers to do this mindfulness writing exercise: by writing down our observations. Here’s how.
- Get a pen and paper
- Sit somewhere quiet and relaxing
- Take ten mindful breaths
- Observe the feelings and emotions in your mind
- Begin to write about those emotions by describing them mindfully.
- Your emotions will change while you write. Follow your emotions. As they change, write about how they are changing.
This mindful writing technique achieves two things:
- It makes us more aware of our emotions, which improves emotional regulation
- It improves our ability to write about a character’s feelings and motivations.
8: Body Scan for character detail and anxiety relief
Another excellent mindfulness writing exercise is to observe the sensations in the body consciously. This improves both you ability to describe your protagonist and other fictional characters, but also helps with anxiety and stress. It is part of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program devised by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
To do this, you simply scan your body from your head to your toes (each step should take about a minute, so for instance the crown of your head is one minute, your eyes another minute and so on). While scanning, write about what you observe in your body. This will massively increase your non-judgmental awareness of physical sensations.
9: Creative writing exercise
Another vital area of mindfulness pertains to the way we observe our physical form. It is best to have a non-judgmental view of the body. This liberates us from any issue with body image and makes us more accepting and more compassionate of the body. One of the best ways to create this state is by imagining we are a character in a story.
To do this, we describe ourselves objectively in a non-judgemental fashion. This improves self-awareness. Plus, as a bonus: by describing ourselves objectively, we learn to write more detailed and more realistic characters.
10: Mindful writing prompt
My favourite mindful writing prompt is this: “The light touches…”
The key to using this mindful writing prompt is to become conscious of light in an environment, and then write about how the light moves, the objects it comes into contact with, and how those objects change it.
This mindful writing prompt increases mindfulness of sight. As we follow the light throughout the room, we become mindful of objects, of their shape, colour, texture, and all their visual qualities.
In her excellent book The Creative Brain, Shelly Carson reveals that when we mindfully observe the visual make-up of our environment, we boost our creative powers and we become more playful.
Make sure you write your response to this mindful writing prompt the old fashion way, using pen and paper instead of typing on your cellphone or computer. In my experience, handwriting is much better for opening the mind and cultivating mindfulness.
11: Observe and eliminate distractions
Distractions are funny things. They’re only distractions when we’re not fully conscious of them.
If we’re at work but really texting, the text is a distraction because it is preventing us from being fully conscious of our work. But when we fully focus on texting (the distraction), it stops being a distraction and becomes a task that we are performing mindfully.
We can take advantage of this by writing about those distractions. This makes us more conscious of how we are being distracted. After writing about the distractions, tear up the paper (or delete the text if typing), and throw it away, imagining that the distractions are being thrown away with it.
12: Transcribe the mind
This is one of the most enlightening mindful writing exercises. It is similar to stream of consciousness writing but with some crucial differences.
The gist of it is to transcribe whatever runs through the mind. Not only do we write our thoughts, but we also write the quality of the thoughts, the loudness, the feelings, everything.
There are many ways to go about this. Feel free to experiment. Or try the following:
- Change the colours of the writing (for instance, if it’s an angry thought make it red)
- Use different letter sizes to express loudness
- Experiment with different fonts.
The end result of this process will look something like a piece of modern art, an artistic expression of the mind. And the process of creating it will not just increase mindfulness but will illustrate the mind in a way most people have never seen. This exercise has to be experienced to be believed.
Benefits of Mindful Writing Exercises
There are significant benefits of meditation for writers.
As a meditation teacher and novelist, I’m often asked about using meditation for creative writing. Meditation is huge for writers and journalists. Not only does it make you more intelligent, but it also improves your imagination.
To illustrate the value of meditation to writers, let me share a personal story. It’s a time when I personally needed to use some writing meditation exercises to help me with my novel.
I was working on a young adult fantasy (can’t give much away, sorry). My head had been buried in my manuscript. I’d been writing non-stop for ages. Suddenly I realised that I wasn’t thinking clearly and that I was working in the fashion of an automaton, punching the keyboard without thought.
I needed to clear my mind.
I needed to sit and focus.
So I sat for twenty minutes meditating. And hey, presto! After a mere twenty minutes, I suddenly realised a crucial plot point in my novel, a twist that made the entire 75,000-word manuscript significantly stronger. I wish I could share that plot point with you, but my book is currently with the agent, and I’m not allowed to discuss it until it’s complete, so I’ll have to wait for now. Suffice to say, the plot point I added brought the whole thing together.
I can honestly say that I would never have realised the change I needed to make had I not meditated. That’s just one of the benefits of meditation for writers: it helps you notice things.
Meditation cleared my mind, made me look at my novel through fresh eyes, and gave me the insight I needed to finish my work.
And that’s just one of the times that meditating has helped my creative writing. In truth, meditation has been the backbone of my writing for a long time. I always find that I do my best creative work after meditating. I need a blank page in my mind before I can fill a blank page on the screen. And that’s what meditation gives me: a blank page.
But there are a lot more benefits of writing-meditation exercises for writers too.
Let’s take a look at the list of exercises first. Then we’ll discuss the benefits of these exercises.
- Meditation creates compassion, making you feel closer to your characters.
- It cuts out distractions so you can focus on your novel.
- It makes you more mindful, more aware. This helps with editing.
- It trains your imagination.
- It stops you from getting angry and smashing your keyboard.
- It makes you more observant of other people, which helps when writing characters
As writers, sometimes we need to reconnect with the present moment, to bring the mind back to now before we can continue writing. This is when mindful writing exercises come in handy.
When thoughts, feelings, and other mental phenomena consume us, we can use writing to pull ourselves back into the present moment.
Mindfulness is an absolute gem for writers. Not only does it train the brain but it boosts our writing skills too.
Whether you’re a professional novelist or an avid amateur writer, you can gain a lot from these mindful writing exercises.
Incidentally, it’s not just writing, either. Meditation will also make you a better musician.