This is a
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Ten Zen Seconds for Purpose, Power and Calm

an interview with author Eric Maisel, PhD - by Douglas Eby

Based on his experience as a therapist and creativity coach, Eric Maisel created his book Ten Zen Seconds to provide an accessible mindfulness strategy based on traditional practices and cognitive psychology.

Combining deep breathing with "incantations" (phrases to focus thinking), the practice he details in the book is designed to facilitate greater awareness, resolve and other benefits including stress management.

In this Q&A, Dr. Maisel answers a number of questions on topics related to creative and high achieving people.

Q: You write in the book about breath awareness and centering as a strategy to feel less scattered, distracted, chaotic, anxious, and nervous - but there still seems to be an enduring mythology about creative inspiration and performing as an actor, for example, that it benefits from an "edge" of nervous tension or even anxiety to some degree.

Have your actor and artist clients affirmed that this is, in fact, a myth - and that feeling more centered is valuable and productive? You quote painter Jessica, for example, as saying feeling uncentered involves a "keen sense of paralysis."

Eric Maisel: It isn’t at all clear that tension or anxiety is what’s needed for peak performance and lifelong creativity. They may be unavoidable by-products of the difficulties that we face as we try to do large things and connected to our fear of failing, fear of making messes and mistakes, and so on, but they are not beneficial per se.

Part of the confusion is that “life energy” in the form of hormones like adrenaline are necessary, so it is easy to confuse “enthusiasm” with “anxiety,” since both have a real (and similar) hormonal edge to them.

Our best way of being in the creative moment is to be “full of energy” and also “fully calm,” a state that the incantations are designed to promote.

Q: You write that when we're uncentered, we may "do things that we regret, things that come from the shadowy parts of our personality."

Isn't our shadow [in Jungian terms] the potential source of creative material? Why would we want to tranquilize that?

Eric Maisel: Probably one of those “semantic difficulties” here. I am using “shadowy” in the colloquial sense and not in a technical sense, as a word in Jung's vocabulary and philosophy.

For Jung, as I remember, the shadow has to do with repressed and disowned material that got “stuck away” during early childhood development and that cause us not to feel whole or like our “real self.”

So, insofar as “opening up to the shadow” is about becoming less defensive and more aware of all that we are, that is an excellent thing.

In the colloquial sense in which I used the phrase, I meant to connote that aspects of our personality that we actually do not want to represent in the world - our unhealthy narcissism, for example, or our abiding sense of shame - cause us to be uncentered and really do not serve us in life, even if they do sometimes serve as motivation to create and as subject matter in our creations.

Rage, for example, may add power to our paintings; but is raging a way to live?

Q: You mention people trying to alter their state of "uncenteredness" chemically - and certainly many artists have used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate, or try to "coax the muse."

Is the Ten Zen Seconds technique an effective alternative? Have your artist clients reported changing their use of chemicals, and therefore living more healthy lives, but still being creatively productive?

Eric Maisel: Yes. Generally speaking, a person needs a complete recovery program in place in order to deal with an addiction — one centering charm alone won’t do the trick.

I’m actually working on a book right now called Creative Recovery in which Dr. Susan Raeburn, an addictions specialist, and I lay out a complete recovery program for creative people that takes into account the difficulties of creating and the advantages of creating.

But the Ten Zen Seconds technique, while not a complete recovery program by any means, can prove a useful tool in any recovery program, as it supports mindfulness and awareness, which keeps sobriety on the table, and meaning-making and action, which keeps creating on the table.

Q: Many experts in the area of education and psychology of gifted and talented people reference the Theory of Positive Disintegration of psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski, who declared that most highly creative people "suffer from different kinds of overexcitabilities, neuroses, and psychoneuroses."

Do you agree with his ideas? If so, isn't a mindfulness strategy to become more centered in a sense "fighting nature" for creative people?

Eric Maisel: It may be fighting nature, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t a good thing to fight nature.

For instance, you want productive obsessions but you don’t want the kind of unmediated manias that caused Virginia Woolf to crack on three separate occasions.

You want the existential questioning of a Tolstoy or a Van Gogh but you don’t want the debilitating depressions.

There is a way to be that is passionate, wild, and productive but that isn’t also self-destructive, painful, and despairing. Can that “balance” actually be struck in real life?

Whether it can or it can’t, it is the prize upon which each creative person ought to keep his eye: great creativity and mental health in the same package!

Q: You write in the book that the technique "reduces mental stimuli and clutter, including unnecessary visual information" - is this reduction just for the period of the practice?

Artists and other creative people may depend on "mental stimuli" and "visual information" - does the practice allow for a return to creative imagination with increased facility in some way?

Eric Maisel: When you free neurons from their usual grip on small thoughts — ten worries, fifteen errands, and so on — and get to reclaim them — when you get your whole brain back (technically, when you release the grip of small neuronal gestalts in the service of one large neuronal gestalt), you experience a “pregnant emptiness” which feels like “no mind” or “empty mind” (but which is actually your whole mind, now recovered, readying itself to create).

In the next instant your painting will arrive. You are reducing mental clutter for the sake of allowing an opening to occur through which your ideas and images can arrive: in this way, the “quieting” serves the “exploding” of the creative encounter that follows.

Q: Two of the incantations you list as a calming strategy are: "I am excited to be acting" and "I embrace this moment"  - but how does this work for an actor (or other performer) who is concerned about performance anxiety or stage fright, and having "too much excitement" and their "moment" being fearful or distressing?

Eric Maisel: I think that should probably have been “enthusiastic” rather than “excited,” to prevent exactly this confusion!

You want enthusiasm, passion, love, curiosity, interest, and so on to inform your work and to exist right in the moment, in the performance moment or the creative moment, while at the same reducing (or eliminating) your fears, worries, anxieties, and so on.

It is the difference between “being in love” and “being worried about being loved” or “being passionate” and “being on edge, afraid to make a mistake.”

Creating is not an energy-neutral state: it is a high energy state, with, at its healthiest, enthusiasm and not anxiety driving its engine.

Q: Can you mention an example of an artist or actor client of yours who has used the Ten Zen Seconds technique to moderate or overcome their resistance to creating, or negative self-talk about a lack of talent?

Are particular incantations valuable for these sorts of specific issues - or is it a matter of intuitively selecting which incantations to try, and experiencing how they work for each individual?

Eric Maisel: The most important incantation is probably the first one, “I am completely stopping,” and clients report using that to great effect all the time.

It is so important an incantation because the main task of a creative person is to move from his or her “everyday mode” to that quieter, deeper, more passionate, more contemplative, livelier “space” where the creative encounter occurs.

Without a clear way to stop doing the “everyday” things you are doing, you are entirely likely to keep doing them right up until the moment you fall asleep, and experience another day without creating.

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Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than thirty books, including Coaching the Artist Within, and Becoming a Creativity Coach.

He holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, Master's degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling, and a Doctorate in Counseling Psychology.

He is a California licensed marriage and family therapist (San Francisco), a creativity coach and trainer of creativity coaches, a columnist for Art Calendar Magazine, provides regular segments for Art of the Song Creativity Radio, and teaches Ten Zen Second techniques through lectures, workshops, and teleseminars.

Dr. Maisel is widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach and has taught thousands of creative and performing artists how to incorporate Ten Zen Second mindfulness techniques into their creativity practice.

See his book Ten Zen Seconds: Twelve Incantations for Purpose, Power and Calm

See the virtual book tour for Ten Zen Seconds - a collection of creativity and coaching related sites, including more interviews with Eric Maisel.

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E-Books by
Eric Maisel

Becoming a Creativity Coach

 The Power of Sleep Thinking
Phoebe Starts Her Novel: 28 Secrets of the Creative Life