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
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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.
~ ~ ~
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than thirty
books, including Coaching
the Artist Within, and Becoming
a Creativity Coach.
Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, Master's
degrees in Creative Writing and Counseling, and a Doctorate in
He is a
California licensed marriage and family
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.
Talent Development Resources pages:
resources articles books programs
achievement / success
/ self-help articles
~ ~ ~
Becoming a Creativity Coach
The Power of Sleep Thinking
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