The Pleasure-Skill Connection

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Feel good, not guilty

When I first started developing Sense Writing, I understood that there was so much potency and power in pleasure. And of course, I could see how little most of us felt like we could trust where pleasure might lead us.

Even in the beginning, Sense Writing wasn’t just about bypassing anxiety or regulating the nervous system or enhancing creative flow.

Instead, I turned to something simple but elusive: tuning into the pleasure and letting yourself follow your instincts without judgment.

It’s been almost seven years since the first Sense Writing workshops in Brooklyn, and through the years, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of pleasure on a personal level.

This variety of pleasure is not about satisfying existing notions of what pleases you — it's not (for example) about sitting in the sun and eating a croissant — though I do this often. And it’s not about the more familiar kind of pleasure that lets us escape what troubles us, which can be soothing and restful but rarely increases our connection to the moment

Instead, the kind of pleasure that interests me is about inhabiting creativity--sinking into a vivid memory or following a previously unknown path of words-- and noticing the pleasurable sensation of this experience and letting it lead you.

And a strange thing happens when you tune into pleasurable sensations of active, engaged writing: gently, and without pressure or expectation, they begin to spread.

Pleasure sustains practice

We're not in the habit of inviting pleasure to lead us. We tend to trust our finely honed survival instincts much more. After all, we know they’re always waiting, ready to galvanize our body’s systems to keep us alive in response to threat or danger.

But what if we knew our artistic instincts were also always there?

And what if we could sharpen these just as thoroughly, and galvanize them as well?

Not through threat or danger — but through the sensation of pleasure.

Following pleasure doesn't mean we only write about butterflies and rainbows. What we write can be difficult, charged, and complex. But while what you write is important, how you write will determine if your practice is sustainable.

And pleasure plays a key role in that.

The pleasure-skill connection

By now, your inner Protestant work ethic may be thinking, Okay but HOW WILL I GET ANYTHING DONE IF I’M JUST “PAYING ATTENTION TO PLEASURE”? What about hard work, effort, talent, and technique?

What about the grind?

I’ve also heard these voices screaming, but I’ve found it more fruitful to ask these questions instead: How do I step into the process of writing to begin with — and how do I stay engaged?

The art of listening to and following pleasure as it arises helps to connect with the creative process, and it buoys the desire to stay engaged.

Pleasure is an intrinsic motivator.

I like to think about engagement and effort as skills to cultivate the way I cultivated a taste for really ripe, smelly cheese — through pleasure! — and as sensations that spread through the body with increasing richness, depth, and complexity, felt on a molecular level.

It’s not as simple as enjoying ease or instant gratification (like the sugary frosting on a cupcake, which doesn’t take much cultivation to respond to). It’s about layering experience and pleasure together to grow a sophisticated appreciation of the richness and complexity of creative effort — of creative flow.

Pleasure and engagement create flow

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” -Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow

If you’ve ever heard someone describe a time when their performance excelled and they were “in the zone,” they were likely describing an experience of flow.

Flow occurs when your skill level and the challenge at hand are equal.

The more familiar flipside — blocked effort, guilty avoidance, frustrated wrestling — is what happens when the gap between skill and challenge is too big to grasp.

But the answer isn’t to push harder or suffer more.

There’s an easier way to build up those layers and grow your skill through pleasure, not pressure.

Pleasure and effort can have equally important parts in discovery.

When we work with the body and nervous system, our internal motivation deepens. We can begin to shed old patterns of motivation, like guilt or unhealthy competition. As we build self-trust, we can be more moved by our curiosity and pleasure because we can actually feel them as sensations in the body.

Through pleasure, we remember and re-learn how to enjoy the process.

Why Your Comfort Zone is So Uncomfortable

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Even if you’ve never paused to think about your comfort zone, you can probably remember being told to abandon it. Maybe in the last piece of writing advice you read. Maybe even in the last week!

Somehow, “comfort zone” has become a code for whatever is holding you back.

But if you can remember that feeling of being stuck in the familiar — the so-called comfort you’re always being told you have to leave — you probably already know the truth:

It just doesn’t feel that comfortable in the first place.

Instead of true comfort, we get stuck with (and in) complacency, rigidity, avoidance… not exactly the heart of a sustainable creative practice.


The paradox of a true comfort zone


Having a comfort zone means, well, that it’s actually comfortable.

And that you actually know what it feels like and how to find it. 

A comfort zone is individual and specific, not an Instagram hashtag or an instant fix. Developing a comfort zone — let alone delineating it from what’s on the other side — requires intimacy with the self. 

And the instruction to leave your comfort zone is something of a paradox.

To leave where you are, you first have to acknowledge where you are. You have to linger there. Only then can you step out a bit. And to step out safely and sustainably, you have to trust that the comfort zone remains where you can find it.

It’s like the early childhood development concept of forming secure attachments so you can venture further and further out into the playground.

First in the sandbox. Then to the ladder and monkey bars. Then to the edge of the woods or right to the bank of the river. Between ventures, there’s the return to safety (i.e. your mother’s flared, polyester pants) before venturing just a little further than before. The comfort zone grows wider as your skills are able to take on more of what’s outside of it.

But how do we get there when we don’t know what a safe home base looks like now?
 

Listening to the nervous system

In Sense Writing, I situate this “home” — this comfort zone — in the body and nervous system.

Through an ebb and flow of writing and movement sequences, we bring the nervous system to a place of relaxed engagement, where it can observe and differentiate sensations and thoughts and then re-integrate them.

Though it’s easy to jump to the outcome — how capable we might end up feeling or how much easier it might feel to write toward our ambitions — the most important part is first giving the nervous system enough ease to function in this way.

When it’s stressed, there is no comfort, and little creativity.

Instead of aiming for that disruption, we learn to relax with our internal sensations and sensory input a little at a time, and our awareness expands. The “comfort zone” of secure curiosity becomes more comfortable. And that comfort and security allow Sense Writers to explore more in any direction.

Rather than running away from the status quo or denying ourselves the nurturing necessity of comfort, creativity becomes about learning how to start and sustain a journey.


You can go home again

Knowing your comfort zone allows you a place to come back to again and again. You can slowly make your way out into further and further realms — fueled by curiosity and sustained writing practice, rather than idea-driven frenzy — and always know you can come home.

You can journey outward without getting completely lost.

Like any approach that works in tandem with the nervous system and the body, this is what we’re developing in Sense Writing. There has to be a place of comfort, of return, of reflection, for the work to accumulate in deep learning rather than straight-ahead achievement.

The American writer Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go home again.”

In this practice, you can go home again. Always.

Vive la Résistance

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The idea of “writer’s block” is nothing new.

In fact, it’s such a familiar idea that it seems to carry its own dark cloud of dreariness, weariness, or fear. Everybody’s always trying to get rid of it. And it’s true that many people come to Sense Writing to work through creative blocks.

But after teaching Sense Writing for several years, I’ve started thinking more and more about the role of resistance in the life of the artist.

After all, artists thrive on resistance.

Artists are rebels.

And yet artists are often getting caught up in their own hyperloop of resistance, or struggling to get out of their own way.

Instead, what if resistance to the creative process itself could be an especially useful impulse for the artist?

Can resistance be — or become — a healthy part of what being an artist is?

Love the part of yourself that resists

From my Feldenkrais training, I’ve learned how to work with resistance, listen to it, and not fight it.

I’ve also learned to see our ability to resist as a healthy response, developing over time as a way of refusing to do things that weren’t right for us. This resistance to specific situations in the past, however, may eventually ossify into generalized, fuzzy habits that no longer serve our evolving desires.

By working directly with the body and nervous system, we can re-calibrate and dissolve these habits that don’t bring us into alignment with our desires and goals. At the same time, we can learn to listen to what resistance may be trying to tell us.

How to stop worrying (quite so much) and use your writer’s block

Maybe our desires and goals are to finish our manuscript or screenplay or to make writing a daily practice.

We want things. So it’s no surprise that we end up approaching writing with the same kind of forward momentum and stress we bring to our everyday lives, as another task to push through and finish (albeit one loaded with MEANING).

But too often, this approach stifles the very tools that would actually let us write: alertness, un-selfconsciousness, openness to surprise.

So we get stuck between our desires and our difficulties. It’s no wonder we resist.

Start by stopping the fight

Instead of pushing through or overriding resistance, Sense Writing invites you to quit fighting it.

When we aim low in movement and writing, you may notice resistance as usual — but you don’t have to DO anything about it. You don't have to ease up. You don’t have to "let go." With the support of the sequences, you just get to notice more, process more, and get more curious.

When we tune into the quieter, intricate parts of ourselves, we can resist not our own impulses, but the demands of our everyday narratives. We become more connected — to our own physical experiences and to the world of our senses, memories, and imagination.

“Sense Writing is a way to go against everything that we’ve been taught not only with creativity and writing, but in life in terms of ‘no pain no gain.’ Sense Writing is the opposite of that.

It’s about writing from a place of ease and calm and pleasure and the way we do that in Sense Writing is we start with small little sense observations so there’s no pressure to be great or come up with something fantastic. But out of those little things, those sense details, comes all of this stuff you never imagined, you never even really knew you knew.”

-Emily Tobey

In the Sense Writing course, the first writing we do is just about noticing and recording — less about telling someone something than about tapping into your own experience.


We write by hand, often on the floor. We use sequences to invite new sensations, or to give our attention to sensations we habitually ignore. We use words to attend to our nonverbal experiences, not to shout over them (as words often do, being so familiar and available).
 

In that process, we don’t have to fight or give into our resistance, so much as give ourselves ways to sidestep it. And that lets us listen to it, instead of reacting.

Having the space to leave and come back really challenged my ‘shoulds.’

A lot of what was coming up was about achievement and fear of inadequacy- to which my initial response was to translate those feelings into overwhelm and resentment as a result of a growing to-do list... somehow becoming a victim to the demands of the present moment. But these days I knew not to do the work!

However, this morning I woke up craving the work. I wanted to connect with my body and my creativity ultimately leading me to continue experimenting in trusting the “smarter part of myself.”

After re-engaging with the coursework, I was filled with pleasure and curiosity, an unanticipated reward for listening to resistance. Maybe some of this resonates?”

-Christie Jordan Barron

A Gift from Sense Writing

If we can learn to see resistance as a healthy impulse rather than something to fear, we can gradually start to understand — and feel — how to be open to more of ourselves. We can welcome the many parts of ourselves and collaborate with them, rather than fight or suppress what makes us uncomfortable. And remember — more choices mean more freedom. Isn’t that so much better than “pushing through”?

Take a 20-minute break and feel this shift for yourself with a new, basic Sense Writing sequence below. A quiet place and notebook are all you need to get started.

enjoy,

Madelyn K., Founder

Getting Curious Instead of Being Good

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It’s the end of the last round of the Sense Writing Online 12-week course, and as I look through participants’ reflections, I’m struck most of all by their courage.  

It’s not usually the first description we attach to writers, right? Even when we acknowledge the fear or challenge of writing something powerful, we neglect the flip side that the very act of writing really does take guts. And learning to write in a new way takes a lot of them.  

Leaving behind old notions of learning is hard. Dissolving long-held beliefs about what makes “a good student” (and how much we might be succeeding or falling short) can be scary. Thinking about what it takes to try anyway reminds me of what made me develop Sense Writing in the first place. 

I mean, the last thing I wanted to do was to create another thing that seemed “good for you” but that actually weighed you down with guilt instead of inspiring you. 

With Sense Writing, I simply wanted to support your agency in building your own creative practice. (Experiential reflection is so palpable, so I've asked a couple of participants of the online course if I can share some of their discoveries.)

"Oh man, what DIDN'T resonate...it's all so radical and antithetical to how I've been acculturated and maybe how I'm wired? Who can say. The line I ultimately chose as what resonated most was "Do a little less then you can." It's short. I feel like I can reach for it when I am slipping over those thresholds of overwork." -Amanda Davidson

You Can’t Be Late to Your Own Party

In Sense Writing, no one is pushed to “keep up” or be a “good student.” That kind of effort — so much external striving! — only compounds the “head problems” that keep us from writing to begin with. And though Sense Writing’s live workshops and 12-week online course do build on foundations one layer at a time, the truth is, there is no “falling behind” in Sense Writing.

Sure, I might be proud of the pedagogical arc of the 12-week online course (yay, me!) but the forward momentum of the course is not the course.

Sense Writing is you.

Whether you study it live in New York with me or with participants around the world in the online course, Sense Writing is the process of learning to trust yourself and use the tools that are already there.

There’s no train you’re going to miss.

Rather than activating that habitual desire to push yourself, in Sense Writing students come to rely on curiosity to fuel creative exploration. This is one of the most surprising insights that participants in the 12-week course have discover.

"It's so good to be able to "catch up" knowing I am behind but yet right on time. Thanks, Madelyn, for your help with calming the mind to do this exercise." -Sheree Carara

Choosing Your Artistic Instincts Over Intensity

Through techniques from Feldenkrais and neuroplasticity, I have found that a whole-body approach works a whole lot better at helping people befriend the process of writing and reconnect with their innate curiosity. These strategies have become part of hundreds of writers’ tool kits already.

More tools mean more choices mean more freedom.

The goal, however, is not to get you to some place of inner calm or virtuousness. After all, making time to write can be weirdly scary, especially if you’re dealing with blocks and resistance.

In Sense Writing, we learn to re-calibrate the nervous system, to gently bring ourselves down from these (totally normal!) stress responses into a more regulated and sustainable state. With neuro-sensory writing and movement sequences, we become acquainted with what is already there.

Instead of worrying about keeping up or producing something shiny for a gold star or applause — instead of trading the gift of our own sustainable creative expression for fleeting outside validation — we learn to process and absorb right where we are.

We get curious instead of trying to be “good.”

And it turns out that this skill becomes the source of our own artistic instincts.

Finding the Spark between Science and Art to Unleash Creativity

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“Oliver Sacks kept writing essays which he titled, ‘Neurology of the Soul.’ He would then change the titles in various ways, but at some profound level that is what he was writing about.”

-Lawrence Weschler, Sacks’ biographer on Sack's writing at the end of his life.


Using Science to Get Over the Fear of Writing

The fear that overcomes those who write and want to write is often completely irrational; what is there to be afraid of, really? And yet there we are, avoiding the very thing we want to be pursuing and being our own proof that using reason to shoot down stubborn feelings isn’t the simple solution it might sound like.

But what if we could use a little bit of science to build a more generative writing practice? What if we could delve into practical applications of neuro-sensory methods to harness the nervous system’s natural balance and unlock our voices as writers?

Science and its public image of clear, rational answers used to be the last place I would have wanted to look to get over the personal, amorphous fear of writing.

Getting Over My Fear of Science

I’ve been interested in the intersections between science and art since I was an undergraduate, but even so I would have hesitated to step too deeply into Western science for “answers" to questions about artistic creativity.

After all, my studies layered in a healthy skepticism of the underlying philosophies of Western science; even just starting this inquiry, I could imagine reductive explanations suddenly shooting down from the sky like a 1950s American movie poster for impending doom:

The brain is a large computer!

The right side of the brain is the seat of creative thinking!

Our thoughts are in our neurons!

These are just a few of the many examples of how scientific reductionism has tried to get a somewhat forceful grip on consciousness.  And it’s the kind of deterministic thinking and language that could suck the air out of any creative impulse!

It's the kind of reductive thinking that used to make me feel claustrophobic and wheezy.

Protecting the Ones Who Wonder

And in a bigger picture, it’s true that science’s obsession with reason and linear explanation has created an unsafe environment for the artist’s soul.

There is a long history in science and medicine of pathologizing “abnormal" behavior, marginalizing those who thought and acted differently. Science often reflects normative forces, enforcing passing definitions of correct behavior – and where does that leave the creative thinkers, the iconoclasts, the ones who wonder?

This pursuit of and belief in reason have led generations of scientists to chase after reductive explanations: butterfly catchers pinning down wings, fixing labels. Reductionism has brought many great discoveries (antibiotics!), but it has also brought many scientists to its limits.

Biologist Stuart Kauffman in his book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, identifies a scientific worldview that is now forming in biology that moves past reductionism, a worldview "that reaches to emergence and to vast unpredictability and unending, ever new diversity and creativity.”

That sounds more like art!

These days, cognitive scientists and neurobiologists are exploring ever-yielding frontiers of their fields, moving beyond reductionism and the model of the brain as machine (without throwing the baby out with the bathwater).

Science is changing, and the scientists who were once on the margins (like Kauffman and my mentor from university, Botanist Rolf Sattler) are leading the way to more holistic ways of thinking, where human beings and nature are no longer divided into subject and object but are seen as parts of a whole.

A Shared Terrain

As we’re becoming more accommodating of the in-between places, I believe that it’s becoming safer for the artists to step into this expanding intersection between science and art, to what I believe the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks was referring to as “the neurology of the soul.”

I have come to believe that it is in this shared terrain that artists can learn to grow even more intimate with their own creative process, refine its regulation, and have more choices, more agency, more pleasure, and more sustainability.  

In turn, scientists can start to closer to their own creative process and hone their intuition. They can be more engaged and empathic towards the big picture, motivated more by pleasure and curiosity and less by exhausting external pressures.

In other words, artists and scientists can share a terrain of creative exploration that fuels each others’ practices— rather than being stuck in the forbidding philosophies and movie poster outlines of seven decades ago.

Explore this shared terrain and unleash your creativity. You can study Sense Writing, the unique neuro-sensory approach to writing and the creative process, from anywhere around the world.

An Obsession and a Gift

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A Need to Go Back to the Body

When I was working as a playwright and director in New York, I was somewhat obsessed with finding new ways of bringing people to creative states.

Whether writing by myself or working in the rehearsal room, I was always searching for ways of refreshing — of surprising myself out of my own patterns. I looked far and wide for answers, working with artists from different genres and cultures and experiments and embarking on long collaborations with non-actors. Separate as these endeavors seemed, they all seemed to connect and inform my search for that key to creativity.

As a professor, I couldn’t help but notice the pandemic of writer’s block (and anxiety) plaguing my students. I couldn’t stop wondering why we find it so hard to express ourselves creatively, and what I could do to help. The standard approaches seemed to overlook deeper issues of anxiety and resistance, and in some cases, to reinforce them. And though I had integrated many tools into my teaching over the years, I knew that I could go deeper. I wanted to address these issues on a systemic and foundational level.

The Mystery of Switching on Your Creativity

This desire became an obsession. It made me leave my teaching job and literary agent, sent me to Israel and back, and inspired me to create an entirely new way of tapping into creative flow.

What if we were able to just “switch on” our creativity?

I left New York in 2008 to become a practitioner in Feldenkrais and Somatic Education. Already deeply immersed in movement analysis, I knew the source of creative power wasn’t in the mind, but in the body. I just needed the science to back it up.

Sense Writing is the culmination of all of my experience and professional education. The neurosensory and writing techniques I developed have helped over a thousand writers and artists build sustainable creative practices. It has been described as “a revolutionary approach to writing” and one of the best creative writing workshops in New York City (as ranked by Yelp).

Word by Word, Rock by Rock

One of my students, Jean Rhode, described it best when she said:

Sense Writing is like running along a river from rock to rock and the rocks just appear below your feet, and you've gotten to where you want to go.

I’ve helped award-winning filmmakers and journalists, students, experienced writers, aspiring writers, and even people with an urge to create but no idea where to begin.Whether you are experienced or aspiring (or both!), you can feel what it's like to switch on your creativity.

One of the first overlaps I noticed was the use of constraints supporting a sense of freedom in both movement and creativity.

This recorded sequence for you to take a break from your to-do list and take a small but solid step into new place of discovery in your writing and creative practice.

The Three Causes of Writer's Block

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You Want to Write...

You can feel the build-up and desire to write, but the words don’t come. Maybe there’s a feeling like the landscape is barren or the ground is unyielding, like there’s nothing to till. You might know there is richness underneath, but you can’t seem to get to it.

Creativity is a natural expression of being alive for many of us. But for some reason when it comes to writing, we often feel stuck.

Whether we are someone who writes or someone who aspires to, when we feel an urge to connect through words and stories but can't, we're susceptible to feelings of overwhelm or frustration. Looking at the causes of these blocks on a foundational level allows us to develop the tools to finally bypass them and get to the richness underneath it all.

Why Our Creative Expression Goes Quiet in the First Place 

1. Too much internal noise.

Instead of writing, you think of all the errands waiting for you, the doubts about your ideas, that squirrelly feeling of not being able to get the words or the tone or the ideas just right… There’s too much internal noise. The static of fear and anxiety that resides inside is overwhelming.

2. Too much external noise.

You’ve been listening to other people’s words so much that you’ve forgotten what your own voice can sound like. You get excited about your ideas, but then a notification makes you jump or you get an email that gives you something else to deal with and you’re out of the zone. Or maybe old habits and old voices crop up like stubborn weeds, and you lose sight of what you’re trying to create in the first place.

3. Being too much in our heads.

You just can’t stop planning the project, chewing it over, thinking around it… and never get around to actually getting INTO it. Classic overthinking. More than other forms of expression, writing relies on cognitive processes of thought and language. Other arts can bypass certain traps of over-thinking by being more abstract or physical — think of the instincts that it takes to feel the shape of objects as you draw or sculpt or the physicality of learning a piece of choreography — but writing feels like a brain activity, and sometimes it gets stuck in overdrive.

Sure, sometimes we get hit by a wind of inspiration and write for a quick spell, riding the wave. But this soon starts to wane, and the more we try to hold onto it or retrieve it, the quicker it disappears. And we're back to square one, more frustrated and even burdened by our urge to create than inspired.

So how can we fix it? How do we get through writer's block? How do we find the flow even when the wave is gone?

Using the Body to Dissolve Writer's Block

“I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart.”

--Leonard Cohen, The Guardian, January 19, 2012

There IS a way to get to those “deeper convictions of the heart” — and it’s not through the mind.

It’s through the body and the nervous system.

The brain is plastic — that means it can change — so with the right techniques, the habits that turn into problems don’t have to stay that way. The tools to melt writer's block build up when you use them: they become a resilient writing practice, not a quick one-time fix. Learning to work with the body to reduce noise gives you a path around the interruptions, the doubts, the other voices stuck in your head, even the crash of anxiety or disappointment when a wave of inspiration ebbs, and into the richness you know is hidden underneath all of that.

You can learn how to get out of your head and into your body to lower noise.

The Floor is a Door to Your Creativity

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“Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement.” -Oliver Sacks

Like many yoga practitioners, I am an artist. And like many artists, I am a yoga practitioner. But have you ever asked, in your own life and practice, what the specific relationship between the two could be?

It took me years to put together the pieces that now seem so clearly matched that my life’s work has come to center on teaching the connection.

Connecting Yoga and Writing

But it didn’t begin that way. In fact, as I did more yoga and more writing, I found these two pursuits, which once seemed so connected, grew further and further apart. Both my practices seemed more and more habitual, and the relationship between the realm of the body and that of language and story, more elusive and haphazard. And while teaching creative writing, I noticed that all around me, my students and my peers were suffering underlying issues of anxiety and blocks that neither traditional nor experimental approaches were resolving.

I knew then I had to go back to the body in a more rigorous way than I ever did before.

I left New York and moved to Tel Aviv to study the Feldenkrais Method. When I returned to New York years later, I started to develop and teach Sense Writing, an approach to writing that merges the principles of Feldenkrais and neuroplasticity with the creative process.

Among nearly 1,000 workshop participants across 7 countries, I’ve taught many who are serious students of yoga and somatics. I’ve come to appreciate how this group of people is so simpatico with the work that I do — and how many still struggle to connect their careful explorations of the physical terrain with a creative practice.

But our heightened and sensitive awareness of our internal perception and experience of our bodies can lead to more complex awareness in any terrain, real or imagined. With just small tweaks and shifts in what we already do, our yoga and somatic practices can bring clarity to our lives outside of the mat or the studio — no surprise there — but even specifically to areas that might at first seem so opposite to physical practice.

Discover the Connections Between Movement, Thought, and Imagination

And one of the simplest ways to notice the surprising connections is just to lie down and body map.

When you lie on the floor and close your eyes, the floor becomes a mirror. It shows you what parts of your body are making contact with the floor and what parts aren’t, what parts feel heavier and what parts feel lighter.

Your brain loves to look for differences, to differentiate, in the external world and in the internal. And when the muscles that resist gravity all day can unclench, and the brain is allowed to notice these differences in the two hemispheres of your body, something remarkable happens: the nervous system also unclenches from its usual overextended attention and, through mapping out the internal landscape, becomes calm and clear. By the end of this process, which asks for awareness and accuracy but never interference, we have a clearer sense of ourselves.

Becoming aware, while not trying to do anything (not even “let go”), gives the nervous system a chance to step in and do its thing – for you and your nervous system to collaborate in a new, nearly effortless way.

And out of that collaboration emerge not just curiosity and discovery but also a greater capacity for new sensations and images, new imaginative connections, new paths of thought: the ingredients for creativity and an invitation to connect a somatic practice you know with a creative practice you can begin to explore more bravely.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/h6ye74ct33zvdag/bodymapping.mp3

A Summertime Gift

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Summertime and the Livin' is Easy

Perhaps it’s the residual rhythm set in school, but we often think of summer as a time when we can put aside time for ourselves to step back into the things we started during the year. Our nerves will be calmer, our days longer, and perhaps we'll finish what we started in the ambitious darkness of January.
 
Summer can feel like a bastion of creative safety: an easier, brighter, more imaginative time.

But even in summer – when the visions that get us through February and March turn into the reality of life continuing just the same as usual, even with the sun out – the thought of writing can bring up feelings of frustration or overwhelm.

Harnessing that Elusive Ease

In Sense Writing, we learn to work with the body and nervous system to achieve a more resilient state of creative flow and uncover the richness of our stories.

But learning to work with the body and nervous system can also be incredibly helpful in guiding you through managing larger projects-- without the overwhelm.

We can use these same tools not just to generate writing, but to continue through projects (a collection of stories or a full-length script) and complete them.

How?

By learning to work with the big and the small.

The Art of Completion

When we can increase our ability to absorb and process sensation in one part of our internal creative landscape, we can expand from there, processing and absorbing more and more. Our ability to hold the bigger picture is then tethered to a knowing of what this bigger picture actually contains.

An agility to ebb and flow from the small to the big and back to the small starts to form.

We begin to know when we need to zoom out to see the big picture and when we need to zoom back in to land in a specific place.

Learning to adjust the aperture, even holding both the big and small in ourselves at the same time, can be key in helping us manage— and complete— our larger creative projects.

The art of completion is a skill that you can build.

You can start to feel the connection between the small and the big in the 16-minute recorded sequence below. Experience what it feels like to simultaneously hold both inside of you.

Sitting Down on a Chair and Getting Out of Your Own Way

Where to Begin

It's the end of a year and the beginning of another. For many of us, I imagine, this year was full of beginnings, middles, and ends more significant than some markings on the Gregorian calendar.

Stories, too, contain multiplicities of beginnings, middles, and ends, and because of this, when we sit down and write, we can often feel overwhelmed. Where do we even begin? So we jot down some words, skip and jump around on bouncy rhythms of phrases until we don't really know where we are, or where we began.

What if instead of trying to chase the magic, you could learn ways of conjuring it, letting it gather and come to you?

What if you were able to create a specific kind of awareness that accessed your deepest voice as a writer, where you could start to feel that place just beyond skin, where the separation between you and the world begins to dissolve, and flow begins? What if you could use this specific kind of awareness to not just know and sense where you are now, but know and sense and feel where you are in any landscape-- real or imagined. And express this in words.

How do you even start to do this?

I created Sense Writing for just this purpose.

Between Art and Science

The approach exists in the netherworld between art and science. Because the in-between places are where the real magic happens, and where I most love to dwell.

Sense Writing allows you to uncover the many similarities between the way the nervous system works and the creative process. What is a healthy nervous system? What does it mean to "optimize" the way the nervous system functions? How does this relate to accessing a state of flow that is sustainable and full of rich artistic discovery? How do you access the deeper parts of yourself to dissolve stubborn blocks and avoid extreme creative highs and lows? 

The approach's unique combination of movement and writing sequences (parts of which I've been developing for over fifteen years) allow you to experience how the nervous system and creative process can actually support each other, and with this understanding, you can start to refine and optimize both.

Since there are three levels of Sense Writing-- and some writers have been taking Sense Writing III for almost four years-- I have been consistently developing new combinations and today there are over one hundred unique movement and writing sequences.

About a year ago, I started to record these sequences, making them available through Sense Writing One-on-One Trainings. Since it's the end of the year, I wanted to share a recorded exercise, a little taste of how you can start to get out of your own way. Though this is not an "official" Sense Writing sequence (no writing involved, but of course you're welcome to try some after), it is a step into bringing the practice home and into your bones.
 

So, sit on a comfortable chair, press play, close your eyes... and get out of your own way.

  • To read more about the effects of body mapping, see the article "The Floor is a Mirror" below (July 2, 2016).

  • Sense Writing's One-on-One Trainings is a ground-breaking approach to the process of writing that teaches you to how to bypass stubborn blocks and uncover richer processes of artistic discovery. Find out more here.

The Ocean and the Floor Below

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“Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement.” -Oliver Sacks

Diving Below the Surface

Earlier today I was in a cafe with a founding member of a bi-national Palestinian/Israeli organization that I’ve admired for a long time. I remember attending one of their presentations years ago in some wall-less castle in the West Bank. The men sat and spoke to us about the formation of the group and what had brought each to join. I was struck as much by the specificity of each of their stories as by the intimacy between them— muscular, almost cellular. These were both Palestinian and Israeli men once engaged in violence towards the other.

In the last ten years, women and men have been meeting several times a year, mostly in small, regional groups. Working closely on specific projects together, collaborating with communities to rebuild homes demolished by the army, making action-based theater, engaging in non-violent communication (NVC), these local groups seemed to have evolved a single and elegant motivation that defines the whole: refining the interplay between raising awareness of the effects of the occupation and bringing transformation to individual members.

“Personal trauma,” he said, “is always political. So before the political, we always deal with the personal. Always.”

In the United States, there has been so much discussion about transformation. In addition to the proliferation of personal transformation movements seen in the last several decades, an urge has surfaced recently for large-scale structural change. It seems that, after the election and within the extreme ideological lurching of America, more and more people are finally drawing connections between personal and political trauma. People are sharing their stories on social media more and more, and with this, a resonance is growing between a kind of internal repair that comes through the act of forming and expressing one’s story and an external repair with the world as these stories are being received by communities of people.

The Substrate Below

As more Americans are clarifying the direct relationship between personal and political trauma, however, the means to connect the two in action remain dissatisfying, often elusive. On the bus ride home from the meeting, I started to make connections between our conversation and what I have been asking myself lately: What are the means of reflection that we engage in? How do these means of reflection determine action? And, if we are stuck in habitual grooves of reflection, then are we also stuck in habitual action, repeating the same power dynamics we’re wishing to subvert and dissolve?

In both my life and work, I have experienced how culture can seize the physiological underpinnings of those in trauma and stress, repackaging fear into adhesive narratives of meaning. For the last several years, I have been teaching writing in cities throughout the world, many of which have been deeply impacted by war and violence. In these cities, the anxiety that may keep someone unable to settle down into herself and the intimacy of her own writing is not dissimilar to the chronic states of stress with which many us live, even in places of relative physical safety. Though the causes are many, the result is that people are living in internally dys-regulated states, the expressions of which we’ve come to categorize as symptoms of syndromes such as anxiety, burn-out, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

For over a decade, I have been integrating Somatics (the study of movement and the body) and research into trauma’s effect on the nervous system into my own creative process as a theater artist, as well as a teacher. A decade ago, I quit my job teaching playwriting and screenwriting at New York University and left the city to study in a training program in Feldenkrais, eventually developing new inquiries into the body, creativity, and the process of writing. I now teach an approach to creative writing where participants learn how to work directly with their own nervous systems to support its ability to regulate itself to access creative flow and deeper processes of artistic discovery.

As the result of the work that I do, I sometimes look at people (quite romantically) as nervous systems sheathed in skin, and have come to view the body and the nervous system as one and the same. This “nervous system/body” is where we can settle down into a substrate below the grooves of habitual action and language, where we can learn to quiet cognitive noise, and let new patterns of sensation and thought emerge. This body is where we are able to engage in a relationship with our nervous system, feel and understand stress physiology on a subterranean level. Regulation and, in fact, choice comes from an intimate engagement with our agile, and thankfully, changeable nervous system. A dance that is an exquisitely sensitive interplay of precision and mystery.

Perhaps paradoxically as a writer and writing teacher, I have also come to think of this nervous system/body as the repository of any act that is free.

How Constraints Lead to Freedom

In all forms of art, constraints can open up new possibilities.

This is the beauty of constraints (and another paradox of creative flow).

Instead of chasing some notion or inkling down, constraints allow you to be still and inhabit wherever you may be. Once settled, the particular life of that world-- whether in form, color, sound, movement, or words-- starts to emerge. 

In a Sense Writing constraint, for example, you might write a scene starting every sentence with “I remember” (this could be from your point of view or a fictional character’s perspective). The constraint of the sentence starter “I remember” allows you to “aim low” and not worry about syntactically positioning yourself for each new sentence. Other parts of the self can be brought to the surface. Then when you switch into free write, each moment will be more textured, as you re-orient yourself, word by word, in the story. Similarly, a Feldenkrais ATM might constrain the use of the neck to turn the head. Inhibiting the use of the neck, parts of the spine, ribcage, pelvis or feet come out of the woodwork to support the movement. This quiet dialogue among the lesser-used parts expands our internal kinesthetic space as a whole, and after, when walking, new sensation and possibility can often be felt, astonishingly, in places that were not specifically moved in the sequence.

As one participant describes the use of constraints in her writing: 

If I am writing about being at a baseball game in a free write, I might start off with walking into the stadium and finding my seat and feeling excited. Broad strokes, not a lot of sensory detail. But if I start by using the “I see, I hear, I smell…” constraint, it might open up my imagination to all the small details I didn’t bother to notice when starting globally, in the big picture. Using constraints, I might start off with the smell of hot dogs and the taste of that, the feel of the bread sticking to the roof of my mouth, and how that is one of the strongest memories I have of going to baseball games when I was a kid. When I then switch to the free write, the scene starts to fill our like a painting and I access emotions, senses, and details that I didn’t think were important or valuable, or that I didn’t even know were there.

Sessions involving “writing constraints” are always followed by a period of free writing, where participants are asked to write into that same scene without the constraints. Afterwards, they are invited to reflect on the difference between how it felt to write with the constraint and during the free write. Which flowed more? Was one was more awkward? For some people, writing with the constraint will be easier, for others the free write will feel better, but for each person these differences will change throughout the process.  

Reflections allow for an engaged writing practice

These reflections are key. Like Feldenkrais lessons, these sequences make up a kind of empirical tracking system and these reflections keep us engaged in the dynamics of a process that is always changing and often full of surprising connections. In neuroplasticity, this self-empiricism actually becomes a tool in the repair of function. Reading Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing, I was struck by one crucial aspect in his case studies: recovery seemed to be connected with the patient’s increasing ability to self-report accurately, to become more aware of what is going on as it is going on and to be able to express this understanding afterwards. This ability to pay attention to finer and finer details, allows the patient to recognize small improvements and re-build trust in her own nervous system. The reflective aspects of Sense Writing, as Feldenkrais, keeps the writer engaged in her own work and increases flow and buoyancy in the writing practice.

 

 

The Paradox of Not Writing into Blocks

Paradoxes are useful to us as artists. They have the ability to keep us engaged without strain, providing processes for us to explore that are vast, yet contained. There are many paradoxes that keep us immersed, in pre-conscious and conscious ways, in the flow of creativity.

One of the paradoxes of Sense Writing is not to write into blocks. Many people who come to a Sense Writing workshop are new writers never having written before, hesitant to even begin. But many are experienced writers who feel stuck in a particular project and want to somehow crack that part open; like a localized therapy to massage and soften a tight shoulder.

Working With Your Nervous System and Not Against It

Sense Writing explores the connections between movement, thought, emotion, and the senses, allowing people to work with their nervous systems to find places of ease and flow. So instead of taking a hand or finger to that contracted area of a story and trying to get it to release, forcing it to yield somehow (and often finding resistance), we look elsewhere. If someone is stuck in a story, we play with time and work on a section which surrounds this hardened terrain — we find other places of ease and direction. Going into one part of our writing landscape, whether real or imagined, and refining the connections between movement, thought, emotion, and the senses, supports and softens the entire landscape.

Similarly, in the Feldenkrais Method, there are also many strategies that allow you to work around difficult areas.  Because Feldenkrais works directly with the nervous system and brain as a whole, for a person with an immobilized shoulder for example, there would be no prescribed sequence. Instead, the practitioner would go slowly, seeing where ease and access in movement already exist and using this ease to eventually suggests new options to the person's nervous system.

Learning (and creating) happen best in a parasympathetic state. Because the brain has contracted the muscle for a reason, it needs to be tricked out of its resistances-- with respect and tenderness. Otherwise, the softening will be shallow and temporary.  As one of Feldenkrais' original students Ruthy Alon writes in “Mindful Spontaneity,” “When movement is difficult, you are entitled to the assistance of various compromises, such as partial movement, all kinds of supporting pads, rhythm change, activation from another direction, assistance from another part of your body.” (p.60) All of these have their corollaries in numerous Sense Writing sequences— and in all creative processes.

No Pickax Needed

Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, in his first book on brain plasticity, “The Brain that Changes Itself,” showed us how the brain is much more homogeneous than once thought.  When one part is optimized, other parts benefit. Similarly, in our writing landscape, till one section— and soil loosens in the others.  I have found this especially beneficial in the case of people who have experienced trauma. Some come to my workshops eager to write into that part of their lives they never could before. As writers and artists, we are often encouraged to go inside of places that are difficult— and dig— and often we get stuck there. Either it stops yielding or it yields too much and becomes our one voice.

In Sense Writing, participants are encouraged to take their time (hardened terrain is hard for a reason). By going into other stories, other times, other landscapes, they end up discovering how movement, thought, emotion, and the senses connect in any story. When it's time to circle back into what was “blocked,” the connection between viscera and narrative has strengthened, and that original block not only yields more easily, but has shifted and changed.

The Floor is a Mirror

"The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it in not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine."
-Henri Poincaré, Mathematician/Founder of Process Philosophy

To me, bipedalism is a kind of take-no-prisoners adaptive advantage. Whatever the reasons for its evolution, the structural results of a large, upright body perched on two narrow feet has made quick demands on our bodies that we are still paying the price for.

Perhaps that’s why most of us love to lie down (and why I am writing this in bed.)

When we lie down, anti-gravity muscles (like the large extensor in the back) can finally relax, and all the habits triggered standing and walking and sitting, by “fighting gravity” and coping in the world, can recede.

Often, though, this “receding” doesn’t quite happen as we might expect it to.  

Body Mapping

If you were to close your eyes and feel how your sitting bones were making contact with whatever surface you are on, you would most likely feel that one is heavier than the other, that one sitting bone feels flatter and is making more contact than the other. In fact, one entire leg might feel heavier against the chair. You might start to wonder how you could have overlooked such a thing before and may feel the urge to quickly open your eyes to check out this gigantic discrepancy. When you do, you will be relieved to see that your legs still look very much the same size.

If you were to lie down on a neutral, flat surface, on your back, the differences between the right and left sides of your body might feel more pronounced. The whole right side of your back, for example, might at first feel much flatter than the left, like it’s making more contact with the floor. And if you move down to your legs, and sensed the length of each, from buttock to heel, your left leg could feel much longer than the right. This doesn’t mean that your left leg is structurally longer (though mine is by a centimeter or two).  What we do to cope with gravity, and with life, in the day to day, accumulates into patterns of holding and resistance that actually affect the picture— the internal map— we have of ourselves.

Why don’t these habits and resistances simply “melt away” immediately when we are lying down and we don’t need them anymore? Some of them do, but many of these patterns developed for reasons, through past experiences associated with survival and hyper-vigilance, and have become tenaciously “second-nature” to us. How second-nature grows clear only when we take the time to notice.

The experience of hemispheric differences can feel strange at first— but all of us have differences between our right and left sides, and these shift and change through a day or week or lifetime. And it doesn't really matter— these differences aren’t there for us to “fix” and adjust and try to even out. These differences are opportunities for us to step out of our own way, and let "the smarter part of ourselves" step in and take over.

How? By lying down and doing (almost) nothing.

Sharing Our Most Intimate Subjectivities with Our Own Nervous Systems

Body mapping is forming an internal picture of your body, as a whole, and in parts, and as a whole again. When you lie on the floor, and close your eyes, the floor becomes a mirror and shows you what parts of your body are making contact with the floor and what parts aren’t, what parts feel heavier and what parts feel lighter. Your brain loves to look for differences, to differentiate, in the external world and in the internal, and to use this information for a supple and spontaneous relationship with your surroundings— to have choices and to optimize. And luckily, the two hemispheres of our bodies make for a great template for this unending process. Hemispheric difference in our bodies is then an opportunity for the nervous system to sharpen and refine what it already loves to do. By just noticing, in precise detail, a kind of secret dialogue can start between you and your nervous system:

How many edges of the right shoulder blade’s triangle can you detect on the floor? Ahhh… all three, yes. In fact, my right shoulder blade feels like a thick ink blot on the floor. And what about the left shoulder blade? Just one edge. The inside edge close to my spine, like a pencil line, but there. Oh, maybe there’s a second edge on the outside…

Often this is enough. By the end of this process, which asks for awareness and accuracy but never interference, the internal landscape of our bodies become much more visible to us. We have a clearer sense of ourselves.

Though the skills that we’re building are never about using our will, in thought or movement, to release or “let go,” something a little weird does start to happen. At the end of the body mapping, when we return to places we scanned before, we might notice that differences have actually decreased: the right and left sides of the back, for example, are now making a more even contact with the floor. I find that body mapping is different than yoga’s Sivasana (my favorite pose when I did yoga.) Rather than resting at the end of a lesson and giving ourselves time to integrate all the work we did in some general experience of relaxation or “letting go,” body mapping is about engaging deeply, curiously, effortlessly with what is, our subjective selves, our deeper intricacies, and letting that be enough. Refined, differentiated awareness combined with not trying to do anything gives the nervous system a chance to step in and do its thing, and that thing will always be a little mysterious.

The Smarter Part of Ourselves

And this is where almost every Sense Writing sequence starts, whether in class or one-on-one. On the floor. It’s a way of experiencing a part of ourselves that is, in ways, “smarter than ourselves.”  Williams James called this smarter part of ourselves "fringe consciousness" and the mathematician Henri Poincare referred to it as "the subliminal self." The Sense Writing sequences-- in thought, sensation, emotion and movement— are rigorous yet tender duets with this part of ourselves. And like all good dance partners, we learn that, indeed, it has tact, delicacy, and knows how to choose.