Today I'm excited to share an interview with one of my favorite people, Dr. Eric Maisel , respected author and internationally recognized expert on creativity. His new book called Ten Zen Seconds describes a centering technique which takes just a few seconds to implement. Occasionally we leaern about a technique or tool which can last a lifetime, supporting and enriching our growth through the triumphs and tragedies of life, and the most precious are usually simple, elegant and powerful. I believe this centering technique is definitely in that realm. Eric's book includes wonderful personal anecdotes from lots of folks using this technique in many different situations. There's lots of room for awe and self-discovery. I've been waiting to ask Eric if this centering technique could alleviate or heal symptoms of severe anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), too.
Pamela Yates: Hi Eric! I'm so glad you could join us today.
Eric Maisel: Thanks for having me!
PY: What is Ten Zen Seconds all about? Can you give us a thumbnail sketch?
EM: It’s actually a very simple but powerful technique for reducing your stress, getting yourself centered, and reminding yourself about how you want to live your life. It can even serve as a complete cognitive, emotional, and existential self-help program built on the single idea of “dropping a useful thought into a deep breath.”
PY: How does the technique work?
EM: You use a deep breath, five seconds on the inhale and five seconds on the exhale, as a container for important thoughts that aim you in the right direction in life—I describe twelve of these thoughts in the book—and you begin to employ this breathing-and-thinking technique that I call incanting as the primary way to keep yourself on track.
PY: Where did this idea come from and how did your background contribute?
EM: It comes from two primary sources, cognitive and positive psychology from the West and breath awareness and mindfulness techniques from the East. I’d been working with creative and performing artists for more than twenty years as a therapist and creativity coach and wanted to find a quick, simple technique that would help them deal with the challenges they regularly face—resistance to creating, performance anxiety, negative self-talk about a lack of talent or a lack of connections, stress over a boring day job or competing in the art marketplace, and so on.
Because I have a background in both Western and Eastern ideas, it began to dawn on me that deep breathing, which is one of the best ways to reduce stress and alter thinking, could be used as a cognitive tool if I found just the right phrases to accompany the deep breathing. This started me on a hunt for the most effective phrases that I could find and eventually I landed on twelve of them that I called incantations, each of which serves a different and important purpose.
PY: How did you decide on the important ideas or phrases you selected?
EM: First, I tried to figure out what are the most important tasks that we face as human beings, then I came up with what I hoped were resonant phrases, each of which needed to fit well into a deep breath, then, most importantly—which moved this from the theoretical to the empirical—I tested the phrases out on hundreds of folks who agreed to use them and report back on their experiences. That was great fun and eye-opening!
People used these phrases to center themselves before a dental appointment or surgery, to get ready to have a difficult conversation with a teenage child, to bring joy back to their performing career, to carve out time for creative work in an over-busy day—in hundreds of ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. I think that’s what makes the book rich and special: that, as useful as the method and the incantations are, hearing from real people about how they’ve used them “seals the deal.” I’m not much of a fan of self-help books that come entirely from the author’s head; this one has been tested in the crucible of reality.
PY: Which phrases did you settle on?
EM: The following twelve. I think that folks will intuitively get the point of each one (though some of the incantations, like “I expect nothing,” tend to need a little explaining). Naturally each incantation is explained in detail in the book and there are lots of personal reports, so readers get a good sense of how different people interpret and make use of the incantations. Here are the twelve (the parentheses show how the phrase gets “divided up” between the inhale and the exhale:
1. (I am completely) (stopping)
2. (I expect) (nothing)
3. (I am) (doing my work)
4. (I trust) (my resources)
5. (I feel) (supported)
6. (I embrace) (this moment)
7. (I am free) (of the past)
8. (I make) (my meaning)
9. (I am open) (to joy)
10. (I am equal) (to this challenge)
11. (I am) (taking action)
12. (I return) (with strength)
A small note: the third incantation functions differently from the other eleven, in that you name something specific each time you use it, for example “I am writing my novel” or “I am paying the bills.” This helps you bring mindful awareness to each of your activities throughout the day.
PY: Can you use the incantations and this method for any special purposes?
EM: As I mentioned, folks are coming up with all kinds of special uses. One that I especially like is the idea of “book-ending” a period of work, say your morning writing stint or painting stint, by using “I am completely stopping” to ready yourself, center yourself, and stop your mind chatter, and then using “I return with strength” when you’re done so that you return to “the rest of life” with energy and power. Usually we aren’t this mindful in demarcating our activities—and life feels very different when we do.
PY: I wonder how your techniques might apply specifically to visual artists?
EM: There is one special way: because we have so much visual data in our lives already, almost to the point of visual assault, it can prove hard for a visual artist to feel like it is meaningful to add “more visual data” into a universe already replete with imagery. This is a “meaning problem,” that is, an existential problem, which can rise to the level of meaning crisis, precipitated by the doubt that more imagery—or more imagery of a certain sort, like landscape or portrait—is still meaningful to produce.
This is where incantation 8, “I make my meaning,” can prove really useful. When an artist reminds herself that she is the sole arbiter of meaning in her life and that she can “stand behind” her decision to produce her particular imagery just by deciding to take that stand, she shores up any meaning leaks and can get on with her work. The combination of incantation 8, “I make my meaning,” and incantation 10, “I am equal to this challenge,” an incantation that acknowledges how challenging visual representation can be, is a powerful combination in a visual artist’s “cognitive toolbox.”
PY: Eric, this is a question close to my heart. How can sufferers of PTSD and other severe anxiety disorders who want to lessen or even eliminate their prescription medications make use of your Ten Zen Seconds methods?
EM: It can be terribly hard for sufferers of severe anxiety disorders to handle their anxiety without medication. One of the important shifts for anxiety sufferers whose anxiety is related to specific traumas, as is the case with those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, is arriving at a place of remembering the trauma without having to relive the trauma. That is, you want to be able to have a certain kind of thought (a memory) without having a certain kind of feeling (a whole-body experience of the trauma happening again).
Therefore you can use the name-you-work incantation, incantation 3, to name as your work “I can remember without re-experiencing,” “I can remembering without reliving,” or some similar phrase that, coupled with the healing power of a deep breath, starts to separate the memory from the emotional charge, so that you don’t have to live in fear of your own memory. Coupling this incantation with “I feel supported” and/or “I am free of the past” produces a short, half-minute-long personalized centering mantra that targets the effects of PSTD.
PY: Is there a way to experience this process in “real time.”
EM: By trying it out! But my web master Ron Wheatley has also designed a slide show at the Ten Zen Seconds site (http://www.tenzenseconds.com) that you can use to learn and experience the incantations. The slides that name the twelve incantations are beautiful images provided by the painter Ruth Yasharpour and each slide stays in place for ten seconds. So you can attune your breathing to the slide and really practice the method. The slide show is available at http://www.tenzenseconds.com/test_photo_slide.html
PY: How can people learn more about Ten Zen Seconds?
EM: The book is the best resource. You can get it at Amazon by visiting:
Or you can ask for it at your local bookstore. The Ten Zen Seconds website is also an excellent resource: in addition to the slide show that I mentioned, there is a bulletin board where folks can chat, audio interviews that I’ve done discussing the Ten Zen Second techniques, and more. It’s also quite a gorgeous site, so you may want to visit it just for the aesthetic experience! I would also recommend that folks check out my main site, http://www.ericmaisel.com, especially if they’re interested in creativity coaching or the artist’s life.
PY: I know you're always engaged in new creative work so please tell us what else are you up to?
Plenty! I have a new book out called Creativity for Life, which is roughly my fifteenth book in the creativity field and which people seem to like a lot. I also have a third new book out, in addition to Ten Zen Seconds and Creativity for Life, called Everyday You, which is a beautiful coffee table book about maintaining daily mindfulness. I’m working on two books for 2008, one called A Writer’s Space and a second called Creative Recovery, about using your innate creativity to help in recovering from addiction.
And I’m keep up with the many other things I do: my monthly column for Art Calendar Magazine, my regular segment for Art of the Song Creativity Radio, the trainings that I offer in creativity coaching, and my work with individual clients. I am happily busy! But my main focus for the year is on getting the word out about Ten Zen Seconds, because I really believe that it’s something special.
PY: Eric, it's been so good having you join us here at the Creative Circle Cafe. We'd love to have you back again any time you feel like chatting with us again. Thank you.EM: Thank you for having me here today!
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than thirty books. 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, 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. He lives in San Francisco.
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.