Narrative self reference vs. Momentary Experience: A love story

Next week the next stage of The Yoga Project begins, a series of art and yoga workshops. I know, I’m the writer-in-residence and not the yoga-teacher-in-residence. I’ve gotten a lot of “Oh! You’re the yoga one,” and then “what else do you do?” So I thought it might be useful to write a bit about how I got into all this and what that has to do with writing.

I didn’t start to seriously practice yoga until I was in grad school. I had done yoga before with my high school creative writing teacher who is also an Anusara instructor. She suggested that it would help me write more freely. I really liked it but I had made the decision at 16 that I was an artist and therefore loathed all physical activity.  I didn’t take a yoga class again until college where I attended a semester long class to satisfy part of my college’s gym credit (yes, my college instituted a gym credit in order to get all our lazy conference-paper-writing-asses to go to the gym). I wasn’t so into the yoga class at college. It was huge and my teacher was this wiry guy with thick curly hair and a heavy mustache. Actually, he looked sort of like this:

My favorite anecdote from that time was when he came to adjust me  in bridge pose. I was new to it and didn’t understand that my knees had to be apart rather than touching. The  70s era yoga teacher knelt down in front of me and slowly moved my legs apart. “Okaaaaay,” he said slowly and I wondered if I was in some weird sexual assistance video. I referred to that moment a lot, moving my hands as if separating phantom thighs and sighing, “okay” as my response when people asked me if I was into yoga.

When I was living in NY I was too intimidated to go to yoga classes. I didn’t think I’d be any good. Didn’t think I was flexible. Didn’t think I had the right clothes. Then I moved to NC, and I saw that a store offered yoga classes after hours and thought I’d try. Maybe it was because it wasn’t in a traditional studio, but I was less intimidated. I also realized I sort of liked moving my body around. I found a studio that I loved and then got hooked.

It might be that I went to Wilmington and just had amazing teachers but I think it was also the right timing. I was writing all of the time, I had a lot of stress. I needed an outlet that was more organized, that had a set form. It gave me a structure to work within which was comforting since working in the realm of fiction let my mind grow wild.

As I practiced yoga and meditation more regularly I noticed three undeniable results:

  1. Afterwards I always wanted to write and often times, during chavasana (the rest pose at the end of practice) I would suddenly find the solution to the story, the final line of the essay, or the beginning of something, some trickle of language that eventually turned into a novel.
  2. I was able to sit and write for longer periods of time. My ability to focus increased significantly. I went from aimlessly wandering around my apartment and maybe doing an hour of work if I was lucky to being able to sit for 4 or 5 hours straight. Part of this was physical. Back pain and carpal tunnel discomfort were alleviated but I also found that I had the ability to get consumed in the dream of my writing.
  3. I began to practice separating my desire for fame for my desire to write. Rather than worrying where is this going to get published, who is going to like this, what is going to happen to me? I would be present with my work. Present with my sentences. This last one is still a constant practice.

My friend Justin is doing research in  on the affect of meditation and hatha yoga postures on the mind and he sent me a few articles that were useful in his research. In this article from August 2007’s “Social Cognitive and Effective Neuroscientists” a group revealed their findings on the effect meditation had on the way we think and approach the world.

These researchers break our thinking into two parts (get ready, I’m about to geek out):

  1. Narrative Self Reference, which is our identity across time. Think of the long term story of our lives, the way we define ourselves and relate to the world based on a life time of experience.
  2. Momentary Experience, which they refer to as “the agentic I.” This is the immediate sensory experience. The present moment.

In an article in Psychology Today, “The Neuroscience of Mindfulness,” Dr. David Rock breaks it down this way:

They discovered that people have two distinct ways of interacting with the world, using two different sets of networks. One network for experiencing your experience involves what is called the “default network”, […] This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is your default network in action. It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating.

He goes on to say that people who practice mindfulness meditation have the ability to switch. The default mode will still kick in but that person has a greater ability to recognize it, step aside from it, and return to the present moment. So what benefit does this have on  writing?

My experience is that this kind of mindfulness practice enables these two methods of thinking to work together in a satisfying and really useful way. We spend much of our time thinking and working on the surface level of our mind. Not because we aren’t brilliant or capable, but because we’re so busy. There are many things to think and do. It’s why we sometimes have trouble thinking beyond cliché. It’s also why, when someone hits something that goes much deeper than the surface level we exalt that person as a genius because they seem capable of a kind of thinking, a kind of production that we don’t believe ourselves to be capable of. I believe that some people’s minds have the ability to go deeper, make connections faster than others but I also believe that we are all capable of those connections, to work at that level. By utilizing the mind of the present—which doesn’t expect anything from our past, doesn’t place limitations on our abilities or what we think we should be interested in—we have more room to explore language we didn’t know was there, topics we didn’t realize could be of interest.

This also doesn’t mean we are forced to suddenly make spiritual-let-me-consult-my-crystals-powerful-womyn-flowey-clothes-patchouli-scented artwork. One of my favorite writing teacher’s once said “You have to hurt your characters more, you have to hurt yourself  more.” This method allows entry to that, a way to get deeper into the lives of the characters, explore topics that previously seemed too painful, and to experience what might not have seemed possible to experience.

This is ultimately what I’m hoping to explore with The Yoga Project. What happens when we combine both ways of thinking? What happens when we approach work with the intention of going deeper than we thought we could, working in a medium we’re unfamiliar with?

If nothing else, I may show up and teach yoga in this outfit:



Filed under Artists-in-Residence, Corinne Manning (10-11)

2 responses to “Narrative self reference vs. Momentary Experience: A love story

  1. Janie

    you MUST wear the outfit. Terrific entry, smart one! I love my friends so much!!!!!

  2. ash

    I loved this! Thank you for the combination of research and humor. Love the quirky yoga dude!

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