Friday, August 3, 2012

Velvet Discipline and the 15 Minute Rule

Right now, this very moment, I'm practicing a rule to live by that I want to share, or pass on as the case may be, a topic that's been on my To Write About list for a while in fact.

You see, I do not actually feel like writing this post right now.  (That's painfully grammatically incorrect, but I'm going with the vernacular.)  I'm showing up out of commitment, but gently.  I'm using my 15 minute rule.

Well, it isn't mine.  I've read similar advice many times in various contexts. But I did issue a related edict to my son many years ago before I remember reading it anywhere. When he was a wee child and very hungry while I was preparing supper, just as convinced that he could not wait until it was done as I was determined that his dinner appetite not be ruined, I would give him a small snack and tell him that if he was still hungry in 15 minutes, he could have more before dinner.  He couldn't tell time yet, but it did the trick.  He never came back still ravenous, and we always made it to dinner peacefully.

Showing up here right now is similar to that,  maybe the inverse.  I'm pecking away for 15 minutes.  If I still feel unmotivated after that time, I'll quit and lose myself in a magazine, which wouldn't be a bad way to end a Friday after a stressful week.  If I catch my stride, I'll stay.

I'm going to use this same logic on myself in the morning when I tackle a project that I want very much to do, one that will yield me long desired dedicated yoga, meditation, and sewing space in what used to be my son's room.  I don't know that I'll feel a ripping desire to tear into a project when I get up tomorrow.  I may feel a desire to hide somewhere safe instead.  But I'll show up gently for at least 15 minutes anyway and see what happens.  Most likely, I'll get enthused and rewarded with my own zen den.  If not, at least I will have made progress toward a goal.

This approach is what I call velvet discipline.  It's showing up consistently and faithfully but without a show of iron will.  I have driven myself willfully in the past, without regard for basic needs like, oh, I don't know, sleep and mental rest.  I won't do that again.  I will, however, show up and see what happens, what my body and mind really need to happen, beyond my surface feelings.

I'm taking this approach because the odd truth is that doing whatever I feel like doing doesn't usually make me happy.  I may feel like collapsing into a soft chair with a good book and not looking up at the world until bed time.  Oddly enough, when I do that, I feel an emptiness at the end of my leisure.  I may truly need soothing, but escapist entertainment doesn't seem the way to be both petted down and satisfied with my evening.

Here's another truth, referred to above:  Even if I only write for 15 minutes, that's 15 minutes done.  Another 15 minutes tomorrow night, and the night after that, and so on would add up to a good bit of writing.  I'd still accomplish something, without cracking a whip or over working myself, both of which would suck the joy right out of the endeavor for sure, and probably lead to quitting it entirely.  The little-by-little approach worked recently for this post actually.

As further evidence, every morning I sip my cup of tea and scribble away in my journal, ending with a poem most days. The whole process gets only thirty minutes and goes on whether I feel like doing it or not. I mean, let's be honest.  How many of us even feel like getting out of bed in the morning?  We do it anyway, and it works. The resistance fades shortly after we make the committed heave off the mattress (assuming we're not sleep deprived--whole 'nother scenario there).  So does my grogginess and resistance once I put pen to paper.  My persistence has now yielded several notebooks full of revelations and poems.  Not bad output for minutes a day done in mental half-light whether I feel the love or not.

In one of her books, Barbara Sher points out that how we feel and what we can get done often have nothing to do with each other.  She even encourages the reader to keep a brief bedtime journal recording your feeling states that day and what you've accomplished anyway.  She promises that after a handful of days you'll see the data her way.

I haven't tried her recommended experiment, but I don't really need to.  The 15 minute rule is proof for me of what Ms. Sher says.  I may not have felt at the start an active desire to write tonight--no words were burning their way out of my inspired mind--but I'm still here and haven't thought about the time in...well, I don't know how many minutes it's been.  See!  It works.

My oft-mentioned creativity guru Julia Cameron concurs.  She maintains that decision and diligence make a writer, or a painter, or whatever we wish we were, because what we are is partly what we do regularly.  Write a little every day, and I'm a writer, regardless of how I feel.

As for me, I maintain that some part of us is still a toddler or an animal.  Trickery and conditioning work on that part.  Soothe the toddler's fussiness, and you can get some work done. Keep showing up, and you make a Pavlovian habit of doing so.  All without a power struggle in which you force yourself rather than manipulating your nature in a good way, sweetly conniving yourself right into the productivity you dream of.

Earlier I said that velvet discipline is about not performing rigidly but showing up consistently and faithfully.  That last word has two meanings.  One indicates regularity, as we most often use it, the performance factor I've been ostensibly discussing.  The other is more spiritual.  I show up consistently, yes, but also full of faith that something will come, expectant and trusting.  When I decide to sit down and write, I believe that something is there, even if I don't feel it.  Thus, I don't wait to feel like writing.  I just sit down and write--softly, playfully, moodling along, just placing the photo or filling in the title box or jotting down a few thoughts. Before I know it, there's more, maybe even something done, and I'm so glad I did it.

Of course, there are those times when, 15 minutes in, I'm really sure that a calming nothing is what I need to be doing right then, occasions when even gentle nudging is too much.  The inner animal needs to lick its wounds sometimes before it can come out to play.  And that's OK, too.  Velvet discipline knows when to let go and be patient while I recoup.

Velvet discipline is wise like that.  It's based in healthy self knowledge, knowing who I am and what I really need to be fulfilled.  It's enacted out of love, not out of fear or longing or shame.  It's stubbornness well directed and smartened up.

Well, many more than 15 minutes later, I'm very glad that I showed up.  I can go to bed a contented woman now.  I leave you with this question: What in your own life needs some velvet discipline?

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