In Theravadan Buddhism, there’s a form of meditation wherein practitioners allow thoughts to enter their minds and dwell there free of judgement. The thought – no matter how potentially upsetting or disturbing – may be calmly turned over, investigated, and conversed with. It may go, or it may stay – either way, the thought is not understood as threatening. It is a part of the learning process.

It is amazing how effective this style of meditation is for untangling webs of anxiety and processing complex emotional issues. Removing the cloud of judgement, and all the fear that accompanies it, allows for the freedom necessary to properly work through difficult issues.

Maybe it should be unsurprising, then, that writing often has the same effect.

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I have found myself, countless times, writing about feelings I didn’t know I had. Thoughts I didn’t know I thought. I have watched, in semi-disembodied disbelief, as my hands seemed to work on their own accord, giving shape to my unconscious.

It is an unsettling experience to sit down intending to write about a specific thing and instead find yourself scribbling unstoppably about things you’ve never thought about. There’s a strange conflict, where your conscious brain struggles to take back control but your bodily unconscious – perhaps because of the writing muscle’s refusal to leave a sentence unfinished, perhaps because your conscious brain is so mesmerized by the novelty of what it is reading – remains in control.

It is a special thing. We so often try to ignore our unconscious. But in the face of a pen that doesn’t judge and a blank sheet of paper, we can engage with ourselves. Our truths can come spilling out and we can read them back.

There is more to the human experience than reason and restraint. Writing has always allowed people to create new worlds; discovering them is not always just for the reader.


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

As writers, we can often get stuck in a routine with our writing that can feel a bit dusty after a while. At its worst, this can cause us to stagnate and falter with our writing, or even set it aside for other pursuits. Writing takes persistent and consistent effort to produce worthwhile results, but that doesn’t mean the process by which you get there has to be boring.

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Many writers have different methods for keeping things fresh, regardless of the genre. Some writers like to use prompting exercises. These are usually one sentence assignments like “Write about the smell of your childhood neighbour’s house” or “Write about the first time you were disappointed in your parents” and from something fairly straightforward and simple, entire short stories or even books can evolve. These exercises get the creative juices flowing and nowhere is this truer than when prompts are combined with free writing. Free writing means that you aren’t thinking of things as a project or an essay. You’re just writing for the sake of writing without pressure to produce something even of quality or value at the end. This sense of freedom often gives writers the confidence they need to get started, and once they do, great things happen!

That being said, it’s not a trick of the mind, necessarily. It’s not a matter of making yourself think that there’s no pressure to accomplish something with your writing, but in the end you still have a lingering hope that something tangible will come  from it. Rather, this exercise is purely for the joy of writing as a transformative process, in and of itself.

I often link free writing (which I, sadly, have very little time for these days!) and meditation because I see the outcomes of both processes to be very similar, and below are few of the reasons why.

They are both good for you. Meditation has been medically linked to lowered stress and anxiety levels as well as decreased risks of major illnesses like depression and heart disease. Free writing allows you the freedom to express yourself and let go of things that are holding you back emotionally. In fact, therapists will often recommend free writing simply for the release it allows you and the mental health benefits that can come from that.

They both focus the mind and keep you present. When you are meditating on something, or even meditating on the clearing of the mind to bring it to the present moment, you are focused. Focus takes concentration and discipline, especially these days in the world of fast-paced technology and split-second attention spans. Free writing can offer a similar kind of focus, particularly if you set a time limit for the free writing. Set yourself a ten minute alarm for writing on a particular subject or whatever comes to mind and stay committed to the writing and only the writing until that alarm goes off. More times than not, you’ll get so invested in your work, the alarm will likely come as a forgotten surprise.

With both, you have to be aware of all the senses. For anyone who has just started meditation practice formally or informally, one thing can be said for sure: meditating certainly has the uncanny ability to make you aware of all facets of your surroundings from your itchy nose to the ache in your back, from the smell of the room you’re sitting in to the sounds outside your window. You become acutely aware of the world around you and your body within that world. With free writing and any writing in general, an awareness of the senses is critical. The best kinds of writing don’t tell us what is happening, they show us what is happening by making us feel, touch, taste, smell, hear and see things through our written words. The best writers are those that are in touch with these senses and know how to express them on the page.

Sometimes, they are painful. Meditation isn’t all fun and oms. There are serious challenges in terms of physical and mental endurance that need to be overcome through careful, calculated practice of keeping the mind aware and still. Writing can be similar in that it forces a kind of discipline that can be uncomfortable at first but pays off in the end. Also, not all meditation or writing sessions will be considered “successful” by you – and they don’t have to be successful… Failing and trying again are both their own forms of success.

They both help you evolve. Whether you are meditating of free writing, both tasks help you to learn a lot about yourself, particularly how fluid you are as an individual. A lot of people think that writing is about crystallizing a moment or a character in time, but in actuality, it’s more of a snapshot of an ever-changing scene or individual. In a similar way, meditation helps you hone in on the present moment because this is where attachments fall away. It is only in past and future memories that we hold onto rigid conceptions of ourselves and our identities. By breaking through and being present with ourselves and our pens on the page, we can capture some of the sense of our own movement and can grow because of it, becoming gentler with ourselves as we pass through time in perpetual motion.

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This blog is an op-ed piece written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.

Recently, I’ve noticed an influx of articles discussing the phenomenon whereby people tend to portray their lives through rose-coloured filters when they are posting on their social media platform. Failures are covered up and bad days don’t exist in the ideal life presented before the world in the form of Facebook statuses and Instagram photos.

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There are people that see this phenomenon as frustrating or dangerous. They understand it as perpetuating an unrealistic standard of living, or consider it representative of the inauthenticity of interactions online.

To tackle the latter problem first: it is important to realize that you will never get, nor are you ever owed, unadulterated, complete, and utter honesty from each and every person you interact with. To have that expectation is frankly insane. People hang their best pictures on the wall, people choose stories to tell depending on their audience, and half the time people don’t know what the “truth” is, anyways. Whether online or in person, you will only ever get a partial picture.

And that’s okay.

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You are allowed to choose what you tell people. You are allowed to focus on the positives and refrain from posting about your hardships. I have absolutely no problem with seeing the ideal versions of people’s lives. Why?

Because I like seeing joy. I like when people are posting funny videos and beautiful photos and uplifting statuses. I don’t like looking at other people’s happiness and success and feeling bitter, resentful, jealous, or judged. I like feeling happy for them. I like feeling inspired. I have had many a bad day where looking at pictures on Facebook made me feel better. I have posted things specifically to make myself focus on the good in my life during rough patches. Social media can be a place where happiness is shared and shared and shared and shared. And to feel joy at another person’s fortune is a choice you can make – and a choice you should make.

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If you don’t find Facebook representative enough of reality, go spend some time in reality. Let people post their filtered photos and snapshots of their best selves, because ultimately a stage of 1000 “friends” is not an appropriate place for everyone to post their gruesome, unedited vulnerability.

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The hope is that we all have enough close friendships, enough face-to-face conversations, enough intimacy and wisdom in our lives to realize that everyone has hard times, bad days, rough spots, and bumps in the road. We should be able to recognize that our social media profiles are not meant to be our biographies – they are parts of our public selves, and as such, are representative of the things we want to project into the world.

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I have never had a garden before. I’ve helped people dig plots and planted a few things here and there but I tend to live up to the moniker of House Plant Killer. So this past summer, when a friend of mine from Mindfulness Together offered her garden plot to whoever would cultivate it and I volunteered, a few eyebrows were raised, including my own.

Let me be blunt: I had no idea what I was doing in May. The garden was massively overgrown with dandelions and creeping Charlie whose roots were deeper than the center of the Atlantic Ocean, but for some reason (probably because I hadn’t thought about it) this didn’t phase me. Digging and turning the soil diligently with the help of friends, I eventually got a pizza-shaped plot dug and was ready to plant.

I had no idea how and where to plant things so I came up with a strange pattern, threw too many seeds too close together, watered it, said a prayer and walked away. Throughout the first couple of weeks, I continuously removed the ever-encroaching weeds (feeling kind of bad about that every time) and waited for my sprouts to push through. Eventually they did and I had to get really selective about weeding lest I pull out my precious plants.

The routine of going to the garden every night or every second night became a sacred ritual for me and my daughter. After dinner, when we needed to get out of the house together (as two-year-olds so often do), we would walk ten blocks to our little plot, pull the weeds together, listen to the birds chirping, yell at an over-confident squirrel that “mommy is terrified of” and then water. Watering has been our favourite part – something about quenching the earth’s thirst, watching the soil turn a darker shade of black, knowing that the roots of your plants were taking a long drink…something about this act was calming and reflective for us. It would be time to just listen to the spray hitting the leaves of the plants and the shuffling of leaves in the trees. We would take pleasure in washing our hands after, the stream turning a dark black as the dirt washed back to the ground with it.

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Over the summer, we have harvested our five variations of lettuce countless times. We filled bags and bags with fragrant bunches of oregano, savoury and cilantro. We snipped the leaves of baby kale and delighted in the pop of pulling up a buried beet. We beamed with pride as we presented family and friends with our little treasures. Our late harvest cucumbers, broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, carrots and zucchini are on the way and each time we have something to bring home to nourish our bodies, my daughter shrieks in delight and my heart soars. Relying on our own labour to feed our family nutritious food has been an incredible adventure, but even more than that – the daily pilgrimage to our garden plot has reoriented and reorganized our lives around delighting in life itself. In a world full of darkness, this is the best fruit our garden can give.

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