This month we’ve been reading Ten Zen Seconds by prolific author and creativity coach, Eric Maisel. I’ve been reading Eric’s books for the past couple of years, after my editor suggested one to me. Before that, I was quite dissatisfied with the inspirational books about creativity and writing that I’d found at my local bookstore because they all seemed to be loaded with ideas about mystical muses, supernatural synchronicity, religious-sounding rituals, and other superstitions that were directly promoted by the authors as helpful–or even necessary–for one to become a successful writer and artist.
Because these were the only books I could find, and because I am sometimes down in the dumps and in need of inspiration, I read them, and did actually find many of them to be quite helpful. But as time went on, I found it harder and harder to gloss over the sections telling me to wait for the “Great Creator” to send me inspiration or that if I took a leap of faith “The Universe” would collaborate with me to foster my success. The last time I picked up a book by one of the most famous creativity authors, I couldn’t even get past the first chapter.
Ten Zen Seconds is completely different. It’s not just for writers and artists, either. According to the book’s website, Ten Zen Seconds “introduces a new, powerful approach to mindfulness. It is a book, a practice, and an invitation to live a more centered, grounded, and meaningful life. Marrying Eastern and Western techniques, it builds on the simple idea that deep breathing coupled with right thinking is the perfect tool for growth, healing, and transformation.”
Too many self-help and creativity books tell us that having positive thoughts and making positive statements can change the universe. In sharp contrast, Eric tells us that these things can change our mental states. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s statement in the movie Shadowlands that “prayer doesnâ€™t change God, it changes you.” I’ve always loved that quote from Shadowlands, and I like the way Eric uses deep breathing techniques from Buddhist meditation combined with thought-management techniques derived from cognitive therapy to create a non-superstitous method for taking control of our monkey-mind when it runs away on its own.
As one of the last stops on his blog book tour, I’ve asked Eric some specific questions about Ten Zen Seconds as well as some general questions about his own ideas on skepticism and atheism.
Skepchick: Ten Zen Seconds combines Eastern breathing and meditation techniques with Western ideas about cognitive therapy. How did you come up with this combination?
EM:Through an experience of both. I am trained as a cognitive therapist and I believe in its basic tenets, that the better we hear what we are saying to ourselves and the more we dispute our negative or unproductive thoughts, the better chance we have to live the life we dream of living and the better chance we have of doing the work we intend to do. I also have the experience of learning breath awareness and certain seminal ideas from Zen, especially about not attaching to outcomes, and it popped into my head to marry these two branches of thought in a single tool or technique.
Skepchick: Why do you think that so many self-help and creativity books are filled with magical and superstitious ideas, when a down to earth approach is much more apt to provide a real, lasting solution to a problem?
EM: For the same reasons that religions exist. Billions of people are invested in a way of looking at the universe that allows for perfect fuzziness and waffling, so that you can praise something or someone if you write a good sentence and throw up your hands and cry out â€œItâ€™s not meant to be!â€ if the sentence gives you trouble. A lot of people will do almost anything not to take personal responsibilityâ€”and it shows when they write about creativity.
Skepchick: The word “incantation” used in Ten Zen Seconds could lead some potential readers to think that your book is also filled with magic or “woo”. As much as we might like to, we can’t actually change the universe just by positive talking or thinking. How did you choose that word and what does it mean to you?
EM: It was a tough call whether to use a word from the world of magic, which â€œincantationâ€ is, where it stands for a â€œverbal charmâ€ meant to produce certain results. I very much liked the idea of a â€œverbal charmâ€ meant to produce certain cognitive results and so ended up going with the word, despite the fact that it comes from the â€œwoo-woo world.â€ Maybe there was just a touch of irony at play there, too.
Skepchick: In several of your books, you’ve come out as an atheist. What kind of response have you had to this revelation? Have you found that this admission has caused you to lose or gain readers? Or has it been neutral?
EM: Neutral, I would say, as I usually mention that Iâ€™m an atheist in passing without bothering to defend myself or bash anyone. I have gotten odd emails of the following sort: â€œI canâ€™t believe an atheist can write so beautifullyâ€; and I do think that if I made a bigger point of my atheism, that would change my readership, but not so clearly by shrinking it. I think I would lose some and gain some.
We are now at a moment where, for the first time in our literary history, we have a wave of â€œatheism bestsellersâ€â€”the newest ones being God is Not Great and The Atheistâ€™s Bible, following on the heels of The End of Faith, The God Delusion, etc.â€”and so I think it is pretty clear that you can secure a readership today and also announce that you are an atheist. The book proposal that my literary agent is currently shopping will be about all this in a frontal way, so we shall see down the road how folks react to my â€œreallyâ€ putting myself out there as an atheist.
Skepchick: As skeptics, we find that we can’t turn to religion to provide us with pre-packaged meaning or a pre-ordained purpose. In many of your books, you write about existentialism and the need to create our own purpose in life. Can you elaborate on how the techniques in Ten Zen Seconds can help us to create our own meaning and to avoid what you call a “meaning crisis”?
EM: For more than thirty-years, ever since I read the existentialists in a systematic way as a philosophy major in college, I have been aware that they dropped the ball and never made it to the point of articulating solutions to the problems of living that they so eloquently exposed. They stopped short of explaining what â€œan authentic lifeâ€ might look like. Camus stopped short because he died young; Sartre spent the last decade of his life writing a literary biography rather than moving existentialism forward.
So that has been at the back of my mind for a long time and I began to adopt the phrase â€œmeaning-makingâ€ as the way to communicate the basic idea of a future existentialism, that we must take responsibility for making and maintaining the meaning in our life, not just in the grand sense of identifying where we want to make large meaning investments but in the more modest but also more real sense of understanding what we intend to do with the next hourâ€”and then doing it. Ten Zen Seconds comes out of that agenda: that by mindfully naming your work and announcing that you are making meaning, you will not only keep meaning afloat in your life but live completely intentionally.