Awe walking- a mindful movement exercise to establish focused flow

This week I’ve been busy developing my app that will deliver the 6-week Flow Writer Challenge when it’s launched in a few weeks’ time. The blog had been put to one side while I got on with designing the challenge and the post-challenge programme. I then realised I was again flirting with my old friend overwhelm, which has also been reflected in the feedback from my writing coaching clients- all of them struggling with overwhelm, some due to multitasking and finding it difficult to carve out time to write, some overwhelmed by a need to organise rapidly multiplying ideas into a coherent plan for an article, others struggling with writing up their research design for a PhD upgrade. As I build my writing coaching practice, I am coming up against the problem of overwhelm over and over. This seems to be rooted in having too many things to do in a short space of time, but it is also a product of overthinking and catastrophizing by focusing on the potential for failure. These are very human problems that don’t only apply to writers of course. However, the isolation that accompanies the solitary occupation of writing can make it very difficult to step back from catastrophizing the future and reconnect to the reality of the present moment. When I need to reconnect to the present and realign to my flow, I take a short walk to my special place in the image below.

Aware of the temptation to fuse with a sense of overwhelm, despite the fact I’ve met all my goals and more this past week, I decided that rather than sit down at my desk and tackle my to do list, I’d try and shift my energy outward, and drop into the present moment. This is practice I recommend to my writing coaching clients who feel stuck or overwhelmed, and especially when they feel isolated. Writing is a solitary occupation. For an off the scale introvert like myself, lots of time alone rarely presents a problem but the stagnant energy that can result from sitting at a desk for hours can be an obstacle to maintaining motivation. That’s why the mindful focusing exercises I will be recommending in my 6-week Flow Writer Challenge will involve movement, rather than sitting. Today, rather just taking a stroll, I went for an ‘awe walk’- a mindful movement practice that helps overcome feelings of isolation and disrupts the inward downward spiral of overwhelm. All too often, writer’s overwhelm can result from focusing on an imaginary future where we fail to meet our writing goals.

I am fortunate to live on the Fife coastal path next to a beautiful fishing harbour (in the photo above) and large park with beaches, lawns, picnic benches and woods. So, when I need to take a walk in nature and reconnect with my environment, I merely walk out of my front door! Others who live in towns and cities may not find accessing nature so easy, but the mindful practice of awe walking can unveil a fresh appreciation of the apparently mundane while shifting stagnant energy and reconnecting us to our surroundings. Research has found that awe walking helps overcome feelings of isolation while also being good for our physical health. Awe is very powerful, and can reignite our creative process by dissolving a tendency towards overthinking and getting stagnant energy moving. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley offers a guide to a short 15-minute awe walking practice. I suggest visiting the site and following their guidance.  I quote from their website below:

“With the right outlook, awe can be found in almost any environment, turning a mundane experience into a flight of inspiration and wonder. It is most likely to occur in places that have two key features: physical vastness and novelty. These could include natural settings, like a hiking trail lined with tall trees, or urban settings, like at the top of a skyscraper. You’re more likely to feel awe in a new place, where the sights and sounds are unfamiliar to you. That said, some places never seem to get old. No matter where you are, the key is to be in the right frame of mind. This practice is designed to help you get there—to turn an ordinary walk into a series of awe-inspiring moments, filled with delightful surprises.”

It is preferable to do this alone, with your phone on silent. I take my phone with me to take photos of the sights that evoke a sense of awe, but I always put the phone on silent. The guided practice from the website is reproduced below.

1. Take a deep breath in. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Feel the air move through your nasal passages and hear the sound of your breath. Come back to this breath throughout the walk. 2. As you start to walk, feel your feet on the ground and listen to the surrounding sounds. 3. Shift your awareness now so that you are open to what is around you, to things that are vast, unexpected, things that surprise and delight. 4. Take another deep breath in. Again, count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. 5. Let your attention be open in exploration for what inspires awe in you. Is it a wide landscape? The small patterns of light and shadow? Let your attention move from the vast to the small. 6. Continue your walk and, every so often, bring your attention back to your breath. Count to six as you inhale and six as you exhale. Notice—really notice—the multitude of sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations that are dancing through your awareness, usually undetected. 7. Once you get in the habit of taking walks like this, you may be struck by how frequently you have opportunities to experience awe—they are practically infinite.

The walk can indoors or outdoors. For example, those in an urban setting could visit a gallery or museum if the immediate outdoor environment lacks novelty. You can also follow the guided awe walk meditation in the video below.

I enjoyed my awe walk today which I found energising and uplifting. It enabled me to reconnect with my environment and a sense of joy at being alive. On return, I sat down and wrote this post easily, in a state of focused flow. My awe walk imbued me with a fresh sense of possibility and freed me from overwhelm. If you find yourself overthinking the future and becoming overwhelmed at your writing desk, consider taking a short awe walk, or even a long one. The benefits to your writing process may surprise you. I intend to make this a daily practice. Cultivating a sense of awe regularly has enormous benefits by shifting the stagnant energy that can block access to your flow state.

Values-Driven Writing Goals

When I conduct my first coaching session with writers, I introduce them to the ACT approach that I have integrated into the Focused Flow model. ACT is a collaborative coaching intervention that was developed by Professor Steven Hayes as he struggled to overcome his own personal challenges following his divorce. Previously a highly competent public speaker and lecturer, Steven found himself freezing up when he went to speak and experiencing panic attacks which quickly developed into a full-blown panic disorder. As a psychologist, he tried all the standard approaches to deal with his condition, but none seemed to resolve his problems entirely. You can read more about how he struggled to overcome his problems and how this led him to develop the ACT approach here.

The ACT approach is based on a six staged process that is represented by the hexaflex.

The Hexaflex

I came across this approach after training in the more traditional mindfulness-based approaches of MBSR and MBCT, both of which require a regular meditation practice. While studying at the Centre for Mindfulness Practice and Research at the University of Wales, I found out that many of my peers had difficulties maintaining a meditation practice due to a lack of time, heavy workloads, and family responsibilities, meaning they often found these approaches difficult to follow. I was drawn to ACT, because while the approach teaches mindfulness skills that develop a greater awareness of how the human mind works, it does not require a meditation practice. That’s right- no meditation is involved! In fact, ACT exercises teach us how to develop mindfulness on the move, during the ordinary activities of everyday life. This alone aroused my interest, so I took an experiential training programme that required trainees to apply ACT to their everyday experience. After we were presented with the hexaflex and the theory was introduced we began stage one of the process called ‘front loading your values’.

When looking at the hexaflex above, it might be difficult to imagine how this approach could be applied to the writing process to help overcome blockages and optimise productivity. At first, this wasn’t my intention at all. It was only after working with a coaching client who had been trying to finish her PhD thesis for twelve years that I discovered how useful ACT could be for overcoming obstacles encountered during the writing process. I simply took my client through the six staged process with a focus on the importance of writing in her life with fantastic results. She then went on to finish her thesis in nine months!

The first stage involved front loading her values. As is often the case, she was unclear about what her values actually were, especially the values that were driving her writing goals. Values and goals are different. Goals are milestones of achievement while values steer the direction we want our lives to take. So, if we’re unclear about our values, we’re not sure where we’re heading, and so we’re much less likely to get there. Often, when my clients complete the values clarification exercises, they discover that the values that had been steering their life so far had never been their own values, but had been adopted from another source, such as parents, teachers, their partner, or even the accepted conventions of society as a whole. Russ Harris illustrates the difference between a values-focused life versus a goals-focused life in this short video below.

For those people struggling to complete a long-term writing project, understanding which values are driving their writing goals is crucial. It’s also important to understand if writing is associated with a lack of fulfilment of other values and how both sides of the coin interfere with the writing process. I’ll give you an example to illustrate what I mean.

Let’s return to my previous who had struggled to complete her PhD thesis for almost twelve years. When she started clarifying her values, she realised that despite the importance of the values of creativity, learning and adventure that steered her PhD research, she also associated spending extended time on her writing with a lack of time with her partner doing things they enjoyed such as travelling together, sharing leisure activities and seeing friends.  She discovered that subconsciously she was associating writing with relationship problems, social isolation, and even the loss of her partner to a less boring academic type! So, when we were front loading her values, we also had to reframe her writing in terms of her valued relationships, and unravel the association between writing and neglecting her partner and social connections.

As we did so, she realised to her surprise that her inability to focus on writing was at the core of some her problems with her partner, as her frustration was affecting her mood, energy levels and enjoyment of shared activities. She felt hunted by a sense of guilt and failure, and this was being expressed in her relationships in all kinds of indirect ways. Her partner was becoming associated with her inability to focus and write, although all her partner ever did was try to encourage her! Quite soon, we were able to reframe her writing as support to having a healthier relationship, as she saw how her reluctance to set boundaries to dedicate time to writing up her thesis was undermining her ability to be fully present to her partner and enjoy their time together.

In this case, front loading her values set her on a path to unlocking the time she needed to dedicate to writing, while she used mindfulness skills to detach from the guilt inducing inner commentary that would often arise when she made time away from her relationship to sit down and write. She established some values driven writing goals in the short, medium, and long term that enabled her to achieve a greater sense of fulfilment in other areas of her life. Once she had clarified the values driving her writing process, she was clear about where she was heading and could map out how to get there. This is the territory I cover with my clients in their first two coaching sessions using the Focused Flow workbook as a guide.

In the next post, I’ll explain how the mindfulness exercise of cognitive defusion helps establish the focus needed to drop into the flow state when we face obstacles with productivity even when we have plenty of time to write. Overcoming our inner obstacles to the writing process can be our greatest challenge. The Focused Flow model is especially designed to identify and uproot inner blockages to establishing the flow state, a vital and creative state of mind that is key to optimising productivity.

I look forward to any comments on this post.