Mindfulness | Karen Kao

Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Thus intones the website mindfulness.org. Google the word mindfulness and you’ll find a world of coaches and retreats, a series of TED Talks and even The Mindfulness App.

It all sounds pretty goofy to me. I’m here, aren’t I? What more do you want from me? But lately I’ve been thinking about how much my life has changed over the past 7 years. How much I’ve changed. Was it quitting my law practice or starting to write that did the trick? Somewhere, somehow, along the line, mindfulness entered my life.


writing mindfulness
Marcel Proust. Image source: https://www.poetrychangeslives.com/ways-of-writing/
In the winter, I spend most of my time in bed. Some of that is sleep but most of it is reading and writing. I like to write with my papers and books and photographs spread out around me, the cat curled at my feet. My husband calls me Marcel Proust though my nightwear is decidedly less lacy than his (Marcel’s). I’m also not picky about my writing implements: quill and ink, a laptop, a pencil and my journal, hell, crayon and a paper napkin will do, too.

That scene may look like hibernation (or just plain laziness) but that’s not how it feels to me. Bed is where the border with dream blurs. I’m awake but not, alert and not, open to whatever the gods or my characters whisper in my ear. I suppose you could call it a state of mindfulness.

None of this would have been possible while I was a lawyer. Time ticks. There are business hours, meeting times, departures and arrivals. As a lawyer I was always acutely aware of the passage of time in six minute increments. I worked under a deadline or not at all.

Beneath all that sound and fury, it seems to me that my mind was hibernating. It was awake but not, alert to everything that moved but unaware of stillness. I don’t think I was open to anything anyone cared enough to say.

the insanity defense

Maybe law and mindfulness just don’t mix. Like nature, the business model of a law firm abhors a vacuum. Billable hours are meant to be billed. There is no other measure of time.

When I was a lawyer, I had no time for hobbies. Early on in my career, while I was still in DC, I danced. After that, it was sheer nervous energy and a nicotine habit that kept me thin. Thin looks good in a business suit.
exercise mindfulness
My tai chi jacket made by Tigres Silk. Image source: http://tigres-silk.com/galerie/
I’m not so thin anymore. The power suits have retreated from my wardrobe, ceding territory to yoga pants and an official tai chi suit. It amazes me still to find myself cross-legged on a zabuton, my hands cupped and eyes half-closed, trying to meditate.

It doesn’t usually work. Instead, I keep asking myself: how did I get here?


When the weather gets warm and the planting season opens, I spend my time in the garden. I continue to surround myself with books and papers, though there may be seed packets mixed in there, too. I may stop writing to tidy up a hedge or turn my sunflowers so they’ll grow straight and tall. Or I’ll listen to the birds whistle to each other in the trees while I ponder which word to plant next.

According to mindfulness.org, you don’t need gizmos or special outfits in order to practice mindfulness. It’s essentially meditation and breathing exercises. But there are also other ways to reach a state of mindfulness like writing and, in particular, handwriting. There’s something meditative about that physical act, the crossing of the t’s and the dotting of the i’s. Handwriting is also said to stimulate the brain in more ways than pounding a keyboard can.

journaling mindfulness
My journal. Photo credit: Karen Kao
If you keep a journal like I do, you’re probably writing it by hand. In that case, you may be reaping a double benefit. Journaling isn’t necessarily a form of mindfulness but it’s generally regarded as beneficial to our mental health. A journal can function as an outlet for anxiety, stress or depression. It can be a way to connect with yourself in an unmediated, non-judgmental fashion.

Julia Cameron is a big fan of journaling. She’s an expert in creative unblocking. Her twelve-week process begins with Morning Pages: three pages to be written by hand every morning. Other than that, there are no rules.
They are to be strictly stream of consciousness, no “high art” here. You simply move your hand across the page and write whatever thought comes into your head. Even “non-thoughts” are fine. Don’t expect or demand that you have a writing style. Any style at all will do. So fret, gripe, worry, scold – or celebrate. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages.
Journals are Cameron’s next step. She urges her students to use their journals to vent, pray, become adventurous or just smarter. She even says a journal can help you lose weight. This I learned when someone gifted me a copy of Cameron’s book The Writing Diet: Write Yourself Right-Size. Apparently, I’ve put on too much weight since my lady lawyer days.

writing mindfulness

That’s not the reason why I keep a journal. My journal entries are mostly rough drafts of blog posts, book reviews and newsletters. A pitch to impress the commissioning editor of a literary journal or query an agent. The best entries, however, are the ones that feed my fiction.

Right now, I’m rewriting my novel-in-progress, Peace Court. It’s the umpteenth rewrite and still I have questions to ask. Why is my heroine Song Li so intent on attending university? And exactly how high a price is she willing to pay to achieve her goal?

I wait for the moments when Song Li responds. I have to listen carefully. Shut out all the noise on the surface of my life. Dive deep to hear the water murmur in the cold. If that’s a state of mindfulness, then let me live there forever.

Note: Mindfulness was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir


Umberto Tosi said…
I swear by Julia Cameron myself - having embraced her methods since reading The Artist's Way in 1992 and taking one of her workshops. We shared a first publisher - the innovative Jeremy Tarcher in Los Angeles. I have back-slid on those journals, etc., but always come back to them. Sounds like Song Li has a life of her own already - a sign that Peace Court is closer to fruition than you may think. Good luck. I look forward to reading it.

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