I think it’s best I come clean. If you’re going to trust me as your guide, I owe you that much. So, I have a confession to make: I don’t believe in writer’s block. It doesn’t make sense. As if your mind has put up barriers. As if you need to turn back to avoid hazards ahead. As if the brain police have denied entry.
I much prefer the idea of being stuck. Maybe it’s semantics, but I don’t think so. Stuck implies the ability to dislodge, to unstick. I love the idea of getting “unstuck.” Maybe that’s because it implies being afloat in an endless sea of possibilities rather than merely finding another point of entry. Maybe it’s because I can’t hear it without thinking of Billy Pilgrim. Maybe both.
Billy is the protagonist in Slaughter-house Five by Kurt Vonnegut. He becomes “unstuck in time” while fighting in World War II, bouncing from one moment in his life to another without reason or warning. The result is disorienting and frenetic. It reads a lot like being creatively unmoored feels. When we’re stuck, our instinct is to frantically bounce from one idea to another, grasping for anything that propels us forward. Instead, we usually find ourselves sinking deeper.
Panic in the face of uncertainty is normal, but there’s a better way. In The Places that Scare You, Renowned Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron tells us that the path to openness lies not in avoiding uncertainty and fear but in how we relate to that discomfort. “Rather than going after those walls and barriers with a sledgehammer, we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty, we move closer to those walls...We train in remaining open and receptive to whatever arises. Slowly, very slowly, cracks in the walls seem to widen.”
This is as true in our creative endeavors as it is in life. Getting unstuck means building a relationship with the uncertainty within you. Consider it your mercurial beau. It lashes out. It flies off the handle. It drives you to the edge. You can only coexist if you understand each other. Instead of enabling the chaos, step back and observe what being stuck feels like in your body and your mind.
Here’s an exercise to help you start courting your discomfort:
Close your eyes and take three deep breaths, extending your inhale to a count of five and your exhale to a count of six. Now, maintain deep breathing but shift your focus to the pauses between your inhales and exhales. First, just observe. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when your breath is suspended within you, a fullness after the inhale and a complete emptying after the exhale. When does your inhale turn into an exhale? Your exhale to an inhale? Find that moment and explore what it feels like in your body.
Then, start to extend the pauses by a count of one each round. Inhale, pause for two, exhale, pause for two. Then three, four, and so on. Remember to pause, not hold your breath. Explore the difference. Keep your lips closed but the mouth and the throat open and relaxed. Release any tension that arises. Allow inhalation to slowly fade until you roll into exhalation. Allow your breath to fully empty before you wade into inhalation. How long can you luxuriate in the transition? How is each extended pause different and new?
Find your limit. For me, it was a count of seven. Get to know this uncertain and uncomfortable space between breaths. Find ease. Then work backward, reducing the pause by one count each round of breath. How does it feel to come closer and closer to normal breathing? Take note of any change in respiration. I found myself breathing easier, deeper, and with a sense of relief.
Getting to know this space allows us to inhabit it more comfortably, to notice and examine its cracks. We realize that we’re in control of our breath, although we rarely pay attention to it. We won’t suffocate. Our breath, and our creative flow, will return to us.
Chodron likens exploring uncertainty to being adrift in a river when our raft begins to disintegrate. “From our conventional standpoint, this is scary and dangerous. However, one small shift of perspective will tell us that having nothing to hold on to is liberating.” Don’t splash around desperately grasping for the raft. Release the idea of a destination and just be.
Explore your work like poor Billy Pilgrim, trying to anchor himself in time. Ground yourself where you are. See, smell, hear, feel, take it all in. Consider:
What’s causing your stickiness? Are you afraid? Unsure? Lost? Name the emotion.
Why did you choose this direction? What feelings did it stir within you? Reconnect with the essence of your work.
How can you transform what you have into the story you want to tell? Try approaching it from a different point of view.
In the spirit of the honesty with which we began, I’ll share that I’ve succumbed to uncertainty more than once. It happens to the best of us. Sometimes we get disconnected from our inspiration. Sometimes our original idea was misguided. Sometimes it’s a dead end. So it goes.
What you can’t do is give up without doing the work. Remember, you’re immersed in possibility. Getting unstuck takes courage. Finding your footing takes balance and dedication. But these are the first steps on your way to shore.
Michelle Regan is a writer and yoga teacher who's passionate about sharing all the ways in which yoga and creativity can be transformative forces in our lives. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, and petting all the dogs.
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