In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami talks about trying to stop making lots of little decisions on a run. He wants to “just set the machine going” and then try to just watch himself run. This works because it shuts down the narrative-making impulse that’s always trying to decide where you are in the story arc between winning and losing.
Is that knee pain getting worse? Am I feeling weaker than last time? What if this starts getting harder? — Those questions start to stop me when they imply a story with an arc and logic all its own: pain gets worse, runner gets weaker, I run out of gas. This is very different from Murakami watching himself run and saying, “hmmm, there is some pain in my knee.”
(This seems to me a good working definition of “mindfulness”: noticing the pain in your knee vs creating a knee-pain miniseries in your mind.)
Making Up Stories
As with long runs, so with long days: having a plan for your day means you get to stop interrupting yourself with attempts to answer “what should I be doing now”. Like Murakami’s advice, it stops you from constantly judging yourself–from trying to discern your place on the “success” or “productivity” story arc.
Without a plan, I’ll often wonder if I’m working on the right thing. I start feeling along the string connecting my tasks until I bump into something that seems more urgent. And it’s often not literally more urgent, but it catches my attention because I can more readily connect it to a story. (And the stories that come most quickly to mind are often the ones about losing, lack, or threat.) Seeing my current work as a bead in a story prevents me from seeing each task as a rich thing in itself. And prevents me from following other threads.
In work as in meditation, the problem is not being interrupted by thoughts–that is natural–the problem is connecting them into a narrative.
Unmaking the story
“Stringing things together into a narrative” always reminds me of Ann Hamilton’s work, probably because so many of her pieces are about amassing or assembling stuff–almost literally making a story out of a collection of shirts, or marbles, or hair. But when I try and find examples of actually “assembling” in her work, I find that I’m misremembering most of her pieces. The woman in Still Life isn’t actually folding shirts, nor is the protagonist in Indigo Blue (she’s erasing stuff).
Just another example of me trying to make a story out of something–to see an arc, or production, in everything.