Interview with Eric Maisel

If you have read my recent posts you will know quite a bit about Eric Maisel, creativity coach and author, he is here now on Thousand Sketches on a tour to promote Ten Zen Seconds, one of his current books, yes he has three that came out this year.

The focus is on the tension between shadow & light, so if that is of interest, read on, and please join the conversation in the comments.


Walter: Hi Eric, thanks for visiting my blog on your world tour. How are your travels so far?

Excellent! It has been interesting to see how each host has personalized the process. And the tour has helped to sell out the first edition of the book in its first month, which is unusual … and great!

That is inspiring! A blog tour is a creative project, how did the idea originate?

I put out a monthly newsletter and I asked my readers if they knew of any out-of-the-box ways to publicize books. One reader, a small press publisher, told me about the successful virtual book tour that one of her authors had recently completed, the idea intrigued me, I asked for details, and decided that I wanted to do the same.

So the creative step is to connect with your readers. I hope you enjoy your virtual stop here with the Thousand Sketches project and being here (again) in Christchurch, New Zealand. As a psychotherapist also have a psychological blog but I think this is the right place for you to visit as you have such a focus on creativity, and the artist.

Yes, much of the writing on creativity isn’t very psychologically astute. It tends to be more like cheerleading or spirituality-by-a-different-name. I’ve been interested in looking at the real processes that affect creators, like depression, anxiety, addictions, and so on, along with what really helps to deepen the creative process.

What is Ten Zen Seconds all about?

It’s actually a very simple but powerful technique for reducing your stress, getting yourself centered, and reminding yourself about how you want to live your life. It can even serve as a complete cognitive, emotional, and existential self-help program built on the single idea of “dropping a useful thought into a deep breath”.

You use a deep breath, five seconds on the inhale and five seconds on the exhale, as a container for important thoughts that aim you in the right direction in life—I describe twelve of these thoughts in the book—and you begin to employ this breathing-and-thinking technique that I call incanting as the primary way to keep yourself on track.

Where did this idea come from?

It comes from two primary sources, cognitive and positive psychology from the West and breath awareness and mindfulness techniques from the East. I’d been working with creative and performing artists for more than twenty years as a therapist and creativity coach and wanted to find a quick, simple technique that would help them deal with the challenges they regularly face—resistance to creating, performance anxiety, negative self-talk about a lack of talent or a lack of connections, stress over a boring day job or competing in the art marketplace, and so on.

Because I have a background in both Western and Eastern ideas, it began to dawn on me that deep breathing, which is one of the best ways to reduce stress and alter thinking, could be used as a cognitive tool if I found just the right phrases to accompany the deep breathing. This started me on a hunt for the most effective phrases that I could find and eventually I landed on twelve of them that I called incantations, each of which serves a different and important purpose.

Which phrases did you settle on?

The following twelve. I think that folks will intuitively get the point of each one (though some of the incantations, like “I expect nothing”, tend to need a little explaining). Naturally each incantation is explained in detail in the book and there are lots of personal reports, so readers get a good sense of how different people interpret and make use of the incantations. Here are the twelve (the parentheses show how the phrase gets “divided up” between the inhale and the exhale:

1. (I am completely) (stopping)
2. (I expect) (nothing)
3. (I am) (doing my work)
4. (I trust) (my resources)
5. (I feel) (supported)
6. (I embrace) (this moment)
7. (I am free) (of the past)
8. (I make) (my meaning)
9. (I am open) (to joy)
10. (I am equal) (to this challenge)
11. (I am) (taking action)
12. (I return) (with strength)

I have been practicing some of those and find them helpful. I think your phrases are quite profound. I particularly like the 1, 2 and 3 so far. I intend to do some sketching using all the incantations, and my last post is the first of these.

It’s interesting that you might use them that way, as readers have been telling me that, in addition to the good work the incantations do for stress reduction, centering, and general life management, they also seem to work beautifully as creativity prompts.

I have a challenge to face in my self. I have learnt over the years to accept and even love my imperfections, to embrace the shadow if you like. Working through dark material is something I value, these incantations, like affirmations in other methods seem to circumvent the working through process. Can you comment on that? Do you distinguish the incantations from other methods such as creative visualisation or affirmations and “positive thinking”?

They are in line with the mainstreams of cognitive thinking, positive thinking, affirming, and so on. I wouldn’t say they circumvent the shadow, because they are taught as part of a process that works as follows: you notice what you are thinking (and feeling), decide if that is what you would like to be thinking (that is, you decide to get a grip on your own mind), and only then do you incant something positive. You can decide to stay with your shadow—being aware and choosing are the main things. Mindfulness is not about always going to the light thing, it is about knowing what you are thinking and doing and making conscious choices.

I have done quite a few sketches while less than centred, plenty of them, from a dark place or from an agitated self. Bursting, Blacker to mention just two. These have been satisfying. My creative work itself centers me as the inner state is identified and revealed to me. I imagine you have explored this nook of the creativity phenomena Eric,
and I’m interested in your comments.

Yes, there is a large body of evidence that creating heals and centers, but it only heals and centers when it does: that it, the creative process per se is no guarantee that we will be better off emotionally because we’ve created. That guarantee comes from a mindful way of living where we’ve learned what it takes to make personal meaning, take responsibility for our thoughts and actions, and so on. You can create and still be an addict or you can create and use your creativity as part of the recovery process from an addiction: both are possible, which means that creativity by itself is no guarantee of health.

That makes sense. I read this quote from you Eric in the interview on Catherine’s Blog Still Standing on Her Head:

First, the creating ought to come first each day – that’s a big secret
and a big deal. When we get to our novel at five a.m. and write for an hour, then we have made some meaning on that day and face the meaninglessness of some of our daily pursuits with much more equanimity.
If, on the other hand, we spend a meaningless day and THEN try to get to our writing, we are usually both worn out mentally and drained existentially, since we have been with “too little” meaning all day long.

I’d like to know the answer to this:

What if you are not a “morning person”? I get to work in the nick of time in the morning, work all day, and then create mostly at night. Not ideal! I love my work, and I love the night-shift too. Is there a better way?

The proof is on the pudding. If you honestly judge that the way you are operating works for you, then there are no changes to make. Why would you make changes if things were working well? But if you sense that you are not getting enough creating done following your own method, or not getting deep enough work done, or losing too many months to non-creating, and so on, then I would suggest that you institute the practice, as rigorous as any other practice, of creating first thing each morning. You have to decide how well things are currently going—if they are going splendidly, there would be no reason to start this morning routine.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, Eric, when you say “creating ought to come first” I initially read it as creating ought to come first in your life. I don’t think you said that, but it is an interesting notion. I subscribe to it in a Joseph Campbell “follow your bliss” way. What do you think?

It should come first in your mind because it is so hard to keep front-and-center, and if you hold it any way other than first it tends to slip away. But as to whether it should come first in your life, that is a question about ethics and personal meaning-making. It is up to you to decide what are the most authentic things to put at the top of your list, and that will shift because meaning shifts. Today painting may be the right thing for you to do; tomorrow taking your kids to the park may be the right thing to do. Creating isn’t ethically higher than other things, it is just one of the profound places where we get to make meaning.

Right. The eastern ideas of enlightenment, and the psychological ideas on positivity seem to go against the the depth psychology notions of unconscious. Eric, what do you make of that?

I think that a lot of ‘shadow’ talk is a cover for getting to be dark, brooding, narcissistic and self-centered. I don’t find much to revere in the antics between Jung and Freud and find much of their rivalry childish. I much prefer the idea the Buddha’s idea of getting a grip on your mind to the counter idea of embracing whatever wants to roil up, as a ton of what wants to roil up is baby-ish and egotistical.

I am curious about how you learnt this stuff Eric. You almost seem to say, here are the answers I learned the hard way so you don’t have to. Do you think there is struggle can be bypassed?

I do think that suffering is overrated. We struggle enough and we often attach to our struggles as a defense against doing the hard work of creating, relating, and all the rest that make for a responsible, authentic life. I don’t think that the struggle can be bypassed but a point ought to come when you decide what you want to stand for and how you want to get there. The struggle will still continue—but having a few tools to help isn’t a bad idea!

Is there anything you would like to add to this interview that you think belongs here – book promotion is fine 🙂

I would just invite folks to visit and look around. It’s a beautiful site and they may well enjoying taking a peek there!

Thanks Eric for stopping by, I am honoured and I appreciate
your careful attention to my questions and this tension between enlightenment & embracing the dark is one I will continue to reflect on & this conversation with you has been delightful and rich.

I hope readers will continue the discussion in the comments & that you may return for a look.

5 Replies to “Interview with Eric Maisel”

  1. A great interview. I’m finding that all the stops on the blog tour augment my own interview with Eric… and the whole is going to be much greater than the sum of the parts! Thank you both for sharing.

    Peace ~ Dani

  2. Walter,
    Great interview! I especially found the comments on shadow thinking and struggle to be very helpful and refreshing. And the creating in the morning idea…I’m not a morning person either but the idea of putting it first, first thing in the morning is key.

  3. I agree, great interview. I was particularly please to read Eric’s thoughts on keeping our creative thoughts first in mind. (I love it when someone says exactly what I want to hear!) I came straight here to the interview, I’m off to check your drawing of the incantation. I’ve got to do my second one tomorrow. Should have it up on my blog over the weekend. Cheers (which I really wanted to type with a Kiwi accent – chs – but thought I’d better not. Ooops! I did it anyway!)

  4. I like what Eric had to say about getting a grip on your mind, I find that very essential. My own teacher says that if you have a grip on your mind your mind becomes your friend, otherwise your mind becomes your enemy. Great interview. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s