TEN ZEN SECONDS interview with Eric Maisel

Rahul: What is Ten Zen Seconds all about?

Eric: 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.

Rahul: Where did this idea come from?

Eric: 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.

Rahul: What sort of hunt did you go on?

Eric: First, I tried to figure out what are the most important tasks that we face as human beings, then I came up with what I hoped were resonant phrases, each of which needed to fit well into a deep breath, then, most importantly—which moved this from the theoretical to the empirical—I tested the phrases out on hundreds of folks who agreed to use them and report back on their experiences. That was great fun and eye-opening!

People used these phrases to center themselves before a dental appointment or surgery, to get ready to have a difficult conversation with a teenage child, to bring joy back to their performing career, to carve out time for creative work in an over-busy day—in hundreds of ways that I couldn't have anticipated. I think that's what makes the book rich and special: that, as useful as the method and the incantations are, hearing from real people about how they've used them "seals the deal." I'm not much of a fan of self-help books that come entirely from the author's head; this one has been tested in the crucible of reality. 

Rahul: Which phrases did you settle on?

Eric: 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)

A small note: the third incantation functions differently from the other eleven, in that you name something specific each time you use it, for example "I am writing my novel" or "I am paying the bills." This helps you bring mindful awareness to each of your activities throughout the day.

Rahul: Can you use the incantations and this method for any special purposes?

Eric: As I mentioned, folks are coming up with all kinds of special uses. One that I especially like is the idea of "book-ending" a period of work, say your morning writing stint or painting stint, by using "I am completely stopping" to ready yourself, center yourself, and stop your mind chatter, and then using "I return with strength" when you're done so that you return to "the rest of life" with energy and power. Usually we aren't this mindful in demarcating our activities—and life feels very different when we do.

Rahul: Is there a way to experience this process in "real time."

Eric: By trying it out! But my web master Ron Wheatley has also designed a slide show at the Ten Zen Seconds site (http://www.tenzenseconds.com) that you can use to learn and experience the incantations. The slides that name the twelve incantations are beautiful images provided by the painter Ruth Yasharpour and each slide stays in place for ten seconds. So you can attune your breathing to the slide and really practice the method. The slide show is available at http://www.tenzenseconds.com/test_photo_slide.html

Rahul: How can people learn more about Ten Zen Seconds?

Eric: The book is the best resource. You can get it at Amazon by visiting here.

Or you can ask for it at your local bookstore. The Ten Zen Seconds website is also an excellent resource: in addition to the slide show that I mentioned, there is a bulletin board where folks can chat, audio interviews that I've done discussing the Ten Zen Second techniques, and more. It's also quite a gorgeous site, so you may want to visit it just for the aesthetic experience! I would also recommend that folks check out my main site, http://www.ericmaisel.com, especially if they're interested in creativity coaching or the artist's life.

Rahul: How does this book help the writing community?

Eric: One of the biggest challenges that writers face is making the transition from ordinary mind to creative mind, from a busy, rushed, self-unfriendly way of thinking and being to a quieter, calmer, more affirmative way of being that allows good ideas to arise.

Ten Zen Seconds is designed to promote exactly that switch and to help it happen really quickly, in the space of a minute or less, through the practice of a few deep breaths and a few useful thoughts. Every writer needs to make this switch from "noisy mind" to "right mind" and this book presents a tool that serves exactly that purpose.

Rahul: Sometimes technical writers can get hold of the wrong end of the stick, which can result in incorrect information or embarrassment for the organization. I have also noticed many writers complaining of anxiety, confusion, anger, frustration, and resentment at their workplace. What incantations would you suggest for overcoming all these negative traits?

Eric: The most important habit to learn is to detach from outcomes: to have goals and dreams, to intend to do excellent work, and to otherwise meet one's inner needs and outer responsibilities while at the same time letting go of expectations: that the workplace can be any different, that people will change their stripes, that deadlines will miraculously shift in our favor, and so on.

The incantation that supports this way of detaching is "I expect nothing," which, when coupled with some of the others, like "I am doing my work," "I am open to joy," and "I am equal to this challenge," provide a mental model for negotiating the everyday difficulties present—and rampant—at every workplace.

Rahul: Technical writers are subject to constant criticism at their workplace or otherwise. Some critics seek every single opportunity to tear your writing apart. How should a writer deal with criticism?

Eric: Well, I've written a whole book on that subject! It's called Toxic Criticism and in it I suggest many strategies for dealing with criticism, some that require major change, like becoming more phlegmatic and philosophical and adopting a different attitude in life so that criticism begins to roll off your back like water off a duck's back, and some simple and practical, like writing (but not mailing) "dear critic" letters in which you ventilate your feelings, since getting your feelings out is the best way to get over the toxic incident quickly.

Taking a mindful approach to criticism, rapidly determining which criticism is apt and which isn't, and, when some piece of criticism sticks, using incantation 7, "I am free of the past," to put the criticism behind you, are pieces of the puzzle.

Rahul: What incantations would you suggest for writers who are not able to enjoy their work?

Eric: I think there are several different issues here. Boredom is always a meaning problem: we are bored because we do not feel that what we are doing is meaningful to us (it may be meaningful to someone else, but that's another matter). This boredom is a meaning crisis and can lead to existential depression, as I explain in The Van Gogh Blues, and constitutes a problem that requires an existential answer.

You either have to find the way to reinvest meaning in your for-hire writing, or make meaning elsewhere in your personal writing, or, most likely, both, as part of the problem with your day-job writing is that, because of it, you may not be getting to your personal writing, which makes your day-job writing feel all the more odious.

You will concentrate better and feel more confident if you accept that you are the arbiter of meaning in your life and that you must make conscious decisions about how and where in your life you will invest meaning. A separate question is if you find your personal writing boring you—then you have to examine that, making sure, first of all, that you are working on a personal writing project that actually holds meaning for you.

Rahul: Competition, in today's context, rears its ugly head from time to time. How does one remain sane?

Eric: I think that competition, managed internally well, is a necessary part of the writer's life, as she is likely to need to prove the exception in order to have a career and succeed as a writer.

It is the fact that a given publishing house will only have slots for so many books and if you want to be published there you must indeed "compete," by turning in the stronger book proposal, by beefing up your credentials so that you appear to be an expert in your field, by building your platform, and in all the other ways that separates one writer from another.

You do not have to embrace this necessary level of competition with a cut-throat air and make rivals of your fellow writers, but you do need to accept a Darwinian view of the marketplace and recognize that, if you harbor the dream of regular publication, you must compete for those slots.

Rahul: Any suggestions for writers to improve?

Eric: There are three areas where most writers have to improve: in the way they manage their own personality, in the way they manage the challenges that the writing itself provides, and in the way they manage their relationship to marketplace and the world. I examine all three in a recent book, Creativity for Life.

The Ten Zen Seconds method allows you to create islands of mindfulness in your day so that you can master these tasks: you can work on your personality by trusting your inner resources and breaking free of the past, you can work on your writing by completely stopping, naming your writing as your work, and more fully embracing the writing moment, and you can better deal with the marketplace by reminding yourself that you make your meaning and that you must take action. By using the incantations in a context of ongoing self-improvement, writers can learn to write more often and deeply,
sell more, and stand in better self-relationship.

Rahul: What else are you up to?

Eric: Plenty! I have a new book out called Creativity for Life, which is roughly my fifteenth book in the creativity field and which people seem to like a lot. I also have a third new book out, in addition to Ten Zen Seconds and Creativity for Life, called Everyday You, which is a beautiful coffee table book about maintaining daily mindfulness. I'm working on two books for 2008, one called A Writer's Space and a second called Creative Recovery, about using your innate creativity to help in recovering from addiction.

And I'm keep up with the many other things I do: my monthly column for Art Calendar Magazine, my regular segment for Art of the Song Creativity Radio, the trainings that I offer in creativity coaching, and my work with individual clients. I am happily busy! But my main focus for the year is on getting the word out about Ten Zen Seconds, because I really believe that it's something special. So I thank you for having me here today!


  1. Interesting stuff...I'm going to get the book, but also, I'm going to try it right now...

  2. Great questions about technical writing. I appreciate the time and the attention from the interviewer and the interviewee. Thanks!

  3. Rahul, I must say that you did a great job. You were able to extract all the answers which, i believe, all the technical communicators were longing to hear.

  4. Great interviews Rahul. Learnt a lot more about creativity and the works. Great going. Keep it up :)

  5. Excellent interview.... this adds an entirely different dimension to the tour interviews.

    The Write Prompts

  6. Great going Rahul.

    Wicked stiff this one.

  7. I've been a technical writer along the way and I feel the questions you asked Eric dwelve into some of the special problems this kind of writing runs into, as well as the umbrella problems writers face and overcome. I loved the feeling myself of being a translator between the technical person (my information source) and the audience I was communicating for.
    I considered these folks my boss. I loved having the license to ask the technical person "dumb" questions in service of being able to explain things well and clearly to my less-technical audience. I loved getting to know about new things. These were some of the ways that I made meaning in my work as technical writer.

    Janet Grace Riehl


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