The Mindfulness of Fiction

A photo by Patrick Tomasso. unsplash.com/photos/Oaqk7qqNh_c

The following piece was written by Brianna Goodman, copy and features editor for MindBodyBrew. Brianna teaches yoga with The Perri Institute for Mind and Body in New York City. She recently graduated from Fordham University, where she studied English and creative writing. 

The Harry Potter series was my first.

Not the first books I read, not the first books I loved, but the first books that made me leave the world of the present to join the world of their characters. Wand fights absorbed my dreams. Time was measured in the increments between the release of one book and the release of its sequel. Talk of the series dominated conversations with friends. The days after I finished the latest installment were spent wondering what would happen next, or—in the case of Book Five—wondering if there was any way the death of a beloved character could be a ruse, explained away in the sequel as a mere illusion. Harry Potter was my first, but there have been many works of fiction that have trapped me in their worlds.

A few months ago over tea, a fellow yoga instructor and I discussed this phenomenon that occurs while reading fiction—an almost out-of-body experience in which one becomes so absorbed in the life and world of the characters that it can be a struggle to reacquaint oneself with reality post-novel. She told me that, because of this, she sticks predominately to nonfiction work. I can see why, and yet I am resistant to that conclusion. Reading a truly absorbing work of fiction is one of my greatest pleasures—when I find a work that is both absorbing and beautifully written, I am thrilled. I spend hours at a time lost in that world, pausing only for a brief stretch, or to refill a water glass. To give that up is not something that I am prepared to do. And yet, coming back from these fictional worlds and into my own can be hard, and sometimes—dare I say it?—even a let-down, as fiction so rarely depicts the banal moments spent waiting for the stalled subway, or standing in line at a crowded supermarket, or sitting at the computer mindlessly deleting e-newsletters you can’t seem to keep away.

These moments, moments when I’m so absorbed in the happenings of a novel that I must consciously reorient myself to my daily life, are moments when my passion for fiction seems to come directly in conflict with my work as a yoga instructor, and as someone who places extreme emphasis on the present moment. Isn’t fiction, in a way, a sort of escapism? When I binge-read a work of fiction I’m deeply entrenched in, have I checked out of my body? Am I being unmindful? Am I checking out of my life?

Or, is it possible to read fiction mindfully?

The classic image of a bookworm, for me, will always be Belle in that first town scene in Beauty and the Beast, walking through the streets with—as the townspeople describe it—“her nose stuck in a book.” Oblivious to the noise and action surrounding her, she is entirely absorbed in the words on the page. On the one hand, this is the definition of someone who is not present—she is easily in danger of getting hit by a carriage, of stepping in something unpleasant, of crashing into the people around her. On the other hand, this is the definition of someone who is one hundred percent present—she is so present with the task at hand, reading, that the gossip and movement threatening to distract her are no match for her unwavering focus. Reading does, after all, require a certain degree of presence—otherwise, one might find oneself entirely checked out from the experience of reading. I’m sure we all now this feeling: re-reading the same sentence fifty times but still not understanding it because we’re too busy making grocery lists in our heads or trying to figure out exactly what our neighbor just yelled at the person across the hallway. Really investing in the process of reading requires similar steps to the ones mindfulness practices encourage in our daily lives: listening with all of our senses, focusing our minds on the experience at hand, staying present with our own thoughts as they arise. That last one is huge—one of the best parts of reading is realizing our own reactions to certain circumstances, or recognizing ourselves or our loved ones in the characters on the page. In this way, reading seems like an act of self-study, svadhyaya; every observation we make or line that captivates us tells us a bit more about who we are and where we come from.

In addition to teaching us something about ourselves, reading fiction can also teach us something about others. Reading fiction places us in someone else’s world; it requires us to shed our own biases and understandings in order to see this world through a narrator or character whose voice and thoughts are not our own. To me, this is one of the most convincing arguments for why one “should” read fiction—particularly literary fiction. It requires us to put ourselves “in someone else’s shoes,” a compassionate act—and exercising compassion is a crucial part of the yoga practice and philosophy. Maybe our eyes are glued to the page, but our minds are developing a tool: a tool that allows us to be mindful of others. Beyond fostering compassion, the act of freeing ourselves from preconceived notions in order to enjoy a fictional work mimics the act of seeking a beginner’s mindset that the yoga practice often requires. To allow ourselves to dive into a new novel, we must, in a way, become an empty cup. In the same manner in which we return to the mat each day with a willingness to learn and to grow, we begin each novel with an open mind, receptive to a new story.

More than simply identifying parallels between reading fiction and practicing mindfulness, we can actually look to the tradition of meditation to find that incorporating fiction into mindfulness practices is not unprecedented. There is, in fact, a historical practice of visualization in meditation work. Whether it be a loving-kindness meditation that asks the meditator to envision a loved one or a stranger sitting before the practitioner, or a meditation that involves envisioning, or even embodying, some sort of hero or exalted figure, there are established tools for using one’s imagination in tandem with mindfulness work. So perhaps it isn’t unfounded to suggest that placing oneself in a time or place that does not resemble the present moment—by reading, say, a Tolstoy novel set in a harsh Russian winter while sitting on a park bench in the sweltering heat of a New York City summer—is a different, but fruitful, exercise for training and expanding the mind.

There are valid practical concerns with the image of Belle strolling obliviously through a crowded street, and I would argue that there is a way to be both focused on reading and also aware of your surroundings (much in the same way that we can focus on our breath in meditation while maintaining a broader awareness of the sounds and space around us). But maybe the image of Belle reading as life—literally, in the form of animals and people—passes her by is not an altogether frightening one. Many would have her toss her books aside in favor of the “real world”—but aren’t similar critiques made about meditation? I don’t have time to sit around and focus on my breath when there’s so much out there that needs doing! Isn’t sitting around and doing nothing a waste of time? Yet we know that meditation is a helpful practice for training ourselves to be more fully present in those activities we postpone in order to meditate. It seems to me that reading has a similar power. Maybe reading a book means we’re not present with every single breath cycle, but we are paying attention to a present-moment act. We’re learning about ourselves. We’re learning about others. And in this way, spending time in these “imagined worlds” might just make us all the more mindful when we return to our roles as “real world” inhabitants.

–Brianna Goodman

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