Ten Zen Seconds: An Interview with Eric Maisel

A couple of months ago I was invited to participate in a “blog tour” interviewing Eric Maisel on his latest book. Since I was offered a copy of the book to review and the opportunity to ask a couple of questions tailored to my interests, I decided to join in. (Who can resist a book?) What follows is an introduction to the concepts in Ten Zen Seconds; my questions regarding how these concepts can be utilized during childbirth and in treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are woven into the interview. Enjoy, and may you find this useful!

What is Ten Zen Seconds all about?

EM: 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?

EM: 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.

What sort of hunt did you go on?

EM: 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.

Which phrases did you settle on?

EM: 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.

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

EM: 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.

Here are my specific situational questions.

Situation 1: Labor and birth is a complex, physically demanding experience. There are three stages of labor, but I’ll focus one the first two.

  • Stage one has three parts: early labor, active labor, and transition.
    • During early labor, which can last 8-12 hours, typically the contractions come 5-30 minutes apart and last 30-45 seconds each.
    • Active labor is next, lasting 3-5 hours; the frequency of contractions generally increases to every 3-5 minutes and lasts about 60 seconds.
    • Transition lasts 20 minutes to 2 hours, and contractions will come every 30 seconds to 2 minutes (or they may overlap) and last about 60-90 seconds; during transition a woman may experience hot flashes, chills, nausea, vomiting. This is the point where she may be most exhausted and emotionally depleted, but she’s not finished!
  • The second stage of labor (active pushing and the baby emerging) can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours; contractions come every 3-5 minutes and will last about 45-90 seconds.

1. When contractions are coming fast and furious, is Ten Zen Seconds a sustainable practice to help with pain and energy management?

EM: I have no reports that it is, so I would love to know if it works in that situation! What I do know is that people in similarly stressful, physically demanding, uncentering situations have found the process profoundly valuable, so I think it’s fair to extrapolate and hazard the guess that it might be useful.

Of course, a different sort of breathing is already taught to mothers-to-be as the best way to breathe during the actual delivery, but in the long hours up to delivery I think that using the deep breathing-and-right thinking combination that Ten Zen Seconds teaches might prove of great value.

I would imagine that the most on-point incantations during this period would be incantation 4, “I trust my resources,” incantation 5, “I feel supported,” incantation 9, “I am open to joy,” and incantation 10, “I am equal to this challenge,” though I can imagine how the others might also prove applicable.

2. What incantations would you recommend to a woman to prepare herself before labor and to cope during labor?

EM: That depends in part what specific challenges the mother-to-be is experiencing. If she can’t seem to get herself present and can only think about this being over, she might want to bring herself back to the present and to the power of presence with incantation 6, “I embrace this moment.”

If she is filled with layers of self-doubt, about whether she can stand up to the rigors of delivery and/or the realities of parenting, I think that self-trust might be the most important thing to cultivate and using incantation 4, “I trust my resources,” might make good sense.

If she is having issues with the people around her, like her parents, her in-laws, or her mate, and really needs to table those issues for the moment so as to get on with labor and delivery with a clear mind, then using incantation 7, “I am free of the past,” might prove really valuable.

First you engage in a little self-awareness to help you determine what the issue is that you want to address, then you choose the incantation (or create the incantation) that serves that need.

3. What incantations would you suggest to her birthing coach to help him or her manage?

EM: The main tasks for the coach are to be present and to be helpful. The mother-to-be doesn’t need someone more anxious and more distracted than she is trying to help her, especially if there are some important decisions in the moment that she could use some help with.

Therefore the coach would especially benefit from employing incantation 1, “I am completely stopping,” to remind himself that this is where he needs to be, incantation 3, “I am doing my work,” to remind himself of his duties, incantation 10, “I am equal to this challenge,” to help quiet his nerves and reduce his fear of negative things happening, and incantation 12, “I return with strength,” to help remind him to return to the mother-to-be’s side with a positive, helpful attitude and requisite strength and presence.

Situation 2: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops in response to a traumatic event. People with PTSD often have problems functioning. In general, people with PTSD have more unemployment, divorce or separation, spouse abuse and chance of being fired than people without PTSD. Vietnam veterans with PTSD were found to have many problems with family and other interpersonal relationships, problems with employment, and increased incidents of violence. There are many symptoms to this disorder, and I’d like to ask how TZS might help manage them.

  • For instance, a person might have a flashback resulting from an environmental trigger (such as a noise that reminds him or her of the trauma) and feel intense fear, helplessness, and horror again.
  • Survivors often take pains to avoid situations that may trigger memories of the traumatic event, which limits the fullness of their lives.
  • They may feel emotionally numb and isolated and are often hyper-vigilant and always “on guard” after the traumatic event.
  • These stressful psychological responses can have a deleterious impact on physical health, and they may lead people to self-medicate with substance abuse.

1. How might a survivor use the Ten Zen Seconds to manage symptoms of fear and helplessness?

EM: One of the profound tasks of healing from trauma is being able to remember the trauma without reliving the trauma. Mindfulness in general, and the techniques that I teach in Ten Zen Seconds specifically, help a person have a thought without attaching to that thought or experiencing pain from that thought.

You acquire a certain healthy, healing distance from your thoughts and can examine them objectively. As this practice deepens, you feel less fearlful, anxious, and helpless because you learn that you no longer have to run from your thoughts, as they are no longer producing pain. Even more than any particular incantation, the basic practice of mindfulness, with its orientation toward detachment and freedom, help a person recover from past trauma.

2. How might one use TZS to overcome resistance to new experiences and a tendency to isolate?

EM: There are several different approaches to this. One is to orient toward the possible pleasure that you might get from new experiences, rather than orient toward the risks involved, and for this incantation 9, “I am open to joy,” can prove very useful.

Another is to frame new experiences as necessary challenges that come with healthy, authentic living, and for this frame incantation 10, “I am equal to this challenge,” is a great tool.

A third approach is turn in the direction of trust, of trusting yourself in new situations and of trusting others not to harm you in new situations, and for this orientation incantation 4, “I trust my resources” and incantation 5, “I feel supported” are the incantations of choice.

3. What incantations would you recommend to a survivor to reduce emotional numbness and excessive vigilance?

EM: That excessive vigilance has to do with rapid and continual scanning both of the external world and the internal world of thought and worry. You are noticing things out there that might prove dangerous and also noticing passing internal thoughts about possible danger — thoughts that you could dismiss without even noticing if only you were less vigilant.

The key here is to stop — to stop all that internal and external scanning — and so the most important incantation with respect to this issue is “I am completely stopping,” remembering that embedded in that phrase is the specific idea that what you are stopping is all that scanning and all that vigilance. As you learn to actually stop, that allows room for feelings to return and numbness to lessen, as feelings had no place to land while you were doing all of that scanning.

4. Can TZS help with the involuntary physical responses that can occur, such as waking from a nightmare shaking and sweating, or having a panic attack?

EM: I don’t know the answer to this one and I would love to hear from folks who make use of the Ten Zen Seconds program and learn from them if in fact using this tool will help with these phenomena. I stand ready to learn!

Is there a way to experience this process in “real time?”

EM: 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.

How can people learn more about Ten Zen Seconds?

EM: 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 Seconds 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.

What else are you up to?

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!

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4 Comments on “Ten Zen Seconds: An Interview with Eric Maisel”

  1. leah Says:

    this is great, kathryn! thanks for sharing! i recently found out about a free teleseminar with eric maisel regarding this book at alyson stanfield’s site (she’s writes the art biz blog): http://www.artbizcoach.com/classes/maisel.html

  2. Janet Grace Riehl Says:


    Facinating teasing out of other uses for the TZS method. I love your baby-ticker! Wow…pregnancy and labor and afterwards seems like such a great time to breathe and incant…and heal.

    Be well!


  3. M Sinclair Stevens Says:

    Very interesting. I need to start practicing “I embrace this moment” right away!

  4. Fran aka Redondowriter Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this, Kathryn. I’ll look his book up. I was impressed with how he answered your situational questions and gave weight to the LaMaze breathing technique.