I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 24 and put down the guitar and fantasies of being a rock star.
Then, I wanted to write philosophy — like the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and the literary critic Frederic Jameson. Now, I just want to make people feel the way I feel when I read Tara Brach, Natalie Goldberg, David Deida, Martin Luther King, Jr. — open, urgently alive, in touch with my deepest intentions.
Figuring out how to do that has become an obsession. I’ve read John McPhee’s Draft №4, a masterclass on structure. I’ve written a blog post every week for over two years now. I’ve started a podcast to sharpen my ideas. I’ve outlined three potential books.
But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve never figured anything out — well, anything that truly matters — by taking in more information or planning the future.
All the big stuff, the tectonic shifts in my life, the changes in course, the revelations, have come from practice. Specifically, meditation practice.
Meditation is the opposite of figuring things out. It’s accepting that we’ll never figure out this mind or this wild, ever-changing experience we call “life.”
There’s really only one thing we can ever figure out: how to relate to our mind and life. In every single moment, we have only two choices: either we react to what’s happening, or we respond.
Reacting is me shooting back a short, passive aggressive email a few days ago in reply to a message from a colleague who questioned my communication style. Responding is me taking a day to ask for advice from friends and get in touch with my true intentions before replying to her understandably angry follow up email.
Like Facebook and Twitter, email sucks us in to being reactive. Luckily, we have meditation, the simple practice of sitting, watching our breath, feeling our body, listening to sounds, and otherwise doing nothing. We get to rest as the fully awake, consciousness that witnesses everything else without having to do anything — without reacting.
The only response is to accept whatever happens. Accept the sounds of the room. Accept the slight pain in our back. Accept the emotions swirling in our chest.
Most importantly, we accept, rather than believe, our thoughts. We get to see them as they really are: temporary distractions from the fullness of living in our senses. Sometimes useful — I need to be there at 3:00pm; I should brush my teeth — but mostly useless.
Most thinking is replaying the past or worrying about the future. All thinking narrows our experience and takes us out of the present moment.
But we need thoughts to write — what else would we put down?
The truth is, we never stop thinking. Meditation isn’t about “clearing the mind” and “blissing out.” It’s about getting to know the mind by finally just watching it rather than believing or trying to control it.
The mind, according to Zen meditation teacher and writer Natalie Goldberg, is the “writer’s landscape.”
She writes: “Imagine that a painter has that wild animal to capture on canvas: arresting its fangs, the raging color of its eyes, the blue of its hump, the flash of its hoofs, the rugged shadow that it casts. We writers have that beast inside us: how we feel, think, hope, dream, perceive.”
We have to get to know that beast, its patterns, tendencies, voices, personalities. Only then can we channel it on to the page in words that approach communicating the energy and aliveness of life itself — words and sentences and paragraphs that other people actually want to read.
This morning, the connection between meditation and writing slapped me in the face once again. I pulled from my shelf Zen meditation teacher and writer Natalie Goldberg’s Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Path.
I’ve read all of her books, and Thunder and Lightning two times already. But somewhere during all the blog posts and articles and opinion pieces I had forgotten the connection between this practice that I love and this occupation, writing, that pays the bills.
Her message is simple: if you want to be a writer, then write. But she also teaches a way to do it, a practice that frees us up from making decisions so we can use all of our energy on the writing itself.
Pick a word, phrase, or question. Any word, phrase, or question. Set a timer for ten minutes. Keep your hand moving if you’re using paper or your fingers moving if you’re on a computer. Be specific with details. Don’t cross anything out. Go wherever your mind takes you. Use whatever genre and style. Feel free to write the worst stuff ever — this is a practice.
After reading a bit of Thunder and Lightning, I wrote the word “Retreat” at the top of a fresh page in my notebook and got to writing. I want to write a how-to book about starting a daily meditation practice, and I figured writing about my first meditation retreat could gin up some wisdom.
Here’s what came up, after a bunch of random stuff that I’ll never read again: “My first retreat, with meditation teacher Hugh Byrne, is what allowed the seed I had planted years before to sprout from the ground and begin to be nurtured by the light of practice.”
It’s not literary gold. But it’s getting at something underneath how I think about meditation retreats — that the path I’ve taken to meditating every day has been a journey with help from many others, and I should probably talk about that journey and those people in my book. It also got me thinking about my childhood best friend Matt, who first turned me on to philosophy and thinking deeply.
Goldberg says that while doing this writing practice, we should stay connected to the senses, like in meditation: “The hum of the refrigerator, the aroma of hot toast wafting in from the kitchen … The senses make memory vivid. Often when I write I hear something far off, as if through a fog, and I go after that call in the dark.”
If you’re writing an email, just get to the point, but if you’re writing something you want people to read, sensory details about particular times and places will help you connect with the reader. Not only by including them, but also because, as Goldberg says, they get you to “some emotional truth” you wouldn’t otherwise have located in the process of writing.
So, go, write, now. Do ten minutes. Then do ten minutes tomorrow. Work your way up, all the while digging deeper under surface level thinking to the reveal the stuff that’s truly shaped your life. That’s what people want to read.
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