The weekend of May 3-5th I had the good fortune to attend an amazing workshop with Zen teacher, poet, translator, and creative writing guru, Peter Levitt (hosted by the Centre of Gravity). The workshop, which was called Within Within, was a mixture of zazen (meditation practice), dharma talks, and creative writing exercises. When I got home on Sunday feeling both elated and exhausted my husband asked me a question that I couldn’t really find the words to answer. He asked, “So what did you learn?”
I’ve been pondering this a lot, and all I’ve come up with is that Zen practice and writing/creative practice are both very similar and joyful things, especially when done in the company of other people. Both require bravery, intimacy and honesty. They both require wriggling out from underneath the ego, which Peter likes to compare to a bureaucrat whose raison d’être is keeping his own job. To escape from the ego’s constant vigilance we need to call ourselves back to pure, embodied, sensual experience. To return, as Allan Ginsberg wrote in his poem “Song,” “to my body/ where I was born.”
The simple technique of coming back to breath, body, and breath-in-body, over and over again helps us develop the capacity to concentrate: to be with (the etymology of con) the centre, to be fully alert, aware and operating from all of our senses. This process derails the summarizing mind, the thinking, categorizing, self-aggrandizing or self-deprecating mind that gets in the way of genuine communication and real intimacy. Real communication requires that the ego step out of the way, which is not to say that we don’t need our egos (we couldn’t survive without them), but rather that we need to see the ego for what it is and send it out of the office for a vacation day now and then.
The mind can only take us so far. As Levitt writes in the introduction to The Essential Dogen:
Elegant, discerning, and seemingly endless in its capacity to comprehend, ultimately the cognitive faculty can only provide a partial understanding, since it is but one of the ways human beings “know” life as it occurs. There is still the intuitive to be considered, the physical, the dream. All of these and more are also authentic ways of knowing (xx-xxi).
I don’t want to get into the specifics of the writing exercises we did (they are hard to explain and experiential) but the feeling that came over me was that the writing was doing itself, with much less effort on my part. Several of the exercises involved flowers, and by the time we were done the room was fragrant and colourful, bursting with spring.
Peter discussed the desire to communicate, to use words or images to build connection and tap into a sense of oneness, of interdependence, of wholeness. Words, when wielded with discrimination, can help us to break down the artificial boundaries that lead us to a sense of isolation. Whether we write to entertain, to emote, to explore or to enlighten, we write because we want to share our common hopes, fears, gaffes, questions and ideas. We hope to connect and to lessen our suffering, which Ginsberg suggested is caused at root, by lack of candour. This all sounds very deep and heavy, and yet it didn’t feel that way at all. It felt joyful and light. The experience was full of levity, a feeling of lightness and camaraderie that on several occasions brought tears to my eyes.
I would say now that what I learned is how to get out of my own way, how to grant myself permission, how to go to places I fear, and how precious and beautiful every moment and every breath can be. Levitt describes meditation as coming home to oneself, creating a touchstone to remind us that we’re already whole, already perfectly complete. The reason that we still have to practice is that “we do not yet know who or what we are…wholeness is seeking wholeness, self is seeking self” (Tanahashi & Levitt, xxvi).
For more information about Peter Levitt and his workshops go to: www.PeterLevitt.com
Levitt, Peter. (2003). Fingerpainting on the Moon: Writing and Creativity as a Path to Freedom. New York: Harmony Press.
Tanahashi, Kazuaki & Levitt, Peter (Eds). (2013).The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master. Boston: Shambhala.
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Until next time,