As a teacher of yoga and meditation I am often struck by how many writers are practicing meditators, and how many, who are not meditators in the traditional sense, often have habits which perform the same function. Some writers, such as Paul Auster, walk for miles every day. There is something about being alone, doing something repetitive, and emptying oneself of striving that is necessary for ideas to arise.
Meditation can make you a better writer. I say this mainly based on my own experience, as the owner of a brain which is often erratic, over-wrought, and full of anxiety and recriminations. My brain is never satisfied, it has a bottomless appetite for distractions, trivia, and internet pulp that I know is a complete waste of time even as I’m clicking on the links (more cat pictures anyone?). Besides the distraction issue, and the lack of discrimination, it also has a tendency to ruminate (a word derived from the chewing of cud); it gets stuck on certain tracks. I have a top ten “hits” list, like the K-Tel records (remember them?). My favourite and most toxic ruminations have to do with poor career choices, things I shouldn’t have said, lack of progress, the unfairness of life, and how my life would have turned out if I had actually married ____. Ruminating is not the same as meditating, and these tracks go nowhere. Believe me; I’ve been down them a million times.
Meditation is like mental flossing—it allows you to see when things are caught, and when something is triggering a habitual thought, it allows you to choose something different. Like flossing, it takes time and effort, but with regular practice it can prevent some mental decay. More important, though, is that the ability to see where you are stuck allows for freedom: Freedom to think and act differently. I often use the analogy of going on a vacation. Whenever I go away I find that time slows down, the sky is bluer, the food tastes better, and the pain in my neck disappears. The main difference between vacation-mode and the rest of the time is mainly that on vacation, I’m not stuck in my habitual grooves. Once I’m out of my grooves, all kinds of new ideas and possibilities come flooding in.
This is not just metaphorical. Meditation affects the brain, and it affects the attentional process. Energy flows where attention goes, and all that rumination about the contract I didn’t get or the decision I’m second-guessing just sucks the creative air out of whatever balloon animal I’m intent on making. When my mind is preoccupied with useless clutter it is also not present in the place and time that my body actually inhabits. I was walking with my friend Nima in Chinatown a few weeks ago when I paused to chuckle over a glass display case full of fake eyelashes in the middle of a fruit and dry goods stand. Nima remarked that he’d walked past this particular store a thousand times and had never noticed it. The reason he didn’t see it is that the brain can only process so much information, and if it is busy planning tomorrow’s meeting, dreaming about the next holiday, or trying to recall the lyrics to “Gilligan’s Island,” there’s not much space left for noticing anything. And think of the story you could create based on a glass case full of eyelashes!
Meditation is about not-thinking—a process where you stop chasing thoughts and just notice what happens to drop by without getting caught up in it. Many writers would describe the writing process (at least the inception stage) in much the same way. Meditation also allows you to drop beneath language, to practice hanging out with raw sensation–just feeling, just seeing, just hearing, without having any opinions. The space that you end up in is full of alertness, awareness and openness, and it is extremely fertile and ripe for new creative possibilities to emerge.
Both meditation and writing require a lot of practice. Most of us are keener on the concept than we are about sitting down to actually do it. I think part of the resistance comes from our ego’s attempts to maintain the status quo, to keep us on familiar and safe terrain. The ego likes to be in control, and it will come up with a million excuses to keep itself there (and you really are much too busy for all of this creative business, right?). Peter Levitt describes it this way:
We do not need to stay in control of every aspect of ourselves in order to write. Quite the opposite. We and our writing really live when “the bureaucrat” takes a break—a long break—during which time we demonstrate to our imagination that we are willing to meet it wherever it says to go. When we do this, our psyche likes it, feels we are trustworthy, and allows us to experience intimately what we really want and need in the exploration and expression of our lives….We are not only born to create, we are also born to risk. These are actually the same. Taking a creative risk is not only essential and freeing, it is also the least risky thing you can do. Any attempt to stay safe will never get you where you want to go. (Fingerpainting on the Moon, pp 21-22).
Every writer knows that good stories start by taking a character out of her comfort zone, and every human knows that effort is required to build anything worthwhile. I will leave you with a link to a very inspirational talk, which is not about meditation or writing directly and is accidentally one of the best I’ve heard on both counts—given that we narrate our own experiences regardless of whether we write them down or not. Listen to it if you can find the time. I promise that you’ll be moved.
David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College: This is water
Until next time,
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Our blog posts will continue over the summer, but we won’t be offering any more writing retreats until the autumn. We hope you’ll consider joining us for a Day Away to Write on October 6, 2013. The leaves will be just starting to turn – a perfect time for a country drive. We’ve also posted our 2014 retreat dates on our home page.