At the end of my yoga teacher training in India, I had to write a “term paper”of sorts and I chose to write about how the writing process–the act of creating with words–mirrors the practice of meditation. Although it’s hard to believe I went to India FOUR years ago this month, the topic is still fresh in my mind. My original intention with this post was to write about my present-day thoughts on writing and meditation, but today I unearthed my “term paper” and have decided to type it up and post it here instead. I’m sure I will write about my present-day thoughts in a later post.
Writing as Spiritual Path
David James Duncan, fly fishing fanatic and passionate chronicler of the American West (see The River Why, The Brothers K, and My Story as Told by Water) hits his head against a flat stone every morning before he begins writing. He claims that in so doing, he empties his mind, rendering it void of any thoughts or sensations.
A curious tactic—an empty mind as a prerequisite for writing stories, creating art. We so often assume that art—especially the language-based, literary arts—is driven by ideas, by thoughts, by complex logic—in short, by the mind itself. Surely, there’s a geometry to Rothko, and the social critiques of Jane Austen and Mark Twain must be the products of adept minds. And yet, David James Duncan keeps hitting his head against that flat stone, morning after morning. Why?
An examination of Patanjali’s sutras on non-attachment (I.15-16) and Krishna’s comments on raja yoga (Bhagavad Gita Chapter 6) can help us understand the importance of an “empty” mind for all writers, not just David James Duncan. In other words, I hope to show that practicing/living a “writing life” is a spiritual discipline, a truly yogic undertaking.
But what is the “writing life”? For the purposes of this essay, engaging in the activity of life, paying close attention to one’s senses, and seeking out a variety of different experiences, and then using all of this information to create poetry and stories that mirror the experiences of life (namely, the glimpses of presence, of transcendental moments) is the writing life. In this way, writing, like yoga, like Buddhism, invites and unites paradox: trying to capture the transcendental, immutable truth in a medium that is inherently mutable—language.
The yogic and Buddhist notion of non-attachment helps the writer bridge the gap (or, for those of you conversant with linguistic theory, cross the bar) between being engaged in the world and being present to the transcendental. Non-attachment empowers the writer to unify the dualities of scared and mundane.
Patanjali defines non-attachment as “self-mastery; it is freedom from desire for what is seen or heard” (I. 15). He continues in the next sutra to describe the highest kind of non-attachment, achieved through knowledge of the Atman, as ceasing to “desire any manifestation of Nature” (I. 16). Both of these definitions hinge on the concept of “desire”—desire for sensory perception, desire for the experience of the material, “mundane” world. Non-attachment, then, is the willful halting of such desire; non-attachment posits a way of being in which we participate in life without desiring a certain outcome. In other words, by living with non-attachment, we are fully in each moment, unconcerned with how the moment unfolds; we are so present that we can’t even have a desire for what the next moment may hold.
This notion of living without desire for any particular outcome unifies the sacred and mundane via discrimination. Because when we are fully present, we are able to know the moment exactly, to discern its true nature. In this way, we can see the moment for what it is: “mundane” in the sense that the moment is firmly rooted in the material and thus utterly illusionary, or “sacred” in the sense that the moment holds a glimpse of what is beyond the material (Brahman).
But why would a writer be interested in what is beyond the material, the sensory? Doesn’t the very act of writing—conjuring characters, crafting deft scenes of human drama—depend on sensory perception? Furthermore, don’t we measure “good” literature by its degree of verisimilitude, its resemblance to “real life”? Indeed. And yet the impetus behind writing is to capture a moment. Writers pursue the transcendental, the moments in which humans truly embody their dharma, and writers pursue the mundane, the stretches of time in which we are anything but the embodiment of our higher selves, our true calling, our dharma. In order to render these moments—both the transcendental and the mundane—convincingly, writers must use bold, yet precise, sensory language, language of the material world. And yet. And yet, this is not enough. For the strictly transcendental moments, a writer must employ language that can be understood but also a language that is unordinary, captivating, and other-worldly.
Hence, the importance of meditation or raja yoga. To render a transcendental moment in language, a writer must have access to a kind of transcendental language. By using meditation techniques, a writer can (hopefully) channel language—or, at the very least, an intuition about language—from a transcendental source.
In Chapter 6 of The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna details the path of raja yoga or meditation. First, he carefully counsels Arjuna on the importance of non-attachment in raja yoga:
He who does his task
Dictated by duty
For fruit of the action
He is a yogi
Further clarifying the matter for Arjuna, he explains, “…no one can practice the yoga of action who is anxious about his future, or the results of his actions.” Here, Krishna establishes that surrendering to the moment—living without regard for what is to come or what has transpired—is the first step in meditation practice, for one must be fully present in order to observe the mind’s undertakings. The practice of meditation itself quiets the mind by focusing the mind on the Atman; this practice helps move the mind and heart “beyond the grasp of the senses.” The light of a lamp, Krishna tells us, “does not flicker in a windless place.”
This stilling of the mind, this movement of the mind beyond the “grasp” of the senses, allows writers to tap into a higher creative source. David James Duncan uses his flat stone to create this “windless place” where the light of his mind will not flicker. While Patanjali and Krishna may advise against beating one’s head against a rock, the end result is the same: a still mind beyond the grasp of the senses.
However, if a writer were to dwell perpetually in a place beyond the senses, then the writer would be unable to recreate the world on the page. David James Duncan isn’t always hitting his head against a stone; he only does so before writing. The rest of the time, he wades knee-deep in icy Montana streams, staring down trout. Indeed, even Patanjali admits that an aspirant cannot pass all her time in meditation and concentration; he emphasizes in Sutra II.18 that “the universe exists in order that the experiencer may experience it, and thus become liberated.” In other words, through non-attachment and discrimination, a writer—or other artist/spiritual aspirant—can fully participate in and experience the material world, and by virtue of this experience, be able to recognize the transcendental, the thing itself, Brahman. (Surprisingly, Jacques Derrida makes this exact same point when he posits that a circle does not have a center innately, but rather the center of a circle exists as such precisely because of all the other points in the circle that are not the center. We know what Brahman is because we are able to recognize the illusion of Brahman.) In short, writers follow a spiritual path by balancing single-pointed concentration with full engagement in the material world.