Tag Archives: writing

A Windless Place

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

Caring nothing

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.


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Hurl Defiance to the Stars!

Near the end of every quarter, my students write their own manifestos. I mentioned in another post that they read examples from Italian Futurism, the Harlem Renaissance, and Modernism and then write and perform/present their own. This past quarter I found them particularly moving. I had one of those teaching moments where I looked around the room and realized something sacred was happening and I had nothing to do with it. My students were the ones who showed up and sanctified our classroom with their words. One manifesto was about tagging and a gunned-down friend; another was about being male and overweight. There were tears and solemnity until my chattiest student piped, “Where’s yours, Hope?”

Where was mine? It never looks good when the teacher herself comes unprepared.

And so, with apologies to and gratitude for F.T. Marinetti, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Jacques Derrida, here is my manifesto:

We stayed up all night, my friends and I.

In my youth, I would have started it that way, definitely (students: note spelling). Defiantly, if you prefer that spelling. We were defiant in the streets of San Francisco. The chemicals kept us up all night—the California kind, Anchor Steam, the glitter on our faces, the gel in our hair—and we strutted through the Castro, claiming it as our own. It wasn’t the hanging mosque lamps and their radiant electricity that enabled and emblazoned our nocturnal reverie; it was the darkness itself. We pushed against it with our collective youthful zeal. And—take heed my promising, willful students—the night won.

I’m not a morning person, but I can see that morning cleaves the night, that daybreak is a drawing up of the curtain. This induces me to welcome the dawn, the labor of light. As Thoreau admonishes us, “only that day dawns to which we are fully awake.”

As you get older, you split. Night/Day, Woman/Man, Rural/Urban, Body/Mind, Donkey/Elephant, Herbivore/Carnivore, Here/There, Nature/Nurture, Us/Them, Who I Am/Who I Was. Who are you? Now?

Remember, it’s only the language that can string ideas together over time and place. Only the language can you remind of who you were meant to be. And who you were, when you marched around fine cities with your legion of friends and bewildered pain with your unrelenting wildness.

To make their strings strong, I want my students to know words like advocate, manifest, magnanimous, temerity, dexterity, deduce, intuit, and perseverance. Consciousness. Oppression. Gratitude. Integrate. Ponderosa, piñon, loblolly. I pine for you.

One morning in San Francisco, I woke up on the couch, sitting upright, fully dressed from the night before. That’s when the spell broke. And I became a mourning person. Let me tell you what I learned that night and from the dawns that have since followed:

I believe that there is no right answer

I believe we focus too much on the end product in our culture

We have lost the knowledge of our bodies

We have lost the knowledge of our land

We have squandered the process

I believe intellect and heart are not at odds

Odds are, you need them both to make any goddamn sense of this world.

I believe that we know what compassion is

When we inhabit the body of another

Writers, actors, and all other artists do this

With their characters, their subject matter, with you and me.

I believe there’s something out there

But I believe it is so beyond our comprehension

That it could never fit under the umbrella of a name, a word

An approximation of being

I believe that the story is all we have—the utterance of a guess—because:

<Nothing is permanent>

Falling to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

The seminal adventure of the trace,

Missing me one place, search another

The consecutive wrong turns that complete your circle,

Unite your story—

I stop somewhere

This—and a certain amount of requisite suffering, stemming from thinking too much and breathing too little—is for certain

waiting for you.

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New Year’s Resolution: PLAY

In 2010, I resolve to play.

For Christmas, I got Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. I’ve been reading it with diligence and enthusiasm. Aside from the practical implications it has for my teaching (which I’m sure I’ll discuss in more detail in another post), the book feels personally relevant to me. I’m reading it side-by-side with Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World by Lama Surya Das. Combining these two books has helped me reframe how I approach my own writing.

Kohn’s basic thesis is the “do this for that” mantra of behaviorism just doesn’t work. Oh sure, offering a reward for something (the classic example that Kohn frequently cites and that I, and no doubt others of my vintage, can relate to is Pizza Hut’s “Book It!” program: read a book, get a free pizza) can get a human being to do the behavior you want them to do in that moment (dangle a pizza in front of a fourth grader and, by god, they’ll read a book). But….rewards do little–in fact, absolutely nothing–to entice a human being to continue repeating the behavior. Quite the contrary: Kohn argues in Chapter 5 that rewards “smother people’s enthusiasm for activities they might otherwise enjoy” (74). So, not only do rewards fail to create lasting behavior changes in humans (diet, anyone?), they also diminish any interest or excitement one might have had for the rewarded/reinforced activity.

It’s here that I think about my journey with writing. When I was young(er), I hungered to be told I was “good” at writing. I wanted to be praised, I needed to be praised, and I wanted to be the “best” or somehow get rewarded for writing, an activity that I stumbled into as a 12 year old out of sheer zeal and curiosity. As an adult, I have found myself in a bind: I want to write–I need to write–but I am stymied by thoughts of “what’s the point if I don’t get published or praised or (fill in the Skinner blank)?” But the point isn’t what happens after I write, as the behaviorists would have use think; rather, the point is what happens in the moment of writing.

Enter the book on Buddhism. Like its kissing cousin, yoga, Buddhism contains a set of tools to help ground us mentally and physically in the present moment because that’s all life ever is–the here and now. Rather than focus on what kind of stroking my ego will receive at some future date as a result of my trenchant writing, I would be better served by simply sitting down, shutting up, and writing. To hell with what happens “next.”

In the chapter on “Right Effort” (step 6 on the 8-fold path), Surya Das highlights the apparent contradiction between effort and effortlessness, explaining that “right effort” is the perfect balance of “hard work” (effort) and “simple surrender” (effortlessness) (277). To do something means to do it with joy, enthusiasm, even fervor, but it also means to do it with dignity and to know when it’s time to let go and let it be. I want to be this way with my writing. I once was, as that 12 year old, dashing upstairs after supper to scribble in my  notebook, not knowing (or caring) what any of it meant, just knowing, just trusting that I relished doing it. And then I got praised….

Lastly, I want to say that my students have been a continuous source of inspiration to me as I piece together the ideas from both Kohn and Das. Every quarter, my students read manifestos from various artists (Marinetti, Mina Loy, Langston Hughes, etc.) and then craft their own manifesto. And these manifestos–with all their spelling errors and dangling modifiers–amaze me. They write about their passion, be it painting, printmaking, cooking, design, or fashion, as something that brings them joy, as something that ignites their curiosity and enthusiasm, as something that’s fun and playful.

Thus, in honor of my students and in appreciation for Alfie Kohn and Lama Surya Das, I resolve to play when I write. Welcome home, 2010!

(And, no, Gentle Reader, the irony of having just set up a fancy-pants Web site and blog to explore my New Year’s Resolution to “be present” and “play” and “not focus on the outcome” has not been lost on me.)


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