I and Twitter pals Hiro Boga (@hiroboga), Mahala Mazerov (@luminousheart), and Jennifer Louden (@jenlouden) all wrote on the same topic today: The process of writing.
For a kaleidoscopic view of this issue (storytelling vs truth telling), check them out.
Hiro Boga: Tsunamis in the House of Wholeness
Jennifer Louden: How to Be a Writer Who Loves the Gap
Mahala Mazerov: When Stories Hurt
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. ~Franz Kafka
Right now, I’m in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, teaching a meditation retreat for writers. We spend most of the day writing, interspersed by periods of sitting meditation. In the first practice, our aim is to find our voice, say something, tell a story. In the latter, the encouragement is to let go of “story” completely and instead focus on the breath, which is always in the present moment.
How can a practice that is all about story go hand-in-hand with one that is about dropping it?
On the face of it, these seem like opposites. However, they are so alike as to be almost identical. Here is why I say that:
Meditation practice—resting attention on the breath and, when it strays, gently bringing it back—involves two qualities simultaneously. It is one-pointed. The focus of attention becomes a single point, in this case, the breath. Yet it is panoramic, too. This very simple (though not easy) practice, cultivates clarity. Often, insights arise from, well, nowhere. You could be very surprised by what you come to understand, know, feel as a result of meditation. Narrow views, judgments, preconceived notions are suddenly seen through and you have a sense of great spaciousness. So, meditation is both one-pointed and panoramic.
When you let go of concepts, genuine wisdom reveals itself to have always been present. That is why meditation is far more than a stress-reduction tool, it is a path to enlightenment.
Now consider writing. Couldn’t you describe it in similar terms? Writing is one-pointed: you can’t write two words at a time, only one. Word + word + word until you have created something that expresses your point of view. At the same time, how do you know what to say? What do you say first? What is the point of saying it at all? What comes next? The answers to these questions come when you relax your mind and, instead of making things up based on stuff you’ve read or what you wish was true, you wait to see what arises in your mind and then write it down. This is where good writing comes from. When the writer has pre-planned what to say, her words lack vitality, juice, impact. In fact, she can use exactly the same words to tell her story, but if in one case she is dictating it from her mindstream rather than her index cards, it will read as a living document. I don’t know why it works this way, but it does.
So writing too is simultaneously (not sequentially) one-pointed and panoramic. Writing in this way, you discover what you have to say rather than presuming it, you find fields of wisdom more vast than you had imagined, you see truths only half-glimpsed before, and you write past your concepts into a more pure kind of knowing.
As a writer and one who leads writing retreats, I can tell you that time and again, I have seen it demonstrated that when you turn away from discursiveness you find the groundlessness from which insight arises. Instead of thinking you know your story, it tells itself to you and in this way, you find liberation from conventional mind. Just like meditation.
There is a way to write that solidifies your story and there is a way to write that liberates you from it. To all the writers and practitioners out there, I wish you the wisdom to know the difference, which is the blessing of a strong and steady practice.