Writers: How to Gain Confidence with the Container Principle

January 8, 2014   |   13 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites


I was in beautiful Shambhala Mountain Center recently, teaching a writing and meditation workshop. As always, it was a wonderful combination of creativity, peace, and vulnerability.

I really don’t know why, but the act of writing produces a lot of emotion, regardless of the subject matter.

I’ve never known a writer who doesn’t do regular battle with these two issues:

1. Inadequacy: I’m not a writer, what do I really know anyway, I have no right, I’m a phony, etc, etc.
2. Unworthiness: Everything worth saying on this subject has already been said, I have nothing new to add, who wants to read what I have to say anyway, etc, etc.

I don’t know if painters are afraid of paint or musicians afraid of their instruments, but writers often begin with fear of writing.

Writing retreats can be surprisingly helpful (if the focus is on writing rather than talking about writing). Meditation also helps. After a few days of regular meditation sessions interspersed with regular writing periods with a clear beginning and end, we all began to relax into the groove. (It’s amazing how helpful it is to have someone other than yourself say: “Start writing.” “Please stop in two hours.” Seriously, that is all it takes.)

In our closing conversation about continuing the groove at home, one woman asked, “How can I find the confidence to keep going? When I’m here, it feels natural but when I’m home, I have all sorts of doubt.” Nods all around the room.

What I said: It’s one thing to try to source confidence from within yourself by telling yourself that certainly you’re good enough and you have something valuable to say and who cares if anyone else thinks so, your story is your story and you have a right to tell it.

That is fine. But it doesn’t really carry you very far.

There is a second source of confidence and it is often overlooked.

That second source is the environment you create around yourself. Yes, you can gain confidence from your surroundings. One reason writing retreats work so well is because the environment is strong and supportive. In Shambhala Buddhism, we call this the “Container Principle” which states that the environment in which an act occurs co-creates the act. The frame changes the picture. You are not the only force at work in any situation. The world you’re in is also a force and when you attend to that aspect, you are covering the bases.

A container can be created by a variety of things. At our retreat, meditation practice, quietude, the presence of other writers, and, most important, the schedule create containment. All the writer has to do is show up. The environment is structured to give confidence no matter what your state of mind upon arrival.

The container you create at home has a different foundation. It starts with uplifting the space itself. (This is in no way meant to send you on a search for the perfect pen, computer, desk, table lamp, task chair, and so on. God, if I only had a word for every second I’ve spent on such searches, I could have written an encyclopedia.) (PS The perfect pen, computer, etc is the one you currently possess…)

By uplifting the space, I mean things like keeping it neat and clean, having flowers or beautiful objects around, and/or surrounding yourself with pictures of people or places you love. These are indications that you take yourself seriously. When the outer environment telegraphs acceptance and doubtlessness, the inner environment responds.

Like many, I struggle intensely with self-doubt. Some time ago, I was telling a friend that I sometimes feel weird because I did not go to college. She said, “Have you framed pictures of your book covers and hung them on the wall? Those are your diplomas.” Wow, that was brilliant. Of course I hadn’t and of course they are.

What are your diplomas? Surround yourself with them. They could include a note from a friend thanking you for your kindness, a picture of a family member who has benefitted from your love, a book cover of something written by an artist you admire and whose spirit you too somehow embody…these are your real credentials. When you surround yourself with them, you create a container that longs to be filled with words.

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  • Posted by:  Holly

    Wow, I wrote something like this 7 years ago on my travel blog. It is amazing to me the amount of collective thought in the world. Thanks for your piece!

  • Posted by:  Julie

    As a singer, I can attest that musicians feel the same way…absolutely…thank you for these words, this morning…

  • Posted by:  Suddenly Jamie

    Thanks for nudging this epiphany into my brain.
    This idea goes hand in hand with the “fake it ’til you make it” principle, only the audience you’re “faking out” is your own doubts and fears. I find that the best “container” for me to work on creative writing projects is at my local coffee shop where I can fully inhabit my writer persona – away from the laundry and dishes and other domestic duties. When I am happily tucked into a table amid the congenial hubbub of that aromatic space, I don’t need any diplomas on the wall – just being there – notebook or laptop before me – is enough to put me in the right headspace.

    Plus, I do love a good chai latte. 😉

    • Posted by:  Melanie Messner

      I’m so with you there! I too sit with my computer regularly in my favorite coffee shop, which is run by good friends of mine and a good chai latte never fails you. 🙂

  • Posted by:  Alfred

    My Dear Friend Susan, Thank you for these wise words. I want you to remember that it was you and your gift: writer; you and your title: teacher, that inspired me to push up to the next level. Everyone’s path up the mountain is different. Your gift is innate… perhaps your craft was honed in some ancient university, some ancient time. In this life you practice that gift wonderfully and you do so with a compassionate quill for others. Just this week I finished my first residency in my masters program, for which you wrote my letter of recommendation. I’d say you earned your degrees in ways and in many times… and how crazy of a blessing is that! Sending you a hug and a smile.

  • Posted by:  Dorothy

    Thank you for this wisdom. I was frustrated that my best writing was early in the morning, when I am alone, and sitting in my favorite chair with a view of the yard, after meditation. I thought I should be inspired all day, wherever I am. Now I feel better about it:)

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  • Posted by:  Em

    I like the principle

    • Posted by:  susan


  • Posted by:  Henry

    Beautifully worded. I was in my container the moment I finished my last line.

  • Posted by:  Melanie Messner

    Can I hang these blog articles in my room to uplift it? 🙂

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