Of all the teachings, one alone rises above for me, for now. Shunryu Suzuki called it "Beginner’s Mind." Master Seung Sahn called it "Don't Know Mind." Sometimes it's "Just Now" or "Begin Again." At others, "Only This."
But for the most part, the concept of "no past, no future" remains just that: a concept. Consider the activity in my mind during a typical writing period: Are these not the same aches and pains I've had for the past week? Isn't this the same grief, compulsion, or habit pattern that derailed me the last time? Isn't the person who I "am" the same one who slept late (again), or missed yoga (again), or forsook the healthy things he should have done in order to live the life he should be living (again)?
Well, yes. And, well, no.
Should I choose to operate from the perspective of the ego, then the "I" or "me" that does anything is the one that the world sees: the 44-year-old, white, male with blue eyes and graduate degrees and the somewhat obsessive love of tea and organizing. But is this really me?
Or, better said, is there really a "me" at all?
I don't wish to abandon my identity, wholly. I realize that the many labels I have accumulated in the conditioned world serve specific and important purposes. When others are able to identify me as something — teacher, son, brother, customer, pedestrian, lover, American — it helps us all understand how to act, which rules to follow in order for things to run smoothly. But if I'm not careful, I begin to assume that those labels (and those rules) are, in fact, the truth. If I'm not careful, I then lose the opportunity to view my life, and each of its unique situations, through a lens unclouded by past experience, understanding, judgment, or opinion.
The other day I was sitting in the woods with a friend when we heard the song of a bird neither of us recognized. We saw the bird, broad tan wings fanned out, float between the trees in front of us, and were both captivated by this new sight. "I wonder what kind...," my friend said, but caught herself before finishing the sentence. Ironically, we had just been discussing the notion that "it" — whether a tree, a cloud, a dog, or a bird — is not inherently any kind. It just is. We laughed for a moment, allowing ourselves to watch "it" flitter and sing and hop from branch to branch without needing to know, at least for that moment, anything else. There may have been times in our lives when being able to provide the appropriate label — starling, woodpecker, sparrow, etc. — may have proven helpful, maybe even necessary.
This was not one of those times.
As a writer, I try to remember to approach each day of work as a new person. I remind myself of that all-too-common factoid that the cells in one's body are always changing, dying, regenerating, and therefore one is literally not the same from day to day. I try to remember that this writer, with his barnicle-like accumulation of experience, emotion, and expertise, is altogether different than the one who sat at this desk yesterday, or last week. Conceptually, this makes perfect sense: If I am truly not the same man I was yesterday then "I" have never done that which I am about to do. Thus, I don't know what will happen. Thus, I can choose to remain free of preconceptions, judgments, fears, or concerns about the implications of my actions. I am simply doing what I am doing: breathing, sitting, writing. I am here, and it is now. I am in "Don't Know Mind."
Not so fast.
So these three steps are the key components of integrating mindfulness into the actual writing process: recognition, action, curiosity. One should also, of course, be prepared for the days when one or more of these proves harder to access, days when we simply cannot see that we are slipping into critical thinking and judgment, or that what we think are valid reasons for not continuing to write are actually just manifestations of the hindrances. There will be times — even out of necessity, as in later stages of the process — when you must bring forward your critical eye to serve a greater function, and that it will be vital that you not confuse the “critical eye,” which helps you differentiate between writing that is truly serving the character and the story and writing that is not, and the “critical voice” that wants to cast blame for those mis-steps on you as a writer, a bad one indeed.
During the times when there is simply nothing going right, days when the words are not coming, and when they come they suck, and because they suck, you suck, it may be all you can do to just keep writing. If this happens, it is so important that you do whatever it takes to get your words onto the page. You will never know, until much later, the impact this has on your work, how it deepens your practice and solidifies both your projects and your foundation as a writer. It may be impossible to see from up close, especially when it takes such effort to get to the page, to keep the words flowing, but you must have faith that, if you make the effort, it is creating an impact.
Some days you’ll know the impact right away. You will start off writing what your mind labels as garbage, but somewhere mid-session, there will be a click, an inspiration, an idea out of the blue that simply appears. When I taught 6th grade, I used to tell my students that the beginning of every writing session is like taking your first step down a long hallway that stretches out before you. Due to your position, and the geometry of the hallway, you cannot see, when you begin, that there are doorways scattered on the left and right of the hallway all the way to the end. If someone were to ask you what is there, you would say nothing. It’s just two straight long walls. And it may be. But it also may not be, for these doors often exist, although we can’t see them at the outset. So you must start walking — writing — to see where it’s going to take you, to see which doorways show up, on which side, and maybe to open some of them and take a peek inside, to see where they may lead. This is the beauty of the creative process, that it is a mystery from start to finish. The more we trust our subconscious minds, the proven truth that there is a whole network of journeys available to us once we have started moving in a particular direction, the more surprised we’ll be once we start moving.
For instance, when I started writing this blog entry...
Consider this: You are writing short story that requires a significant amount of detail about a historical period. You do your research, and begin to write a scene with two characters that takes place outdoors, during this time period, in a place of note. The going is tough, as your words feel clunky, the dialogue between your characters stilted; yet you persist, understanding that there is no “right” way to get initial words onto paper. You just need to generate some forward momentum with the plot, sensory experience of the setting, and fit the scene with both a climax and resolution. Perfecting any of these elements (and many more), however, is not the central focus of your work; everything can be tested and ironed out during revisions.
So you write. And write. And eventually something strange happens. Without even realizing it, you have entered another character to the scene. This completely changes the dynamic between your original characters, adding complications that you'd rather avoid. However, this new character has announced herself and she carries with her a great deal of energy. She is bright and alive, and her relationship to one of your original characters is such that the conflict that would really anchor this scene becomes much clearer.
Still, you notice your hesitation, your fear about having to write another character, as well as the fact that the story feels as though it is spinning beyond your control. You envision having to work longer and harder, learn more about writing, and now the prospect of failure — either not finishing the story, or writing a bad one, or it being criticized for lack of depth or something else — is very real in your mind. It is all you can do to keep writing at this moment, to acknowledge the various voices tossing their opinions and judgments at you, and to register them as what they are: voices.
What they are is the conditioned mind, rearing its ugly perspective and demanding that you “stay within the lines” with which you are already comfortable. They are the voices of your teacher who taught you how to write a scene with two characters, or your peer who is really good at writing dialogue, or the book you read about how long it should take to write the “standard” short story. If you are not careful, you will let these voices take you over, they will hijack your writing process and start laying a level of self-doubt under you that threatens to stop you cold before you ever find out what is truly going on in the story.
So what do you do? How does mindfulness keep this writing period (and this story) from crashing and burning before it even gets going?
As mindful writers, we are simply showing up, applying the necessary force to stimulate and sustain the writing process, and then paying careful attention to what is happening. We notice when motivation increases, noting the external and internal stimuli and resources that may have been involved. We become aware of our routine pitfalls, topics that grind us to a halt, and, most importantly, the many voices that show up during various stages of the process. These voices come in all different shapes and sizes. Some remind us of actual people from our lives, past and present, while others are solely our own invention, the accumulation of a lifetime of internalized beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and “truths” we have heard, seen, or even just made up about ourselves and the ways of the world.
It is difficult, painful work to begin sifting through the junk swirling around in our minds in order to start hearing — and learning to accept — what is actually true about our experiences. So much of what we have come to believe about ourselves, even the positive things, is based on interpretation and judgment, the process of placing a value on the actions, appearances, words, and accomplishments of others. Because our ego (the “I” that we refer to when we speak of ourselves) is so insecure, it needs to defend itself against any effort one might make to expose its falseness. Even the self-critical thinking we have learned to incorporate into our vision of ourselves is a result of an ego-centered persona, in this case the “I” that is “not worthy” or “not good enough” or “not pretty enough” or “not rich enough,” is a false creation that, at its core, only wants to survive. Any threat to this survival is attacked with a fiercer attachment to the very nature of the ego-based persona, for when it recognizes a threat – the possibility that it may not be the actual “truth” about us — then it digs in deeper, bringing out its “heavy machinery” to try and keep itself thriving in your mind.
The real problem that the ego-centric persona presents is not its existence, for it is a perfectly natural part of the human experience, and the fact that we have it at all is essential to our survival in the conditioned world. We need to play the “roles” of teacher, parent, lover, spouse, lawyer, brother, and so on in our daily walk through the conditioned world. We need to have a trustworthy skill-set and the wherewithal to know which skills to use in different situations. In fact, without the “roles” we play in our lives, people might not know what to do with themselves, and the entire structure of the world we’ve created might simply fall to pieces.
So why get rid of our personas at all?
"Mindful writing" is not very special. It requires no unique skills, no advanced training, and no superior intelligence. It is possible for someone to begin “mindful writing” who is just starting a writing practice, just as easily — and, in fact, maybe more so! — than the well-seasoned writer who has already published books and achieved fame. One thing that makes “mindful writing” different from other writing approaches, none of which I am here to disparage, is that it offers tools that are also completely applicable in your regular life. Because of this, you can practice mindful writing even when you are not writing, for being aware of the actual experience you are having in this present moment, and learning to notice but not give into the array of criticisms, judgments, and other challenges one is sure to meet in the writing practice, is surely something that anyone, doing anything, benefits from.
Despite this, I don't teach (nor have I created) an “official” mindfulness practice for students to use as mindful writers. There are far too many deeply skilled and wise teachers out there — and the books they have written — for all of us to learn from. And while I do believe that establishing and maintaining a formal mindfulness practice will benefit your mindful writing practice immeasurably, my primary goal is to help my students establish and maintain a writing practice, using the tools of mindfulness to work with the obstacles that arise, both internally and externally.
A mindful writing practice is deeply personal. Just as no two living beings — even if they are in the exact same place at the exact same time — see and experience events in the same way, so to is it true that for however many mindful writers there are, there will be just as many mindful writing "practices." This is the beauty of mindfulness in any pursuit, as it helps us realize what is truly unique to us and how we can cut through the many layers of delusion that our conditioning has helped create in order to experience the kernels of truth of any given moment. Still, that “truth” will not be the same for everyone, and the ways in which one writer accesses it may differ greatly from the ways another does. This can present a challenge, as we are all so hungry to know the “right” way to go about things, clamoring to get the latest “tricks of the trade” and approaches to working with everything from lack of motivation and writers block to setting up the perfect writing space and reading the “right” books to inspire and guide us. This is why a mindful writing practice is so beautiful, for the key teaching is so simple: the only person who truly has these answers is you. Period.
Training yourself to notice sensations in the body while writing (and sitting) will allow you to form a stable ground for your practice. You may need to make adjustments as you write, but over time you will become more adept at simply noticing bodily sensations while they arise and fall away. The nonjudgmental witnessing of the body is training for the next level of experience: the mind.
For many of us, it's difficult to recognize — let alone accept — that what is happening in our mind is different from actual reality. In fact, many people assume that their minds are reality. As we slow down and sink more into practice, however, we see that it's possible to distinguish what happens in the world around (and inside) us is actually different from what we think about it.
Take this simple example: I am writing and a cramp develops in my wrist. Mindfulness teaches me to simply be aware of the multitude of sensations found within this cramp, noticing how they change over time, how they respond to shifts in motion, pressure, and activity. This is reality – what is happening right now in my body. What isn't reality, however, are the thoughts that might arise as I do this observation. What if I injured myself? I'm never going to be a writer if I have to live with this pain? Am I going to need surgery?
While there is nothing inherently wrong with such thoughts, if I am not careful I may soon find myself lost in scenarios and feelings way beyond what is true in the moment: contemplating who will drive me to work when my wrist is immobilized; feeling anxious about losing the dream of publishing a book; criticizing myself for not doing more yoga to prevent injury. We've all been there; it's what the mind does. The real question is: Why do we choose to stay
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that is fast being integrated into many facets of modern life. It’s happening in places you’d expect — yoga studios, meditation centers, and high-end spas where people go to “get away from it all” — but it’s also being taught in schools, hospitals, prisons, and even at high-tech companies like Google and Apple. The world, it seems, is hungry for the present moment, not to mention lower stress, increased productivity, and more happiness.
So how about the writer? Can mindfulness help those of us who pick up the pen, be it to write a business report, a legal brief, a poem, or a novel? Can paying attention to the present moment really counter the forces of procrastination, impatience, or perfectionism that dog even the most productive creators? Well, perhaps. But not without some effort.
Simply stated, mindfulness is a “bare attention” to the present moment offering an unobstructed view of what is happening — in your body and mind — right now. Mindfulness feels the pen in your hand. It sees words forming on the paper, hears the tapping of computer keys, and notices the activities of your mind: planning, excitement, confidence, resistance. What it does not do, however, is react. Mindfulness does not interpret those physical sensations or draw conclusions from a passing (or persistent) thought. It does not judge, chastise, indulge, or blame. Instead, it acts as a sentinel, a grounded observer of the ebb and flow of constant sensory experience.
Buddhism teaches that all experience originates via one of six sense-doors: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, and mind. Once an external (or internal) object — a sound, a smell, a worry, a wish – is sensed, the mind moves beyond bare attention, labeling the sensory experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral and setting the stage for reaction: move towards, move away, or remain unbiased. At its core, mindfulness trains us to linger in bare attention — after noticing but before reacting — in order to become pure observers, less deeply influenced by habitual, conditioned patterns.
Writing often triggers myriad expectations, hopes, fears, and beliefs. You may have strong memories of the English teacher’s red pen. You may doubt your depth of knowledge or experience paralyzing resistance to certain topics or types of writing. Of course there are times when the writing flows freely — and these are wonderful — but when challenges arise, mindful writing offers concrete skills to counter the resistance.