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Naked Mind: Writing As Spiritual Practice


Photo by amypalko

By Mary Jaksch

What writing practice, like Zen practice does, is bring you back to the natural state of mind…The mind is raw, full of energy, alive and hungry. It does not think in the way we were brought up to think-well-mannered, congenial.  – Natalie Goldberg

Writing is an adventure, not just an expedient way of disseminating information.  It can even be a spiritual practice. When I say spiritual, I’m not talking about anything high-flying. I’m not talking about angels, higher vibrations, higher intuition, higher anything. I’m talking about something lowly: how to be grounded in the moment. How to access our wild mind. How to write with a mind so open and empty that inspiration can fall into it.

As some of you know, I inhabit two worlds: I’m a Zen master as well as a writer. I lead Zen retreats in various parts of the world. And I write. There’s a simple connection between the two: the empty page. When writing anything, we start with an empty page. We set out for the unknown. It’s like going to the unexplored areas that the medieval map makers left blank and called terra incognita, ‘unknown earth’. In Zen terms the empty page signifies savoring this raw moment now – with a naked mind.

To be truly creative, our mind needs to be naked.

Otherwise our preformed ideas of reality get in the way of seeing and expressing something new.

Natalie Goldberg writes about this in her inspiring books, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. My copy of Writing Down the Bones was recently returned  to me after a long-lost loan with a slip saying:

This book comes with its head down, in contrite manner, but its eyes sparkling for the adventures its had.

Yes, writing is an adventure! Especially if we approach it with the presence that Zen calls beginner’s mind.

Natalie Goldberg says:

Beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a journey with no maps.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that writing is an adventure.  And then it turns into a chore. For example, when I try to write a blog post in a hurry because it has to go out that very day, I run into problems. I try to be creative – but the words don’t flow. My mind goes blank. But this isn’t creative nakedness, it’s feeling blocked. Do you experience this too?

How can we unblock our writing?

I tend to reach for Wild Mind and do five minutes of writing practice, following the seven rules that Natalie lays down:

  1. Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written)
  2. Don’t delete.
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
  4. Lose control.
  5. Be specific.
  6. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
  7. Go for the jugular.

[Just as I had completed the list above, this article started to dry up. It felt as if I was pushing words onto the page, instead of letting them appear of their own accord. So I got out pen and notebook and did five minutes of writing practice, using the points above. I headed the page ‘Writing as Spiritual Practice’ and then let rip. Here is what I wrote.]

I’m using a fresh page in my notebook because I want to write fresh. The page is empty – and I don’t know shit. How could I know anything of this moment? The sun heat streaming through the windows, car sounds from the distant road, the green of vine leaves nodding at me, and the blue sky above and through. Through and through. That’s what this moment is like – through and through. That’s what I want to say about writing being a spiritual practice. “Hey – all of you! This moment now is through and through. Write from there!”

That wasn’t quite what I expected to write…
How about you try this ‘Wild Mind’ exercise now and see what lands on your page? You could even share it with us in the comments!

One of the things I notice is that the ‘Wild Mind’ practice anchors me in the present moment. And that sparks my creativity.

Being in the now – instead of in the past or the present – allows us to be in touch with our creativity.

Using the Natalie’s writing practice is one way to enter the now. Another way is to meditate. I usually do five minutes of Zen meditation just before reaching for laptop or pen. Five minutes of quiet sitting is all it takes to find the miracle of now. And there are many skillful ways to return to the present moment when our mind drifts off again.

Being in the now makes us feel acutely alive and enables us to write without hindrance. The best thing is that when we are truly present, we forget ourselves. What remains is just the act of writing. Old Zen Master Basho refers to this in the following haiku:

Shell of a cicada –
It sung itself away
completely.

That’s the aspiration I have for writing: to sing myself away. Completely.
But as I said: I don’t know shit.

Mary Jaksch is Editor-in-Chief at Write to Done. Grab her FREE report How to Write Like an A-List Blogger. Mary has helped thousands of students successfully create outstanding and profitable blogs at A-List Blogging and is the blogger behind Goodlife ZEN.

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35 thoughts on “Naked Mind: Writing As Spiritual Practice”

  • Daphne says:

    Hi Mary,

    This is a wonderful article. I have long found journalling to be therapeutic, and you just gave me some ideas on how to use this method for blog writing. Thank you.

  • Mary,
    Thanks for this article :)
    What a great way to look at writing. When I really get deep into writing I sometimes feel like something else is taking over, and I’m not really in control. Almost like it is my primal brain forgetting everything it was conditioned to think and just putting anything down on the page. It’s those moments when writing becomes magic.

  • MizFit says:

    Mary,
    I really loved this and it totally resonated with me.
    when I deeply into working on a novel it is entirely transformative and spiritual.

    off to retweet.

    Miz.

  • Neal Davis says:

    That was a good exercise for a moment’s application. Here’s what I ended up with:

    “The mind plans before I even take pen in hand. It reminds me of the full day, and the irony of scheduling meditation, and how many tasks will not be done this day. Yet, I let the page defeat me–carry me away captive for a few moments’ possibility. There is so much potential here, like a capacitor bank aching to spark, and I lose it. I can’t not plan ahead, it seems. Every phrase is rolled around twice in my head before my sluggish fingers arrive to take ii down, my mind racing feverishly ahead again.”

  • I very much believe in the spiritual side to writing, and the beauty of the blank page. One of the things I try to teach student writers is to practice automatic writing so that there’s a flow from the brain to the pen without that pesky ‘thinking’ getting in the way.

  • Logan says:

    Writing also helps me clear out my mind because the thoughts get written down so the thoughts stop circling around in my head.

  • I like the idea of writing being an adventure. That’s a cool way to think of it and one that I think will help writers write well.

  • Claudio says:

    So many times we try to force events in our lives to occur simply because we want them to. When it comes to the creative process I think one should get out of the way of oneself.

    Mary, I think the process you are describing allows us to do that. When you realize that 2/3 of who we really are is locked up in our minds, hidden from us, and if we just allowed ourselves to just let go, particularly in the writing process, amazing things can and will occur.

    I think learning to “being in the now” is the challenge, but a worth one pursuing.

    One of my favorite posts Mary , keep wild minding!

    later

  • Zoe says:

    I haven’t read The Artist’s Way, but I’ve recently started doing the recommended “morning pages” described in the book. Three pages of free writing each morning upon waking — it’s amazing how effectively it centers my mind and allows me to untangle any issues inside.

    I also find that when I’m upset or stressed out, it really puts things in perspective if I make myself write down the reasons. This shows that writing can be therapeutic by either appealing to our unleashed thoughts, or using our rational mind to counter unwanted reactions.

    Thanks for this post! :)

  • Staying in the present is so hard. I’m always making up stories about people in my head and then I come back, realizing I’ve been miles away.

    Here’s what I came up with–it’s rather long. Feel free to cut.

    I’m sitting here trying to comment on blogs and I get ordered to do some writing practice. What the hell. I might as well since most of my writing these days consists of posts or comments or Twitter and it’s nice just to let it flow. A few Canada geese just flew by my north-facing window. I saw a red-tailed hawk yesterday, and I’ve been reading Bird Chick blog and scheming to go on a birding trip. I’d like to go back to Louisiana and canoe through the swamps with a local guide and dream of the ivory-billed woodpecker. I’d like to sit in the bayou in peace among the cypress. Denver is odd; it’s so tree-challenged. What’s a girl who grew up among Midwestern oaks doing here anyway? I’m supposed to be losing control here and it’s one minute and I’m stuck. I’m out of practice. My desk is full of things to do, but I just wish I could be at a beach. I haven’t dived in 18 months and I miss floating in the seawater wondering what kind of coral that is. The ocean is full of wonderment and reminders of my ignorance. It also has the occasional threat like remoras swimming right at you—what the hell is wrong with that fish? I can’t help editing. I’ve been editing for 18 years now and it’s really difficult for me to beat down the urge. I think a piece of paper might be better for this exercise than a computer on a desk. I keep thinking of my characters Gilfin and Ellen. I stole his name from Sindarin and I hope nobody from Tolkien-land sues me like they sued that store or whatever that had a Middle Earth name. I just want to figure out how his telepathy limits his life. Can he hurt people with it? Take them over? Or just hear things they think on the surface? What does it mean to be a telepathic people? Is there absolutely no privacy? Can anybody live like that? And why would he then love someone like Ellen, who prefers to be where no one is? Wow, I actually went 6 minutes. I may not be hopeless after all.

  • Sue B says:

    Note: Natalie Goldberg does not have an ‘h’ in her first name.

  • amypalko says:

    Do you ever feel that the Universe is winking at you? I opened up my RSS reader, clicked on the Write To Done feed and thought, ‘Gosh, that photo looks familiar!’ before noticing that it was, in fact, mine :-)
    And the fact that you have used it for Writing as Spiritual Practice just makes me so happy! I’ve been meaning to read Writing Down the Bones for the longest time, after it has been recommended to me so many times. Clearly, I need to make it a priority.
    Thanks again for choosing the photo – I’m glad you liked it – and thanks so much for this fabulous post.
    Amy
    xx

  • Hi all!
    I’ve only just struggled up from an attack of food poisoning, so I’ve been offline and prone for the last few days. Just went onto the Net a few moments ago to see how Naked Mind was doing. What a pleasure to find all these interesting comments. I’ll respond little by little.

    Just a quick note to Sue to thank her for pointing out that Natalie’s name is without an ‘h’. Have corrected that in a hurry :-)

  • I recently read Shunryu Suzuki’s “Beginner’s Mind” and can definitely understand the reward of having a beginner’s or “Naked” mind. I like the parallel between writing and spiritual practice.

    I have an article entitled: “The Truth About Meditation – Do I really have to just sit?” which also speaks to this effect on a broader scope and implies that a form of spirituality can be practiced in many of life’s activities, and probably is practiced by many without the practitioner even being aware that this may be a form of meditation or spiritual practice.

    http://minilifehacks.blogspot.com/2008/11/truth-about-meditation.html

  • ncb says:

    While mentioning Natalie Goldberg, don’t forget to mention her book Thunder & Lightning–it came after Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, but it’s my favorite of hers.

    Also, her rules vary a bit depending on which book you’re reading, but my favorite is “You are free to write the worst junk in America…the world…the universe.” Repeating that to myself almost always gets me past whatever writer’s block I have.

  • I’m typing when I really want to mix my hot cocoa & read in bed, but I couldn’t resist the writing practice. It’s been so long since I’ve wrtiten with wild abandon. The words don’t always flow, but I keep my fingers moving, and like Natalie said, I’ll see where it leads. Perhaps it will lead me to tho’ts of my dad, recovering from major surgery and contemplating his mortality as he faces chemotherapy. Or maybe it’ll remind me how I frittered away the evening on Facebook but don’t really feel guilty about it. I hear the occasional word on Late Night from the TV behind me, but when I’m writing, nothing else is really present except the thoughts popping like tiny balloons in my head.

    Maybe I’m not a potential novelist or bestselling nonfiction writer or poet laureate, but I think I’m pretty doggone good at expressing what I think and feel, especially what I’m passionate about–enough to catch others on fire with my flames. Things like starvation and genocide, for example.

  • Brenda says:

    A beautifully written article on the zen of writing, thank you – I’ve bookmarked this page for inspiration!

    What I’m currently needing is how to approach editing a manuscript… really! It’s much harder than writing in some ways.

    So I have about 7 or 8 full manuscripts waiting to be edited, and I’m an unpublished writer, and I only manage a bit here & there (also have an editorial background, not in creative writing but in university text writing, but it’s the same process, I know, I know, it’s silly)…

    Writing is inspiration; editing a full-length manuscript is a hard job. If only our writing could be one fell swoop, done in the first utterance, and sometimes it’s like that, but not usually, and perhaps that’s why vanity presses are becoming such a popular alternative, the nitty picky of editing can be bypassed to a certain extent?

    Anyway, as important as the flush of inspiration pouring over the blank page like sunlight or rain, there is the editing, the rewriting, reworking, making consistent, creating overall coherence, simplifying, clarifying, and I wonder if you have struggled with this aspect of finishing a manuscript, and how you have approached it, and, oh, yes, naked mind, how you’ve nakedly entered your texts to cleanse and polish them…

    like gleaming pebbles on the beach…

  • Thanks Neal, Beth, and Karen for sending us your Wild Mind pieces! I loved reading them. I love the way the mind swoops around when we let it. Like this bit in Beth’ contribution: “I saw a red-tailed hawk yesterday, and I’ve been reading Bird Chick blog and scheming to go on a birding trip”

    Hi Amypalko!
    What a lovely coincidence that you saw your photo on WTD! I must admit I had a horrible moment of doubt and raced to see if I had correctly attributed you photo. Yes, I had…phew!

    Hi Brenda!
    Thanks for reminding me that we really need an article on editing on WTD. Maybe those of you who are thinking of writing a guest post for us might consider this theme?

    By the way, some of you tried to register support for the Virtual Zen Retreats but there was a glitch in the form. I fixed that now. Strange how gremlins always tend to sneak into everything we do…

  • Julie M says:

    I really enjoyed this article and it reminds me of rediscovering the reason I started writing, to cleanse my soul in a way.

  • Jim Bessey says:

    Hi Mary,

    This is an inspiring post, great to see you here after so many outstanding guest articles. I’ve missed you!

    I love Natalie’s 7 steps. Have found in the past that my very best writing emerged when I was caught up in a moment or mood and simply let the words flow freely.

    I learned the “old” way by writing out first drafts longhand, followed by later revisions. We didn’t have the constant in-draft editing options that word processing offers so easily now.

    Seems to me it’s damn good discipline, or call it “practice,” to let your thoughts flow directly onto the page and worry about editorial concerns after. Not only that, it’s fun and creatively liberating.

    ~Jim

  • Kathryn says:

    Glad to see this post. I spend a couple of hours each morning working on a combination of writing exercises, general journalling, meditation, yoga and spirituality/creativity reading and I definitely think that these things all go hand in hand! I think your idea of doing just five minutes of zen meditation before writing sounds really powerful.

  • Puerhan says:

    Dear Mary,

    Thanks for the great article and great reminder! I love Natalie Goldberg’s writing and she is one of my writer heroes!

    I currently write a 3-line poem every day as part of my daily meditative practice, usually directly after my sitting meditation or chanting etc. It is interesting to observe how “I” try and control what gets written, wanting to produce something beautiful and external rather than a direct expression of the experience at hand … especially if the experience isn’t so familiar or comfortable!

  • Hi Jim,
    Thanks for the warm welcome!

    I like what you say: “Seems to me it’s damn good discipline, or call it “practice,” to let your thoughts flow directly onto the page and worry about editorial concerns after.”
    Good point! It seems to me that many people get stuck in their writing because they mix writing and editing.

    Hi Brenda! Talking of editing…
    You’ve posed a great question:

    “There is the editing, the rewriting, reworking, making consistent, creating overall coherence, simplifying, clarifying, and I wonder if you have struggled with this aspect of finishing a manuscript, and how you have approached it, and, oh, yes, naked mind, how you’ve nakedly entered your texts to cleanse and polish them…”

    Oh yes, I have struggled with finishing a manuscript [sigh]. I reckon the weeks spent doing the last edit of my book “Learn to Love” just about killed my muse. I hated every email the editor sent me. She’d rip into my favorite chapters and make me rewrite them. I’d grit my teeth and rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite.

    Of course as a blogger, editing is an necessary part of my daily life. Most pieces come together organically. That’s when I let go of trying to control the piece and – with a naked mind – allow superfluous sentences and words to drop away until I can really feel the bones of the piece.

    I must admit, though, that I’m at present agonizingly stuck on a guest post that I’m trying to edit into shape. Wild mind: no. Angry mind: yes. Add to that: frustrated mind, puzzled mind, and blank mind.

    In desperation, I sent a draft of the article to one of our faithful WTD readers, Claudio. He always offers such interesting comments! He emailed me some excellent suggestions.

    Now, just remind me: what was that naked thing I’m supposed to have?

  • Jeff says:

    Agree 100%…when I was conceiving The Project 100, I found a zen place to clear my mind and approach the problem…now I almost have 100 authors for the piece, and I feel this ability to clear my mind allowed me to see through the complexity of recruiting almost all of the 100 authors I need for this not for profit work.

  • Michelle says:

    I’m currently reading Writing Down the Bones, and it speaks to me as I move into my own adventure in writing.

  • Here’s my five minutes (or thereabout, I didn’t have a stopwatch so I just watched the clock at the bottom of my screen, which was distracting). Anyway, I feel changed . . . like I learned something:

    This page is blank, as are all pages when we begin. What a great place to start, considering that’s where everyone has began since the beginning of time memorial. Shakespeare, Bronte and everyone else started there.

    But I feel like my mind is circling back on itself now, that without direction I go nowhere. Funny, that critical thought almost brought me to a standstill. There was a pause before I started that last sentence.

    I’m wondering if I should be doing this exercise with a pen and paper since I type pretty fast and my mind might need time to catch up, to be free, or it might feel rushed. But on the other hand, I’m flying by the seat of my pants. At this speed I don’t have time to worry about what might be ahead, I just fly.

    That was the end of that idea and now I’m wondering where to go next. My mind goes back to a dream I had this morning, last night before I woke up. I woke up thinking it might be a good children’s book. But I don’t write children’s books. There I go judging again, deciding I must live by labels instead of flying free.

    I can see where this exercise can take me. I realize now that I do judge myself and my writing when I write, and even when I dream about things I could write. “I’m not that kind of writer.” Yeah, right. How do I know that for sure if I’m living my writing life in chains? If I don’t let go and let my mind express what it’s really thinking, how the hell do I really know what sort of writer I am?

  • Hi guys!

    The article I was struggling with is now published on Zen Habits. Have a look here: http://zenhabits.net/2009/02/how-to-find-islands-of-ease-in-the-chaos-of-life/

    Maybe you could give me some feedback??

  • Mamashares says:

    A writer needs to write every day, even when the urge to write is not there; primarily because, even when the desire is absent, there is something inside that needs to come out: good or bad.

    Occasionally, it takes that transition onto paper to discover what is really going on inside your mind. Whatever it is is never wasted matter, but usually the beginning of a great story.

  • I really like this article. You are right, writing can be very “zone” like for me. It’s a fine thing to watch what transpires as the words move across the page. I think that perhaps writing is one those things like running or anything else that requires discipline, patience, and hard work — the going is often tough, and the finished product is nice, but the journey is the real key.

  • Dammit and wow. Great article. I do writing practice when I first get up with a cup of Irish breakfast tea. It’s the most creative part of my day, and I keep following the line on my page until my mug’s empty (or has gone cold for too long to consider drinking it), until it’s time to do zazen, or until my kids pester me for breakfast–whichever comes first.

    I am daily surprised at what comes out onto the paper, and I am reminded of how important it is to give space to your thoughts. There’s another side to this, as well, though, and I find that I prepare for my day with my writing. Whatever problems I face, or focus I am preparing, the rehearsal happens on paper. It helps me to be less controlling of others, because I am clear with myself. I solve problems, and think creatively. You’ve said this already, so I’ll stop here.

    I was thinking, just this morning, how to capture this, and you’ve done a beautiful job here. Thanks.

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