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:
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written)
- Don’t delete.
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
- Lose control.
- Be specific.
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
- 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
That’s the aspiration I have for writing: to sing myself away. Completely.
But as I said: I don’t know shit.