Zen Yoga Writing practice?

A confession: I like to read at bedtime.Water lilies In this company, that’s nothing unusual. All the sleep hygiene experts say not to, that beds should be used for sleeping and only one other activity. What do they know? I find something deeply comforting about curling up with a good — but not too exciting — book. Perhaps it evokes memories of my mother reading aloud to me, or it’s just “me time.”

A few years ago, I started including in my nightly reading a page or two of something that stretches my mind. I don’t mean that in the intellectual sense, for I definitely want to be quieting my thoughts, not forcing myself to think critically. I try to choose books that get inside my brains and stretch them gently in unexpected directions, like mental yoga before settling into my comfort reading.

I just finished reading Natalie Goldberg’s LONG QUIET HIGHWAY. Goldberg is a writing teacher, essayist and novelist who is also a long-time student of Zen Buddhism. I was introduced to her work years ago with her WRITING DOWN THE BONES, and had always thought of her as a teacher in the style of Julia Cameron: “Morning pages,” keep the pen moving, let your thoughts flow, that sort of advice. LONG QUIET HIGHWAY is autobiographical rather than instructive. I was deeply moved by how she put together mundane, specific details in ways that brought tears to my eyes. More than that, she has gotten me thinking — or rather, feeling/sensing — more deeply about the role of writing in my own life. Yes, it’s a pleasure and an obsession; yes, it’s my occupation, how I earn my living.

Blue hillsMountain Pose: Could it also be the lens through which I view the world? Sure, no problem; every new experience is grist for the mill. That’s the easy answer, just as the plot skeleton is the easy description of a story. As a writer, I know that storyness is much deeper than plot. Can I use that same insight to listen more deeply, look beyond appearances, appreciate the interwoven complexity of my community and environment?

Dancing Shiva Pose: How about writing as a spiritual practice? Um, isn’t that a bit pretentious… or is it? Is there something moving through me, speaking through me, when I write from my heart? Can I shove my ego as well as my intellect out of the way? Speaking of intellect, and ego, and mind . . .

Pigeon Pose: Could writing help me become better acquainted with my own mind? The way my thoughts sometimes behave like grasshoppers on steroids? The phrases and connections and story elements I use repeatedly, without intention? The cycles of feeling I’ve written something fine, only to plummet to the certainty it’s all drek, that I can never get anything right?

Corpse Pose: Is writing a way of stilling my thoughts and becoming fully present — Sunsetthrough words, are you kidding? Ah, those moments when it feels like I’m not making up these words, they’re coming from somewhere else, I’m just a lens, a focal point through which light passes.

I have no easy answers, but I will be watching myself — my self — more closely as I write. And who knows, I might even achieve a new literary Downward-Facing Dog.

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Zen Yoga Writing practice? — 2 Comments

  1. Let me know when you figure out the literary equivalent of downward-facing dog. I hope it will be easier than the physical pose!

    I’m also a fan of both Long Quiet Highway and Writing Down the Bones. Since I write to figure out what I actually think about something, as well as due to obsession and to make a living, writing as a spiritual practice also makes sense.

    BTW, I also read in bed and I don’t understand the objection to it. I find reading until the book drops out of my hand a way to ensure that my mind is quiet enough to fall asleep. Of course, an exciting book can still keep me up reading until all hours, but that’s the risk you take.

  2. I understand the principle of sleep hygiene — what a phrase! — in retraining our brains to associate bed=sleep, rather than bed=watching TV, bed=eating, bed=reading. I think such discipline can be valuable in people who’ve gotten badly out of touch with the brainstem rhythms that say, “sleepiness.”

    Like you, I find that reading something not-too-exciting helps to slow me down, quiet my mind, ease me through the transition from daytime overload to sleep.

    Downward-Facing Dog, hmmm…. I’ll let you know!