In April of 2016, I started a meditation practice. I took up meditation to help manage my anxiety and depression, which had spun out of control despite medication and exercise. As if by cosmic serendipity, the podcasts and blogs I consumed at the time all began recommending meditation simultaneously. So I gave it a shot.
We’ll get to how this relates to writing in a minute.
My current practice is a simple mindfulness practice: you sit for five, ten or twenty minutes (or whatever) and focus on your breath. No chants or incense, no tinkly New Age music. You can approach this in several ways: you can count your breaths; you can think “in” as you breathe in and “out” as you breathe out, you can focus on bodily or external stimuli. There are whole courses devoted to this stuff.
The important part is knowing when your mind has wandered, and beginning again. This is not my first time trying meditation. I’ve been on-and-off for years. What I failed to realize those previous times is: discovering your mind has wandered off task and re-focusing isn’t a failure of the practice. That is the practice. The whole point is to realize you’ve become distracted. Then you begin again.
Being kind to yourself as you re-focus is a huge part of the practice. The more compassion you can show yourself, the more “successful” your meditation. (I put that in quotes because you don’t ever really “win” at meditation, and you only fail by not practicing.)
Culturally, we in the West tend to experience problems with being kind to ourselves. As English translator to the Dalai Lama Thupten Jinpa says:
“People don’t care about themselves, or tell themselves they don’t, because as soon as they do they feel overwhelmed. And people don’t take care of themselves, neglecting their basic needs for sleep, nutrition, and exercise, and drive themselves harder and harder at work because they don’t know how else to find validation as human beings. People lash out or shut down when they are criticized, because they are all too ready to believe anything bad about themselves, but at the same time they can’t stand to hear anything bad about themselves because they lack a sense of self-worth to balance it. People feel like frauds, especially when things are going well. They live in fear that one day they’ll be exposed, because they don’t actually believe they deserve anything good. People feel anxious and depressed and desperate and they don’t know what to do—and they blame and berate themselves for this too.” [from A Fearless Heart]
Being kind to yourself about your struggle is a vital part of the practice. Good meditation doesn’t mean not struggling. In fact, a productive meditation may be chock-full of struggle; you may lose your way and find it again a thousand times. This may seem exhausting, or feel like failure, but that’s the practice. It’s what you do.
It’s the same with writing. See, I told you we’d get there.
How many writers do you know who struggle almost daily with their word count? They lament having written fewer words than they “should have.” Even their small victories take on the flavor of defeat. They take to social media to lash themselves over it, or seek readily available commiseration from other authors feeling the same despair. Schedules and deadlines are one thing, but so many writers I know take to self-flagellation even when the future is wide open and nothing awaits them but opportunity. And when I say “so many writers I know,” I’m including myself.
There are thousands of posts in the blog-o-sphere about how to deal with your struggle. How to solve it like a math problem. Perhaps you haven’t done your research, or your outline sucks, or there’s an important story decision you’ve never quite worked out. Maybe you’re tired and uninspired. Those days happen all the time, and you have to do the work anyway.
But to solve the struggle, you first have to acknowledge it and dig down into the why — and that’s where we sometimes get hung up.
When we are not kind with ourselves, we interpret our struggle as a sign we’ve failed somehow. When the words won’t flow, we assume the existence of a problem, either with the page or with ourselves. Maybe it’s writer’s block. Maybe it’s lack of outlining, lack of practice, lack of inspiration, lack of work ethic, lack of moral fiber. These self-condemnations go all the way down, like the turtles that hold up the world.
This struggle isn’t necessary. We can choose to look on our struggle as meaningful, not in the sense of stern probity or some self-punishing concept of “building character,” but rather that struggle is trying to tell us something.
Meditation teacher and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society Joseph Goldstein calls this “struggle as feedback.” To paraphrase his words: that we’re struggling tells us there’s something we’re not facing. If we were facing it, we wouldn’t be struggling.
If you’re looking at the blank page and the words aren’t flowing — or the words are flowing, but you hate them — obviously that’s a struggle.
But what’s behind that? Embarrassment that the words aren’t better or more numerous? Uncertainty over where a plot element is going? Guilt over a vague feeling of being “behind”? Dread of the work ahead? I know I’ve felt all these things when facing down the page, and I’m willing to bet you have too.
Mindfulness training tells us there’s benefit in facing these thoughts instead of trying to deny or sublimate them. Buddhist teacher Ayya Khema said that our thoughts not only occur independent of our wishes, they’re frequently unwanted and unwelcome — and thus, we need not take them seriously. She also had something to say about the utility of struggle:
“Suffering is our best teacher because it hangs onto us and keeps us in its grip until we have learnt that particular lesson. Only then does suffering let go. If we haven’t learnt our lesson, we can be quite sure that the same lesson is going to come again, because life is nothing but an adult education class, If we don’t pass in any of the subjects, we just have to sit the examination again. Whatever lesson we have missed, we will get it again. That is why we find ourselves reacting to similar situations in similar ways many times.”
Granted, Khema was talking about suffering and rebirth in the Buddhist sense, but I think this applies to writing too.
If we turn toward our struggles and examine them — for lack of a better term, objectify them — we can separate them from ourselves and realize we don’t have to take them seriously. We don’t have to feel that embarrassment, uncertainty, guilt or dread. Or, if we do feel it, it doesn’t have to rule our actions. We can accept that we feel that thing, and then get on with the work. The fact that we’re struggling means there’s some unacknowledged emotion at work. When we acknowledge it, it loses its power to rule us. I’m not just talking woo here. There’s science.
Of course, this stuff is easier said than done a lot of the time — that’s why they call it a “practice.”
This is probably self-evident to some. Plenty of writers take to the page without these kinds of struggles. But for those of us who wrestle with staying motivated and focused, it can be a powerful lesson.
You don’t need to take up meditation or become a Buddhist to use these tools. If you’re facing the terror of the blank page and find yourself struggling, try turning toward those emotions instead of away from them. Instead of trying to force yourself to crank out more unloved words, take a minute and ask: what am I feeling? Why am I feeling it? Do I need to take those feelings seriously? Because maybe you don’t. And once you’ve realized that…
Then you begin again.