My friend Jill Dearman asked me a few questions via email about meditation and writing for an article she was writing. Following are some notes that followed from this conversation.
My first explicit formal experience with meditation happened when I was in graduate school and participated in a study at the National Institutes of Health, where I was working as a linguist, analyzing noun phrases for a project making the National Library of Medicine’s Medline search engine more responsive to natural language. The NIH newsletter often listed studies that needed participants and I found these intriguing and took part in a few of them (from one, I have a series of MRI images of my spine, that became the basis of a collage series).
I responded to a call for subjects for a study on meditation and pain perception. It offered six weeks of meditation instruction and paid $300. Sounded promising! That is, except for the two rounds of pain stimuli. Before we began the meditation instruction, we went through the first protocol, in which a researcher delivered pain prompts in the form of a hot copper wand (“no hotter than a cup of coffee”) along the inside of the wrist and then subjects would assign descriptive terms to the level of pain we felt. Pulse and respiration were also being monitored.
After this first round, we took part in a six-week meditation course and then went through the “pain series” again. I remember very clearly how after the meditation instruction I felt the pain much more acutely, but it had more variation; it wasn’t just one monolithic thing called “pain.” I was able to experience its fluctuations with more subtlety
This felt like a very basic lesson: meditation isn’t about numbing yourself to your life. Anyone who’s sat for even a brief period knows that your discomfort can increase. What caused me to inquire further though is that I felt a richer relationship to the pain, and started to be able to work with it in a way that didn’t feel quite so cyclical. Not, Oh no, not that again…, but Oh, that again, but with a new twist. I could experiment. What happens if I stay with that discomfort, breathe into it? And of course, this more investigative mode has a direct relationship to writing. If you think you already know “what happened” why even bother to write about it?
Death–and then death’s proxy, a breakup, in this case, a triple breakup–were major factors in turning my attention to meditation. By the time I was twenty-nine, both of my parents had died and so I’d experienced a lot of so-called loss.
When I first moved to New York in 2000 on the heels of this breakup cluster, I could feel that I was contracting from the world and I sensed that meditation could be of help in being more available to experience. On my first New Year’s Eve there, I read about a TongLen ceremony at the Shambhala center in Chelsea and that sounded like exactly what I needed to do to begin 2001: breathe in suffering and breathe out compassion. It sounded like a tall order, but I was encouraged that there was a whole tradition that held this as a value. I wanted to be able to have a fuller understanding of what had happened and, more importantly, to be open to what was happening.
New York City is a very robust monastery and in my first years there, I felt very supported in my investigations. During this time, I was working as assistant to Stanley Kunitz, who at 95 had that year been appointed to a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate. Stanley’s profound quality of attention made doing the most simple task with him a rich instruction on presence.
Also at that time, I practiced yoga regularly and went to talks and sittings at IMS and Tibet house. And since I’d been immersed in the deaths of both of my parents, I appreciated how frank the discussion of death is in all these traditions. It helped me see that my situation wasn’t some freak exception, and that suffering was more generic, not a personal curse.
In 2003, when I went to the Village Zendo for the first time, Enkyo Roshi, the Abbot, was giving a talk about the koan, “Body exposed in the Golden Wind,” that felt directly related in all its particulars to exactly what was going on in my life, working daily with someone who was approaching the age of 100. I loved Enkyo Roshi’s delicate attention to language, to unpacking an image or comparing nuances of translation. So I felt very activated and thoroughly at home, and continued go to her talks and then started going to zazen there as well.
Stress, grief, fear – all the things I felt were keeping me from my writing drew me to meditation. I wanted to dissolve them. Meditation felt like a way to address those feelings, not through avoiding but sitting through discomfort and restlessness they brought up. I was intrigued by the many studies looking at neurology and meditation, particularly in one that found that in longtime meditators there was a more fine-tuned perception of subtle gradations of emotions. As a writer, I’m always trying to register these fine variations in language and so it felt encouraging that meditation could cultivate a finer awareness in this specific way.
A lesson I have to learn over and over: thinking something is in the way of my writing, that as soon as I figure out this one thing I’m not counting as part of my life, then I can begin my actual life and move onto my real subject. But in the times when I’ve let that imagined obstacle come into my work, that work has felt the most true. So meditation has helped me engage more fully with whatever is happening. Rilke: “Learn to love the questions themselves.” This is at the center of my meditative practice.
Meditation cultivates curiosity about the mind. To realize that you can survive your own mind, that’s a really helpful writing lesson. And that has, in turn, allowed me to help writing students through the process, to simply act as a witness and listener as they make their own discoveries.
One major shift that meditation brought about is the possibility of experiencing my own mind in a friendlier way, not as an adversary. As I approached my first 7-day Rohatsu sesshin in 2007, it felt like a dangerous proposition, that in seven days of silence, surely my mind would once and for all just give out if I got that close to it. But what I found, and what helps me over and over to remember is that somewhere along the way in those seven days, I had an experience of my mind as fundamentally sane, something I could trust, and that gives me more courage to approach what comes up in writing, to remember that.
As a poet, meditative absorption is a natural state and it felt good to find my way to a practice and tradition that creates a whole context for that level of attention, values it. In sesshin you have an opportunity to keep delving further into the tiniest, subtlest sensation or perception, how you respond to that.
And these experiences are of course, not just available in formal meditation. At NYU, teaching an Intermediate Poetry workshop, I had a student who was a very perceptive writer, but very stressed out, working three jobs, and not able to concentrate. I’d offered some brief meditation periods in class and so she asked me for some suggestions for further classes she could take in NYC, but she was in that usual bind of being stretched too thin to feel she could take time to meditate.
Throughout the semester, I taught the students some basic bookbinding techniques and one day I brought in an example of a French fold from Kiki Smith’s MOMA show.
The form requires only one sheet of paper, three folds, and one cut. I spent only five minutes showing them this simple and versatile form. The following Tuesday, this student came in with several examples of small books and cards she’d made and she said she’d gotten completely absorbed in making them and was very excited to learn more forms. She also came to class that day on time and with the day’s poem in hand.
I was struck at the positive effect a bit of absorption can have on everything else, and also at how, as a teacher, you can never know how what you’re offering might help someone. So even though she hadn’t found time to go to a meditation class, she’d found another practice that had brought her a quality of relaxation that generated more energy for her other work.
Writing and teaching feels most like the direct way to be of service. Whenever someone tells me after a reading that they felt glad to be alive listening to the poems, if there’s something that helps connect someone more fully with their own life energy, I feel a great sense of relief.
A major part of what has attracted me to meditation is a feeling of affinity with the texts I have encountered. The Way of the Bodhisattva has an incredible intelligence about emotional states and interaction. And I was very drawn to how Zen simultaneously denounces and celebrates language. It comes to us through language, through volumes of sutras, a long lineage of people talking to one another about not talking.
There’s something I love about lines like “just to depict it in literary form is to stain it with defilement” in the The song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi”
And yet we have all these Zen poets and sutras, all these koans and writings of Zen masters. Dogen’s writings are incredibly playful with language and, like Shakespeare, all the while, he’s also saying, language will never quite approach reality. I’ve always been drawn to that tension. That, knowing this, we write anyway, because something does happen, with language speaking through time and across space. How else would we know Dogen but through language?
So this really touched in me my deep struggle with getting language to strike anything close to reality, but also just loving the materiality of it and the flexibility of it, that simultaneous love and circumspection.
Meditation helps one accommodate, a’ la Keats, a spacious doubt/unknowing (as opposed to the doubt that contracts and shuts down). Here’s a sentence from Robert Thurman, someone I consider to be one of my most central writing teachers, that strongly echoes Keats’ concept of negative capability.
“Thus, the correct intellectual understanding of the voidness of matter (rupasunyata), the voidness of consciousness (vijnanasunyata), or even the voidness of voidness (sunyatasunyata) is the indispensable first step in the long meditational cultivation of our tolerance of incomprehensibility, as well as the supreme cure for self-defeating selfishness in daily action.” (Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti, tr. Robert Thurman p. 4)
This phrase, “the long meditational cultivation of our tolerance of incomprehensibility,” has helped me through many a scrape.
Meditation helps me see where I’m denying my actual life in favor or some imagined life. In 2000 I started to shift from thinking as soon as I start to get over all of these obstacles, then I’d be writing from a perspective that would matter. Then I realized it wasn’t a matter of skipping over everything, all of that stuff, grief, fear, my actual life.
One of the most transformative things Stanley Kunitz ever said to me was when I remarked to him, “Nothing I say scares you!” And he said, “Hardly!” Zazen can be like this: no matter what your mind trots out, it can be held. One of my favorite quotes about meditation comes from Joseph Goldstein, who, after an extended silent retreat, had this to say: “the mind has no pride.”
I love that quote because in meditation you see all the things your mind brings forth. In this way you make a wide space for that. Then it controls you less, you’ve seen it and you can say, alright, there’s that again and you can be curious about it, “oh I’m feeling really angry, or disappointed what’s going on there”
There’s actually a feeling of space. You’ve survived it before. You get space to explore panoramically what’s coming up for you, and in doing that you can become more compassionate with yourself and with others. If you feel something coming forth that you want to push away and you think it’s going to ruin you, it’s the last time you’re going to have that thought b/c that thought’s going to kill you and there you realize, oh there it went and it’s gone now and whatever consequence it had in my body, that has subsided to, and then I realize oh, I didn’t have to act on that or turn away from it. The pause makes it possible to consider another option.
Physically, sitting in the same position can be a subtle exploration of the body, how if you shift your posture slightly it can have an effect on your mood, or on the person next to you. I can learn a lot about my mental state by how I’m sitting; am I leaning forward? Is my chin raised, am I expecting something?
Am I feeling stable, am I sitting right on my butt bones? Am I using the stability I have available right in my own body or am I expecting to get it somewhere else? That can be really informative and can help direct the course of my day. What if I just settle into the strength that’s actually present and available? Instead of thinking, I better go out somewhere and get some strength and get some energy. Meditation can be a very quick diagnostic about how I’m veering at the moment.
In a formal practice like Zen, you have to pay attention or you’re going to spill hot miso soup in your lap in oryoki. And the mindfulness this cultivates is handy: at Tassajara, you might step on a rattlesnake. In Provincetown, get lost in thought and you might get plowed down by a bicycle.
Right now I live at the SF Zen Center where as a resident you follow a basic schedule and I feel like I’m living in a sestina, many decisions have been made already and it can sometimes have that that ostensibly paradoxical effect where a set form can open up space and options.
Every writing teacher and then every zen teacher has drawn my attention to my propensity for getting lost in thinking, in language play. A question I was asking a lot around 2000, when I started meditating more regularly: how am I using language to defer feeling, to step back from actual experience?
When I first went to see Enkyo Roshi, the abbot of the Village Zendo in NYC for my first formal interview with her she said something about being more in my body, raising the possibility that I just might be a bit in my head. When I came out and returned to the zendo for the last of the three zazen sessions of the evening, I was thinking I’m in my body, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about! I’m a dancer; this is my whole life! on and on like this… I sat down, smug. Yes, maybe I do think alot, but I can be in my head and in my body. There was only one problem: in the first two sessions of the evening you face the wall and in the last one you face the center, so when I went into see her, I had been facing the wall, and when I came out, people were facing the center. So I return to my seat, and I’m thinking, I love being in my body. This is what being in my body feels like, etc. And then I hear the monitor say, could you please face the center. The entire room is facing the center and I’m facing the other way. So the form is a quick way to bump up against your mind. I loved that
The question isn’t whether we’re you meditating or not. We’re always meditating, in some way. Turning the mind over, over refining conversations that never happened. So just getting some clue about what’s going on in your mind and the consequences it’s having in your life, what options there are. It has a direct correlation to curating energy.
In this way, meditation helps me not just with the actual process of writing, through sharpening and dilating perception, but with being more aware of the patterns that I construct or perpetuate that don’t support writing. In being more aware of the obstacles I create for myself, I have a better chance at possibly changing that pattern. Meditation gives you a house seat at the mind undercutting itself, a sometimes discouraging inquiry. Why do I seem to prefer delusion? What makes this ongoing investigation stay buoyant is how meditation can all at once open into a direct experience of the mind in its limitless capacity.