WRITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE: Beyond Monkey Mind

trackingYou are invited to my “Writing as a Spiritual Practice” workshop on Sunday, March 22, at Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA. Do come early to enjoy the beautiful walking trails, exquisite labyrinth, and 500-year old oaks. For more info or to register, click WRITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE.

When we use writing as a spiritual practice, our connection with the divine gets stronger, and our writing gets both better and easier.

The job of a good spiritual practice is to get us beyond our “monkey mind’s” nattering and whining, into that peaceful, energized, creative, clear, spontaneous and joyful place we sometimes call the Zone.

It’s a matter of “out with the old, in with the new.” When we dissolve what’s in the way, all that’s left is that glorious, silent space from which creativity flows.

Some ways writing can take us beyond monkey mind are:

  • Exercises designed to calm the confusion and complaining: journaling, morning pages, free-writing
  • Writing our way out of trouble with such exercises as “Cry and Write,” “Dumping Ground,” “Healing Pages,” and “Clarify the Chaos”

When we’ve mollified the monkeys, we can put ourselves in the way of grace. We can practice the presence of the divine as we write, which is not only great fun but makes our writing an effortless joy.

We will discuss and practice all this and more at “Writing as a Spiritual Practice” on March 22, 2015. All are welcome, and bring your friends to enjoy the day. The workshop is 10-4, and lunch is provided.

 

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TRACKING the ZONE

We all know the Zone when we feel it. We write with an exquisite sense of ease or “swing,” fully absorbed in the moment, unselfconscious, highly energized, clear, spontaneous, effortless, and creative. It can be a magical, even mystical experience—as if someone or something way beyond our ken were actually doing the work.

Sometimes we just seem to fall into the Zone, but what about those times when we don’t? How do we get there? Can we activate some kind of internal Zone GPS to track it down?

THE ZONE’S GPS
Tracking down the Zone can feel a little like stalking your kitty when it’s time to go to the vet and she’s figured out that you didn’t just take the cat carrier out of the closet because it looks so nice in the living room. It can be elusive at best, hiding-under-the-bed at worst. Here are some tricks I use:

  • Breathe. We rarely arrive at the Zone with a frown on our faces.
  • Jump in. Don’t wait for the Zone to descend. When we can’t write from it, we can at least write toward it.
  • Remember the Zone-ward virtues of persistence, mindfulness, openness, humility, gratitude, and surrender.
  • Use physical prompts like candles, incense, decals of shiny red apples, or whatever works for you.
  • Start small. The thought of finishing an entire essay, poem, chapter, or blog post can be overwhelming and create stress, which can act as a Zone-repellant.
  • Be imperfect. Follow Anne Lamott’s dictum to write “shitty first drafts.” Take the pressure off so you can lean back into the arms of the Zone.
  • Write down any negative mental chatter, or Monkey Mind, in your journal with the intention to release it and enjoy your writing session.
  • Get support. I have several friends whom I can call and say, “Help! The Monkeys have taken over! Talk me down, please.”

Finding the Zone is like learning to use a GPS; we all have to discover what works for us. If yours starts chanting, “Recalculating…” each time you swerve to avoid a bicyclist, you might want to upgrade. Try new tricks, focus on the joys of the Zone, tap your ruby slippers together and say, “There’s no place like Zone,” and you may find yourself there before you know it.

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WRITING to RELEASE, RESTORE, AND REDEEM

releaseSome people are shocked when I talk about using my journal to release negative thoughts and monkey mind mental chatter. “Aren’t you just reinforcing the negative when you write it down?” they ask.

I don’t think so. For me, writing down all that limiting, unproductive thinking can be an effective, efficient method of waste management. It’s certainly a better idea than carrying around with me all day thoughts like:

  • “In a world like the one I just heard about on the news, what’s the point of doing anything—especially writing?”
  • “I fooled everybody before, but I’ll never fool them again.”
  • “I’m too old (or young, or jaded, or inexperienced) to produce anything good.”
  • “I’m just sad (or mad, or tired, or numbed out) today, so I can’t write.”

HOW IT WORKS
When I wake up with a mind full of nattering, or find myself stewing over this or that rather than writing productively, I open my journal file and have at it. I may preface my remarks with something like: “You would not believe the things my mind has come up with today. It won’t let me alone, so I’m going to dump all those worries, criticisms, and negative thoughts here so I can let go of them.” Then I just run on at the mouth until I can’t think of anything else to say.

At that point, I’ve at least put all the negative thinking outside of myself. It’s out there on the page, not bottled up inside me. It’s not me; it’s something I’m observing. I’ve probably discharged some of the energy around those thoughts as well, and maybe even seen that they don’t make much sense, once they are written down in black and white. “I’ll probably never write anything good again, and definitely should have gone to plumbing school instead.” Really?! Sometimes I actually catch myself chuckling as I read over what I’ve written.

WHY IT WORKS
There are many principles in play here, and this process may work differently for each of us. Most likely, it’s some combination of:

  • Our intention to release the negativity.
  • Looking those thoughts in the eye, rather than running from them.
  • Naming the particular thoughts, rather than letting them congeal into an amorphous ball of negativity.
  • Objectifying the thoughts by putting them outside of ourselves.

Our minds will always generate negative thoughts, but we can learn to manage them so that they don’t make us unhappy or hold us back. Part of that management is to write them down in order to release them, restore our sanity, and redeem our ability to write in a way that is productive and joyful.

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JOURNALING as a SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

journalFor me, journaling is one of the most powerful ways to use writing as a spiritual practice. There are three gazillion ways to do this, but here’s how I use it.

COVER THE WATERFRONT
I journal every morning to focus my day, and every evening to review and complete it. This practice grounds me, keeps me on track, and is a chance to look more closely at what I’m doing and why, how I’m thinking and behaving, and what I’d like to acknowledge or do better. I write about whatever pops into my head, with no restrictions. Usually, the morning session includes:

  • What I want to get done that day: finish a chapter, write a blog post, prep for a meeting
  • Dreams: I have a notebook by my bed, but also like to record dreams in the journal, along with a draft interpretation that may be clearer in the morning.
  • Insights: While playing Bejeweled Deluxe, my guilty pleasure, I notice that I’m more successful when I widen my vision to the entire board, and realize that this principle might apply to my writing and my life as well.
  • Thoughts: As a person completely ignorant of art, I go to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit and am transported. Is art just the artist experiencing the transcendent and bringing it as much as possible to her work, and then others seeing/reading/hearing the art and having their own experience of the transcendent?
  • Events: My dearest friend from 8th grade was clearing out her parents’ house and found a letter that my mother had written to hers in 1962, when they were both twenty years younger than we are now. She wrapped it in her own friendship letter to me and sent it via snail mail. A true circle of life event! Or even a simple event like “Had coffee with George and it was great!”
  • Outflow to release and heal: Clear the Monkey Mind! “I woke up thinking awful thoughts about life in America today, and about all the politicians, and corporations pillaging the land…and here’s what they are.” Better for these thoughts to sit in the computer file than in my mind all day!
  • Where am I with the Divine? If my life is about spirituality, and it’s not just a hobby that I do when I have extra time, then where am I with that and how do I want to demonstrate it today?
  • Who do I want to be today? What qualities do I want to bring to the surface and live today—for my own sake and others’?

In the evening, I cover anything that’s present from the above, and also review the day. What were the highlights? What could I do better? How much or little did I practice the presence of the divine?

NOW WHAT?
When I get about 80 pages in a Word file, I go back and create a 3-4 page summary of themes over the time it took to amass those pages. I don’t usually see those themes as I write the daily entries, but they become clear when I step back and create the summary.

Journaling heals me, helps me see myself more clearly, calms me down, focuses me on what’s important, and is great fun!

 

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HOW TO USE WRITING as a SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

WASPMany thanks to the wonderful people who made our March 30 program on Writing as a Spiritual Practice such a rich experience! We spent the day talking about how all kinds of writing can be spiritual practice: fiction, essays, poetry, journaling, letters, blogging, and even ad copy.

A spiritual practice is something we do with the intention of coming closer to the divine. Anything, even washing dishes, can be spiritual practice—but writing is a particularly good one. (See “Why Writing is the Perfect Spiritual Practice.”)

HOW IT WORKS
I treated the writing of Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption as a spiritual practice, and found that it worked a lot like meditation. The process boiled down to 5 steps:

  1. I wrote with the intention of practicing the presence of the divine, and writing in the Zone.
  2. Usually, mental chatter rose up to disturb that peace, and started barking orders at me: “Faster, faster! You should have gotten this done ten years ago!” “Nobody’s going to be interested in this. Who do you think you are?” When that happened, I just noted it with interest—realizing that it gave me a good window into how my mental chatter worked and what it was likely to scream at me all day, even when I wasn’t writing. I woke up to some of my “stuff” and learned more about where my potholes were, what attitudes I needed to adjust, and what old resentments or mental habits I needed to release.
  3. I gently let go of the chatter and re-focused, as in meditation—reminding myself that those thoughts were just the fearful ramblings of my mind, and not reality.
  4. If the Monkey Mind thoughts did not show up, I had a glorious experience of writing in the Zone! That reinforced the perks of practicing the presence, whether or not I was at the computer.
  5. Practicing the presence when I wrote helped me develop the habit of doing so more often over the course of the day.

CHOCOLATE!
Writing is like chocolate. Spiritual practice keeps us fit and feeling wonderful. Writing as a spiritual practice is like eating chocolate to stay slim and healthy. What’s not to like?

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THE ZONE AS SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

zone as spiritual practiceYou are invited to my workshop on Writing as a Spiritual Practice on March 30, 2014, at beautiful Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA.

The Zone is a lot like meditation. In it, we feel spontaneous, out of time and space, clear and creative, completely focused in present time, energized, productive, magical, and almost mystical. Like meditation, the Zone asks us to be persistent, mindful, humble, open, grateful, and surrendered into something beyond ourselves.

And like meditation, the Zone often creates enormous resistance in us. We want the goodies—the connection with the infinite, the blissful ease, and the feeling that we are exactly in the right place, doing the right thing—but there are days when we will do anything to avoid sitting in the meditation chair or at our desks.

WHAT’S UP WITH THAT?
Maybe connection with the infinite is just too intense. Maybe we’re afraid it won’t work this time. Maybe in some dark recess of our subconscious, we don’t think we deserve it. Who knows?

Whatever the reason for our resistance, whether to meditation or to writing in the Zone, the solution is the same: We need to sit down and do it anyway, so at least we are in the path of grace when it shows up. When we can’t write from inspiration, we have to write toward inspiration.

CARNEGIE HALL
We all remember the old joke about how to get there: Practice! My first meditation teacher used to say, “Some mornings, I’m just staring at the backs of my eyelids, but I keep doing it because if I stop, it won’t help me. And I want to be there when the divine drops in.”

As we keep on keeping on with meditation or writing in the Zone, we develop tricks to help us get and stay on track. We can find a million tips and tricks online for how to do this, but our own tricks are the best because they speak to what’s in the way for us. And once we dissipate whatever that is, only the Zone remains. We’re in the land of spiritual “nothin’ but net.”

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WRITING OUR WAY OUT OF TROUBLE–AGAIN!

You are invited to my “Writing as a Spiritual Practice” workshop on Sunday, March 30, at Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA. Do come early to enjoy the beautiful walking trails, exquisite labyrinth, and 500-year old oaks. For more info or to register, click WRITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE.

One way to use writing as a spiritual practice is to write our way out of trouble—to use writing as a clarifying lens, a spiritual life raft, and/or a healing balm.

CLARIFYING LENS
When I feel stymied in a work situation, relationship, or troubled state of mind, when I just can’t figure out what’s going on no matter what I do, I turn to my journal. I state the problem and write down whatever slides into my mind about it. I can rant and rave, dissect and analyze, moan and groan, complain and whine—but I just keep writing. Almost always, and usually in fifteen minutes, I start to see the problem in a whole new light and with a lot more clarity.

The solution may not be comfortable, but it is usually obvious. I may need to alter a point of view, communicate with someone, or get more information—but I understand what is happening and know what I need to do to get some relief.

SPIRITUAL LIFE RAFT
When the problem is deeply emotional, I use the “cry and write” method. I dive into the quagmire, write my heart out about the pain, the betrayal, the unfairness of it all. If I’m not crying yet, I write some even worse stuff about the situation. I write and write. And write.

Often there is no “to do” attached to the solution; I just have cry it out, or write it out, or experience it so far inside me that it starts to dissipate. This is knows as free therapy. In a sense, all writing about deeply felt issues is free therapy. I often say that writing Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption saved me tens of thousands of dollars in therapy.

Emotional discharge can also lead to emotional clarity. “Why would he say such a thing?!” Three pages later, I often have a brutal, and then perhaps a more compassionate, understanding of why he might have said such an awful thing—as well as a fairly accurate (if much briefer) analysis of my own part in it.

HEALING BALM
Writing Chasing Grace not only save me a lot of money, but it also brought tremendous relief. Leading Cathy, my protagonist, through thirty years of looking for grace, forgiveness, love, and wholeness in all the wrong places was exhausting, but it was also extraordinarily healing.

Sometimes I wake up with my monkey mind going a mile a minute. I have to do this, and this, and this. And I should do that. And what about the other thing? My thoughts are on a hamster wheel, spinning around and around, preventing me from being either happy or productive.

When this happens, I just start writing. I spin that hamster wheel energy onto the page. I write down every anxious, mean, and venal thought until a little peace starts to descend. Once all those thoughts are down on paper, or safely ensconced in a Word file, they are somehow outside of me. When I’ve “said them out loud,” they lose their power over me.

WHY WE DO IT
We seek relief because we crave the peace, love, and inspiration—the Presence—that descends when our minds are quiet. That is our natural state. When we write our way out of trouble, we become more open vulnerable. Spirit washes in, and we can just lean back and let it fill us.

 

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WHY WRITING IS THE PERFECT SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

treesYou are invited to my workshop on Writing as a Spiritual Practice on March 30 at beautiful Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA.

Spiritual practices are the things we do to remind us of, and deepen, our connection with the divine and infinite. They include meditation, chanting, walking, reading, and a host of other activities that we commit to doing on a regular basis in order to enhance that connection.

Writing and spiritual practices have much in common, and work particularly well together because:

  • They are both inside jobs.
  • They can be hard, enervating, and frustrating—or inspired, uplifting, and fulfilling. As with many aspects of life, it’s all about our attitude.
  • They are both revealing and humbling, but yield rich rewards.
  • Both require commitment and persistence.
  • Both ask us to pay attention, clear our emotional field, and turn our eyes inward, toward deeper levels of awareness.
  • Both can put us in a place to receive grace, give us the means to express our deepest thoughts and feelings, and bring us great joy.

HOW IT WORKS
What does it mean to use writing as a spiritual practice? For me, it means practicing the presence of the divine and infinite as I write—and then returning to that state when it slips away. As with meditation, I hold the presence as long as I can, notice when I get distracted, and pick it up again.

I don’t demand that I have that connection with the infinite before I begin writing—any more than I have to be in a high state before sitting down to meditate. I start writing, turn my eyes in that direction, and take what I get. I don’t always get a high when I write, but putting my attention on the infinite and continuing to write is the “practice” in “spiritual practice.”

THE FROSTING
Why do this? I love using writing as a spiritual practice because, for me, spiritual gains are the greatest riches. The moments when I get that connection with the infinite, when I write in the Zone, are worth any discipline or focus I ask of myself.

Plus, writing in this way is healing. And very often, it makes my writing better. Always, the lessons I learn in writing help me in life, and vice versa.

THE BOTTOM LINE
I think art happens when we capture some moment of the divine and express it beautifully and uniquely, so that it evokes in others their own experience of the divine. When we do that consciously, we increase the odds of doing it well.

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3 WAYS TO USE WRITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE

You are invited to my workshop on Writing as a Spiritual Practice on March 30 at beautiful Mercy Center in Burlingame, CA.

It’s possible that writing is always a spiritual practice, whether or not we intend for it to be so. It almost always connects us with a deeper, clearer and yet mysterious part of ourselves. It is often transporting and transforming—and when we hit the Zone, we feel like a million bucks.

By spirituality, I mean connection with the divine, however you define that. By spiritual practice, I mean anything we do regularly to wake ourselves up to that connection .

Three of the million or more ways to use writing as a spiritual practice are:

  1. Write about spiritual things (the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Richard Rohr and company)
  2. Write our way out of trouble
  3. Write from a spiritual place, or practice the presence of the divine as we write

1. WRITE ABOUT SPIRITUAL THINGS
This is fun, and often a great exercise, even if we’re not the Dalai Lama. What would you write if someone asked you to put your spiritual experience and beliefs into three paragraphs?

2. WRITE OUR WAY OUT OF TROUBLE
We all know that journaling can work miracles, bring clarity we never imagined, and heal even the deepest wounds. So can writing fiction, and even essays. Writing Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption saved me tens of thousands of dollars of therapy.

When I’m confused about something internal, something that can’t be explained in a YouTube video, I just open my journal and start writing about it. Within minutes, or pages, it usually comes clear. Much to my amazement, I see the situation in a whole new way.

When I’m upset with someone or about something, I do the same thing. Just start writing about it. More quickly than I can imagine, the energy discharges, and I can look at the relationship more clearly—and maybe even see my part in the problem.

3. PRACTICE THE PRESENCE WHEN WE WRITE
By “practice the presence” I just mean sitting in the presence of whatever you consider divine as you lift your hands to the keyboard or the pen. It might be the Zone, God, Brahman, the ocean, nature, or anything that you feel breathes life and love into physical reality.

Sit in that presence, and let it do at least part of the work. When I’m able to do this, I am always astonished at what comes out. Sometimes I read what I’ve written and hardly recognize it. Whenever I write this way, it is so exalting, so blissful, that I almost don’t care what comes out.

THE TRICK
If it’s that simply, why doesn’t everybody do it, all the time? Mostly, because if it were that easy to access the divine presence whenever we wanted, life on earth would be a whole different ball game—and writing would be a whole lot easier and better.

Here’s the trick. Keep holding the door open for that divine presence even when you aren’t feeling it at the moment, and start writing even before you feel it. Sometimes you won’t feel it. My first meditation teacher, a deep and profound woman with 40 years of meditation experience, used to say, “Sometimes I’m just staring at the back of my eyelids, but I do it anyway because that’s what a practice is. We do it in faith, even when we aren’t getting exactly what we want from it.”

I think that’s good advice for writing as well. Just do it. Write even before the presence is present. Keep writing with the door held open for it. Keep ourselves in the path of Grace. And do it tomorrow even if we don’t connect today.

And as always, the lesson learned in writing grows even larger when we use it in life.

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