In January I went to a silent retreat for the first time.
There I sat on a cushion on a mat, facing some other soul in a room of about sixty, feeling my poor, overstretched knees go numb yet again. How did I get to this wretchedly uncomfortable place? Before coming I could MAYBE meditate for 20 minutes, a few times a week, and had always felt positive that more than a day of silence would be intolerable.
We had been kind of tricked into it, you see. My mother had met a teacher of zen koans in New Mexico, and now he was offering a winter retreat in Santa Rosa. I explored his web site and I'm pretty sure that nowhere on the site were the words, “You will sit thirty minutes, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk for ten, and then have breakfast. Then start the whole thing over from breakfast to lunch, from lunch to dinner, etc.” Had they been there, even a hint, I probably would not have signed up.
But here we were. The first two days were hard, hard, I’m not going to lie. My brain was not used to this and screamed at me all night long with crazy rhymes and bits of music and chatter. But then it got better. By the fifth day I felt stable, spacious, and integrated, the way I used to feel before adolescence. All through the week I noticed the sounds of silence:
6 a.m., many people in a dark library lit by candles. We've all had a sip of green tea and, here and there, stomachs growl.
The shaft of morning light lengthening as it finds its way down the wall.
A barefoot teacher walking very, very slowly across the carpet and bowing to students.
The collective silence of people eating, eyes downcast to preserve everyone’s privacy. In this space, I discovered the miracle of how extraordinary simple food tastes when you are not busy chatting about something to someone.
The warm silence when a morning fills with birdcalls, and then they all cease.
The peace of one's tiny room upstairs, very different from the meditation hall.
Students pondering a koan late at night by the fireplace. Space to hear the cracking and snapping of a lit log.
Within that mysterious palace of silence, my spine grew and my senses sharpened. Gladness grew in my heart. Was it that simple? We carry our breath wherever we go.
I walked into the garden one morning. Across an expanse of brown twigs, the tangy coral of crab apple blossoms shouted out to me.
Over the past several weeks I’ve identified elements of what, to me, would make up a satisfying Writers Colony, a summer boot camp for the writer who wants to complete a project or two. We’ve touched on the obvious importance of reading and writing, and on more subtle helps from meditation. We’ve looked at writing supports such as physical exercise and hearing other writers talk about their craft.
In addition to these, I recommend field trips to stimulate your brain. Not just your field work, but what Julia Cameron famously calls Artist Dates. You might poke around the shabby antique store in your neighborhood, or get a meal at a hot-dog stand shaped like an orange, or visit the bowling alley. Art museums and galleries, of course! This summer I went beachcombing in North Carolina’s Outer banks. Over several mornings I realized that gathering and sorting shells can become a profoundly insightful editing process, a metaphor learned through my hands and eyes that will inform my future work.
I also mentioned arts and crafts in my first post. Don’t confine yourself to the page, the screen, the black ant trail of letters marching ever onward. Make room for fun, mess, and possibility. If you have any art materials, unearth them and make a space for them. Schedule a late afternoon, or maybe an early morning. You have no art materials? String penne noodles on a length of dental floss and wear it. Or take a page from your newspaper and scribble on it, blacking out all but some random words. Gardening is good, as are origami and sketching. We are experimenting with new ways of seeing.
As I wrap up this series, I look at my two huge writing projects (one, the extroverted task of setting up a publicity strategy for The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, and the other very introspective task of figuring out how to tell the story of the next book) and I am glad to see that I accomplished something; I’ve chipped away at the mountains.
Accountability really helped. My friend, Jennifer, patiently accepts an e-mail from me every Friday afternoon that lists all the micro-actions I took that week. Jennifer is under no obligation to even read what I send. I keep a sticky note on my desktop, add to my list every time I do something, and start the list fresh on Saturday. Somehow this is the accountability that I need.
Have you heard the term “Bookending”? Suppose you have a task you really don’t want to face, for whatever reason. Work it out with a friend that you will call them just before the task and again just after the task. You don’t need to talk much—just check in. It really helps!
Accountability requires some form of community. Ultimately, community is what differentiates a writing retreat from a session at a writing colony. Where is your community? If you don't already have it, you might find some in a writing class, a writing MFA program, a poetry group, a writer's club, a coach, or in multiple online writing spheres.
I hope this Summer Writers Colony series entertained you, and in some way helped your own process. I expect to be called away from the laptop shortly as twin babies make their debut in my family. When I get back, I’ll write about weddings and my experience with publishing The Wedding Officiant’s Guide, as well as some thoughts arising from my spiritual studies.
What writing tasks did you work on this summer?
Last week we talked about how to find brilliant speakers to listen to during your stay at the Summer Writers’ Colony. Now let’s talk about listening for the most important voice of all.
The arc of this summer is about discovering your writing life. Retreats are about pruning away all the non-essentials of everyday life. For writers at Yaddo, all that’s left after pruning might be a small bed, a large desk, and lunch delivered every day in a basket.
But perhaps you, like me, are surrounded at home by family members, animals that need feeding, and mountains of laundry. Then it is essential to start, strengthen, and maintain a meditation practice, if you do not have one already. By meditating daily, you are creating that still, spare room in which you write. If you are starting your very first meditation practice, begin with five minutes. Lengthen your session by a minute every few days. Twenty minutes is a good session. Twenty minutes twice a day is probably optimum. You are rebooting your system.
You can find eleventy-seven ways to meditate on the Web, so I won’t crowd this post with how-to. But it’s worth pointing out that meditation practices tend to fall into one of two camps. Either you watch your thoughts rise and pass (insight meditation), or you perform a technique in order to temporarily ignore your thoughts (concentration or tranquility meditation).
Now, we writers think A LOT. We spend most of our time embroidering our stories—that’s how we roll. The benefit of owning a delirious writing brain is that when you give yourself a little peace and quiet, the most outrageous and wonderful ideas tend to pop up. The downside: we are more vulnerable than the average Jane to getting mired in our stories. Folks who are in recovery from various addictions are often warned, “Your mind is a dangerous neighborhood; don’t go in there alone.” But as a writer, I have to disagree — yes, it can be an dangerous place, but that's where I live and do my best work. We find our balance on the razor's edge.
So you might want to spend a little time thinking about which kind of meditation you need right now. If you are stuck in something you’re writing about, try insight meditation techniques and let the thoughts come. Just don’t chase them. Keep a pad nearby and jot down any particularly gripping scene or solution, then let it go. As a writer, you are allowed to do this. And then get back to your breath.
If, on the other hand, your mind is more crowded with characters than a Lower East Side turn-of-the-century tenement, by all means, use a mantram or your breath to shut off the neurojuice for a while. It’s your brain and your meditation practice. Make this divine tool work for you.
Your homework this week: Start a notebook about your writing life. When are your best hours? What helps you to quickly get down to business? How do you decompress? How’s the meditation going? Leave a comment and let us know!
These zen masters below, photographed by artist Peggy Anderson, are demonstrating the tranquility meditation method.
Did you receive holiday cards this year? Are they still around? If you haven’t tossed them yet, here's a meditation exercise that I recently gleaned from a friend's back issue of Spirituality and Health Magazine.*
Up until this year, I’ve put cards up on a mantel, or on a large ribbon, and then at the end of the Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year season, it was a little sad to just toss those pretty cards into the recycle bin. Sometimes I cut out new gift tags from the fronts. But what I am about to share goes beyond recycling.
Save those cards in a basket or bowl. Then, in January, after all the bustle has calmed down and your routines are back, find a few minutes to deliberately put your hand in the bowl and draw out a few cards. Look at just the first one. Spend time really seeing the front, examining the artwork, enjoying the colors and all the careful work that the artist put into it. Then read the printed greeting.
Now, if the sender wrote something in it, read what he or she said, and concentrate on the signature. Close your eyes for a few moments and picture that person, maybe that family, in your mind’s eye. Send affection and wishes for their peace and health in the New Year. Thank them, in your thoughts, for sending you the card.
When the meditation feels complete, you can release the card (feel free to save some for bookmarks or gift tags). With luck, you might be dipping into your cards a little at a time through the next couple of months.
I can scarcely overstate the powerful effect of this meditation. During my first handful of cards, I remembered far-flung loved ones, carefully read their news, pondered the ancient stories portrayed on the card fronts, and even wrote an overdue letter in response. I was also inspired, by one, to visit the UNICEF site and purchase my cards for next season. Even more, as I read the cards I felt my heart growing larger, lighter, and warmer. Closing my eyes over the last card, I felt briefly connected to a larger, energizing galaxy of goodwill.
I love how The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin talks about maximizing your happiness. Happiness is an inside job, right? Sometimes a wonderful event just flits right by and is swallowed up again—but we, and only we, have the power to make it something more. We can anticipate an event or a treat, we can participate in it, and then we can remember it, perhaps retell it. Multiple joys from one event!
This holiday card meditation is a way to turn bits of ephemeral paper and glitter into active happiness. It keeps our little lights shining through the next wintry months.
*"Praying My Greeting Cards" by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF, in Nov-Dec 2010.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.