Except for a sneeze muffled into the crook of an arm, a sigh here or there, an occasional cough, or the sandy shuffle of someone shifting weight on their cushion, there are very few sounds. We are nearly a hundred people. Most sit on the floor, but some are upright in single rows of chairs along the sides or the very back of the room. The great hall is quiet enough that I can hear the heating system kick on and start to thrum. I feel its cycles, the swaying rhythm of any motor, but it feels ship-sized under us.
I’m being paid not to do my job.
As a community college teacher of composition, literature, and creative writing, I was granted a sabbatical leave from classroom duties to pursue my writing. I’ve been composing poems, revising and collecting work into book manuscripts, and crafting book reviews. That side of my work is the primary research of my discipline; a colleague in biology spent part of her sabbatical doing lab work at Cornell. For me, I’m also reading biological and social science research into creativity and interviewing painters, potters, and performers about their process.
But for one week, I’m not even doing that.
Here retreatants are invited into Noble Silence: we are not to speak, read, or write. We’re invited to offer each other relief even from the social negotiations of eye contact and non-verbal communications. Normally, when I pack for a trip, I spend more time considering what books I’ll take than what outfits I’ll need. Okay, I thought, I’ll leave the books, but no writing? For a full week? That was harder to relinquish. I had slipped my poetry notebook and daily journal into the suitcase with my clothes. Only on the morning we left did I (with my spouse’s encouragement/urging) reconsider.
On retreat, there isn’t much to “do.”
The focus for our 7 days is an ancient Buddhist teaching on the Four Ways of Establishing Mindfulness, which is the basis of the whole mindfulness movement; in fact, Jon Kabat-Zinn got the idea for his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program while at this same retreat center. On my cushion for the morning session, I’m working with one of the first ideas about the difference between attention and mindfulness. Eyes closed, I’m listening. Usually, we “listen for” something, trying to tune in so that some single relevant detail in the soundscape stands out, or we “listen to” a particular focus, like someone talking, but our mind wanders. Here, I’m opening the field of perception, allowing sounds to enter.
I notice a rough rustle as someone adjusts their posture, the canvas or thick cotton of the zabuton rubs against the cushion’s fabric. Then back into quiet. A high, thin whistle sounds off to my right. I notice how immediately the internal engine of inquiry starts up with the initial noise: “what is that? a person whistling?” Then the internal chatterbox begins its commentary: “why would someone whistle in the middle of a meditation session? Do they not know that’s inappropriate? I guess some people could be inexperienced meditators here? I thought they all teach MBSR.”
I almost open my eyes to take in my fellow meditators, but then I recall my intention to be listening. And I begin again. The winter wind sound has broadened and lowered into what we call a “howl.” (“Why do we call it that?” Just listen. Begin again, again. )
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Our teachers make it clear that “mindfulness”—the buzzword for our hyper-stimulated and over-extended era—is not the same as “attentiveness,” but it’s a good place to start. Western psychology has identified voluntary and involuntary attention. Most of the time, we follow our attention involuntarily, which scans surroundings and inner experience seeking novelty so we can respond quickly to threats and to capitalize on opportunities. In a sense, then, we are tuned into what is new or different in our field of experience, and then that singular perception is automatically sorted for “relevance.” Typically, we are not consciously aware of any actual goal of this sorting. It’s the default operation. Such episodic attention naturally leaps from thing to thing, and only if interest is maintained do we linger there. Our teachers quipped that this capacity has been enormously helpful for survival, but not so much for happiness.
A great deal of research has been conducted lately about “mind wandering,” which is “characterized by a decoupling of attention from an immediate task context toward unrelated concerns” (Mooneyham and Schooler 11). Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, said in an interview that “most of us think that it is fun to let our minds wander (which happens about half the time). But our data show that when the mind is wandering, people are less happy, not more. People are happiest when thinking about what they are doing and not something else. This is true even when commuting or washing up” (Griggs). Mind-wandering also hampers tasks that require us to chain thoughts together for coherence, like reading.
Learning to sustain attention is a matter of training. And that’s the word the Buddha used. Mind training. Our teachers also translate it as “cultivation,” which has more gardening connotations. It’s still work: consider how the effort to break up sod is different from sinking tiny carrot seeds in the ground. That variety is more appealing to me. (I can also recognize that this purely analogy for me, not experience; my spouse is the gardener.) On the retreat, I can train with this myself. In fact, meals are good ground to break up.
In the dining room, two pairs of wooden tables are set end-to-end running down the middle of the room while five are set on their own near a bank of windows. Socially, it’s an odd thing for me to take a place amid other diners and not greet them, or if one joins my table not to look up and at least nod to acknowledge their presence. And yet, our task is simple: eat your squash soup, eat your buttered bread. The food is delicious. The room rings with the sound of spoons on bowls, like a harbor, with masts clanging musically in the breeze. I resist the impulse to look up when I sense someone passing, recognizing it as simply involuntary attention tuning into new experience, and devote myself to my hearty meal.
Reducing the field of experience this much has an interesting effect. We all slow down. A full spoonful is too much. I load up a squash chunk, a translucent half-moon of onion, and some broth and, before gobbling it up, take a sniff: an earthy sweetness is mixed with an herbal tang. The mind wants to name it: “Is that thyme? Basil?” I put the whole spoonful in my mouth; it’s too hot. I swallow. Fast, tasting nothing. Then, immediately and unbidden, a voice like a parent with a child, directs me, “Remember, blow first.” The inner voices are legion, taking as many tones as a crowd at a hockey game. I hear from many of them over the course of the week, but that’s another story. Right now, I notice how this parental relationship of one dimension of myself to another part separates my awareness from the simple experience of my meal. I return to my intention. I take up some black bread, enjoying the spongy texture of the heart of it, the crack of the crust, the density of the whole slice. I tear a piece. Dip it into the soup, watch how the broth slides off the butter but soaks into the bread. Move it to my mouth, smelling the yeastiness. Okay, I love bread, so attending to this part of the meal is easy. I chew and smile. I swallow and smile.
But then suddenly, I’m aware that my spoon is already cued up, loaded and heading mouthward. While enjoying my bread, I was also—without intention or attention—curating my next bite, and it is a pretty exact little ritual to arrange a perfect taste experience by balancing the chunky bits with broth. All that was happening while I was blissing out on the black loaf. It’s an involuntary habit—yet another that has come to my conscious knowing. I practice putting my spoon down. Just chewing. “Is that old man looking for a seat?” And not looking up when someone joins the table. Not chomping more of the oh-so-yummy bread until I swallow the soup. “Her slippers are tearing loose; they must be comfortable, though.”
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The late John Daido Loori, a photographer and abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, described creativity as a process with several elements. The first and last aspects would be no surprise; he says “a sense of inspiration initiates the process of creation” and it is completed by “the act of expression itself” (Loori 86). In between are elements that reveal the essential and significant. He locates our responsiveness in the body, in what the Japanese call “the hara, a place within us that is still and grounded,” and the interactive dynamic between inner and outer, individual and world, which is mediated by chi, “the energy contained both in us and in the subject. Out of chi emerges resonance, a feeling of recognition between the artist and subject” (86).
In his preface to 100 Poems from the Japanese, the poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth said that “Japanese poetry does what poetry does everywhere: it intensifies and exalts experience” (xi). It is exactly this intensification of experience that I respond to when reading good poems; it causes me to pause, lift my gaze from the book, and ponder. I love that resonance, that moment of suspension―not feeling any need to take in anything more at that moment and instead wanting to savor what has been given. Emily Dickinson compares such intensification to how the essential oil or attar is gathered from rose petals:
Essential Oils — are wrung
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns — alone
It is the gift of Screws
I don’t think we need to twist our experience to wring out all the juice, but attentiveness can’t be so loose that days go by without noticing their distinctive flavors and scents. There needs to be some effort, some steadiness of concentration, to harvest our resonant moments. Significant experiences are not significant on their own but in conjunction with our own responsiveness.
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Buddhist psychology has a helpful concept, called vedanā, which Joseph Goldstein explains has a very specific meaning: “that quality of pleasantness, unpleasantness, or neutrality that arises with the contact of each moment’s experience” (82). He says this “feeling tone” is helpful to be aware of because “it conditions our various reactions in the mind and actions in the world” (82). Our teachers told us this feeling tone co-arise with our perceptions. After about a half hour of sitting cross-legged, I sense pain in my right knee. Immediately, a cavalcade of internal sensations follow: I register the physical sensation, the feeling-tone rings out bold and clear: unpleasant! and then I want to stop that sensation (so the will is activated) and I begin strategizing (thoughts) how to adjust my posture.
Having done this for days and days, I can report that I can change position, but the cycle just begins again. Some new pain asserts itself. Or it’s an itch. Or I’m too cool (“I need a blanket. I don’t have one. Can I go back and get one or will that be too disruptive? Will someone think I don’t know the protocol for meditation?”) Our teachers pointed out how helpful it is to be aware of vedanā’s role in our perception, particularly for clients who suffer from depression; they might be able to forestall the escalation of an ordinary rainy-day mood into deleterious mental proliferation like this, thus solidifying one’s depressive self-identity and feeding the build-up toward disaster. (This is not to imply that depression is simply a matter of mindful awareness of one’s vedanā. It was just one example, and the clinicians put it into the context of a full therapeutic situation and treatment.)
The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Yongey Mingyur, worked with neuroscientists studying the brains of long-term meditators. His book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness reports on both his Buddhist practice and his gleanings from Western science, which confirms this ancient discovery the Buddha made from his own contemplation. Mingyur says, “From a strictly neuroscientific standpoint any act of perception requires three essential elements”―a stimulus, a sensory organ, and “a set of neuronal circuits in the brain” that take signals in and comprehend them. He provides an example of seeing a banana. The light bounces back from the curved, yellowish tube into the optic nerve where the signal goes to the thalamus, which is like a central switchboard from old TV or movies (“How may I direct your call?”). The signal’s first stop is actually two stops. Once signal goes to the limbic system, which Mingyur says is “chiefly responsible for processing emotional responses and sensations of pain and pleasure” (78). Simultaneously, the thalamus directs the info from the optic nerve to the neocortex, the “analytical region of the brain,” which compares the sensation to patterns experienced before. These patterns are already codified into concepts and names, like “banana.” It also activates associations we have with the concept/label. This dual path explains why we might get a creepy gut feeling to someone we’ve never met. Or why we jump and squeal at the quick slither of a garden hose in our peripheral vision.
This feeling tone is automatic, co-arising with the sensory perception. It is conditioned by culture and personal experience, of course, but it’s not an intellectual commitment. That is built later, and on top of it. These distinctions feel critical to me for two reasons. First, we can get to the root of some of the habitual reactions we have. What registers as pleasant, we tend to want more of or to want to continue. That’s partly why I’m always curating my next bite of good food and why I overeat. Likewise, we can grow anxious that such good things will end or that someone will take them away. The opposite (but oddly similar) chain reaction happens with unpleasant vedanā― “this better stop soon, I gotta get out of here, you better quit that, what if this never ends,” etc.
The second reason attending to vedanā is important is because of that vast middle section where sensations register as “neutral.” We tend to ignore these. Or we quickly grow bored, and seek one of the other two, even unhealthy or harmful thoughts and experiences for the pleasant vedanā of diversion. But the boring, everyday, expected stuff of life is where a great many miracles are blooming, eclipsing, and replicating.
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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the world-renowned researcher into human happiness and creativity, could have been on this retreat. His description for our typical ways of paying attention echo what our teachers were saying. “We pay attention when we must,” he writes in Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. But if we’re “dressing, driving the car, staying awake at work,” and there is “no external force demanding that we concentrate, the mind begins to lose focus. It falls to the lowest energetic state, where the least amount of effort is required. When this happens, a sort of mental chaos takes over. Unpleasant thoughts flash into awareness, forgotten regrets resurface, and we become depressed. Then we turn on the TV set, read listlessly the advertisement supplement of the newspaper, have pointless conversation―anything to keep our thoughts on an even keel and avoid becoming frightened by what is happening in the mind” (348).
His prescription? For decades, Csikszentmihalyi interrupted people’s daily lives to assess their engagement in whatever task they were performing and their level of satisfaction. The feeling of “flow,” which is what many of the people who participated in his studies called that experience of total absorption, was intensely pleasing. But he found that this focused engagement was not the rare achievement of a particular personality; all kinds of people reported having periods of flow. It was also not restricted to particular activities; while some pursuits lend themselves more easily to flow, any task can facilitate the experience, if we know how to regulate our attention
And so, to combat the downward spiral of mental chaos—and this might seem counterintuitive—Csikszentmihalyi prescribes that we put in more effort rather than seek rest and leisure: “Whether writing a poem or cleaning the house, running a scientific experiment or a race, the quality of experience tends to improve in proportion to the effort invested in it (349). When the demand of a task is almost beyond our skill and capabilities, we need to lean in, concentrate, and monitor our actions to be sure we’re fulfilling what we set out to do.
Csikszentmihalyi explains it this way: “Having clear goals and expectations for whatever we do, paying attention to the consequences of our actions, adjusting skills to opportunities for action in the environment, concentrating on the task at hand without distractions—these are the simple rules that can make the difference between an unpleasant and an enjoyable experience” (349). He also suggests that people who want to become more creative start this process with simple stuff, “the most mundane activities,” in fact. If we begin with something like figure painting when we haven’t drawn for years, we may grow frustrated or bored by the gap between our current skill level and the challenge. Too much frustration or boredom? No flow.
I could see this in my “yogi job” on retreat—doing pots after the mid-day meal. Kitchen cleanup can be drudgery. Not hard, but messy, hot, and repetitious. Or, using these principles of flow, it can become a game where I strive to complete as many of the hard-baked casserole pans as possible before the next shift comes in. I survey the pile of bowls, soup pots, and baking pans for the hardest ones, get them soaking, then select the easiest stuff. I ferret out lids, do a quick and efficient soapy wipe, scrub the few that need it, and set them on the drying rack. Our put-away person can now take multiple items to the same area of the kitchen, making his yogi job easier. In this way, my 45 minutes fly by, in part because my work is invested with meaning―to help out my teammates, the next crew, and the whole kitchen staff who are feeding the entire community—and partly because all my attention is focused on devoting more of my skill to doing a good job, as effieciently as I can.
In addition, Csikszentmihalyi’s research reveals that this dynamic can become an on-going and upward cycle: the better we get at a task, the more challenge we need to seek to hit the flow sweet spot. It all begins with harnessing our own capacity for attentive awareness.
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Walking meditation used to be a chore for me, one I avoided if I could. I sensed my vedanā registering as soon as I saw the schedule posted: after breakfast and after lunch, 45 minute sessions alternated between sitting and walking meditation. “Unpleasant.” Not only did the slow movements seem artificial, I felt self-conscious (but social comparison is trap for another essay).
In an enclosed porch with massive potted plants and very creaky floorboards, four of us walked back and forth. Woods edged a snow-covered lawn outside the windows. The brilliant arc of white birches seemed both placid and active against the stillness of the forest. I enjoyed walking toward the windows. Walking back, toward the door and a blank wall, I realized I got bored. My mind wandered far more often heading that way.
Just as attending to the breath gets to be a little repetitious, walking meditation strips experience down to the basics, allowing me to observe my mind at work. My intention was to bring mindfulness to the body as it walks. First, notice the foot rising, then notice how it moves forward, then notice the heel and sole touching down. Our teachers were clear to expand our sense of “being mindful.” It’s not a rigid and determined focus of attention that stays in place no matter what. Instead, mindfulness is a friendly curiosity, an attentiveness made gentle by appreciation. And “appreciation” includes valuing and gratitude.
So, as I took my place at the far end of the room, a leafy plant beside me, I settled into an intention to see what I could notice. Make it a kind of game. At first, I didn’t observe any sensations in my calf and shin areas. All dominant sensation was in the feet, knees, and thighs. It was odd. Why couldn’t I sense a whole section of my leg? Rather than “think” about that, I just kept walking, playing the What’s Happening Now? game. Session after session. The body in motion is a marvel. The trembling was one sign. Balance is a set of actions occurring in many different elements that constantly monitor and adjust to motion. Because I slowed down even more than I had been going, I began to sense a whole host of micro-movements in the foot and leg that kept me in balance. Each step rippled muscular engagement up the leg and around the hips and into the lower back. No footstep is located in the foot alone.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has pioneered research into mindfulness, but she is not interested in meditation, only the fresh approach to our experience where we recognize the distinctive elements of our situation and can freely choose. In several studies, she has documented how “drawing novel distinctions increases liking” (195). Whether it was music, food, or paintings, the more their participants engaged with a subject to notice new aspects each time, the more they enjoyed the thing itself.
Opening up that neutral zone in our vedanā helps us experience more of our own lives. As we do so, we are happier. I started looking forward to the walking meditation. I wanted to experiment to see if I could notice how breathing felt in my belly, back, and sides while also tuning in to how, step by step, bones in my legs and hips shifted. I wanted to see if I could sense how electrical pulses sent by the nerves initiated muscle action that made motion possible. I wanted to feel the changing rhythm of blood flow across the activity period. And through it all, I was amazed by the body’s knowledge and skill that was operating below all conscious activity. This knowledge asserted itself whenever I’d lose my balance (usually when attention wandered), but the body knew what it was doing. I didn’t catch myself. The body caught me.
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In an interview, Gary Snyder once reflected on the Japanese word for song. He said that the word they use, bushi or fushi, means “a whorl in the grain. It means in Enlgish what we call a knot, like a knot in a board…, like the grain flows along and then there’s a turbulence that whorls, and that’s what they call a song. It’s an intensification of the flow at a certain point that creates a turbulence of its own which then as now sends out an energy of its own, but then the flow continues on” (44). I want to be well-tuned and sensitive enough to be aware of the whorls that form in the flow of my experience. I want to be sensitive enough to the turbulence to hear its song in its novel distinctions. These happen in a moment, then flow on. They are so easy to miss.
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Before the retreat, I knew my knees would ache. I knew my hips were not all that flexible. What I was not prepared for was the pain in my neck and shoulders. Had I not gotten excellent instruction in mindfulness, I would have been trapped by these expectations. Ellen Langer says that “most of us see what we expect to see without realizing that there is a choice” (185). She reports a great study where Dan Simons instructed participants to watch a videotape of a basketball game, counting the number of passes made by one team, but not the other. This led their minds to narrow down and focus on the passing, and so nearly half of the participants didn’t even notice when the person in a gorilla suit walks across the court, even stopping to beat his chest. When she repeated the experiment, giving half the participants the same instructions Simons had and giving the other half other ways to consider their upcoming experience. They were told that despite the fact that we use the same word for every “basketball game,” each one is actually unique, so tally the ways this one is similar to and different from the last basketball game you saw. Most of this group notice the gorilla.
I expected pain, but I learned how to exercise my choices in how to experience that pain. I was, in fact, surprised about how little it bothered me. Pain is pain, and there’s no escape from that. Usually, in response to what’s happening in my knees and hips, the vedanā is unpleasant, and that operates like the experiment’s instruction to count how many times the players pass the ball. Before the retreat, my attention zoomed in on my knee pain. It blocked out all potential gorillas.
I was guided to receive these painful sensations into mindfulness, which not only was infused with appreciation for the body’s intricacies and forgiveness for my out-of-shapeness, but also includes a looseness of judgment and a modicum of curiosity. I didn’t let the pain trigger thoughts about how I should be going to the gym, doing yoga, or at least stretching every day, and then planning how I’d do so when I got back, budgeting the membership fee and arranging my schedule. There’s an alternative to letting the sensations be a train door swinging open, and then climbing aboard for a linked series that lead to inevitable conclusions.
First, opening up my field of awareness to vedanā’s neutral zone allows me to tune into sensations not registering as pain (unpleasant) or pleasure (there weren’t many). When my neck throbbed—and after I adjusted my posture—I could check in on the shins (a drab area of few sensations, I’ve learned) or what’s going on in the arches of the feet (another region of radio silence). As I registered no vedanā, the volume on the pain I had just sensed was also turned down. Sometimes, I could sense something, and that sparks of curiosity would shower a pleasant vedanā. If my hands were in my lap, sometimes the pulse became perceptible or if they were on my legs, I could sense their warmth. I could note whatever my involuntary attention was drawn to, but not be stuck there. I could actively and consciously—voluntarily―attend to other things, and it changed my experience of what was unpleasant.
Langer’s research is also helpful here. She has designed a number of studies exploring how shifting one’s perspective affects experience. She points out that social scientists have been looking into the Actor-Observer dynamic, where the person performing an action has one point of view while an observer has another. I might think of my behavior as “spontaneous” and an observer may call it “impulsive” or even “unpredictable.” In meditation (and in daily life), we can have both the experience and generate a label for it, because we can be both Actor and Observer. This is freeing because just changing the label changes our experience. Instead of calling the sensation “hip pain,” I could attach the label “becoming more flexible.”
Mental labels can be a trap, one we fashion for ourselves and then catch ourselves in. “Taking concepts too far simply solidifies our view of reality,” says Joseph Goldstein, “and we get boxed in by mental constructs of our own making” (40). Not only do we think our way into the box, but the box is made of thinking. Letting experience be its own unique dynamic, without the prefrontal pattern and label allows a greater fluidity to reality and a greater freedom in our response to it.
Mindfulness enabled me to regard the throbbing ache in my shoulders as a sign that I’ve stopped attending to my posture. My head and upper back slumped as I sat, and I never noticed it. It took sitting for this many hours to reveal it. The pain earned a different mental label, and I had a different emotional reaction to that label, which triggered different thoughts. Watching this new train route, I was amazed at the mind’s dexterity. And it made me glad. I expected to experience discomfort, even outright pain, which I did, but I was unprepared for just how much I liked it.
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Thoughts appear from whatever wings the stage of the mind has, do their dance, and hope to get us to pay attention to them, do their bidding. I liked this description of the unbidden mental activity. It allows me to lighten up, spend less energy sifting and weighing each thought for importance, and invites me to shift my loyalty away from the content of thought to the awareness that recognizes it.
We were instructed to watch the content of our mental activity and let it pass. We were given this analogy: imagine standing on a busy street corner. One bus after another will stop, open its doors, and the driver might even urge you to get on. Taxis. Bicycles even. You do not have to climb aboard your thoughts. We can simply allow awareness to be steady, note that another bus has arrived, but we can wave it on. We can note that the screen of the mind is now playing a movie, but we don’t have to get popcorn, sit down, and watch the whole thing.
Much of the time, I employ these methods. Sometimes, the film was well into the second act before I noticed it was even playing, but I could return to my intention and start again. Each time we did this, we were told, the capacity to sustain our attention was strengthened.
However, I discovered that I enjoy my mind-wandering. In fact, because daydreaming and those other fuzzy associative states of mind are a writer’s friend, are the friend of anyone trying to be more creative, I wanted to get on some busses. They might take me to new poems and new projects. Those resonant moments where the knots of experience revealed themselves are significant. And I’ve spent decades developing the discipline of carrying pen and paper with me so that I’m ready to write when I noticed them.
Would this meditation thing hamper my creative life?
On the retreat, I cannot resolve this question. Instead, I resist my impulse to write.
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While others are doing their after-breakfast yogi jobs, I step out the front doors of the retreat center into the clarity of single-digit weather. The just-days-from-full moon is a bright silver disk in the sky, still streaked with pastels. The sun has not crested the hill behind the center, so I head down to circle the pond, wind through the woods, and head up into the dawn. Having been practicing for days, I feel vibrant, alert and open—tender, even—to how beautiful the morning is.
At the pond, I stop at the outlet, listen to the changing voices in the water as it gurgles through a pipe that heads under the roadway.
Had I not been on retreat, I would have taken out my little blank daybook from my back pocket and started jotting things down. I definitely would have had a pen on me. Probably a fountain pen.
I sense a resonance between the outer world and my own body—it may have even started before that phrase because I stopped walking for some reason, not one I consciously weighed. But when that metaphor asserted itself in my mind, I knew, and I also noticed that I was moving into language creation, playing with phrases and ideas.
I have a confession to make: I do have my daybook on the retreat. But I resisted the temptation to carry it with me. It’s back in my room. Standing at the outlet of the frozen pond, I drop the phrase-making activity and all the images that attend it, turn toward the woods, and walk on.
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In the mid-1970s, Jerome L. Singer invented the term “positive-constructive daydreaming” to indicate that some kinds of mind-wandering is valuable, particularly in problem-solving. One reason is that much of our daydreaming is future oriented. Mooneyham and Schooler, summarize the scant recent research on this aspect of mental activity, saying, “The future-directed orientation of mind-wandering, combined with the fact that spontaneous thoughts are often closely coupled with individuals’ current concerns…suggests one possible function of mind-wandering: the anticipation and planning of personally relevant future goals, otherwise known as autobiographical planning” (14).
For creative people of all kinds, not just writers, the stage of problem-solving called incubation is critical. It’s a fuzzy zone where the usual rational approaches to unlock a solution have gone nowhere. You just have to take a break. Or take a bath. Our word “eureka” comes from the ancient story of Archimedes solving the puzzle of how much gold was in the king’s crown. After working over many different formulas to figure it out, he stepped into the bath. Seeing the water his body displaced running over the rim of the tub caused him to exclaim, “I’ve got it!” The Greek word is eureka.
Many scientific breakthroughs and product innovations have occurred in these “non-work zones,” like when taking a walk, driving, or even sitting on the toilet. Shelley H. Carson, Your Creative Brain says that taking a shower may be just the kind of change of scenery that dislodges the mind from a fixed way of conceiving of a problem (qtd in Kaufman and Gregoire 39).
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At one point in the week, our teachers invite us to consider our intentions for taking up contemplative practice. Since many use the mindfulness techniques as part of their clinical work, it’s a good question to entertain. Do we simply want to reduce our stress, to experience stillness in our over-wrought lives? Is meditation and the accompanying shifts in attitude toward our experience enough of a pause that we’re satisfied? Do we want this practice to promote well-being more generally? Now that we’ve experienced a stable calm, do we want to adjust our habits toward those that foster greater health and happiness? The mindfulness movement has demonstrated, experientially and experimentally, that these are fruits of these methods. So these intentions are not off the mark.
As the Buddha taught, and all three teachers pursued in various ways, our intention could be more fundamental and sweeping: do we seek awakening?
They were clear to demonstrate―and each day I experience it myself― developing sustained attentive concentration does facilitate bodily and interior calmness, but these are only the beginning of this cultivation. “When awareness is well establish and mindfulness is happening by itself―what could be called effortless effort,” says Joseph Goldstein, “then we can simply rest in the continuity of bare knowing” (40). He cites the Japanese Zen monk and poet, Ryokan: “Know your mind just as it is.”
Thich Nhat Hanh describes the different functions, and perhaps stages of mediation as stopping, calming, and looking deeply. Periodically pausing to be mindful of our experience right in this moment helps promote the stability of attentiveness, and that can increase our appreciation of our experience. Then, once grounded in the flow of our current experience—and able to stay with it—we can begin to look deeply at destructive emotions, habits of perception, and ingrained ways of responding that are not skillful means to maintain healthy for ourselves or others.
I’m not interested in “using” meditation for my writing. I want to be free of unhelpful and petty compulsions so that I can be responsive to the distinctive dynamics of each situation. And I want to be able to answer the world’s needs with my full presence and compassion. I want to wake up. I also believe that the more I am able to do all that, poems will also emerge, so there’s my out.
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I haven’t resolved the mind-wandering question and the artistic benefits of allowing my mind to de-couple from washing the dishes or driving a familiar stretch of road to incubate some impression or other. I have to take it on faith from others that meditation and writing are not mutually exclusive. Gary Snyder says that “the practice of sitting gives me unquestionably an ease of access to the territories of my mind—and a capacity for experience—for recalling and revisualizing things with almost living accuracy; and I attribute that to a lot of practice with meditation; although, strictly speaking, that is not the best use of meditation” (33). He explains further that meditation helps dial down the self, where “the conscious mind temporarily relinquishes its self-importance,…of direct focus and decision-making and lets peripheral and lower and in some sense deeper aspects of the mind to manifest themselves” (34).
An important aspect of these deeper aspects of the mind is intuition. John Dado Loori links the two very directly: “One way that our spiritual power begins to manifest itself is through the emergence of the intuitive aspect of our consciousness. This is one of the reasons why Zen and creativity are so intimately linked. Creativity is also an expression of our intuitive aspect. Getting in touch with our intuition helps us to enter the flow of life, of a universe that is in a constant state of becoming” (57). Strange as it seems, a disciplined approach to mind-training may free this intuitive and spontaneous part of ourselves. These are not mutually exclusive or even in conflict. In fact, all aspects of consciousness are welcome.
Scott Barry Kaufman states the same thing, only in more scientific terms. He says that “the entire creative process…consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.”
Wholeness is my ultimate goal. And I welcome cultivating the interaction of internal ways of knowing as well as the outer flow of the world in its process of becoming. And citing research from UC-Santa Barbara, Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire say achieving this may be easier than I imagine. They say the “balance between external-directed focus and free-flowing inward attention may be our natural state” (42).
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. NY: HarperPerennial, 1996.
Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2013.
Griggs, Jessica. “In pursuit of happiness…Daniel Gilbert.” New Scientist. 4/16/2011. (v.210 issue 2808): 48-49.
Langer, Ellen. On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity. NY: Ballentine, 2005.
Mingyur, Yongey Rimpoche. The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.
Mooneyham, Benjamin W. and Jonathan W. Schooler. “The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering: A Review.” Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology vol 67, issue 1, 2013: 11-18.
Rexroth, Kenneth. “Introduction” 100 Poems from the Japanese. NY: New Directions, 1959. xi-xxii.
Loori, John Daido. The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life. NY: Ballantine, 2004.
Snyder, Gary. “Knots in the Grain” The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964 – 1979. NY: New Directions, 1980. 44-51.