whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Month: March, 2016

Time to Write

This post also appeared on AgileWriters.org.

Today’s writers contend with distractions inconceivable to writers of the past. It has almost become pat to discuss the diversions inherent in living in our modern, digitally connected world. But these problems of instant gratification and endless attention shifting are even more lethal to the creative than they are to the average citizen.

The writing process requires a lot of space and silence, though that isn’t always immediately apparent. Writers are urged to read–read often and read the greats–and this is good advice. An hour with The Plague will certainly serve your craft better than an hour of watching cat videos. (No offense–I’m a total cat person!) But even carefully curating our information diets is not enough to protect our writing life.

Writers must also push back against over-scheduling and the pervasive, toxic level of busyness lauded by our society. If not, our minds and hearts will not have the resources to amalgamate whole worlds, or drink in new images, or index precise vocabulary for later use.

And not only is our culture generally hostile to the kind of deep reflection necessary for writing, it literally devalues creative endeavors–after all, writing is a gainful career for only a fraction of pursuants. So you can see the kind of conviction necessary to create a regular writing practice.

So how does a novelist stay focused on such an enduring project?

Like anything else, the desire to write must be a powerful one if the writer is to stay on task. I joke often that I only write because I can’t not-write. Not writing makes me cranky, to use a very scientific term. There is a kind of creative constipation that sets in any time I step away from the page for more than a couple of days. The mental hurdle to starting again grows in proportion to the time spent away. Eventually, I find myself sitting in front of my computer screen, hopeless that I will ever regain the ease of my own voice. (It does come back, if only after painful hours of working through the stock sentences and lame ideas that have built up inside my mental pipes. There is no shortcut for this, unfortunately.)

Even with this knowledge, I still go through periods of falling away from my daily writing practice. Sometimes I self-sabotage a project that is nearly completed. Sometimes I just allow the overgrowth of my life to cover and consume the time I’ve allotted for writing. Sometimes, through no fault of my own, my writing time gets eclipsed by other, more immediate needs.

In these times, when I feel the need to reset the boundaries of my writing life and reinstate the inner guard who takes my writing seriously, it is helpful for me to remember the advice to “do your own work first.” For me that means that I will answer emails in the afternoon, but I will write in the morning. I will read articles and books at night, but I will write in the morning. I will critique for my writing partners on schedule, but I will write my daily allotment of my own manuscript first.

The writing simply has to matter more than the other stuff. No one can give you that determination or discipline. You must earn it through careful observation of yourself when you are not writing, and truthful examination of all the pieces of your life and what purpose they serve. Use a felt sense of your own mortality for a scale. After all, the ultimate deadline will befall each of us eventually.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes about writing, from the late Zen Buddhist teacher and author, Alan Watts:

“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”

 

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the world comes into you

 

the world comes into you
and you go into the world
from so early you can’t remember
the first drink of your mother’s milk
the first cry–waves of sound
like a lamb’s bleet echoing on the walls

and then you learn sometimes
the world is too much to let in
you stop going outside
or eating or even breathing for a time
until your blue lips become the most fearful
sign your father will ever see

but you are learning now
to steady yourself as a container
for the world, of the world,
the current of breath like an ocean
of others entering you–
carbon and dust motes and the smell of damp earth.
and you ride back out into the world
as water vapor or words or sighs
on that same breath-tide

The Invitation of Suffering

This post was featured on www.mindfulnessmeditationforrichmond.net

Many of us come to mindfulness meditation to feel better. The suffering that drives us may come in different forms–for some it is the acute grief or strife brought on by catastrophic loss, for others the experience of a persistent dissatisfaction with life. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two.

But we all come to the cushion out of desperation. Our attempts to deny our pain or escape it haven’t worked. So we agree to stop trying to run and sit down–with our teeming, swirling brains, with our aching bodies, with our heavy hearts. Maybe we get a honeymoon with meditation practice. For a while, we do feel better: more peaceful, clearer, happier, more present with our loved ones, more grateful for our lives. And secretly we think we have found the escape after all. Meditation is going to deliver us from our pain.

But, this upward trajectory does not last. One day the spell is broken and the pain of life catches up with us. And we doubt the practice, or ourselves.

Behind our doubt and the disappointment that we are in pain again is the fear that we will not find a solution to our problem. We will never experience freedom. And behind that fear there is deep sadness, hopelessness, and a kind of grief for the promises broken by our meditation practice.

This is where I find myself recently. It was these same negative emotions of anxiety and depression that led me to meditation in the first place, a few years ago. But when they showed up this time–amidst my carefully cultivated life full of loving relationships, meaningful work, good health and spiritual practice–I reacted with a storm of self-doubt, fear, despair and industrial strength aversion. “Go away!” I said to my pain and fear. “You are not welcome here.”

In response they grew louder. My insecurities wailed and my body ached–I dropped into tunnels of anxiety and lakes of pain. The color started draining from my life. My gratitude evaporated, and took my sense of joy and wonder with it.

I had mistakenly hoped that my meditation practice was a kind of inoculation against these negative emotions. But it was never meant to be that. I needed only to remember to begin again, that nothing falls outside the scope of mindfulness. And suffering is the place where we most often enter into spiritual life. It is the on-ramp to the path of liberation. Fighting these negative emotions wasn’t working, so I tried inquiring, “Why are you here? What do you need from me? What am I meant to learn from you?”

I sensed immediately that these negative emotions are actually exiled parts of myself. I can no more amputate grief and fear than I can my heart or lungs. They are part of the human experience. And at a very young age I received the message that they aren’t acceptable. That I am not acceptable when I am gripped by them. Most of us got that message. And we continue to give it to ourselves. It is thanks to my meditation practice that I recognize the message and have the possibility to change it. So I said gently to my fear:

“You are allowed to be here.” & “I love you.”

And the fear sat down like a soothed child at my feet. So I said it again, in turn, to doubt, insecurity, anxiety, shame, sadness, tension, pain and heaviness. And they all quieted down. They did not disappear. But I was not in them anymore. I was holding them gently in mindfulness, the way one holds a small child who is afraid or hurt.

This is the miracle of mindfulness. That with it suffering can be transmuted to compassion.

According to the Buddha, the pain at the core of human incarnation is a Heavenly Messenger. It was his wild grief over the inescapability of aging, sickness, and death that brought him to the bodhi tree. It is no different for us. We all began this journey in response to suffering.
May we remember that our suffering is just an invitation to begin again.