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

Category: daily practice

Trust and the Practice of ‘Nothing’s Happening’

This article first appeared on mindfulnessmeditationforrichmond.net

I was on retreat for the weekend. Twice a year, a group of practitioners from the Insight Meditation Community of Richmond rent The Clearing–a space in Amelia County that belongs to the Quaker community. We spend two days in silence, practicing meditation and listening to recorded teachings.

I’ve been on this retreat several times. By Sunday afternoon I am usually feeling very still and calm. I’ve usually been visited by a couple of profound insights. I have usually touched into some deeper states of concentration.

Not this time.

This time, I spent two days trying to observe my mind, sense my surroundings, follow my breath. I spent some time walking in the cool early-spring woods. I practiced yoga. I cooked and washed dishes, sat meditation and looked at the stars.

I felt the usual tiredness that comes from halting our manically-paced lives. I felt the deprivation of my habitual comforts–books, an evening meal, privacy. Mostly I felt like nothing was happening.

Which is, in itself, not a problem. What was a problem were my expectations that something should be happening. That there was something “not ok” about my experience.

I felt about as mindful as I do on any other typical day. Which is to say, my mind wandered often–planning and worrying, remembering, complaining, doubting and chastising. Around and around it spun, a dog chasing its own tail. And I watched it the best I could.

Woven through all of this mental activity was a steady stream of judgment: Is this it? Nothing’s happening! No insights, no deep peace, no spontaneous joy. I must not be trying hard enough. I should really make myself sit the full hour without opening my eyes once. If I did that, I bet I would feel something happening. Or maybe if I walked slower during the walking meditations. Yeah, that would do it. Then I would be getting some results from devoting a whole weekend to practice…

I am reminded of a Zen story I encountered somewhere. The student approached her meditation teacher and asked, “How long will it take me to reach liberation if I follow the path?” The teacher replied, “10 years.” The student answered, “But what if I practice all day, every day and work very hard. Then, how long will it take me?” The teacher paused and replied, “Then for you it will take 20 years.”

This practice is not linear. There are predictable, observable results of regular practice, to be sure. But, we cannot simply plug our expectations in, sit down on the cushion every day, and receive exactly the solutions we ordered.

That is meditation practice in the service of the ego. And, even if it did work (which it doesn’t!), how limited would the benefits of practice be if they were stuck within the bounds of our personal sense of what’s possible?

What was needed in my practice over the weekend–and what i so often needed–was an action of letting go and trusting.

In Pali, the language of the Buddha, the word often translated as “trust” is “saddha.” Saddha also means confidence or faith. And the texts are very clear about the trajectory of saddha over time. We move from bright faith, into verified faith and onward to unshakable faith. First we have to trust others who claim to have reaped the benefits of practice. Then we learn to trust our own repeated experience of practice. Over time, we see that there is nothing we cannot meet with mindfulness, nothing which is not a part of our process of waking up to what’s here. Even “nothing’s happening” is ground for practice.
We trust that, in ways our minds cannot always understand, the practice of returning again and again to the present moment is all that is needed to realize our freedom. We do not have to have some specific kind of experience. We just have to pay attention to whatever experience we are having in the moment.

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How Sitting Alone Can Connect Us to Others

This post first appeared on mindfulnessmeditationforrichmond.net

The benefits of mindfulness meditation seem endless. There is no part of my life that the practice has not touched and transformed, including my relationships with others.

It seems obvious to expect that as I feel more peaceful, clearer, more centered, less reactive, my close relationships would see benefits. My ability to love and accept myself and others provides the necessary grace and freedom for true intimacy. My improved relationship with myself, improves my relationships with others.

But the practice has not just affected my closest relationships. It has expanded my sense of relationship and miraculously, seemingly without effort, collected a web of beings around me in support of my practice. My life, thanks to meditation, is full of authentic and joyful connection.

I am not a naturally social person. In fact, I was a painfully shy child, and have struggled with some level of social anxiety ever since.

We all have this anxiety to some degree and it makes good biological sense. Human beings need community for their survival. Exclusion from the tribe, for most of human history, was a death sentence. So we had to be concerned with our likeability and social status.

But, like many of our evolutionary adaptations, the fear of faux pas had become more painful than helpful for many of us. The constant self-assessment, the effort to project certain qualities, and to hide others, is exhausting and takes us away from the present moment.

Meditation practice inspires a certain kind of faith in ourselves. We attend to the present moment, we attend to our inner landscapes, and over time we learn to trust that relaxing into the present allows our most heartfelt and wise responses to emerge. This degree of ease and warmth opens a safe space in us. And those around us can sense this safe zone.

When we are open, present, and kind, we allow others to drop their armor as well. We connect to others naturally. We find ourselves having lovely conversations with strangers, or surprising and genuine interactions with acquaintances. We find that difficult family relationships begin to shift and heal without us having to force anything.

Attention and love are not divisible. To pay full attention to someone is to love them completely. So mindfulness, though described as the process of learning to “pay attention” to our lives, is in actuality an invitation to love our lives in the deepest sense. To not judge or separate or condition our relationship to all of life–including our relationship to ourselves and to others–but to untether it, to free it from constraints.

The Invitation of Suffering

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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.

Leaving Space for the Reader

We entered into a productive discussion last week at Agile Writers, my local novel writer’s group. It centered on the problems inherent in writing (or acting, performing, producing) for an audience of peers rather than an audience of. . . people.

The topic arose because we are making our way through Lawrence Block’s classic on writerly craft, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block’s chapter, which served as the launchpad for our discussion last week, was entitled “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” In it, he states bluntly that the sort of temperament that draws a writer to writing–the amount of “ego” and “self-condfidence” (Block’s words)needed to write– often brings with it a desire for control. This includes a desire to control the reader’s experience.

Obviously, this is fraught. Any time we attempt to control or manipulate another’s experience, I would argue, we have overstepped our bounds–we have done both too much and too little in the creation of our art. Too much in the sense of condescending to the reader, telling him or her how to feel and think about what we have made. And too little, in that it takes far more skill to master the art of leaving space for the reader’s own experience.

I am egregiously guilty of this. I find myself over-writing, particularly in a first draft, as I am explaining the work to myself as well as eventual readers. I think this is a necessary phase of mastering any craft. I’ve never written a novel before. This process is a long exercise in on-the-job-training. So I have to begin with both an absence of skill and a distrust of what abilities I do possess.

The real delight and craft comes in the subsequent cullings–the adventures in trimming the fat from my work, leaving only what is essential, true and beautiful (not merely aesthetically pleasing). This is a sort of tuning process. We strike each scene, sentence, each word with a kind of internal tuning fork. We ask it “are you essential?” and wait for the answer. If not, we break it off and let it go. The more we listen, the better we get at divining the difference between the essential and the discardable. I am reminded of the famous Faulkner quote:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

The second place I have encountered this idea in recent weeks was while listening to an interview with the author Junot Diaz on the New York Public Library Podcast. Diaz’s assessment of the essential mistake of contemporary novice writers is that they don’t leave adequate room for the reader.

Diaz himself takes this “leaving room” principle all the way to the level of genre. In the interview, he discussed his work The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which could be categorized as a loose collection of interrelated short stories, or a novel. It mixes languages, moves nimbly through time and space, switches from first to third person points of view, employs ample footnotes, all in an inevitable attempt to disorient the reader in precisely the way one might be disoriented as a part of the immigrant experience.

The result is lots of room for a reader to interpret and glean from the book different understandings. It isn’t anarchy though; Diaz is clear that Oscar Wao is about how it feels to be an immigrant, to live under a dictator and in a democracy, to grapple with masculinity as it is represented in two different cultures. These themes are undeniable and so vital that they could not be left to chance, even while elements as basic as genre and narrative voice are fluid and loosely defined.

What is most interesting to me about Diaz’s statements in the interview, is his diagnosis of the origin of this lack of ability to leave space for the reader. According to Diaz, who is a creative writing professor himself at MIT, the root of the problem is that writers are emerging more and more in a context of other writers. They go to conferences to talk to writers, they enter MFA programs to spend years in the company of other writers–both their peers and their mentors. Inevitably, the echo chamber this produces runs the risk of promoting the mastery of craft over originality, vitality and popular appeal. The writers of today, Diaz notes, are simply out of touch with readers.

Block outlined the crux of this more than twenty years ago: “A short story or novel constitutes a subtly different experience for every person who reads it, simply because each reader brings a different perspective and background to bear upon what he reads[. . .]The best we can do is write as carefully and as honestly as we can and let the reader make of our work what he will. If we write well, enough people will get enough of the message.”

So, who are readers, and how do we write for them? This issue strikes me as an elitist, ivory tower problem. Looking around the room at my fellow writers collected on a Wednesday evening, I see less danger of squeezing out the reader. We are not locked in higher education environments. We are chemists, teachers, parents, partners, and writers. One foot in the ordinary world, and one foot in the writing world.

Perhaps we are just putting our finger on the widening fault line between literary and genre novels. Those of us who seek to straddle the two (I would include myself here) face an increasingly difficult task. And those of us who unabashedly aim for salability and readability in our works need feel less ashamed. By shirking the masses, maybe the highest literary MFA-driven, conference-attending, adjunct-teaching, upper echelon of writers who write for other writers will go the way of the dinosaurs?

Lest I come off as too harshly critical of MFA programs, writing absolutely is a set of skills that can be taught. At their best, MFA programs are designed to do just this. To foster confidence in the execution of craft that can lead to wildness and vulnerability in the subject matter. But the ability to see and convey truth, to speak to a reader and move him or her without over-explaining and condescending, is an art. And art is stifled by closed environments and over-valued rule books. A writer, through trial and error, could perhaps land on the best crafting of stories. But given only the lessons of craft, and sealed off from the larger world, a writer risks going deaf to the murmurations of truth, the concerns and motivations of her readers.

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The writer, if she is going to be a lightening rod for truth, and not merely a wordsmith, must trace the inevitable cycle of seers and sages of every stripe. Time alone on the mountaintop for the act of creation must be balanced by trips to the proverbial village, where the work is gifted to the world and the writer can drink in the cultural garb necessary to make her work relevant in contemporary society.                                                
The acquisition of technical prowess is a slow and steady climb balanced by the grounding of our shared human experience. When you spend time in the world, and come to know your reader intimately, you will no longer underestimate their abilities or your own. You will leave space for their experience, and they will reward you with their readership.

An Open Letter to the Children Who Aren’t Mine

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For all of the nannies,  who devote their time and their hearts to caring for children who aren’t their own.

______

 

“They” say I have to draw a line through my heart. I can love you, but only so much. Only the appropriate amount. Because you are not mine.

What “they” (the ambiguous, omnipresent, “they”) don’’t know–—could’’t know—–is that the call to love you was the call to begin my life in earnest. They can’’t know that you changed everything. You woke me up.

I didn’t’ enter into this job lightly. I thought of it as a job, sure, but I’’ve never been good at “professional distance.” I knew I would love you. I knew I had to love you to do my job well. And I was committed to being in your life for as long as you needed me.

But how could I have known what it would mean to love you? Especially to love you while also knowing that you are not mine?

I could never pretend that you would belong to me forever, the way that parents sometimes do. It was right there in the contract. Our last day was embedded in our very first day, and every day since.

It is always there in the room with us–while I pour warm water over your soapy hair, while I slice apples for your lunch, and kiss your cheeks and zip your coat. Our last day is in every goodnight hug, every gaze, each ‘I love you’ and click of the closing door.

Of course, there will be a last day in all of my relationships–and yours. People try very hard to run from that truth. We’re afraid the knowledge of it will destroy us.

I sometimes lose sight of it amid the morass of our daily life. Caring for you is more challenging and humbling than anything I’ve ever done. Every day, your innocence holds a mirror to the state of my own heart and mind. It shows me just how much armor I’ve built around myself since I was your age. Every time you copy my behavior, I am reminded anew of my role in either teaching you to imprison your own heart, or showing you how to live and love without fear.

For a while, in the beginning, I was teaching you fear, because it was all I knew. I was afraid to make a mistake. I was sure I was doing everything wrong, that I was failing you. I tried to take care of you the only way I knew how—–setting limits, making rules, raising expectations. But we both failed to live up to those benchmarks. Our days became a struggle.

I realized then that if I was going to love you, I would have to learn to love myself. If I was going to attend to your pain with kindness and compassion, I would have to practice on my own pain. If I was going to listen to you, I would have to hear myself.

I can’’t give you what I don’t have.

I sometimes wish there was an easier way. Cleaning up my own mind, healing my own heart, meeting my own needs, is hard work. But I know you are worth it so I must be worth it too.

If all I leave you with on that last day is the memory of being loved, I have done my job. And love is boundless. There are no categories, no limits, no labels for love.

The work of love is ongoing. I still have my moments of forgetfulness and fear. When tears sprang to my eyes on your first day of school, I worried that “they” would think that I didn’t have a right to them. Maybe “they” think I haven’t earned my joy either–the joy of bearing witness to the miracle of your lengthening legs, your multiplying teeth, your new friends and interests. Maybe “they” think that when I look at you I shouldn’t feel a love so powerful it cracks my heart open again and again.

But I do feel that love for you.

And because of it, I will never be the same. I know now that the limit of my love is really the limit of my life.

And I know that it is possible to love the stranger–the child who isn’t mine–with total abandon. Such strangers are everywhere I look. And they are each as worthy of love as you are.

All 7 billion of them.

 

The Peril of The Pause

The wind barreled down the concrete breezeway and slapped my bare cheek as I walked through the library doors. I held a tottering stack of books flush against my chest, their corners digging into my ribs through my sweater.

Inside the library, I had felt calm, as I usually do. The dank, dusty smell and crowded embrace of so many crackling laminate spines always infuses me with comfort and possibility in equal measure. The library, for me, is a sacred space. A temple of learning. A humane gesture toward the infinite.

Standing in the aisle, I had scanned the strings of Dewey Decimal numbers for matches to my scrawled index card. I pulled my choices quickly. One of the children I nanny—the almost four year-old—raced around me in dizzying circles, karate chopping the air while I half-heartedly begged him to be quiet.

The day’s haul was topical. How to be a Freelance Writer, The Freelancer’s Bible, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and the last, a petite red hardback entitled The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life—chosen because even I’m not foolish enough to go stomping around new territory without an ally.

But by the time we crossed the street and reached the car, my ears were ringing. A familiar, invisible vise tightened its grip on my head. Unconsciously, I was holding my breath.

I slung the books into the trunk and slammed it. I tried to focus on the way the steering wheel felt like a cool curve of skin-covered bone beneath my palms. But I could still hear the books, flinging anxious thoughts like miniature Zeusian bolts at the back of my head as I shifted the car into gear and drove away.

“Who do you think you are that you can be a writer?”

“Are you kidding—you don’t have a head for this. You’re no good at networking or promoting yourself.”

“You’ll never make enough money to survive. You’ll have to give it up and get a real job in a couple of years anyway so why bother?”

“There’s too much to learn. It’s too late. You should have decided to pursue this ten years ago. There are so many working writers out there already…how will you compete with them?”

In psychological parlance, these are known as Self-Limiting Beliefs. I label them my Inner Critic, a term I picked up from Julia Cameron’s canonical book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. There are many names for this phenomena—Steven Pressfield’s Resistance, Jung’s Animus, Freud’s Superego, the Dragon, the Demon, the Tempter.

And there’s new evidence that the engine of imagination sometimes manifests as this overthinking and worrying. In other words, the very force of imagination used to create art can be inverted to destroy the artist, as I wrote about here.

But the Inner Critic has an evolutionary purpose. Human beings are dependent on their tribe for survival and magnetized for criticism as a result. I lifted and laminated my Inner Critic’s favorite phrases in childhood. I postered my mind with them in adolescence. They helped me navigate the world, fit in enough to survive. But, over time, the phrases lost their original contexts and became so subtle I barely registered them in my conscious mind at all. They were my toxic elevator music.

And as long as my Inner Critic remained unconscious, I remained her victim. But I have made a study of my own fear over the past couple of years. I am learning the Inner Critic’s patterns. So it took less time to both recognize her presence and realize its cause.

Why was my Inner Critic waiting outside the library? I had finished the second draft of my novel about a week prior. Though I was still working on other projects, I had lived seven straight days without writing a word of my manuscript for the first time in six months. (Since the last time I experienced, and promptly forgot, this same agonizing pause after my first draft was complete.)

Every hunter knows that you shoot when the animal is still.

And the most effective way to ward off the Inner Critic is to keep working, to show up every day to my desk.

But, the pause is integral to the process. The work has to breathe. And I have to give my unconscious mind space in which to devise solutions to the lingering problems of plot and structure. I have to leave my desk and feast on the world.

What I have learned is that it is important to stay vigilant during such a pause, to protect the space you have deliberately created. Otherwise, the Inner Critic may populate it. A colony of fear may grow where you had intended only perspective, comprehension, and fresh ideas.

The temptation with that much space, with an inkling of the scope of the work, is to pass judgement on it. But, my job is not to decide if what I write is valuable. My job is to do the work as well and honestly and rigorously and thoroughly as I can and let go of the desire to control how it is received.

That is my job in the midst of writing. And that is my job in the moments of pausing.

The Myth and My Truth about Mental Illness and Creativity

 

I was eight when I first decided I wanted to be a writer. I had wanted to be a veterinarian before that. Dr. Harris, our neighbor and one of the most interesting adults I knew, was a veterinarian. He wore a thoughtful expression and a white coat, and he fielded all my questions with great seriousness while he examined our mutt atop his metal table. The Harris house was teeming with life–dogs, cats, houseplants, even a koi pond in the backyard. His wife had long glossy hair that shook down her back like a curtain when she laughed, which was often.

Around the age of eight, though, I abandoned my dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Miss Boyette, our elementary school’s librarian—a woman who was entirely round, round face, round glasses, sooty round curls on top of her head—introduced me to chapter books. And I realized for the first time that it was possible to spend hours or even days lost in someone else’s mind. I was in a new world.

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The author as a little girl, painting.

And then, it dawned on me that there were people whose whole job it was to sit in a room and make up these characters and their lives, to wield the rolodex of their own emotions (of which I had plenty, as a sensitive child) for the purpose of reaching others. It seemed like the most important thing in the world. And I wanted to try it. I wanted to explain people to themselves. I wanted to explain myself to myself. And I wanted to do it in language so beautiful that made me close my eyes and smack my lips, the same way that candy did.

The good news was that I seemed to have a knack for writing. By the time I was eleven, my fifth grade teacher, whom I trusted because she was decidedly not a gusher, gushed about my proficiency in journaling. It seemed I was one of the destined, anointed—those lucky few who just know very early on what it is they are supposed to do with their lives.

But there was one problem. I didn’t know any writers, personally. Not one. I didn’t have any proof that writing was a real job for real people. So I was exposed, helpless to shore up my dream in the face of the eroding power of our cultural myths about creativity. The ones that well-meaning adults routinely rain down on children in the name of protecting them from disappointment.

There’s no future in becoming a writer. Writers are poor. So few actually make it. And, besides writers are loners. They’re selfish, irresponsible, maladjusted. Crazy.

I didn’t really care that becoming a writer was hard. What bothered me, as my vision of what made a writer got fleshed out with the opinions of others, was my sense that I was somehow missing part of the formula for becoming a writer which, to my childish mind, went something like this:

Passion + Talent + Torture = Writer

My life was not tortured. At that time, nothing bad had really happened to me. I was charmed, except to me it felt more like I was cursed. How could I be a writer if I was a normal person living a normal life?

I didn’t have to wait long for my cosmic answer. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And my childhood wasn’t over.

At the age of thirteen, I started getting the doses of human drama and suffering I’d been strangely pining for. The details aren’t important (nor are they mine to share), but what is important is that my quiet, ordered life was upended totally. Now I was living life.

It’s hard to suss out when exactly Anxiety and Depression walked through the open door left by that early adolescent shake up. I had always been a worried kid. The type that lay in bed at night and fretted that the ice caps were melting, my family didn’t have a fire escape plan posted to our refrigerator, and also everyone I’d ever known was going to die–me included. You get the picture.

For nearly half of my life now I have lived in the warped realities created by my personal Venn Diagram of Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Panic Disorder. Somewhere along the way, I stopped telling people that I wanted to be a writer. Eventually, I stopped telling even myself.

The science shows that writers have more than twice the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder compared to the general population. And writers have a greater risk of depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse. The rate of mental illness in writers is higher than in other creative professions, including visual artists and musicians, and writers have the broadest spectrum of disorders represented.

I’m not capable of explaining with broad strokes why this relationship between writing and mental illness exists. Nor am I able to rattle off a long list of those writers who have been affected by mental illness, or those philosophers who have opined about this connection throughout history. What I can do is talk about the way in which my understanding of this relationship between creative expression and mental illness has changed through my own experience.

I thought, as a girl, that mental illness was a necessary ingredient for creativity. But, I could never square that fact with the happy, well-adjusted creatives of the world. (And there are some.)

I no longer think of mental illness as an ingredient. Having experienced both the permeability and elasticity of mind that is needed to take on creative work and the instability of mind that is the hallmark of mental illness, I now think of them as existing on a continuum with one another. They are a suprapersonal energy and power. A spiritual power. The power to destroy the human organism or to transcend it.

unhealthy                                                                                        healthy

<————————————->

mental illness                                                                                   creativity

 

Anxiety and depression are creativity killers. In the midst of a depressive period or anxious episode, I am unable even to leave my bed or my house, to cook or eat, to shower or dress, to concentrate long enough to read more than one sentence of a book. To say I can’t write when in the grip of these illnesses is woefully insufficient to explain their power over me. I can barely keep myself alive when they are at their worst.

But I have discovered something. The road to healing my mind is the same as the road to creative recovery. When I began to recognize the dividing line between myself and my illnesses, when I saw them as constructs of my own mind (I do not intend in any way to belittle the reality of these illnesses here; I am remarking instead on the incredible power of the human mind.), I found the power to write again. In fact, I felt more compelled to write than ever.

Writing keeps my anxiety and depression at bay.

Let me be clear. I don’t mean that writing well keeps them at bay. I don’t mean that liking what I have written keeps them at bay. I don’t mean that publishing, winning contests, receiving praise or recognition keeps them at bay.

I mean the daily practice of writing connects me to myself. And the most dangerous part of mental illness is the lie it tells you about yourself. That you are it. You are your depression. You are your anxiety. And therefore it is inescapable and unbearable.

For me, writing is a spiritual practice. It is an outward manifestation of a connection with my own essential being. The part of me that answered, inside that eight year old girl, the first time I fell into a book alone.

Writing is an exercise in touching the deepest mystery of life.

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Perhaps mental illness is more than just the crosshairs of chemical imbalances in the brain, genetic markers, and childhood traumas. Perhaps mental illness is the force of life turned in on itself. The strength of creativity harnessed for destruction.

In Hinduism there exists the concept of Trimurti—the threefold understanding of God as simultaneously the creator (Brahma), the preserver (Vishnu) and the destroyer (Shiva).

We think of creation and destruction as separate. But what if they’re not?

We think of illness and wellness as separate. But what if they’re not?

We think of the mind, body and soul as separate. But what if they’re not?

So, even though it is so scary to say out loud, I have started telling people again that I want to be a writer. Because it’s true. It’s always been true.

I’m not in charge of what that looks like. I know that now. And on a vital, holy level, it doesn’t matter.