Meditation for Writers: Narcissism or Necessity?
"The Tibetans don't encourage meditating right away, actually. They insist that you know something. They say Listen, if you go meditate right away as an ignorant person, you will deepen your ignorance [...] a kind of quietism that a lot of [...] people get into where—they find the world jangly and bothersome, and then they withdraw into a place where they don't have to think about it. It's like a wonderful kind of Prozac. [...] there's no compassion in it. It's a kind of narcissistic thing, actually. Great danger in meditation. [...] "Your writing is a kind of meditation." –Dr. Robert Thurman, first American ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk
In the West, meditation tends to be thought of as an act of personal wellness, and some of us might view writing the same way.
Q: If you meditate and/or write to keep yourself well and sane, how can compassion for someone else play a role in that? Does it need to? (07.02.16)
I run, but that doesn't feel meditative in the way that I imagine meditation must feel for someone who does it right. Mainly, I sweat and keep waiting to feel meditative. Compassion? I don't know where that comes from. I fear I may only feel it when I'm writing, and all other times I have to work at it, or maybe don't actually have it, though I feel like I strive to.
Reading seems to create compassion because it feels like an empathetic process. Is compassion the same as empathy? Writing doesn't seem to improve compassion outside of writing, though I do feel like a more even/level-headed person if I've been writing, same as if I've been running steadily. I would hope that one would have to have compassion to be a writer or artist, and I used to think that, but I don't think it's actually true. I don't know if it's compassionate to realize that we all have very complicated lives, or just a fact that one realizes or must know in order to write anything convincing.
Writing to keep myself well and sane is definitely a Thing. Yet, meditation means focusing your mind on something. Anything. It doesn't have to be a narcissistic act. I don't necessarily think that writing is like meditation in that one must withdraw from the world. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Writing is a form of communication. When shared, it has the ability to connect one with the outside world. I believe that compassion absolutely plays a role in that. A writer must think about both the reader and the subject matter, which more often than not stems from a real-world scenario. Writing forces one to meditate on this subject, this situation at-hand, and consider its multiple facets as well as the varying perspectives of those involved. That's empathy.
I think that's what good writing does, anyway.
Interesting question. I use mindfullness for survival, and am working hard on building on it, using it to deal with the world as it is, not escape it. I don't use it much in my writing. My writing is still part of my spiritual discipline. I believe we can't be effective in the world if we aren't aware of the darkness within us. Writing is a great way to explore that darkness and to put it into perspective. Darkness here isn't evil, it is the fear/anger/grief which we Westerners love to bury out of sight. "Old Hero" and "Out of Darkness" are two examples of stories which explore how ignoring the darkness can lead to evil. By highlighting the evil, they give a hint at what compassion might look like.
The process isn't about keeping me sane (there's little hope for that), but showing that compassion, like evil, is made from a series of tiny decisions. The more we are aware of them, the more we have the chance to choose compassion. Stories are a cauldron for showing both good and bad decisions and their consequences without needing to kill real people.
I used to meditate. I’ve tried so many times and with so many approaches that I’ve actually lost count. Eventually I came to realise my attempts to find quietude away from the “jangly and bothersome” world were in vain. Why? Because I was the source of that jangliness. The bothersome world I tried to find peace from was not out there but in me.
In the end I discovered there was a different way. Acceptance. And, to me at least, innate in that acceptance is compassion. Compassion for myself first which then expands automatically to greater compassion for others. When I stopped struggling and getting frustrated with not finding the time or ability to meditate I freed up energy to share myself more authentically with my loved ones and the wider world.
My writing practice is also an act of self and other compassion. I write because that is what I must do. That is in itself an act of compassion to me, but because it brings me joy and fulfillment—doing what makes my heart sing and my mind zing—the outflow from that is also an act of kindness to others. By sharing my writing with the world, either privately or publicly, it means I consistently attempt to make the words I play with bring a sense of satisfaction to the hearts and minds of my readers. For me, writing well and as clearly as I can is an act of compassion to those readers. When we write for others, however we share that writing, it is imperative that we write well. That my words make sense and mean something. That the mind and the heart are considered in every word and every sentence and every twisted or untwisted plot line, story, narrative, or article.
Meditation and writing are often seen as practices to help you centre your being, and to cut the world out. Both stereotypically involve sitting alone, immersed in a world only you have created. However, I would argue that both activities are also practiced in order to reach out.
This isn’t just self-love—this is love and appreciation for every other living thing. We are quietening ourselves in order to create room for compassion, thought, and awareness. Meditation is the epitome of looking after yourself so you can help others—rather like the emergency instruction cards on aeroplanes, which ask that you put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. The stronger you are, the more help you are to those around you.
Similarly, while writing channels an internal monologue, it’s written by slipping ourselves into the heads and hearts of others. Writers feel their fear, experience their joy, and in turn construct harmony and wreak destruction. Perhaps this doesn’t sound compassionate, but I believe it comes from being fascinated by humanity’s ability to overcome struggle and continue to make empathetic connections with the world. It’s this captivation and love for people which is very neatly placed at the core of the writing process. There are of course areas of writing which are more centred on the author’s experiences, however there might even be an argument to say that this writing is instigated by compassion for comrades of the past, or by wanting to communicate who you really are to those you care about.
Perhaps then, while the appearance of writing and meditation can seem narcissistic and isolating, the motivation of both activities is to understand our peers, and to improve our well-being to the point where we have fewer barriers between ourselves and the world. After all, what would a character be, if his maker didn’t care about his creation?
I know that aggression must be part of the writing. The writer must say the unsayable. A certain fearlessness must be part of the process and some will/may get hurt.
More key for the process is this: The writer must crush herself to fully open the door to invention—and to the hope for art.
My path to that end was to rediscover the past in the therapist’s chair—not in the writing chair. It took me way too long to get into that chair, but I have to thank that chair for my husband’s announcement, Oh so Greta Garbo, “I need to live alone.” If he had not left me—and he was the straw that broke this camel’s back—I would never have written the memoir that dares to go without fear to the heart of the matter: the question, Who am I?
Rabbi Hillel, who spoke these words 2,000 years ago, has been widely quoted ever since, perhaps most notably in my lifetime by the ilk of Primo Levi and Robert F. Kennedy.
If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?
I have lived without the full understanding of their plain spoken sense—and the implicit compassion in them for one’s self and for every other. I have had to learn the hard way: through the good, the bad and the foolish that I suspect all my writing recounts.
Being both someone who writes and who meditates, I don't feel like they are alike at all. While I have always read about people for whom writing is a personal outlet, a relaxing activity to quiet the mind, it has never been that way to me. It can be cathartic every once in a while, when you realize you are writing through a memory or a complicated feeling, but for the most part I view writing as an exercise in communication, in observation, pattern recognition and cohesion. It is a skill to be carefully honed, and not always fun or relaxing at all.
I rarely write only for myself outside of notes. And while, obviously, a large majority of my writing has never been read by anyone outside myself or possibly my closest writing partner, it is always written with the intention to be shared. To create a connection to people and the world. In that way, I feel like writing is all about compassion, or maybe empathy would be a better word. It is, in many ways, a method of creating a certain kind of energy or vibration and of sending it out into the world, where it searches for people whose energy or vibration is aligned with it. And that’s when a connection emerges. (And maybe in the end, that is not entirely unlike certain kinds of meditation, after all.)
By reading certain books, I have felt understood in a way that is rare in the world. Books that made me cry because they made me feel less alone. Writing can be full of compassion, if that is the word we choose for it, and that is definitely something I strive for, even if I may not be good enough to always achieve it.
It depends entirely upon what it is one seeks in meditation. If one tries to force a frame of mind upon oneself, then it is a bit self-serving, and the operative word here is "self." I am from the school of thought that the whole point of meditation is to release the self, which most people find impossible to do, for the mind chatters incessantly and all thoughts tend to be focused on self!
As for the idea of compassion, once one gets as close as they can to stilling the mind with its self-concerns, they can enter into the realm of feeling. From here, self-importance can be relinquished and compassion, from the vantage point of oneness and unity, can enter in. Yet the idea of compassion can be tricky, for it suggests a type of leniency towards the object of compassion, as if to suggest someone may not be on the same level of understanding, which is subjective.
And as for embarking upon meditation and writing to keep oneself sane, I believe sanity comes when one willingly, fearlessly, and unapologetically follows who it is they are. If one is a writer, the act of writing is a meditative expression of this; it is the essential expression of spirit made manifest.
image (top): "Road meditation" by Nikolai Kashirin
"Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition—recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us." –George Saunders