Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Movie Screen of the Mind

Rosa Menkman

Everything is mind-made.

--Ayya Khema
Each of us has an entire movie production going on inside our heads, the volume turned down so that no one hears the script. Think of the present moment as what’s being shown on that screen, including the screen.
When I was in my early thirties, I was suffering from an extended period of not being able to write--as well (not coincidentally) as from a period of personal sorrow.
One summer morning, I realized that I was the one making my own moods and feelings. Lying in tangled sheets, I saw my mind as a big empty movie screen, the sort you’d find at a drive-in theater, a white rectangle, upon which images and sounds were projected. The surprise, however, was that I was the projector. I suddenly understood that no one else was responsible for how I was feeling at any moment and that I was the speaker of the dialog in my own head. The people from my life who were in my thoughts were not actually in the room (just as the audience for most writing is also not in the room). I was the script writer and actor, making up the dialog and performing the parts of myself and of the other characters. 

For a split second, that movie screen of the mind stayed white and empty, and I had an experience of what Buddhist practitioners such as Pema Chodron call our innate joy. Behind everything—behind all the negative, excited, fluctuating thoughts and feelings of each moment of our lives, there is a screen of joy. 
Mindful writing means being aware of the movie as well as the screen it's being displayed on. It's as Bhante Gunaratana describes in Mindfulness in Plain English: “There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought.That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought and the awareness viewing it.  It arises lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding, and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next thought in the chain, with apparently no gap between them.” 

Being a mindful person, however, is fundamentally different than being a mindful writer.

In practicing everyday mindfulness, a person tries to perceive the thoughts as they arise--negative, positive, or any gradation in between--and not follow them around the corner like a puppy dog, not be reactive. Sure, a mindful person has negative or provocative thoughts: they don't just react as often to that procession of ideas or images, and they consistently return to that large blank joyous screen.

A mindful writer also stays aware of arising thoughts--but with the intention of following one into an absorbed state of writing in which the conditions of the present moment are largely forgotten and words can appear on the page.

That is, a writer uses mindfulness as a gateway into what is largely an unmindful existence.

This experience of writing a lot, of being oblivious to the passage of time, of being inspired, is temporary, a phase we inevitable exit.

The mindful writer, though, upon exiting writing returns to mindfulness, to breathing, the constant joy of the present moment, a joy that involves change. (Part of that change is the change in one's writing ability: it has tapered off, mutated, fizzled, dead-ended--for the time being.)

The mindful writer celebrates the blank white screen along with the frequent oblivion of producing words. While other writers are afraid of those gaps--dreading the blank moment and using gimmicks to keep writing ability close--trying to avoid the present moment in order to prolong oblivion--the mindful writer welcomes the blank screen without reservation, without fear, without judgement. (A great discussion of accepting temporary inability to write is Donald Murray's "The Essential Delay.") The mindful writer is never afraid of those gaps, and if afraid, studies that fear itself as though it were an award-winning movie.

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