Saturday, December 27, 2014

Right Attentiveness

This post discusses one part of the Sevenfold Path of mindful writing.

What now is Right Attentiveness, oh disciples?

            The only way that leads to the attainment of a calm writing mind, to mindful ability to write, to a consistent and joyous practice of writing is through the fundamentals of attentiveness.
            And to what is the mindful writer attentive?
            A person is attentive to her breath and to the moment, and because she wants to write, wants to understand and perceive language, she is attentive to the possibility of language, to the ways that language can arise in the moment.
            The mindful writer is attentive to the language occurring inside the present moment.
            And what is inattentiveness for writers? To what is the unmindful writer inattentive?
            Forgetting to observe the in breath, forgetting to observe the out breath, forgetting to observe the moment, the unmindful writer becomes absorbed by thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future.
            These movies of the mind rarely have anything to offer to our writing. They are illusions that trick the mind into watching them full-screen without any awareness of what we are doing. If about writing, these story lines about the past or future are usually commentaries on our writing abilities or mirages of reception in which an as-of-yet-unwritten text by us is read by as-of-yet-not-present audiences in an as-of-yet-nonexistent place and time.  
            And how is the mindful writer attentive? How does language arise in the present moment?
            The mindful writer puts her mind on the in breath and on the out breath. The mindful writer notes the physical sensations of breathing, the billows of breathing, the three-part inhalation, the pastel temperatures of the breath, the ascent of rib cage and torso, the rise of the belly, the mellowing of the face, the push of the breath to the peninsula of the body, to the fingers and toes, beyond the knees. If the mind wanders off the breath, the writer places it gently back. This is the practice to develop baseline awareness.
            And how is the mindful writer attentive? How does language arise in the present moment?
            This one-pointed attention on breathing is difficult. It is very hard to make breathing the subject of each moment. So the mind departs from the moment to make movies of the mind but also to generate language. This mind-generated language rides on top of the crest of the watched breath. This mind-generated language is a verbal banner above the watched breath. This mind-generated language is seen at the bottom of the watched breath. This mind-generated language appears like an italicized thread through the center of the watched breath. It is a like a scribble on the screen of each moment.
            The mindful writer can wait for language to arise in response to the large emptiness of the moment. Free of context, such words are often enigmatic, metaphoric, the impulses of the unconscious. It is as though they are large fish drawn to the surface, attracted by the nutrition of mindfulness. Such words and fragments emerge in contradistinction to the moment, as a response to the call of awareness.
            Or the mindful writer can steer her discursive thought, training the mind to generate words by asking a question, tossing the question into the waves of breathing. These can be questions about the content of a piece, questions about the structure of a piece, questions about an image, about a single word, about a comparison, about a contrast, about a narrative, about a metaphor, about a simile, about a line of dialog, about a topic sentence, about a thesis, about a supporting sentence, about a question, about a rebuttal, about an assumption, about a definition, about a noun, about a verb, about an adjective, about an adverb, about a subject, about a predicate, about an object, about punctuation, about a list, about a fragment, about a long passage, about a short passage, about a stanza, about a paragraph, about a line, about a sentence. The mindful writer watching her in-breath asks the question of the moment, and the mindful writer watching her out-breath waits for the answer from the moment.
            This is Basic Writing. These are the basics of writing.
            When these fundamentals are forgotten, when these fundamentals are misplaced, when these fundamentals are perhaps never taught, the act of writing becomes covered with vines of theory and vines of pedagogy, ever more complex, and the individual who wants to write becomes further and further away from the present moment and from the joys and tranquility of writing. The individual who wants to write becomes entangled in theories and tied down by worry and doubt.
            And how is mindfulness different from mindful writing?
            The mindful person does not seek out language, does not fish in her discursivity, is not attached to thought or words, does not sort or respond to inner words but lets go of the words like a fish caught in a catch n’ release. A mindful writer does fish in her discursivity and does respond to inner words. But a mindful writer also maintains detachment, oh learners, recording the phrases but suspending judgment.
            Stock your voice, oh disciples, as you would an ornamental fish pond, with the phrases of others.
            And it is here that the venerable Dariputta, a twenty-something contemporary poet with several awards from literary journals, stood shifting his robes and interrupted, saying, “I read Ashton Joberry each morning. He puts my unconscious on spin cycle.”
            And the Writer nodded, saying, “Yes, that is good. Find a writer who puts your unconscious on spin cycle.”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sutra on Preconception


            Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer appeared in the hallway outside the administrative offices at the University of MFA Program, and a great many disciples were miraculously assembled, having paid conference and retreat fees and taken time off from work. The Writer knowing of the mental agitations going on in the minds of those assembled (like the surface of the ocean stirred into waves by the passing winds), and his great heart moved by compassion, smiled and said, We have spoken about the prolonging of invention, and now we must speak about the prolonging of emptiness. We have discussed the prolonging invention, but before invention comes emptiness.

Experience arises from emptiness,

and emptiness arises from experience (Suzuki).

From whence does language arise? Because language arises, because it is not always present, because it changes from word to word, there is something else, something always present, and that something is emptiness. Just as there are gaps between typed words, so too is there a gap between the moment before writing and the moment of writing.
            All writing is thus preverbal. All writing is built on emptiness, and emptiness is preverbal. We say “preverbal” and not “nonverbal” because the presumption is that language will rush in, that intrapersonal talk is definite, that it is only a matter of time (a few moments) before the blankness ends and fills with the conversation of our consciousness. But emptiness is also nonverbal in that it is freedom from all obligation, all mental formulations, all perception, including the obligation to write, including mental formulations about the act of writing, including perceived images and words that create the content of writing.
            There are different kinds of unknowing, oh bhikku, but they must be differentiated from mindless unknowing which is a blank or erasure that replaces the present moment versus the other kinds of unknowing that we discuss, for they are the contents of the present moment mindfully perceived. Mindlessness is a kind of pollution on pure mind. 
             There is the unknowing of unfamiliarity, the disorientation that makes the routine suddenly remarkable, that lets us perceive the uniqueness of that which we have thought of as a copy or repetition. This unfamiliarity is usually on the small scale: not recognizing a word, a word of routine suddenly looks strange, its spelling odd. 
             There is the unknowing of the fragmentary, that which occurs between the floes in our internal voice. Not knowing where one’s mind will next jump, the coming up of ideas entails leaping over wide expanses of unknowing. 
              There is the unknowing of the duration or how long it will take to complete a writing project, not knowing whether it can be completed in a few days or weeks or will take years or decades before the writer has a complete picture of the idea. 
               There is the unknowing of the unconscious, that which will take wide swipes at one’s awareness, the erasure of what has been only a moment before provided by the present, the abduction of a new thought greeted only seconds before it is pulled like a seal by a killer whale into the cold depths of unknowing. The unknowing of the unconscious pulls too at the writer, making her drowsy, making the writer nap, those siren calls to join it in a deep white sleep. 
               Preconception is a form of false knowing. It is an overstocking of the present moment with contents not found in the present moment. Preconceptions are the Ego’s attempt to control the vastness of the possible moment. They are false starts on the moment. They are a gamble on the moment: rather than reside in the non-verbal to consult the possible, we prefer to fill the moment with guesses. We replace possibility with a smaller, shorter, diminished content. We shackle ourselves to a premature commitment. Because of impermanence, the ever-shifting moment offers more manifold possibilities than a seemingly static preconception. We substitute one type of unknowing, that of emptiness, with another type of unknowing, that of preconception, a far lesser grade, oh bhikkuni. 
             For what can be known outside of the present moment, oh disciples? For what action occurs outside of the present? Even the action of knowing occurs in the present moment.
             There are preconceptions of alphabet, there are preconceptions of syntax and grammar, of vocabulary as well as how to hold a pen or pencil, form letters or type. A notion about how many pages or word count would make a successful writing session is a preconception. Preconceptions of the content you think you should or will write, preconceptions of the amount you should or will write, preconceptions about the genre you should or will write. Preconception too is the notion that to write is a positive thing as well as to write nothing is a negative phenomena. Preconception of how long it will take to complete a text, preconception that a text will ever advance or be finished or even read by others. You can not know in advance how long you will sit under the gnarled tree. Preconceptions of structure, organization. Preconception of what is mindfulness and what is mindlessness. Preconceptions of skill, knowledge, and training. Preconception of how many pages you will write today or the next day. There are preconception of process, of where one is in the writing process, ones that lead to misperception of one’s actual actions in the moment (See Keith Hjortshoj).
            Practice approaching one’s writing with a blank mind, free of preconception. Gradually decide which pre-existent abilities, content, or approaches can be returned to the mind. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them (Suzuki). Reel back in your literacy, your ability to write in the language, to follow grammatical rules. You may find you want to return a certain character or approach to voice or way of engaging in the writing process. Bring them back into the moment of your writing but do so mindfully, with awareness of their presence and impact.

*Material borrowed from Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, as well as Goddard's The Buddhist Bible.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thus I Have Heard

 I'll be posting excerpts from a longer project on mindful writing under posts titled "Thus I Have Heard." Your feedback and observations are welcome.

                    Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer gathered an assembly of a thousand bloggers, a thousand poets, a thousand short story writers, a thousand screen play writers, a thousand authors of scholarly books, a thousand writers of magazine columns, a thousand troubadours, a thousand students who repeatedly failed required college composition, lined before him like single-spaced rows of mountains.
            They were gathered on rented folding chairs in the shared knowledge that a person’s ability to write is always present. A literate individual can write at any moment, in any place, using any type of utensil, paper and pen, magic markers, typing into a keyboard, or speaking into a voice recognition program, or to their smart phone.  And yet one doesn’t have to look far to find people who admit, often with great pain, that they are unable to write—students who can’t turn assignments in on time and who dread writing courses, book-less colleagues who worry about tenure, acquaintances who twist themselves into knots because of a New Year’s resolution to write a novel. Even the teachers of stuck writers are often themselves stuck. Scratch an academic, a theorist well known for talking about writing as a process once said, and chances are you’ll find a struggling writer.
                  One person arose from her seat and approaching the Writer asked, What is the suffering of writing and what is the cessation of that suffering? And the Writer said, the suffering of writing is caused by the failure to take advantage of the vacancy of the present moment, by acting as though the reader is physically present, by not paying attention to the present moment, and by contemplating a fictional audience and a fictional text instead of the actuality before one. Dear disciples, many people treat occasions of writing as occasions of public speaking. Thus they fail to take advantage of the emptiness of the moment and instead populate it with the shadowy figures of an anticipated audience. The suffering of writing is caused by overlooking the present for a strictly fictional future; it is a future that contains a hypothetical reader and a hypothetical finished final draft. The opposite of the suffering of writing is therefore possible when one notices the present moment to gain the privacy of writing and to take charge of the proximity of audience in one’s head. We notice the present, oh writers, to gain this freedom from the future but also to contact our internal talk, internal rhetoric, or intrapersonal dialog. We survey our internal to see how we are discussing our writing abilities with ourselves as well as to find potential content for the piece we seek to write.

What are the Four Noble Truths of Writing?

Your ability to write is always present.


The present moment contains all that you need in order to write.


Writing difficulties occur because of a lack of awareness of the present moment. In order to write, you need to practice mindful awareness of the present moment. Mindlessness is the standard or default position; a mindful writing practice can not be “allowed to happen” or passively arise. Mindlessness needs to be actively countered. An individual’s success or lack of success in writing can be traced back to that person’s relation to the present moment. 

In order to write without struggle, develop a practice that heightens your engagement with the present moment through the Sevenfold Path:
1.      Right Understanding
2.      Right Discipline
3.      Right Effort 
4.      Right Attentiveness
5.      Right Invention
6.      Right Acceptance
7.      Right Listening and Feedback

Upon hearing the Writer’s word, several disciples immediately Tweeted the discourse. 

* image provided by