Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Discernment (A Meditation in Progress)

Students often ask me if there is a state of mind -- a way of being -- that contributes to writing that adds up to more than the sum of its parts, that cultivates empathy and connection, that conveys a writerly awareness and courage not to look away from unpleasant fact.

They ask, I think, because they have been taught that there is no such thing as a "poetic life," and that writing is all about style, about technique, about playing to your audience, giving it whatever sells.

I think they ask too because they want to know if there is more to writing than producing clean copy for a market hungry for distraction.

They ask what the difference is between writing that serves to manipulate and oppress and writing that empowers and liberates. They ask: To whom do we, as writers, owe allegiance? Who do we serve? Which masters command our talents and minds?

These are tough questions to answer, but if I sit with them, I know that to be effective at writing that meets my criteria for "meaningful writing" I have to write from a place of what I will call truth.

Let me be more specific. This place has moral and ethical overtones that are rooted in my "subjectivity," my inner conscience, my way of understanding things. But that is not to say it is the same as my ego. That is different. Writing primarily for recognition, self gratification, or for ridicule or revenge, all contribute to separation.

This ethical sense is different, and sometimes runs contrary to what "I", this personality likes or wants. This voice is quieter than the rowdy top dogs of sensational entertainment. It is a voice that I hear only when I am alone, when the din of scrambling for a living is on break.

Quiet, solitude, and I might as well add darkness, all help me to hear a voice, not exactly my own, but one that comes through me, that speaks from the peripheries.

To get past the day-to-day, egoic "I", in other words, I have to detach from it, and to inhabit a kind of reflecting, observing location. This is a different I.

This I works at being mindful, pays attention, observes, and then draws on whatever writing repertoire I have amassed over the years to find what will work best for a given situation to create common ground, peaceful dialogue, and owned experience.

The best writing comes from an interplay between inside and out, between emotions and information, between heart and mind. And the experience is primarily an aesthetic one; it involves beauty and truth as well as form and precision.

Laziness is not an option. But free association is. I have to speak junk to find jewels.

I have to learn to ask the right questions and to get past the noise of unrelenting distraction. I have to simultaneously detach and engage, detach from the noise and engage with what matters.

I write to awaken from my dream. 

Mindfulness of the here and now and detachment from the interfering noise. Attention and invitation to join the universal hum of things.

Lately, I have to confess that I have been discouraged. I have lost touch and been slammed with distractions and responsibilities that squeeze out any possibility of focus and quiet..

In these times, I want to throw in the towel, to check out, and give it up. I lose the thread and fall into a narcissistic slump. It is the zone of the walking dead. Zombies, monsters, grotesque expressions of humanity all thrive in noise and separation, bitterness and cynicism, parasitism and advertising. it is entertaining fluff.

But I know that blame is only an excuse. This choice rests with me, and me only. It's an expression of character

What do others say about this?

Well, Pat Conroy, for one, writing about art and basketball in My Losing Season, states that "we [writers] need to be alive in the moment, open to every possibility and configuration, and make that moment yours only, again and again.... I needed to open myself to all the possibilities around me, to hold nothing back, to live in the moment at hand with my art and game on the line." He contends that the sum of all experience comes to bear on choices we make here and now, and that one must be open and alert enough in that moment to receive and then express the right thing at the right time.

Greg Ames, in his short story, "Nothing To Do With Me," describes the world seen through the eyes of a poet as "new and interesting. For once I was really looking at what was going on around me." He sees the details of a "pink gum blob, melted on the sidewalk skillet, clinging in long, delicate strings to a fast-walking business man's wingtips." The act of noticing precedes writing. Paying attention, being present, is part of what makes his writing seductive for his girlfriend.

Luis Urrea talks about "lending attention" and getting a story for your trouble.

The list goes on, and the point that mindfulness accompanies meaningful writing is a message lost in many of my writing classes, where lack of personal engagement reigns.

Writing that comes from and appeals to the noise of the world encourages me-me hungers, fears, and sometimes a violence-prone anger at how things are. The false self lashes out in the belief that that will get what it wants. Domination rather than empathy.

Writing that comes from quiet reflection melts borders and cultivates compassion, presence, intelligence, and acceptance. One learns to live in a crazy world with serenity and curiosity.

So, words are not magic in and of themselves, but if they combine with a focused, open, generous heart that has detached from the egoic fear and greed, they can change the quality of and vibrations of the moment.

They can tell the story that needs to be told, that is whispering in the ears of the writer open and skilled enough to hear it. they wait for the story that serves, that turns the beam of attention onto that which matters in the long-term  interests of the soul.

I wish I could say I acted on this and used my life to shine light on a truth that few care about, but I have not. I have done my best to make a living, have caved in to the desire for security and comfort. I lowered my head and stepped out of the wind.

Knowing that I have not yet arrived or attained my freedom, however, can help derail learned complacency. There is not much time left to leave the small gleanings from this life that I want to leave. I don't want to delay the inevitable or continue to run away from what is, so I might as well open my eyes.

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