Friday, June 01, 2018

What is Contemplative Writing, Again?

Recently I had an experience in an online class where I found myself going off in a way different direction, while writing, than I expected. Actually, I didn't know what to expect, and I ran into a trigger - a memory which carries trauma associated with it. I made the decision to *not* write about that, and came up with this piece. The prompt was "What are birds saying?"

It helped *me* clarify some things about how contemplative writing relates to formal contemplative practices. So here, for your exploration, is the piece as I wrote it, with very little alteration.

What are the birds saying when? Immediately my mind scatters in many directions. I could write part of this memoir or that project. I could use this time to write about writing. But can I just be here, in my weekly air conditioned second floor home office, with a huge fan blowing semi-cool air around the room?             
There are no birds in here.            

Oh. Fuck.             
That thought triggered an intense place. “There are no birds in here” = pet birds = cockatiel = the one that died (was it named Baby?) not long before my dad did. My parents cried as I held the cold bird in my hand and bawled, but they weren’t crying about me or the bird, they were crying because they had just gotten word there was nothing more the doctors could do for his Hodgkin’s Disease.             

Phew. I have written that story before, recently. I choose to not go there now. It is not needed and just because it appeared does not mean I am destined to write it now, or that it is necessary or right.             

So, contemplative writing isn’t just free association. There is choice involved, conscious choice. I can direct it, protect myself in healthy ways. I can’t follow all the possible paths in my mind anyway, that’s impossible. A prompt can be like an inspiration bomb that slams and spatters and triggers choice paralysis. Lots of people respond to prompts this way – go in every direction, any direction. Sometimes that’s what is needed and what is possible – to witness the mind like an extension of meditation.             

But over time, we wind up training the mind to be able to follow one direction much deeper. So when I do choose – now choosing to write about writing, for instance – I can stay on the track, even when self-doubt attacks or erroneous associations occur or distraction manifests. Not a tight sticking to topics – still loose enough to explore – but not a disparate dispersal into the ether without trace. 

This is what contemplation is – focused directing of the mind. Sometimes it is freer – a wide-open investigation of a question– sometimes more specific – imagining people as experiencing freedom from suffering. It’s a spectrum that manifests differently for different mind at different times. 

But all contemplation requires a baseline mindfulness for stability, and compassion in order to accept whatever arises in the mind.  

When Sakyong Mapham gives complete contemplation instruction, he points to this whole spectrum through specific steps. First we let the mind free associate, then return more tightly to the passage or question, finally letting go of intellectual insight, and getting into investing the bodily experience. We do these same things in contemplative writing with the prompt, even if not in that specific structure. 

Contemplative compassion practices start with the self and move outwards, which is often the case in contemplative writing practice, both in an individual piece of writing as well as our overall path. 

I now know that that first cockatiel, who died when I was 12, had this to say this evening – “You don’t have to write about the just because I arose. There’s no obligation. None at all.” Though I have been teaching that for a long time, this kind of choice involved in contemplative writing and directing the mind is in itself a lesson I didn’t know was ready to teach, and learn more deeply.  

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