Ranjini George holds a PhD and MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. As an Associate Professor of English at Zayed University, Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, she ran the Teaching with the Mind of Mindfulness series. A Mindfulness Meditation Instructor, she currently teaches courses such as Meditation & Writing, Food, Breath & Words, Stoicism and the Good Life and Pilgrimage to the Sacred Feminine at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto. She received the 2019 Excellence in Teaching Award. Her book, Through My Mother’s Window was published in Dubai in December 2016. She can be contacted at email@example.com; through her Facebook page; or through wordpress.
Meditation and Writing: An Invitation to Practice Deep Compassionate Listening
January 8th, we enjoyed a wonderful evening at Glad Day bookstore. As I began my session on Meditation and Writing, I used the bell to invite participants to engage in a brief mindfulness practice and recited the words of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, “Listen, listen to the sound of the bell that calls you back to your true home.”
Often, we resist returning home. We distract ourselves and hurry through life: we are human doings, not human beings. We fear what will rise to the surface if we slow down and listen to ourselves. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we can choose to be present to our suffering. We can cradle our jealousy, our pain, our anxieties, like a mother cradles a child and bring to that moment the energy of mindfulness. And as we listen to ourselves, encounter our shadows, we bring them to the light to be healed. We encounter our true self. We make friends with ourselves. We begin to live our lives with purpose and intention and compassion. No more are we sleep walking through our lives. We are awake to who we are and how we wish to be in this world. We make good use of our precious human life.
Natalie Goldberg in Writing down the Bones says that Writing is 90% listening: “Listening is receptivity. The deeper you can listen, the better you can write… if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much. Just enter the heat of words and sounds and colored sensations and keep your pen moving on the page…Enter poetry with your whole body. Dogen, a great Zen master, said, ‘If you walk in the mist, you will get wet.’”
At a retreat with Natalie in Santa Fe in May 2018, I remember her saying, “Step out of the way and let the words come through.” This stepping aside of the ego, this stepping away from the mind that censors, worries if this writing is any good, if it will be published, is jealous, envious and insecure, fearful of what other people will say, blocks creativity.
In meditation practice, we slow down and follow our breath. We listen to ourselves: we are awake to ourselves, the world around us, the present moment—after all, the present moment is the only moment that we really have. As we practice meditation, meditation like writing, becomes our best friend.
To quote Natalie again,
“In Zen meditation you sit on a cushion called a zafu with your legs crossed, back straight, hands at your knees or in front of you in a gesture called a mudra. You face a white wall and watch your breath. No matter what you feel—great tornadoes of anger and resistance, thunderstorms of joy and grief—you continue to sit, back straight, legs crossed, facing the wall. You learn not to be tossed away no matter how great the thought or emotion. That is the discipline to continue to sit.
The same is true in writing. You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing. You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penetrate into the heart of them” (Writing Down the Bones).
You extend this same deep compassionate listening to those around you. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Listen, so that the other person suffers less.” You train yourself to move away from fixed mind, to a more awake, open, state of mind. Fixed mind, wanting things to be one way—a relationship, a situation, one’s past, one’s present—resisting imperfection, is often a cause of suffering. You listen to others and then the world of your story becomes more textured, peopled with others, not just you. The world of your story becomes more spacious, even vast.
Discipline is an important quality to embody in the path of meditation and writing. Discipline is not repressive: it is true freedom. Discipline becomes a container from which we manifest our dreams. We learn not to be “tossed away.” We learn to stay. Stay with our suffering. Stay with whatever is happening right now. Stay with our story, our poem, our play. We learn to stay when we may feel like giving up.
If you are interested in learning to embody the paramita of discipline, please join me for a four-day intensive “The Path of the Tiger: Discipline in Your Writing” offered on 20&21 and 23&24 of January, at St. George campus, Toronto. This annual retreat is offered by the Creative Writing Program, School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto.
If next week feels like too soon, please consider my Meditation & Writing Retreat, a one-week intensive at the University of Toronto Summer Writing School in July.
Your meditation practice can be as short as 5 minutes. Begin small. You can do the same with writing. I wish you joy and courage on your journey. Happy New Year! May you be well.
Note: Books that may be of interest:
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. Shambhala, 2016. (30th Anniversary Edition)
Pema Chodron. Practicing Peace in Times of War. Shambhala, 2007.
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Beacon Press, 1992.