Over the years I’ve come to accept that my work as a writing coach looks a lot like that of a self-help guru and lately I’ve been exploring this analogy by taking a closer look at mindfulness meditation. I’m not very good at a meditating and can’t claim to know very much about it, but reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s very popular Wherever You Go, There You Are is a strangely familiar experience.
For one thing, the “practice” he proposes is very simple and indifferent to your motivations or life circumstances. Whether you are thriving or suffering, the basic form of it is to take a deliberate moment to simply be — to sit down and breathe. The most common advice is to set aside a certain amount of minutes every morning and “take your seat.” Likewise, whether you want to be a more productive, effective, or happy writer, I will always suggest one thing: write paragraphs deliberately. At the end of one day, pick one thing you know; at the beginning of the next, take a moment to support, elaborate, or defend it in prose. “Appreciate your finitude.”
Kabat-Zinn emphasizes the importance of “intentionality”. When you are meditating, you aren’t just sitting, breathing, or being; you are doing so on purpose. Ironically, however, you aren’t doing it to accomplish anything, like peace of mind or transcendent bliss or even better health. Whatever happens while you are meditating is all that you are trying to do; whatever thoughts or feelings, sensations or motivations arise, you just sit there with them. Wherever you go, there you are.
In this post I want to note three things that lie at what Kabat-Zinn calls “the heart of practice”, which I find resonate deeply with my approach to writing: honoring the moment; sitting with dignity; and adopting a posture.
First, to be writing is not merely to be putting words on a page. On my definition, you are only truly writing when you have decided the day before what you want to say and who you want to say it to, when you’re going to write and where you will be when you do it. You then show up on time and in the right place to compose your paragraph. “There is a strong sense,” says Kabat-Zinn, “of honoring place and placement of body and mind and moment.” (That’s an interesting sentence in its own right by the way. Read it a few times.) When you are truly writing you are doing something you knew you would be doing before you started and, while you are doing it, you know that you are doing what you said you would. Importantly, you know when to stop. In formal meditation, a bell may ring; in disciplined writing your timer runs out, reminding you that you have done what you could with this paragraph.
Second, writing intentionally means writing with dignity. “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” said Hemingway, “lies in only one eighth of it being above water.” Kabat-Zinn has us imagine ourselves like mountains, firmly grounded in the earth’s crust. In any case, when writing, you are trying to find the center of your authority as a writer, the base of your knowledge. You want your sentences to be grounded in what you know, whether from reading or from experience or from reflection. You want to work from the center of your strength, with a feeling of knowing what you are talking about. You may be wrong, but, on this question, you have the right to be wrong. You can admit your errors here without loss of dignity. You’re not bullshitting, we might say. And, as Hemingway reminds us, the things you know but leave out of the paragraph will be felt by the reader anyway. Thus, your writing will find its dignity of movement.
Finally, writing always means adopting a posture. “When you sit with strong intentionality,” says Kabat-Zinn, “the body itself makes a statement of deep conviction and commitment in its carriage. These radiate inward and outward.” In writing, having found the center of your strength (by clearly articulating something you know in a key sentence) and taken your stand, you must find the right posture. You do this by imagining your reader and the difficulty they are faced with in your key sentence. Will it be hard to believe, understand, or agree with? That is, will you have to support it, elaborate on it, or defend it? Throughout the writing moment, as you compose your paragraph, you try to maintain this posture — providing evidence, defining terms, countering objections — always keeping your reader respectfully in mind.
Mindful sitting meditation is not an attempt to escape from problems or difficulties into some cut-off “meditative” state of absorption or denial. On the contrary, it is a willingness to go nose to nose with pain, confusion, and loss, if that is what is dominating the present moment, and to stay with the observing over a sustained period of time, beyond thinking. You seek understanding simply through bearing the situation in mind, along with your breath, as you maintain the sitting posture.
Analogies are always imperfect and the idea that writing goes on “beyond thinking” will be strange to most people. But on my view, the real thinking (the process by which you learned the truths you are writing about) was done long ago. In writing, at least in academic writing, you are deliberately going “nose to nose” with the difficulty of presenting what you know to another knowledgeable person, to stay with and observe your confusion and doubt and, in some cases, you ignorance, for a definite moment, all the while maintaining your composure as best you can. The result is a paragraph.
Somewhat provocatively, Kabat-Zinn tells us that meditation is as easy as breathing. Writing, I want to say, is just learning to breathe in prose. It’s very simple but it is of course not easy. “Try it for a few years and see what happens.”
See also: “Discipline Zero”