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Zen & The Art Of Writing

Photo by Vanessa Ives on Unsplash

After about nine years of a Zen meditation practice, I’ve had enough ups and downs to know that there are just as many difficult days on the cushion as there are effortless ones

Whatever kind of period of Zazen I experience — whether it’s serene and peaceful or whether it’s like a Musical Jolly Chimp Monkey — I know that one period of Zazen doesn’t define my entire practice. My Zen practice is made up of so much more than that.

Even if I have a difficult period on the cushion, it doesn’t discourage me. I know that there’s another one to follow. That’s not some smartass Zen remark about impermanence. I mean that in the simplest way. There is always another day.

I have been a writer for much longer than I’ve been a Zen Buddhist to know that there are most definitely ups and downs. No single day of writing defines your entire career.

But when you haven’t been a writer for that long, any stage you are in seems enduring.

When the Musical Jolly Chimp Monkey, or the so-called-writer’s block, or the rejection, or the endless distractions are all you have, it can feel hopeless.

It is never, ever hopeless.

The ones who make it in this line of work don’t define themselves by such a narrow experience. They are the ones who gleefully test themselves. They have experienced what a rich and infinite experience writing is.

If you want to make it in this business, then you have to suffer through the Musical Jolly Chimp Monkey, so-called-writer’s block, rejection, and endless distractions.

If you want to make it in this business, then you have to face yourself. But there are better things on the other side.

Here are just a few of the steps in your journey and how you can get to the other side of them.

  1. Honeymoon. When you start you’re all bright-eyed, and you feel euphoric. You’re doing something you’ve always wanted to do. You’re pursuing your dream! You tell people, I am a writer, and it feels exotic, like you are living a life that other people only dream of. Sure it feels great, but there is nothing of substance in this phase. This phase is boring. Nothing worthwhile happens here. Move on.
  2. Okay this is hard. Now it’s getting good! This is where you learn what it is you’re afraid to do. Everyone has something they’re afraid to do. Maybe it’s exposing yourself to judgment and rejection. Maybe it’s sticking to a consistent writing schedule. If you came into this believing that writing is your “dream”, this is where you discover just what you are willing to do to make that dream come true. This is the stage where most people quit. This is the stage where the weaker willed give excuses more power than they deserve. What’s more important to you, your excuses or your dream? You decide.
  3. Where is the next hole I can crawl into? This is the hardest stage you’ll experience. You’ve put in so much work but don’t see the results you want. You seriously question whether you should quit. Don’t. This is where you learn about yourself. This is the stage where the weakest are weeded out and where you discover how much heart you truly have. You need to make it through this hellscape to get to paradise. All you have to do is keep showing up, but the only way out of it is through. Better things are on the other side.
  4. Hey, I actually love writing. Then one day you’re working, and you don’t think about how hard it is. You love the work itself, a deep abiding love, the kind that takes the good with the bad. Whether you have 10 readers or 10,000, it is enough to do the work and have any readers at all. There is just as much darkness as there is light but it’s all the same to you.
  5. Acceptance (It is all good). Every period of writing — and you have many — gave you something that creates a rich tapestry of an experience. You made it here, because you didn’t just survive; you thrived. You know how to play the long game. You are grateful for the ups and downs — the euphoria, the distractions, the grit, even the Musical Jolly Chimp Monkey — and you make peace with yourself. Your life as a writer isn’t any one stage but a vast spectrum of experiences. This is when being a writer takes on a whole new meaning.

At the end of every year the Zen tradition I practice observes what is called Rohatsu. It’s a commemoration of the Buddha’s enlightenment and those six days before it when he sat under a Bodhi tree tormented by demons.

Whether the Buddha actually sat under a tree for six days and was actually tormented by actual demons and attained actual enlightenment is beside the point. It’s the story that matters.

The story is that he pushed himself as far as he thought he could go, and then he pushed himself further. He faced himself, and only then did he attain that truth.

The story is that after attaining that truth, he went on to practice and pass on his teachings for another four decades.

The story is that he had to let go a life of comfort in order to attain something greater.

A meditation practice is not defined by any one particular day, just as a writing practice is not defined by any one day. With such a narrow view, you limit your vision of what is possible.

Let go of comfort to attain something greater. Face yourself to see what’s on the other side.