The Transformative Power of Writing
This post was written by Sean Murphy. Sean is a Zen teacher in the White Plum Lineage of American Zen, and the Hemingway Award-winning author of three novels and a nonfiction book on the coming of Zen to the western world, "One Bird, One Stone". He teaches meditation for the University of New Mexico-Taos, and directs the nonprofit Sage Institute, which offers an innovative Meditation Leader Training Program, as well as meditation, mindfulness, and creativity seminars for the general public. You can learn more about him here.
Mindfulness of mind is one of the central practices of Zen and one of the keys to unlocking the potential of meditation and mindfulness. This means learning to witness the workings of our minds without being dominated or driven by what we think. Writing can be a highly effective tool for investigating this particularly transformative aspect of mindfulness practice; and this area of mindfulness practice can be a uniquely transformative tool for our writing as well. This is especially true when the writing occurs after the mind has been clarified through meditation. Where do the words and thoughts that populate our minds arise from? Through the practice of focused, mindful observation we may find that when we look closely we cannot discover their source! They just seem to arise, most of the time, all by themselves. It’s true that we can generate thoughts intentionally, but most of our thinking happens automatically. The brain can be thought of as an organ that secretes thoughts, just like the stomach secretes digestive fluids – it doesn’t have to be ‘told’ to do it. Our mind and its thoughts function in much the same way.
And especially in writing – although this might seem counter-intuitive – a big part of finding our true voice and a sense of creative flow is to get out of the way: let the creative process happen, rather than trying to force it through excess effort. This discovery -- that not only are we not limited by our thinking minds, we’re not even completely ‘in charge’ of them – can be transformative.
Writing practice, also known as freewriting, is a uniquely deep method for clarifying this process of studying the mind, opening up the creative flow and liberating one’s natural, uncontrived writing voice, while allowing us to discover what words and thoughts may arise when the ego doesn't get in the way.
Through working directly with words and thoughts, we may even find ourselves able to let go of certain long-held patterns and beliefs that are encoded through them, that make up what we ordinarily think of as ‘me’.
What happens when we let go and simply allow our words and thoughts flow freely onto the page without filtering or editing or 'trying' to say something beautiful or profound or impressive? We may find ourselves surprised at the results. We may find that beauty and wisdom can arise naturally from the mind of emptiness, without ‘trying’. Sure, this takes some effort – but in Zen we call this ‘effortless effort’. Once we’ve entered the flow of creativity, that flow seems to carry us along without excess strain and we begin to enjoy the process – because freeing the creative flow is finally an enjoyable and liberating experience.
We may even discover that we are able to step beyond our conditioned view of ourselves, and perhaps find ourselves touching that deep intuitive source from which all creation and insight springs. Then we’re free to experience the joy and liberation which comes with making that connection, and the creative freedom of telling any story we like, in a voice that seems true, natural, and authentic.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, we encourage you to attend the Zen in the Art of Writing retreat with Sean in March 2018.