Writerly Things I’ve Learned from Navel Gazing
March 12, 2021 § 21 Comments
By Rick Brown
Meditation—a practice often shackled with the uncomplimentary term, “navel gazing”—is considered by some to be an esoteric waste of time. The pursuit of writing is similarly maligned, especially in our hurry-up-and-produce Western culture. The rewards for both often amount to private victories, after all, and the labor expended may not be conspicuous to the critical observer.
But make no mistake: both involve difficult and dedicated work.
No one will reap the benefits of meditation simply by thinking about it, even less so by talking about it. Instead, we must cultivate the solitary habit of returning to the cushion time and again, preferably every day. On some days, our thoughts will bounce around like sugared-up preschoolers and we wonder what we are doing wrong. Other times we will meditate like bona fide gurus.
Writing is no different, especially on the positive side of the experience. For are there not moments when we become so embedded in a story or essay that the “real” world around us drops from our awareness, if only for an instant?
As creative writers, we live for times like these. It is the paramount blissful state of our craft. Yet, amid the bliss we also have days, often many of them, when we find ourselves distracted by refrigerator noises, mischievous cats, or those irksome patrons who dare to walk into our café and shake our concentration.
But if we work in spite of it all, then we are on the right road; for showing up to stay is the first and most necessary step. Over time, and with dogged repetition, we will develop the ability to deal mindfully with distractions when they arise. After all, it’s not the distractions that shake us so much as our thoughts about them, right? And what are thoughts? They are electro-chemical impulses to which we assign meaning, and from which our bodies react physically. But the mental events need not always play out in the same way. In meditation, we learn to consider stray thoughts as ephemeral—cottonwood seeds in a breeze. Without judgment or excessive mental strain, we simply “observe” them as they float across our consciousness and out of sight.
The same tack can apply to writing. Rather than fighting those errant thoughts when they arise, or heaping shame upon ourselves for thinking them, we can adopt a basic technique from meditation practice: “return to the breath.” For this we pause, breathe deeply once or twice to re-ground ourselves; then, for a while longer, we do so more naturally, noticing each in- and out-breath with mindful intention. Sit apart from any wandering thoughts we might have, label them as simply thoughts, and let them travel on their way. Finally, we return to our work and pick up where we left off. If the distractions return (and they will) just repeat the process.
I know, it’s easier said than done. But it can be done. And the more often we employ this technique, the easier and more natural it will become. Return to the chair. Return to the breath.
Another axiom to both meditation and writing is that it is wise to come to each new session relatively free of expectation. As we know, expectation implies an attachment to a specific outcome. In some instances this is reasonable: we can expect that the sun will rise again tomorrow. But in the interminable play of the universe, even this is not an absolute; and in any case, it is not an outcome we can control by way of human power. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but we experience this truth on many lesser, everyday levels as well. We cannot, for instance, expect that our next meditation or writing session will be as “good” (or as “bad”) as the previous one. We can do our best to ensure a positive outcome—perhaps by reading something inspiring, by not eating directly before sitting, or by first engaging in a stretching or yoga routine.
But in the end, the session will be what it will be. If outside forces conspire against us, that is just the situation we face.
Some writers are good at disciplining themselves to achieve an outcome—siting on a certain number of words per session, for instance. Ernest Hemingway is said to have jotted down his daily tally in pencil on the sides of the cardboard boxes stacked alongside his writing desk. But many more of us approach the desk with trepidation. Are we up to the task? Will we ever publish?
Often, the mood we bring to the task depends upon forces outside our influence or control, such as past performance, the weather, or the needs of others. There is peril at the extremes too. Both overblown and undernourished attitudes can undermine us. If we begin with an air of pomposity, for example, especially one that is not earned, we can almost count on not performing anywhere near the level of our expectations. Likewise, sitting down with no confidence at all will yield predictable results.
Perhaps it is better to arrive without a predetermined outcome in mind, aside from the decision to arrive and remain. We might turn out a masterwork; we might stare at an empty screen for an hour. In either event, we will have faced the reality of our task at hand. In the final accounting, that is an accomplishment.
In this way, too, we treat the act of writing as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve something “higher.” And if we make ourselves available in this way through the cultivation and practice of a dedicated awareness, then any added windfalls—like publication, book deals, or even enlightenment—will appear as whipped cream on the pie.
But in the meantime, return to the chair, return to the breath. Repeat as necessary.
Rick Brown is a landlord who much prefers to write. He earned a Master of Arts in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, in Louisville, Kentucky. Rick is a founding member of the writers’ blog, Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip), and his short pieces have appeared in Brevity Blog and The Sun. Recently, he completed a book-length nonfiction manuscript, his first, titled, My Own Man: A Memoir of Becoming. He lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin.