Dennis James Sweeney: I got the idea of beginning a conversation about the idea of meditation, mindfulness, and its effect on writers and writing when I read Carolyn Zaikowski’s contribution to one of our Sunday Entropy Lists, “How Do You Cope?”: “If I’m being honest with myself, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that meditating and the dharma have saved my life, so it’s good to know I could bring that, secretly, when I get stuck on a desert island.” I invited Carolyn, who got her MFA at the Buddhist university Naropa and has done a lot of thinking on the subject, to join me in a conversation about the role meditation plays in writing.
My own intersections with Buddhism and meditation didn’t start until I met a bald Russian man named Zen on the beach in Bali. Shortly thereafter I went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Thailand, but I didn’t return to meditating regularly until nearly three years later: this summer, when a few life things changed and I became aware of how anxious I was on a daily basis. In the interim, and even before I was in Bali, Buddhist and Taoist thought has played a big role in how I think of myself and the scheme of things.
Carolyn, how’d you start into all this?
Carolyn Zaikowski: I started thinking about the dharma and Buddhism when I was 17 or 18. I had a dear friend who lived at the Cambridge Zen Center and taught me how to meditate and showed me the world of Zen koans, which blew my mind (and by the way, Zen koans are fascinating to study if you’re a language nerd). I felt drawn not just to meditating, but to the pillars of Buddhism…the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Buddhist conception of karma and causality (which is really different from our unfortunate pop-culture notion of karma), the Buddha’s life story and Buddhist psychology. As I understand it, Buddhism is really about being a scientist, investigating the nature and fabric of reality with an incredibly detailed, keen, and systematic eye.
I live in Western Massachusetts now, which has amazing Theravada Buddhist resources like Insight Meditation Society and the Vipassana center, Dhamma Dhara. I try to go on at least one week-long retreat every year.
I also went on a monastic retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2011. Where did you go on retreat in Thailand? And can I ask: Do you consider yourself spiritual or is meditation more of a secular to you (or some combination?) Also, I obviously want to hear more about the bald Russian man.
DJS: That’s a really interesting question about spiritual/secular. I have just been reading this pretty wild book called Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche and the author, Bill Plotkin, makes this distinction between “soul” and “spirit,” spirit being the stuff that binds the universe together and soul being the individual manifestation of it. And I was thinking about how for my own soul, I typically try to follow Buddhist precepts like non-attachment and mindfulness, but when I am interacting with the world, I take what I think of as a more Taoist approach, sort of letting things happen and going with the flow and not trying to force things. I have all these quotes from a calendar my aunt gave me once taped on my bedroom walls, and one says: “Nature does not hurry; yet everything is accomplished,” from the Tao Te Ching.
All of which is to say, I’m not sure I even know how to make a distinction between spiritual and secular. Some days, everything feels sacred and full of “spirit” to me, and some days I just meditate in the morning because I know that I’ll lose my shit around 3 o’clock if I don’t. I wonder if how spiritual any of it feels just depends on how much energy I have at a given moment?
My retreat was at Suan Mokkh in southern Thailand. Theravada Buddhists there of course, mostly monks. Man, they were hardcore! At the debrief at the end of the retreat, I got on the microphone and basically said, “This is a great technique for getting through life, but I don’t want to flee attachment the way you all do; if it takes pain to experience pleasure, I’ll take the pain.” Do you see meditation and following Buddhist precepts as an ascetic thing that way? It’s weird and difficult to be in the world, really engaged with life—maybe that means drinking sometimes, or staying up late, or letting our desires get out of hand—and still try to live with mindfulness and attention. I get the sense that you’re better at it than I am.
Maybe another way to phrase that, or some kind of extension of it: If Buddhism is a science, is it somehow opposed to art, and the spontaneity and excesses we sometimes associate with art? How on earth do you reconcile those things, if they’re in fact at odds?
CZ: Interesting. I don’t see the precepts as ascetic at all—I’m attracted to Buddhism because it’s literally “the middle path.” That’s what Buddha called it. Of course, like in any religion, monks and nuns commit to many precepts that seem extreme to lay people, but they have an intense base of training and they’re understanding those precepts very differently from you and I. A funny thing has happened in the past several decades of lay people doing semi-monastic, short-term meditation treats which is a new development in Buddhist history (I’m not sure a lot of Westerners realize this) and it hasn’t been totally worked out yet.
But the precepts are explicitly about finding balance and finding a mindful relationship to reality, not about total renunciation of the world, even for monks. Many are just monks for a few years, for instance, and during that time they are acting as teachers, continually connected to the community. My Buddhist teachers have always said this is the point of the practice—to go into the world, to be mindful not just when you’re meditating, but when you’re brushing your teeth, eating, loving, feeling, thinking; that you can and should practice rogue mindfulness anywhere and everywhere.
The precepts can be applied to lay life in beautiful ways. A precept of abstinence that monks take, for example: for lay people this precept is about a mindful relationship to sexuality, not using sexual energy to create harm. A precept about wise speech, for lay people, is about not causing harm through language, using communication to reduce suffering. It’s all about being skillful or even being a Bodhisattva to reduce suffering for all beings.
The Buddhist texts talk about “skillful and unskillful desires”…to have a desire to end suffering for all beings, for instance, is wonderful! To take sensory pleasures can be very skillful, too, because it connects you to the moment, but unskillful if you become an addict. To have a basic drive to be healthy is skillful and causes less suffering; to have an obsession with youth or immortality, to control uncontrollable things—not so skillful, because it goes against the fabric of reality and creates clinging to unstable concepts, which creates suffering.
Non-attachment is different from detachment. Detachment—I think—is a sort of Western idea, something akin to pathological dissociation. Sometimes I see meditators trying to detach, trying to not care, to get rid of feeling. I heard someone call this the phenomenon of the “unenlightened Buddha”. Non-attachment is grace and equanimity. Like being a mountain who experiences and is shaped by all kinds of weather, including love and pain and everything in between, but who doesn’t get knocked over by it. It’s not about detaching from pain and love and sensory wonder; it’s the opposite. It’s non-fiddling. Living completely touched by reality, accepting reality, holding it all with skill and grace, creating a huge container for all of life’s manifestations to be safe in as they ride out their time in this weird existence.
It’s not like in Christianity where it’s a sin to break precepts and be excessive. It’s more neutral. It’s just a simple recognition of the fact that, yeah, if I have a non-mindful relationship to sexuality, food, aggression, speech, drugs, etc. that’s going to be harmful. I can do those things, but it would be a delusion to think I could be both reckless with them and ultimately happy. I also risk harming others. This is what really sold me on the precepts—I was harming others with my lack of mindfulness, and when I realized how much, I was horrified. To paraphrase the teachings, our selves are all made of non-self elements; I am in continual dependent co-arising with you. This is not lofty or New-Agey; it’s just the nature of reality. There’s not one single way in which anything in this world exists apart from anything else. The precepts are about making sure we take care of each other.
I wonder if any of these things—art, science, spirituality—are opposed at all. There are definitely stories we could tell in which they are separate. I’m very interested in the story where they meet…for instance, I see an ocean, or a picture of cells under a microscope, and I think: what an unbelievable piece of art! Buddhism is scientific in that it’s about systematic observation of reality. Art is included in that, for sure! What do you think? You talk about the Tao and not trying to force things—that’s reminiscent, to me, of non-attachment, non-fiddling. Does this come into play for you when you think about the arts and your own artistic practices?
DJS: Wow. Can you be my guru? That’s amazing stuff—especially about the “unenlightened Buddha.” I realize my meditation practice so frequently focuses on detachment, on shrinking myself to an infinitesimal point at the end of my nose. I remember having this sensation for a long time, and I still have it, of wanting to be extremely small, still existing but taking up no space at all. But when I did that first meditation on the beach with my Russian buddy Zen, I remember him saying, “Your self will grow to feel like it is the size of the universe.” I had no idea what he meant, and still didn’t until you said what you just said.
At the same time, your point about Buddhism being a systematic observation of reality strikes a chord that I may have had in me for a while. A few years ago, when I was first beginning to really think about this stuff, I wrote in a journal about my own tendency in the past to think about myself all the time, and all the anxiety that caused. I wrote:
“The way I learned to deal with it, and the way I became a happier person, is to learn to focus on things other than myself: other people, the world around me, ideas, notions. Stories…And the more you read the more you augment that state’s ability to exist after you put the book down: you see stories in everything, you sympathize with people you never know, you approach the world with wonder [I wrote that word really big] instead of trepidation at the dukkha that affects you now and always.”
It was so novel for me, at that point, to consider getting outside of myself a higher good than dwelling in myself, particularly after cutting my teeth on maximalist, uber-self-aware fiction like David Foster Wallace’s. The idea that the world around me was more important than my place in it was really striking.
You could probably even argue that the number one aspect of really good writing is the ability to get outside of itself, to see the world in its wholeness. I’ve been writing a lot of workshop-type comments recently, and one thing I notice myself wanting over and over is a deeper sense of wisdom from fiction—I usually don’t know how to articulate this in my comments, but they revolve around ideas of calmness and perspective that I hope for a narrator to have.
Gosh, but in my own writing? You might have to go first on that one. How does it play in for you, in everything from process to form to subject matter? Is the type of “skillful desire” you exercise in creating something at all different than the type you might use in everyday life? I’m still mostly mystified by the state I get in when I’m writing and I’m really in flow. I have no idea where it fits.
CZ: Stories! With meditating, there is so much story-watching! You get to see how it is the nature of the mind to create connections, narratives, meaning. In Buddhism, there are six sense organs—the five “classic” ones, and the sixth, which is the mind. And just like it’s in the nature of skin to feel, and ears to hear, it’s in the nature of the mind to do things like categorize, analyze, narrate, meaning-make. So I guess that’s definitely one way to answer the question about meditation’s connection to writing…you get to see your mind for the story-making machine that it is. I’ve had the experience of meditating and realizing, like, holy shit, my mind is just literally making stuff up! That doesn’t mean things are fake, just that things are constructed from dependent parts in a big matrix. Something I believed for so long is suddenly revealed for its components—part sensation here, part emotion here, part story and cognition there. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me or that the construction dissipates (though sometimes, gracefully, it does—a mind-thing that’s been torturing me dissipates just through the act of seeing it without reacting). Usually, it just means I’ve got some new, useful awareness about how reality works. Have you ever had an experience like this while meditating?
We don’t tend to hugely judge and try to destroy the nature of our ears when we hear a certain sound…while smelling shit might be unpleasant, we don’t create a story like, “fuck you, nose, you are inherently ugly and bad and should die” when we do. But we get so worked up about the things our mind naturally does and we try to control it and we start hating ourselves and others. The mind is a neutral tool; meditating is about wielding it wisely. We can ride out our mind and learn about how all things rise and fall, just like learning how to ride waves skillfully.
Meditation has taught me about discipline and the value of patience…to understand that the writing process (and publishing, to some extent) has an element of mystery and I don’t need to control or try to understand it so much, and the discipline to write even when I’m not “inspired”. I struggle a lot with only writing when “moved.” This constructed writer-identity of being some kind of tortured genius who has fits of manic inspiration and then dies young. That’s a sort of juvenile construction of a writer’s life, I think. I guess meditating has just taught me to let go a little bit of pre-packaged ideas about what it means to be a human and a writer.
What you’re saying about the narrative voice and what you’re searching for as a reader—how you yearn for a narrator to be–that’s not something I’ve thought about before. I wonder how all this stuff about meditation and mindfulness and dharma connects to being a reader?
DJS: Weird: suddenly I’m associating experimental writing with meditative practice, insofar as at least part of the job of experimental writing is to help us look more objectively at ideas of “narrative” and “story” and see them as constructions, the same as someone who is very conscious of the way their mind is working might do. A lot of people would probably call your writing experimental; I wonder if that has something to do with accessing that “whole new level of creating and consciously choosing stories.”
I love your question, the idea of associating these concepts with reading. It’s dangerous, because whenever I find multiple things I like I want to equate them with each other; i.e., reading is awesome and Buddhism is awesome, so reading is Buddhism. But I’m pretty tempted to go out on a limb and say that that’s pretty close to the case. Because that sense of wisdom that we want from narrator or author is also the type of sensibility that makes a person more mindful and aware of the world around them. There are more than a few articles floating around the internet at the moment about how reading makes people happier (here’s a stuffy academic version), and the basic reason usually given for this is the same reason we meditate: to cultivate awareness. Empathy, skillful navigation of our perceptions, even discipline—they’re all tied up with awareness, which is fundamentally tied up with seeing the world represented in ways that we might not ever otherwise encounter if it weren’t for reading.
And/or the sense of escape, losing yourself in an alternate thing…I wonder if that’s connected too. I’ve had minor experiences like you describe while meditating: something that’s really stressing me out will, upon appearing in my mind while I’m actually thinking about breathing, turn out to be really silly and barely even an issue. But I don’t think I’m there yet, to really attain insight about the way my mind works. I wish I was. But then again not really, because I get the sense that striving and wishing for things that way is not necessarily skillful. I’ll just get up tomorrow and meditate instead.
You mentioned in the piece that sparked this article that dharma saved your life. Sometimes I feel like writing saved mine, though not in a literal way—more insofar as it gave me meaning when I might very well have gone on without one. Still, this type of saving feels really important. Do you feel like explaining what you meant by that?
CZ: I had a very bad eating disorder for many years. My heart almost stopped from anorexia once. I was in and out of different types of treatment with some time of feeling healthy and then getting knocked down again. The last time I was in treatment, in 2008, I understood what rock bottom was. I was so sick and so demoralized. I’m sure many people who have struggled with eating disorders or addictions can relate to having tried what seems like every possible path to get out and the monster always seeming to find a way back in through some crack you forgot to fill up or some hidden door you forgot to lock. I was so desperate, and so scared it would get so bad I’d die or be section-twelved (legally forced into treatment by a doctor or family member), that I admitted myself into the horrible inpatient eating disorder hospital one last time.
I’d had a lot of meditation experience at this point, and if it weren’t for that, I don’t know if I’d have made it through. I would have been there much longer, been force-fed (a common practice), and/or ended up back there again. Eating disorder hospitals are weird places. They don’t let you be by yourself ever, even in the bathroom, so I meditated everywhere I went—meditated while I was eating, sleeping, walking down the hallway, as a simple survival mechanism. I didn’t know what else to do. If I didn’t maintain a straight-forward sensory/mental connection to the moment, if I didn’t just say, “I’m in this moment, here’s what this food tastes like,” or “here’s the physical feeling of my feet against the floor,” I would have gone insane. I wrote dharma words on my hand in pen—words like “upaya” (skillful means) or Thich Naht Hanh sayings. You have to keep your hands on the table in the eating disorder hospital so you don’t sneakily throw food on the floor. So I kept my hand in front of me and it would say “skillful means” or “the self is made of all non-self elements” on it to remind myself that I’m doing this because it’s life-ward, because it’s ease-ward, that it feels like the worst thing in the world but will lead to some kind of liberation. That good seeds are being planted for later. This was, for me, the perfect example of how practical and applied meditation can be. I wrote more here about my experience and how important I feel it is to take care of others by taking care of ourselves.
I want to point out that I don’t mean any of this in some new age, spiritual bypass way—I think the idea that We Are All Connected is often totally bastardized, even used to victim-blame and cause trauma…like, we are all one, so therefore you should throw yourself out and must forgive and empathize with people who do bad things. That is a really insidious misinterpretation of the dharma. There’s a weird reverse-narcissism that the ego can engage in when people start getting spiritual. We talk about the ego and then we think we have to destroy ourselves or let others take us over or, what’s worse, we demand that others subdue themselves when it’s convenient for us. I hope anybody who’s ever been fed this pseudo-spiritual shit calls it out.
Pre-enlightened Buddha was anorexic; this is a pretty explicit, non-debatable part of his story. He was a wandering ascetic who tried to control and liberate himself through self-mortification and almost died from fasting. His insight happened when he decided to eat again. His insight was that, on the one hand, we are not so special that we are the king of the universe but, conversely, we are also not so special that we are the only one in the world who should needlessly starve. This was his unique contribution to the world—the path of mindful, balanced relationships to reality for the liberation of all beings. The Buddha’s story is an amazing example of anorexia recovery.
What about you? Something in your life must have really driven you to meditation…something must drive you to keep using it as a guide? Or perhaps you can answer in terms of writing–what do you mean when you say that writing and/or meditating have to do with saving?
DJS: Carolyn, thank you so much for sharing that. What you said feels so instructive and significant, and nothing I can say will really be able to follow it, not at that level of insight. I wonder if what’s so compelling about your story is that it seems to apply both to really intense experiences with addiction and illness and “rock bottom” moments, as well as to the maybe softer difficulty of everyday life. My own experiences tend more toward the latter; it feels a little silly to talk about a failed romantic relationship as an impetus for beginning to meditate seriously, but that is what got me on the cushion after years of knowing I ought to but not following through with it. I suppose my experience was: I invested a lot of myself in a romantic partner for a fairly long time, and during that time lost track of myself. When we parted ways, I realized how distant I’d become from who I wanted to be. And now that I had the time and emotional energy to focus on myself, meditation was the way I knew I wanted to do it.
I also had started to notice that I was really angry and frustrated on a daily basis—cursing at stoplights, throwing things around, that kind of thing. Really just feeling perpetually slighted by the universe. I’ve always had a desire to control events more than I really can, and I guess it finally became clear to me that approaching the world as if it were an obstacle sucked, and regardless of how well things were going for me conceptually, my everyday experience was dark and bad. I’m far from past that, but I’m trying to be.
For me Buddhism, outside of formal meditation, is about these tiny, silly questions that make a huge difference in my ability to be happy and appreciate the world for what it is: Am I breathing right now? No? Why not? What is more important than breathing?
Which might have something small to do with writing, too. Insofar as they’re both, way down at the core, simply ways of reminding myself that I’m alive.
We should probably wrap our conversation up. I want to thank you on behalf of, well, myself, for dropping so much terrific knowledge. Even the idea you talk about above, of the reverse-narcissism of selecting ourselves for really specific types of suffering, clarifies and makes me want to moderate some thought patterns I’ve had for years, maybe my whole life.
I’d love to know if you have any last thoughts about what we’ve talked about—what you might say, for example, to someone who reads all this and feels compelled by it, but isn’t about to start meditating on a daily basis or formally studying Buddhism. Especially people in this specific forum, Entropy, where most of us are writers, thinkers, busy people who love art and the world but are sometimes saddened by it, too. What do we do now?
CZ: This has been a total fantastic conversation and I’ve really appreciated the chance to nerd out about this subject with you! If anybody does feel inspired to start meditating, I suggest people look up local meditation groups for instruction and community; there are groups everywhere. When it comes to a more generalized sense of “what do we do,” well, I wonder what’s left to do other than just make sure we put in place everything we can at every level—personal, artistic, psychological, economic, social, whatever level we have access to—to take care of ourselves and each other. It really doesn’t seem like we have much to lose in throwing ourselves into such a project. We can be really rogue about it, like, taking care of ourselves and each other in ridiculous, creative, and/or seemingly very small ways. And for us writer-types, there’s just so much to be said about how the conscious and skilled use of language and the mind can facilitate personal and/or collective liberation—such a fantastic opportunity, don’t you think?
Dennis James Sweeney hails from Cincinnati, Ohio. He’s the author of the chapbook What They Took Away and writing that has appeared in Alice Blue, DIAGRAM, Juked, and Unstuck. Find him in Corvallis, Oregon.
Carolyn Zaikowski is the author of the novel A Child Is Being Killed (Aqueous Books, 2013) and In a Dream, I Dance by Myself, and I Collapse (forthcoming, Civil Coping Mechanisms.) Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Sententia, Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship, Everyday Genius, Denver Quarterly, Eleven Eleven Journal, Pank, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University. Find her at http://liferoar.wordpress.com/