It’s Not Slacking Off . . . It’s Research!
There’s a story some Buddhist practitioners tell about two novice monks in a monastery. Both ask for permission to smoke. (This puts me in mind of a monk who visited Eugene a few years back, and the first thing he wanted was a hamburger). At any rate, one monk gained permission to have a cigarette, but the other did not.
“Hey, buddy, why do you get to smoke?” the one denied asked his comrade. “I asked if I could smoke while I meditate, and the senior monk said no.”
“Ah,” said the other monk, “I asked if I could meditate while I smoke.”
See the difference? (I know—it took me a while.) The second monk promised to meditate on smoking—inhaling and exhaling mindfully, taking full notice of the taste and smell and feel and sound of his Camel Light. (Whether or not he mindfully contemplated lung cancer never makes it into the story.)
My point for writers is this: You don’t always have to write to be writing. Less esoterically, sometimes it’s okay to take a break from the notebook and completely give yourself over to another activity such as raking the sycamore leaves out of the street or petting the cat or—in my case—baking a couple of pies for a neighborhood potluck this evening.
Meditation always deepens our writing, and it doesn’t have to be done cross-legged on a cushion. You can meditate on whatever activity feeds your creative life, and the deep attention you pay to your game of pick-up basketball or mushroom gathering or your solo trip to the Bijou Cinemas feeds your stories and poems once you sit back down at the computer.
Meditation on an activity equals immersion into sensory details, and sensory details engage your reader. As I make these pies—one Dutch apple, one cranberry-apple—I pay close attention to how it feels to roll squares of cold butter into flour until the mixture looks (as described in the excellent cookbook, The Clueless Gourmet), like peeling paint. I’m inspired to try a small bite, to note the silky feel of the dough as I give it a quick kneed, to inhale the cinnamon-spiced apples simmering on the stove.
And I’m painfully aware that it’s mid-morning on a workday. I should be at the computer; instead, I’m messing around with pastry. The rigid part of my personality, the one that threatens to slap me upside the head with a bullwhip should I not write a little every day, says, “My friend, you need to get back to work.”
But the other, more generous part, holds up a flour-covered hand. “My friend,” she says, just a little sarcastic from over-caffeination, “I’m researching.”
No wordsmith should be a slave to the chair. If you’re not having a good writing day, give your butt permission to get up and do something else. If you promise to meditate while you’re doing whatever that is, you have my permission to call it research.
Another Buddhist story to close—a young monk and an old monk went for a hike up a mountain. As they walked, the younger monk expounded on the virtues of their surroundings. “Aren’t the trees beautiful? Isn’t the sky lovely? Have you ever smelled such clean, fresh air?”
The older monk remained silent, scowling slightly as he hiked.
The two went on in this manner until they reached the summit. Finally, dismayed, the younger monk waved his arms as if to embrace all of nature. “Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”
The older monk regarded him solemnly. Finally, he spoke. “Yes,” he said, “but what a pity to say so.”
Writers say so. That’s why I love us.
What’s your favorite activity to meditate upon when you’re not writing? Feel free to comment below.