You might remember Hila Ratzabi from 2010 when she wrote about her writing space make-over. I'm very happy to welcome her back to share her thoughts on meditation, writing and where the two practices connect.
Hila Ratzabi has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize, and received an Amy Award (Poets & Writers Magazine). Her essays and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in the Washington Post, the Forward, Drunken Boat, Zeek, and the Valparaiso Poetry Review. Her poetry has been published widely. She is the author of a chapbook, The Apparatus of Visible Things (2009), published by Finishing Line Press. She is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of Storyscape. She holds an MFA in Poetry Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is a freelance editor in Philadelphia.
Meditation and Writing: Twin Practices?
In January 2012, I spent a weekend sitting at the Shambhala Meditation Center on Sansom Street in Center City, Philadelphia. And when I say sitting, I mean literally just that: sitting. Well, there was some walking, in between the sitting, but it was mostly sitting, meditating, and listening to meditation instruction and talks on practice. Our teacher, Alexander, had asked after the first day if we noticed anything different after a day of meditating. I said that when I came home to share my experiences with my partner and discuss how things were going, I found that I was able to listen to him without thinking or imagining what he might say next, without rehearsing what I would say next. I felt clear and open.
During the meditation training weekend, I told my teacher that I had struggled for years to set up a formal practice, but the discipline of it always scared me. I was afraid that if I missed a day or two, it wasn’t worth continuing, because I would never be able to keep up with it. I couldn’t convince myself to meditate every day, despite the fact that I had felt the benefits of meditation on many occasions when I did do it. He said, “Maybe we need to re-frame it. Do you brush your teeth every day?” I smiled. I got it. It was just that rhetorical question that changed my approach to meditation practice, and made me realize that the practice was not only as necessary as basic hygienic care, but also as mundane, and therefore not scary or hard to do. Since then, I have started a regular, daily practice, aiming for 20-30 minutes per day, but allowing myself shorter times when I’m busier. I have missed a few days here and there, but overall I’ve kept the practice fairly regular, though not at the same time every day. I also make sure not to berate myself when I do miss a day, and just pick right up again the next day.
I always thought in the back of my mind that regular meditation practice would also translate into regular writing practice. I knew that both activities were beneficial to me, and I also was aware of my own deep resistance to discipline and routine, and even deeper fears of messing up, of not attaining the lofty heights of experience in either meditation or in writing. I have tried many times to set up a regular writing practice, but so far it hasn’t really worked for me. Many writers swear by routine, but many others do not. I can think of Mark Doty as one example of a poet who I recall has said he does not write every day (thank you, Mark!).
Part of meditation practice teaches you about self-acceptance, about acknowledging that there is nothing more that you need beyond the present moment, beyond where you are and what you are right now. It’s about just taking a moment to notice that you are here and that you are okay. No matter what is going on life, no matter what you are struggling with, beneath all of that, as my teacher said: “I’m going to ask you to believe one thing: that you are basically good.” So while I do get frustrated with myself at times, and feel that I don’t write enough, I’m also working with feeling okay about that.
What does translate for me from meditation to writing is the experience of focus and observation. In the most basic form of meditation practice, you focus on the breath, and in other forms you might focus on an object, sound, or image. This connects for me with the experience of writing poetry, which is first and foremost about observation, noticing. A poem arises for me often when I’m slightly distracted, not trying to write, but when something comes into my field of attention that makes me look twice, or think twice. Something that I feel I need to respond to, to say something to. That might be a Jackson Pollock painting; a dying rat on a city street (yes, that happened, and there’s a poem about it); a pigeon looking quizzically at me through the window; someone else’s poem that makes me stop, stunned; a fish in a bookstore aquarium; a memory of a childhood photo. These are the things that take me out of the every day and into a place of curiosity, awareness, and mystery. Meditation helps train my mind toward this mode of relating to the world around me, and poetry helps me respond to it.
Note: On my list of books to read, and related to the topic of meditation and writing, is The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty Moore. Though I haven't read it yet, I have heard great things about it, so do check it out!