I attended a writer’s retreat last June. The name of the retreat was “Writing and Dharma,” and it was billed as a combination writing and meditation retreat. Sounded right up my alley, so I jumped a plane to Portland, Oregon, and caught a rideshare to Cloud Mountain meditation center in the southern part of Washington. Nestled in a forest of the tallest trees I’ve seen, it had tranquil written all over it. Just the ticket for a case of high stress and writer’s block.
What I did not realize: it was an advanced meditation retreat. What that meant was we were going to be sitting in meditation about six to eight hours a day. And the entire time, when not in “dharma class” with our instructor, we’d be in silence the whole time. (On a separate note: if you’re ever going to go to a retreat, read the fine print!)
During our introductions, I heard almost every other student mentioning that they’d been practicing in different kinds of meditation for years. When it was my turn, I said honestly that I’d never “sat” meditation ever. I’d tried it informally, I’d even gone to a class once, but I’d never “successfully” meditated before in my life.
At which point it hit me: there is no “successful” way to meditate. Which was why I had been “failing” at it, for years.
For the next five days, I meditated for six to eight hours a day. I was asleep every night by 9:30, up at 6:00, and took a nap every day after lunch. When I wasn’t sleeping or meditating, I was writing. I even blew off evening meditation one night to get twenty pages of notes done on a project. When I got home, it was like I was a different person. Within a month, I’d written five different proposals and sent them in. Within four months, I had five contracts offered to me.
I’m not saying meditation “magically” got me these contracts. But I will say that meditation helped me get out of my own way. I was so twisted up in my anxieties about writing, second-guessing myself and confusing myself, that I couldn’t put a word down on the page with any kind of confidence.
There are various forms of meditation. You can pay attention to your breathing, ignoring any other thoughts besides the concentration on your breath coming in, your breath going out. Or you can have a mantra, a key word that you focus on. You can stare at one point, like a candle. Or, you can try my method: just sit there. If you’re bored, you’re doing it right. Just sit someplace relatively quiet for fifteen minutes. Be comfortable, but definitely sit up, so you’re less likely to fall asleep. Since we’re writers, I think we have stronger internal voices than other people. We already have voices in our heads, voices of our characters and stories. You’ll probably find that the first few times, you’ll be lucky if the voices don’t make you nuts — the Internal Editor asking why you’re so lazy and not writing, the Critic saying you shouldn’t be writing anyway, your characters asking why you’re ignoring them, your list of chores nipping at your heels and asking why you’re just sitting there bored when you have such a huge amount of stuff to do?
Stick with it. Don’t give credence to any of those thoughts. Wait until you’re bored. After a certain point, the boredom will move out of the way. You’ll get ideas. You’ll feel refreshed. You’ll feel clear. Your creative mind needs downtime, and meditation is one of the best ways to get there. Dennis Palumbo, the PAN speaker for the 2003 RWA National conference, said that when it comes to meditation, as long as you show up and do it, you’re doing it “right.” Give it a chance!
First published in the April 2004 issue of the Heart of the Bay newsletter for the San Francisco Area chapter of the RWA. Check out their website at www.sfarwa.com for more information.