Most any attentively practiced discipline will serve as a vehicle to train the mind. But the one that has provided the most reliable model for my writing practice is meditation. Understand that it’s not my intention here to proselytize on behalf of Buddhism. It does happen to be the only religion that makes sense to me, but that’s beside my point. The meditation that is a part of Buddhist practice is, to my mind (excuse the pun!) the ideal model for a creative practice. It requires four simple steps: you learn to show up, sit down, focus and concentrate, and persist.
Simple does not mean easy! Anyone who has tried to build a creative practice knows how hard that first part is: to show up. Waking up in the morning after a hard day yesterday and, perhaps, not too great a night’s sleep, the temptation to take another half hour in bed is almost irresistible. If you wait until a little later, the mind is already in fast forward gear, making plans, taking care of the immediate needs, thinking through problems. The telephone rings. The bills are sitting on your desk, waiting for your attention. That light bulb needs changing… It’s endless.
So it becomes a significant challenge, just to show up. If you’re serious about your meditation practice, you learn to do it without question. It’s the only way. If you ask your mind or body for permission, you’ll never get there. No matter how good your intentions, if you “try to” meditate, it doesn’t get done. You don’t “try to” feed the dog. If you keep trying for long enough, the dog will starve to death before it gets its dinner. No, you feed the dog. By the same token, you show up to meditate. You choose a time, set the alarm clock if you need to, and get yourself to the appointed place. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.
Now apply the same practice to your creative work. If you don't show up in the studio or at your writing desk, the work does not get done. It may sound harsh, but you can’t call yourself a writer or an artist if you don’t show up. It is the most basic necessity. And if it sounds obvious, check in with yourself and ask yourself how many wonderful excuses you have. My own list is a long one!
Okay, so you manage to show up. Congratulations! I mean it: take a moment to congratulate yourself. You deserve it, and this may be the hardest part. And now sit down.
Sitting down, for the meditator, is quite literal. You have a meditation cushion or a favorite chair, you may have a small shrine in some corner of the house; sitting down, when you have done it for a while, becomes a delightfully familiar and comfortable feeling. It’s like coming home after being out in the world all day. It’s like heaving a big sigh and letting go of all the weight you have been carrying around with you. If you make a practice of it, sitting down to work can bring up the same feeling.
You do need to have created the space in which to do it, and that space will depend on what is available to you. For the artist, if she’s lucky, that will be a studio. For the luckiest of the lucky, it will be a wonderful, open, light-filled space where the only thing that everything happens is art. For others, it may have to be an annexed spare bedroom or garage, or even a cramped corner in the family room. Writers have it a bit easier. A laptop can function anywhere, from a home office to the local library or Starbucks.
Harder for some to find than the physical space is the mind space. “Sitting down” is more than the physical activity involved in turning to the next blank page or setting up the easel of the drafting table. Sitting down involves clearing the mind of all its other commitments to make space for the art to happen. Once again, meditation provides a useful model. The hardest thing for me in my meditation practice is to clear the mind of all the debris of the past and intentions for the future and ready it for real concentration on the present moment.
And than, once it begins to sense that clarity, my own mind does a joyful leap into its favorite activity… writing. Silence! Serenity! A clear space! It’s almost irresistible. I start to write. Words start flooding in, they sound so perfect. I can't risk losing them. But I’m meditating, I can’t write them down, so my mind begins to memorize them. In other words, I’m soon not meditating at all any more. I’m not training my mind, I’m giving it license to take over.
This is where focus and concentration come into play. (The difference between focus and concentration, as I see it, is that focus describes the attention on a single, precisely defined object, and concentration is the protraction of that focus through time.) Meditation, as I understand and practice it, is not about blissing out and journeying across the endless spaces of the universe. It’s work. It’s about being awake, aware, alert. Different forms of meditation suggest different focal points. Some use a mantra—a word or phrase to be repeated constantly. With eyes open, you might use the flickering flame of a candle or a blossom, a picture on the wall, or even the surface of the wall itself.
For many, myself included, the breath is the focal point. I watch the breath as it enters the body, and as it leaves. Once the focus is established, I move into concentration. As an aid to concentration, I use the body scan, directing the breath on a path that leads from the lower torso to the chest, from the chest to the head and down the back to the legs, and finally from the shoulders down through the arms to the finger tips; all the time watching the full length of the breath, from the beginning of the intake to the very last moment of exhalation.
This intense attention to detail, again, is a fine model for the kind of attention the artist needs in the creative process. It’s the source of another familiar and delightful feeling, as the self disappears and the process itself takes over, so fully engaging that, by the time you’re done, hours may have passed without your noticing—not because you have been inattentive but precisely because your awareness has been so sharply attuned to the work in hand. You have persisted in your focus and concentration.
Which, of course, brings us back to the last of the four steps: persistence. In meditation, that’s the effort it takes to keep bringing the mind back to its object of attention every time it strays. Mine strays a lot. Where does it go? Back into the past and off into the future. If I’m to do right by my meditation, I must watch it carefully and, every time it wanders, bring it gently back to the breath. Back to the present moment, where the work gets done.
And that's the practice.