Writing as a Spiritual Practice

I think I first heard it from Natalie Goldberg…that writing was her spiritual practice. It seems that she was practicing sitting meditation with a Zen Master.  She struggled a bit.  Finally, her Zen Master suggested that perhaps writing was her spiritual discipline/practice.  He told her “If you go deep enough in writing, it will take you everyplace.”

Do you show up for writing daily?  Do you get the feeling of connecting with something greater and deeper than your ordinary life through writing.  Do you enter a domain that you did not construct but within which you reside for a brevity of time–non-ordinary time?  Is it outside the realm of what the outer world requires of  you?

I sensed that writing was my spiritual practice in the late seventies.  Out of desperation or perhaps out of my soul’s necessity, the pen and the page called to me like a whisperer in the night.  I hadn’t heard of the practice of journal writing in those days.  It hadn’t become popularized quite yet.  There weren’t bookshelves laden with paisley-covered  empty journals, lined or unlined.

For me, lined spiral-bound notebooks marked the beginning of this practice.  And it was daily, nightly, whenever I needed a companionable friend to talk to.  This newly discovered partner was so receptive.  It stood by me and bore any emotion, sorrow, hope, fear, optimism, resurrection…everything over the years.

Showing up for writing was a daily practice. It offered soul connection, enabling me to process through something and arrive at a better place, eventually.  Sometimes the journey was long, harsh and unyielding.  But the page heard it all with neither complaint nor judgment, like a gentle confessor with the power to heal.  These journals have borne witness to the descent and resurrection over and over again.  Writing as a spiritual practice has been an avenue towards the integrity of my body, spirit and mind.

 

Alone (from an earlier journal writing)

I almost turned the car around and drove home although I had booked a cottage for the night.  I didn’t come to Ashland to feel into the loneliness.  I wanted a day of escape.  Now, I had a sudden longing for home and the usual distractions that occupy me.

There is a lot going on in my life right now.  People close to me are gravely sick.  I give, sometimes over-give, or just carry the weight of things.  I’m taking too many online classes.  I need real people who are in good health to counterbalance the rest.  Virtual people don’t help with loneliness.

Earlier in the day, I had lunch at a favorite cafe–alone.  I went to see a movie–alone.  I walked out of the movie theater after fifteen minutes of watching the actors go through torment.  Why watch other people’s drama on a big screen?  Even if the acting is good, who needs it?  I went out to dinner–alone.  And now, I’m in a newly renovated cottage, again, alone.

I hadn’t unpacked the car yet.  A pang of loneliness surfaced and I got in the car to drive home.  As I was driving down the alley, four stately deer blocked my path.  They are accustomed to people.  They stood there for a few minutes.  I waited–the spotlight on them.  They were unfazed by the car or me.  They neither leapt nor ran.  They either stood stationary or they mosied.  I groped for the camera and got one hazy photo of the youngest deer, though not a good one.  It was at that point that I committed to staying for the night.

This room smells like fresh paint.  There is no television.  It’s weird to be in a large room without my “stuff” floating around me in familiar disarray.  The cottage has a sweet creature comfort–a jacuzzi tub, bath salts and a candle–why not?

I got my luggage from the car and unpacked.  I lit the candle, set it beside the tub, said a prayer, took a bath.  I practiced the familiar rituals of quieting myself.  Tomorrow is another day.  For now, it’s my time.  Self-nurture can soothe the feeling of loneliness and get one through a difficult moment.

****
In our culture, there are a lot of lonely people.  We certainly aren’t alone in our loneliness.

 

deer4a

Grieve Deeply, Laugh Loudly

pic2We’ve heard this, right?  In order to feel the joy, you have to feel the sorrow.  If you shut off one part of yourself, you are shutting off being fully alive.  How you relate to your emotional life is going to affect your writing and creativity.

Poetry has been the greatest facilitator of the big emotions for me.  Journal writing and painting are close seconds.  I’ve learned that as I’m able to be present with an emotion, I then pass through that territory.  I come out the other side intact and a bit more integrated.

To be an effective writer, finding a way to say “I feel sad” without explicitly stating “I feel sad,” comes with practice.

Below is an excerpt from a piece I wrote in 2011.  My parents had died six months apart following several years of their decline and concurrent family disruption.

“I stopped at Burger Express.  It seemed like a burger was called for.  Single patty with cheese, no special sauce, no onions.  Yes to catsup.  Yes to small fries.  No book to read.  Waiting for my order.  Staring out at the falling snowflakes.  Staring out at nothing.  Squinting and staring at signs across the street.  Staring.  The wait person calls my number.  I take the red tray and head towards a little tucked-away table.  A man sitting at the counter asks “Are you going to share half of that with me?”  I recognize an acquaintance’s warm voice.  I stop to say hello and tell him that my Mom died last week.  I am telling everyone it seems.  Now, the cook, cashier and waitperson at Burger Express know too.  He is sorry.  His Dad died a year ago.  His Mom, 84, lives an hour south of here.  Everything is so tentative.  He gives me a big hug in his bear arms.  “If there is anything I can do, let me know.” He adds “Seriously.”  I thank him.  How I’d like to be held in strong arms for half a day.  I think that would really help.  It gets old, this wrapping my own arms around myself all the time.”

In this short excerpt, do you get a sense of my grief?  Did writing about this help me?  In some odd way, yes.  I wasn’t in denial of these feelings and I found refuge through writing these words.

WRITING PROMPT:
How do you write about the feeling of sadness?  Typically, this type of writing is only for you.  Do you allow yourself to fully express your sadness in writing, poetry or painting or any other creative outlet?

 

 

Renascence

When I first read, Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay, I was dumbstruck.  Millay was about twenty years old when she wrote this epic poem.  It seemed to touch on so many things that I had experienced over the course of my life.  The first two stanzas follow:

Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay

“All I could see from where I stood

Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.”
****
When I reread Renascence over ten years ago, I responded to the question “What binds you” in five pages of journal-type writing.  I titled it “Hemmed In.”  Reading this piece of my own writing ten years later, many things have changed and many things have remained the same.  It reminded me of one of those time capsule writings that you reopen all those years later and rediscover yourself in another time and perhaps another place.  And, I could respond to the same question again today and see where my writing goes.
gumboot2
Writing Prompt:
Using the line “These were the things that bounded me,” write your own Renascence style poem (or prose).  Start with your physical surroundings.  What is in your immediate environment?  Expand your writing outwards and follow where you are lead.

Hounding Yourself

Take your journal with you today.  On an errand.  Out to lunch.  To the grocery store.  To the Dentist’s Waiting Room.  To the park.  Wherever you are going, take your journal!

Log everything.

Following is an example of a journal entry I made while having lunch at a Thai restaurant.

Errand completed.
I drove to a favorite Thai restaurant.
Only two other women are having lunch
so I get immediate service.
This sinus condition–
spicy Thai food is often the cure.
I sip my medium hot red curry
as the restaurant suddenly bulges
with the late lunch crowd.
Two older men,
looking somewhat beaten by life,
sit at the table in front of me.
Urgh.  It’s not the view I want
while eating lunch.
I avert my eyes
though they inadvertently rivet
to…
I rearrange the water carafe, teapot
and a bottle of soy sauce,
strategic guardians,
to occlude this less than desirable view
of pants that sit well-below a man’s hefty waist
exposing the infamous butt crack.
I’d change my seat however the
restaurant is suddenly full–
a migration of citizens
hungry for Thai food.
I frown and raise the book I  brought–
Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest–and try to read
about the ideology of isms
how an ism creates a movement
with its own set of dogma
and gathers followers like a dog attracts fleas
and then, believing it is the ultimate truth,
how this ism proceeds to force
its belief system on others.
And those who are prone to manipulation
who fear thinking for themselves
get on the tram
and point fingers at the others
who are left below on the ground
isolated in their own set of beliefs.

****
A journal can serve as a storehouse of image details for your fiction (and possibly nonfiction) writing.  There is no right way, no one way to keep a written journal.
In this instance, I take an external circumstance and follow my thoughts in reaction and/or response to what is present.  I am not concerned with punctuation or correctness of grammar when I write in my journal.  I am following closely, like a hound at my own heels, to get things down as they occur to me.

Writing Prompt:hat1a
Consider this.  What is your style of journaling?  How do you use your journal?  Do you enjoy keeping a journal?  Is it useful to you in the other writing that you do?

Out of the Ordinary

A lot of my personal writing is journal writing and it’s all so very serious!  Deep topics, frustrated arenas, disappointments, sometimes gratitudes and elevating dreams, vision questing and existential  “whys.”

There is a place for everything…however, on  one particular day last summer, something happened that left me in a state of AWE.

Driving around a curve in a well-traveled road, I spied a wolf crossing the road
with prey in his mouth.  I’ve seen a wolf once before…but never where I live.  In fact, a pack of Gray Wolves has recently (in the past few years) crossed back into northern California.  Exciting, right.  It took my mind a moment to register “WOLF!” And then, when it did, realizing that I was safely in my car, I pulled over.  There was not the adrenaline rush of fear and escape.  It was more excitement and curiosity.  He wasn’t in any hurry…he had crossed the road safely and was descending the adjacent slope.  I got out of the car and ran around the side to watch him for a ways before he disappeared into the brush.

Wow!  What a special gift…to see a wolf.  Not many people can claim that one.

Ever since,  I’ve been painting wolf women and women with wolves.  I might look into the meaning of wolf in Ted Andrews book, Animal Speak.  Or I might just marvel at my good luck in safely encountering a wolf!  The experience did touch my own wild nature.

Or, I could paint them and PLAY in this odd lair of my own creation.

wolfandred-final

Writing Prompt:
Is there some rare occurrence in your life that  you’d like to write about?  Or draw or paint?

Entering the Wilderness with Vivaldi!

Today, rainy and wet outdoors, I decide “It’s a good painting day.”

Many an art instructor suggests that you “paint to music.”  I rev up Spotify to see what is on my playlist.  Ah, Antonio Vivaldi.  I wonder what inspired him?  Brushes and paints in the ready.  Take me away, Antonio!  Immediately I’m immersed in an intense and manic Vivaldi. I go manic on the canvas.  Then, abruptly, the music shifts to lyrical and light.  WHAT!

Do I stay with the manic?  Or do I transition into lyrical as I’m painting?  Or, do I turn the music off completely?  Guess what?  I, that means you too, can do whatever I (or you) want.  I can stay with Vivaldi on speed or adapt to lyrical…or shut the music off entirely.  Vivaldi’s Storm, at least, got this painting off the ground! Right?

 

Painting or Writing Prompt:
What does this music inspire in you?  Take three minutes and listen to this piece with pen and paper nearby.  Afterwards, take your journal and write away!  Let your writing be in direct response to where Vivaldi’s music takes you.  Or grab your paints, a large brush and a piece of 140# weight watercolor paper–a large sheet is the most fun–play Vivaldi’s Storm as you play on the substrate.

 

Winter

inthemist

In winter, in this hemisphere, we bundle up to go outdoors, spend more time indoors and perhaps imitate the hibernating bear.  For writers and artists, this is an opportunity.  We don’t have to make excuses for doing our art.  It is a beneficial thing to have a “hobby” (as others might reference our artistic journey).  And, we can write (or paint) about our winter experience!

Here’s one journal piece I wrote referencing winter in January of 2005…time is fleeting, isn’t it?

“This winter so far.  We’ve had one week of great storms.  By great, I mean huge, all-encompassing storms, restrictive, interfering, disrupting-my-daily-routine storms.  I mean continuous snowfall with an occasional interruption of rain, creating slush; then returning to snow later on.  Flakes that pulse and whirl during the day; caught in the headlights or streetlamps at night.  A shock of soft, large flakes, which, when I awaken in the morning, have merged into piles and drifts.  Once plowed, impassable icy mounds, barricaded driveways.  Immobilized cars left in garages and carports or buried beneath the impartial snow.  Tromping across town wearing layers of clothing. Boots, thank God for boots to the knee–as I navigate icy puddles at the street corners.  Sinking down, trudging, slipping, falling, losing things.  I contemplate that life is a waning affair and I’d rather spend it with those I love than take the inward journey prescribed by this winter.”

That was my feeling thirteen years ago.  Now, today, I search the skies and the 10-day forecast for the much desired and needed rain and snow…it is winter in the mountains after all!

Writing Prompt:
Like place, a season affects our attitudes and behaviors.  Winter has a “temperature and a temperament” as another writer has noted.  Write, in poetry or prose, about a significant aspect of winter for you personally.  If personification is calling to you, try your hand at it.

 

To the God of Sunlight…

sonnet1
©by Christine O’Brien

Yearning is to not be satisfied with
the only thing we possess here and now
forgetting that this moment is a gift
and to its giving presence I could bow.
Instead, I fight the newness of this day.
I resist, protest, complain about it all.
To every ray of sun and blossom, nay!
I fence myself behind a solemn wall.
Why do I choose such a captive to be?
What script is written and why do I act
a dismal part which isn’t really me?
As if this dull perspective is a fact.
The god of yearning, I cannot appease.
To the god of sunlight, I bend my knees.

****

Sometimes, I write a poem in the morning.  When I am in that space of waking up–feeling an ache, a concern or a grumpiness–writing a poem (like this one) can help me to both validate the feeling and then “shake it off”.

Contemplation:
What does writing a poem do for you?  Or writing in your journal, how is it serving you?  Have you experienced the transformative power of writing (or reading) poetry for yourself?  Have you written a poem yet today?

Writing Your Prayer

Writers write.  They write in their journals.  They write letters, stories, poetry, questions, lists; they write about curiosities, experiences, circumstances, politics, religion, sex, love, doubts, fears, hopes and dreams, you name it.  They write it all down. This gives them a bit of relief not to have things rattling around in their heads. Writing something down, preferably in a journal or in a notebook, they collect their creative ideas, often on a scrap piece of paper.

Lately, we’ve seen on the news, read about and experienced all sorts of natural disasters wreaking havoc across our planet.  And we are witnessing political games gone awry in our own and other counties.  Within ourselves and our families, there is hurt and uncertainty, growing pains, grief.

wisdom2

In addition to what I do creatively, I turn to prayer. And I find that sometimes, writing down a prayer, a petition, a request to a Higher Power helps me to let go of where I feel powerless…that surrender to a higher wisdom with the greater good in mind. Surrender is rarely easy, but once I truly give something over, I do feel a lightening of sorts.

How to write your prayer? No one can tell you how to write your personal prayer. I won’t try…I’ll only invite you to write one that truly reflects who you are and what you feel, need and desire in these times–for yourself, others, the earth.

The Eagle is a prayer-poem written by Joy Harjo. I memorized this poem many years ago.  It begins:
“To pray, you open your whole self to the sky to the earth to the sun to the moon
to one whole voice that is you and know that there is more that you can’t see, can’t hear, can’t know except in moments steadily growing and languages that aren’t always sound but other circles of motion.”

Have a peaceful day.