Zen Mind, Writing Mind

I struggle with my writing. It’s lonely, painful, and frustrating to the point of Prozac–actually generic Zoloft but that does not alliterate. Don’t get me wrong, I am not without skill or talent neither do I always struggle. I have had my successes. I spent three years in a Ph.D. program at Stony Brook University on a teaching fellowship where I taught composition and literature classes. I’m a self-taught technologist and worked at a technical writer for many years. The first piece I ever published was in The Boston Globe. I wrote for them frequently on adventure sports and travel during the early part of my writing career. They even offered me a job in the Sports department.

Anyone who knows anything about Boston and sports, knows getting offered a staff gig at The Globe is a pretty big deal. What did I do? I said no thanks. Feature articles and books were my future. For some reason writing has always been karmic ground zero. I must have slept with editor’s wife in my last life.

Stumbling hard over my first bout of writer’s block in the third year of the Ph.D program and turning down the full time gig, according to some, are prima facie evidence of my issues with success. As in, if there’s a way to sabotage my work, I will find it.

I should have known better. In the longhand days, back when I was a fresh faced undergrad, I procrastinated until the last possible minute and then hung out with OCD. Rough drafts could not have cross-outs or mistakes. If they did, I’d have to go back to the beginning and start over. Then I would rinse and repeat until the deadline overshadowed compulsion.

The word processor freed me of that particular neurosis with no intervention from the Pharmaceutical-Industrial-Complex, which led to a number of productive years during which I wrote academic papers and poetry and kept company with other aspiring writers and scholars like my former best friend Bruce Bawer, who has gone on to become a prolific writer.

Then along came perhaps the most noxious writer’s nemesis, the inner critic. Nobody, including my wife of 28 years, knows me better. He knows just how to bring my writing to a halt. If he were a real person instead of a manifestation of neurosis, I would have given him the Bronx Beatdown years ago, like every other bully who made the mistake of picking on me.

In fact, he just cracked open a bottle of self-doubt and started pouring it on my ideas. That stuff works like acid. It quietly consumes the surface and little by little turns to a rolling boil until eventually there is a hole where once was an idea.

Sometimes, like this moment, my intentions are strong enough to give that guy a big eff you. It sort of works. Ever adaptable, he switched gears and said, “Since you can’t shut up, get to the point. And it better be good.”

Zen moments are when you see things exactly as they are. When there is only doing. With writing I experience these moments of clarity. My mind quiets down and the keyboard disappears. My karma slips away leaving only words and emotions and ideas.

Writing might be a kind of karmic chemotherapy. Cancer patients subject themselves to a regimen of poison under the theory that healthy cells are ever so slightly stronger than the cancer. If all goes according to plan, the malignant cells die and the healthy ones repair themselves.

Since I am a survivor of sorts and have devoted my entire life to the karmic struggle, I want to share the lessons I have learned by teaching writing. It is a sort of pay it forward thing for my old undergrad Shakespeare professor Norman Burns. He pointed me in the right direction when I was completely lost. Paraphrasing one of my favorite cinematic protagonists Elwood Blues, I’m on a mission from Norm.

Teacher applications are curious beasts. Beyond the usual CV data, many of them ask for a statement about the applicant’s teaching philosophy. How this helps administrators pick one prospective teacher over another, I’m not sure. But apparently I have to have a philosophy of teaching.

Before I explicate my “philosophy,” I want to paraphrase of an old Zen teaching story related at a Dharma Talk by given by Kwan Um School of Zen founder Zen Master Seung Sahn, and which appears in his book The Compass of Zen.

Dok Sahn was a famous Buddhist monk who lived long ago in China. During his career, he was regarded as the greatest sutra master (scholar of Buddhist scriptures) and the foremost expert of the Diamond Sutra (an important Buddhist text). He spent his time traveling from temple to temple throughout China challenging the best and brightest monks to debates about the sutras. Being highly learned and adept in dharma combat, he never lost.

One day, Dok Sahn learned about a Zen temple in the south of China where it was reported that the monks just ate, slept, and sat in meditation all day and in so doing became enlightened.

Enlightenment without the many years of studying the sutras was inconceivable to Dok Sahn; therefore, he resolved to find this temple to and correct their mistake.

After many weeks of travel, he came upon a teashop run by a devout Buddhist laywoman. It was lunchtime so he stopped in to inquire about both the menu and the whereabouts of the Zen temple.

Dok Sahn was a famous figure. The laywoman immediately recognized him and greeted him in accordance with the customs of the day and the respect due to so lofty a personage.

She showed him to a table and politely inquired about his business. Dok Sahn replied he was looking for a temple in the south where, “The monks just ate, slept, and meditated,” and added that he intended to set them straight by hitting them with his teachings of the Diamond Sutra.

The laywoman smiled and replied, “Wonderful! You are a famous sutra master. You understand all of the Buddha’s speech. You understand the Buddha’s teaching. May I ask you a question?” She continued, “If you answer the question correctly lunch is free. If not, you must pay.

The teashop owner’s impertinence angered the great sutra master because implicit in the question’s format was a reversal of roles. After an awkward pause, he collected himself and agreed to the bargain.

The laywoman asked, “In the Diamond Sutra it says, ‘It is impossible to keep past mind, impossible to hold on to present mind, and impossible to grasp future mind.’ With what mind will you eat lunch?

Dok Sahn paused. He consulted his vast store of learning. He reviewed the 84,000 sutras, which he’d memorized, compared that against his writings on the Diamond Sutra, went over all he’d learned about the Buddha’s speech–nothing. He couldn’t answer the question.

The woman laughed at him and said, “You don’t understand the Diamond Sutra’s true meaning. You don’t understand anything. How are you going to test the Zen monks in the south?

The laywoman hit Dok Sahn’s mind and stopped it dead. “From whom did you learn this teaching?” he inquired.

“Nobody,” she said. “Everyone already has it inside of him.”

Humbled, he paid for his lunch and continued on his journey to seek the Zen temple, only now with the intention of learning the Zen style of practice.

Dok Sahn’s mistake points directly to my approach to teaching writing. The correct answer was to do something in that moment. The correct answer was to say nothing and pick up the food and eat it. Why? Because when you eat, just eat. Teachers’ speech and academic knowledge without frequent practice are like a picture of a meal, not much use to a hungry person.

How does this apply to my classroom and my teaching philosophy? Duh. Have you not been paying attention? Writers write. (And they read too, but that discussion is for another piece).

What are you waiting for: go turn on the computer and fire up your word processor (note: this space is available for a product placement from a certain software company in Redmond).

Take 45 minutes and write a 250 word piece about a person who has just resolved to take an action–you pick it. And for God’s sake forget about the grade! Set a timer and do not write for more than 45 minutes, no matter what. Deadlines are a fact of life and your writing will never be perfect. Get over it now and when when your inner critic cracks open his bottle of self-doubt, you can tell eff off!

With what mind will you write?

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