A few years ago I came across a quote by the American writer and theologian, Frederick Buechner. His words were about listening. In a few and beautifully expressed lines, he summed up the very reason I have kept a journal for almost 30 years (and even longer if I count the various scrapbooks filled in as a teenager.) It also gave me an understanding of a relatively new love in my life, namely that of yoga.
"Listen," Buechner says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
Listen. It is such a profound word. Listen, Buechner says, and encourages me to be still and trust whatever comes. Lean into the here and the now, he says, for life presents itself in so many ways, and each one is valuable. Listen, with all that you are; your body, your mind, your heart. Listen, for even the most painful moment contains grace itself.
And even without a straightforward understanding of all these moments that my life consists of, with Buechner's words by my side, I have the courage to stand firm in my own life, to take it seriously, however messy and disorganized it can appear from the outside.
What writing and yoga have in common
Through this quote, then, I came to realize what yoga and writing have in common. It is about listening. It is about engaging with all that I am; body, mind and heart. Writing is conversation. I am on both sides of a relationship where I am expressing the words as well as receiving them. Yoga is also conversation. It is about exploring my life, not through words this time, but through breath, movement, stillness and being present to whatever the body wants to tell me here and now.
I came to realize what yoga and writing have in common. It is about listening. It is about engaging with all that I am; body, mind and heart; exploring my life, not through words this time, but through breath, movement and stillness.
How well do I know myself?
Each and every day about 70,000 thoughts run through our minds. The thoughts are there, whether we like them or not. Trying to drain our heads, to make ourselves empty, is basically impossible. It can be something like trying to clear the garden of weeds. You start at one end, but as soon as the driveway is completed, up comes a tiny green shoot where you once pulled the first dandelion. The air is full of seeds, with small sails and parachutes, each living their own lives. The same way our minds are full of thoughts and associations, memories, plans, prejudices, beliefs and insights, all of them sailing along according to their own energy.
Thoughts are fleeting in their nature - one minute something important comes up, the next minute all is forgotten. Thoughts are random as they are consistent, they contain truths and lies, mundane content as well as profound. They are carried by energies we are aware of or not aware of, they drive us in all sorts of directions, with or without our conscious will.
Because of this inherent impermanent nature, how then, can we really know what's going on? Do I really know what I'm thinking? Do I really know what drives me? What are my patterns, my tendencies, my beliefs, my prejudices, my viewpoints?
Expressing whatever comes
This is my experience when placing a pen in my hand: words appear on paper, the same way thoughts appear in my mind. If I give my hand the permission to follow its own trail, it can move in mysterious ways, without hardly any interference. Just like my thinking. But unlike with my mind, I can literally trace my thinking while watching my hand move from one end of the paper to the other. Sometimes I wonder where all the words come from. Who are they for? Why are they asking to be expressed? And what do they really want from me?
Sometimes questions seem more important than answers, I am satisfied with the wondering. At other times the questions cause a total mental havoc. I get impatient, and hurl them onto that pile of life's unresolved mysteries. Then, at other times, everything seems clear and obvious. Of course, I say to myself, of course! I watch my hand as it moves quietly across the paper expressing whatever comes. A deep sense of calm comes over me, I feel satisfied to my bones. And in that moment writing is the very best thing, I read my words as I write them and feel a sense of awe, as if something bigger than me has been at work through my hand. As if I have been contacted by a force much older, wiser and kinder than myself.
The gift and the grief of writing
But then, from a place of clarity, in comes the fog. I notice there is no guarantee of anything, nothing is settled once and for all. This is the gift and the grief of writing; awareness of what is going on inside. I am in tune with epiphanies as well as sadness, with the exciting, as well as with the mundane.
But, oddly enough, whatever the mood, I can sense a mysterious desire to write. It seems as if writing belongs to the category of basic needs, in the same league as moving my body, talking to a friend, drinking water, or brushing my teeth at night. If craving wasn't such a tainted word, I would call writing a craving.
Writing as a practice
Natalie Goldberg, one of the major American writing teachers and best known for her book Writing Down the Bones, has launched the term "writing practice". In addition to being a basic tool for all other writing activities (diary, essay, lecture, speech, fiction), writing, she says, is an experience in itself. Her method is to take the pen in one hand, paper in the other - and then just write whatever comes. For her, the essence is to capture "the first thought", the one that floats to the surface without interference. For this to happen the pen needs to move continually without editing or critical judgement.
Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist's Way about unblocking your creativity, uses the exercise of "morning pages". Her method is to write 3 pages, every day and as close to your sleep and your unjudged mind as possible. After a while, something happens. You will see patterns in your writing, and gradually get back in touch with your deeper self.
Try for yourself!
Why not give writing a try! Start by finding any scrap of paper (or a lovely new journal, your choice!), a pen, and some uninterrupted time. Set your timer for 10 minutes. Start with a few deep, calming breaths, then place the pen on paper and write the words "I see" (or another prompt like "I hear..." or "I remember..." or "right now...") Be curious as to what the words will ignite in you and where they want to go. What do you see right now? Right here? Be as specific as possible. Add details, associations, memories, insights. Just remember to keep the hand moving without judgment. Let yourself be surprised! If stuck, just repeat the words "I see" (or your other chosen prompt). Look around the room and note down what you see, and let the pen do the rest for you. And remember the golden rule of journaling - there are no rules. None whatsoever :-)
Did you enjoy it? Did it unsettle you? Did you find it hard? Fascinating? Calming? Why not give yourself the time, the paper and the permission to continue to explore this curious adventure...