“Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.” – Natalie Goldberg
In the mirror of my own experience I can say that writing is a spiritual practice, similar to and perhaps as profound as the spiritual practice of Buddhism. When I started writing in earnest back in 2016, it all began when I wanted to try writing a poem. It turned out pretty good – the poem wasn’t half bad, and I found a surprising pleasure and joy in the act of putting words together in a meaningful way. I had no idea at the time that within two years, I would discover two profound truths: the relative truth of the joy to be found in creating unique poems and stories, and then the greater truth of writing is a Way of liberation.
The form of Buddhism that I studied and practiced for around five years is Vajrayana Buddhism. In that path, you take everything that you experience– good, bad, neutral – and receive it into your practice. All these bits are tools for you to pull yourself out of a dull, painful life of bouncing blindly from one conditioned reaction to another. Using attention and awareness, you gradually realize the innate freedom that you already possess. In this way, the pain of being a trapped being is liberated, and joy and freedom become more the rule than the exception in daily life.
Beginning a committed study of the buddha way is celebrated in the act of taking Refuge. I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha on a stormy day in September of 2005. The late afternoon we gathered, the sky threatened rain and winds began to blow as we took our seats in the shrine room. I looked out the window, and immediately became nervous – though it was only around 3 or 4 pm, the sky had become pitch black and the elm branches whipped and swayed furiously.
Even though I felt apprehensive, at the same time I was strangely amused, a bit exhilarated even. I thought – intrepid spiritual sojourner Self has more than a bit of a diva inside her! It seemed this dark and dramatic staging was a very physical presence of what Refuge is – taking safe direction, trusting in the spiritual process unfolding from the darkness and drama of an unenlightened life.
I turned and looked at the Rinpoche who was leading the ceremony and would give the Refuge. He sat totally unconcerned with the incredibly wild weather scene unfolding just to his right, outside the window glass. The juxtaposition was eerie. Just outside, hell-black sky and lightning backdrop to wind thrashed trees and shrubs whipping houses and cars. While inside we perched on our cushions in an intimate, colorful reality – sitting cross-legged and packed in hipbone to hipbone with the 25 other “refugees” on the floor, the bright reds and oranges of the shrine room, the impassive Rinpoche giving the reading instruction on what refuge means, and his skilled translator sitting to his left. Trusting in the stable presence of the ceremony, I set aside the wiggy fear of the storm and let all unfold as it would. While I no longer travel this spiritual practice, the experience of persevering despite turbulence has been a memory that I can rely on to see me through most challenging times. I remember to depend on it, but sometimes my attention wanders. What remains is the knowing of experience, and that is unshakable for me.
In May of 2016, I decided to write a poem for the first time in my adult life. I had just come out of the stormiest, most depressed April that I had ever known. Many situations in my life at that time fell to shit at the same moment – business deals fell through, four friendships I counted on as stable were ripped away, and I was dumped via text message by a current lover. All throughout that month, the yammering of a darker voice, urging me to take action, became more insistent. For all my 50-plus years of experience, this voice was beginning to make sense to me as I went through the motions of my so-called life.
I got through that April somehow, and after nearly a month, I decided to attend one of the local writing events – a book release performance – and had a wonderful time. I had a sense that this poetry writing was something I might try my hand at. Even if I sucked as a writer, it wouldn’t hurt to put some words down. Maybe even perform them? That might be fun.
One afternoon a couple of days after the reading, I sat down at my dining room table, in front of my computer, and began to listen. Words came to me and I wrote them down. I continued to listen, and more words came, and then more. Some hours flew by and when I was done –
Not too shabby, I thought.
In fact, damn good, in my opinion.
In FACT, I LIKE this poetry stuff. I think I will do it some more.
So, I continued to write, trusting in the excitement I felt in this work of setting words to paper or keyboard. I continued to do this more and more regularly. The more I paid attention, the more I realized everywhere I looked, everything was unfolding like a beautiful and strange terrain. What is this world that I’m even finding myself in? Each glance, color – how to describe it? My ears were bathed in the most soothingly intense and intimate silver tones of leaves moving, of wind, of traffic in the streets.
I was falling in love, I realize now. In fact, I got to the point where I named my notebook Bella – Beauty. On the very same page as her name I wrote that I was falling for her. Every bird song, every piece of grit beneath the soles of my shoes, every scent (Burning or sweet? Pungent or delicate?) and all the shades of grey and the texture of the buildings on the road as I walk by. I wanted to describe these to Bella, and she, the most Faithful and Clever of Lovers, would immediately mirror them back to me.
Pay attention, pay attention, and then pay attention some more. Take it in, take it in, take it in closely, look at all this before you! Man, what does this apple *really taste like, anyway? Pretty soon, I’m realizing that all parts of me – inside, outside, relationships, impulses, consciousness – these are all gathered into my writing, just as on the cushion in the shrine room, all events are taken up into the path of meditation.
The work of attention is the work of remaining awake to every geography, aware of each sensory input, and attentive to ongoing spiritual ebb and flow. Writing turned, for me, from a desire to write a poem about birds outside my window into a source of refuge. It’s become a Way to get free from the petty revolving thoughts of pity, of self-aggrandizement, of longing, of anger and loss. Setting my mind to the work of how to describe this world “in here” and this world “out there” has become a shield against confusion, and a constant joy. It’s also a wild, bucking horse that is becoming more responsive to me daily.
And this is how writing saved my life, and how I discovered, all dark voices to the contrary, that I really loved what I was. I discovered this treasure cave of worlds, both outside of myself and the internal, purely fantasy images and thoughts of my own mind, opening to me in ways that I’m still trying to fathom. I may never find the end to the cave or to these mysteries, and that fills me with hopeful peace and a calm excitement about the future. Writing will take me where I need to go.