I love it when, in the third week of Ango, on a Friday evening in August, we gather around the big walnut dining-room table at the Grail for the beginning of our weekend Writing Workshop. There are usually about a dozen or so of us—folks who may be new to the zendo but who are seasoned writers, or long-term sitters who don't especially write—people of all ages, assortments and stripes.
Now if it's one thing to sit facing the wall in silence, it's quite another to sit facing a blank sheet of paper and start putting down your thoughts. And altogether something else to read aloud what you've just written to everyone in the room. Like Zen, this is a practice that develops backbone. Or, as they say, a soft belly and a strong back.
And if zazen is the self selfing the self, then the writing retreat is the self realizing the self, spelled out in all its multifaceted forms. This can be a profoundly liberating experience.
Everyone knows there's nothing as exhilarating or terrifying as the sight of a blank page when one sits down to write. Terrifying because one doesn't know what wants to be said. Like a child's fear of the bogey man in the dark, we have a sense that there are pockets of our being about which we know nothing—deep black holes that remain shrouded in mystery. How much do we know of the teeming life of the oceans, the stars and galaxies, not to mention cellular life? Very little. Likewise, we sense that the map we've adopted is not the whole territory. That beyond the manicured lawn of our social selves lie thickets and jungles where all kinds of creatures prowl. And like colonial masters who rest uneasily in the great house, we are suspicious of whatever roams outside the boundaries of the estate.
Meditation invites us to pay attention to what comes without reacting—not jumping up, say, and throwing things at the shadows on the walls. In the same way, free-writing involves not just investigating, but actually exposing what comes our way. And there's excitement in pushing past the boundaries of the known circumscribed self. There's the urge, like the Buddha, to leave the palace walls and encounter life in all its many forms, the monstrous as well as the wondrous.
And so, for the very same reason, free-writing is exhilarating. Was it Helen Keller who said that life is either a great adventure or nothing, and that security is a myth? So it's really this not-knowing that makes it a path of discovery, a voyage into the deep, a journey to a place one doesn't expect. And like any travel, it's the surprises that are the thing, what makes one scintillate in every pore of one's being.
When one can follow the promptings of the self, which requires a deep and sensitive listening, a willingness to trust in the subtle flare of thought, to follow its direction with the question, "What do I mean by that?" to stay with its quicksilver movement and not censor; allow oneself to follow and not lead—which usually only means retracing the ruts of a mind made mechanical by its desire for the familiar—and enter, instead, into a kind of innocence that can surrender in the face of the unknown, one is unfailingly brought into the miracle of a fresh universe, as in the biblical "In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God." One feels uplifted and cleansed at the same time, for one has just witnessed the world being born at one's feet.
At the outset, what is timid and tentative becomes increasingly bold as the seams of silenced thought surface, unfurl, find their crest and having had their say, subside, leaving one transformed. The writer, like a traveler in the desert who has come upon a spring, turns back to the self renewed, and moved by the wish to make up for lost time.