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  • Anna Gates Ha

Learning to Meditate, Learning to Write a Novel

Updated: Jun 22, 2018

When I first picked up Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, I was in a pretty bad place. I’d been a mom for about three years, and I was still struggling with all that being a new parent entails. I was having trouble going to sleep and staying asleep, and the tiniest problem—like running out of milk or learning that I’d made a mistake at work—felt like the end of the world.

To make things worse, my writing was stagnant. I’d finished my MFA in fiction right before I became pregnant with my son, and I had so desperately wanted to find success with writing that every word I put on the page felt as important and as tedious as building an entire building. Not surprisingly, I hadn’t been able to complete anything. I started novel after novel and story after story, only to abandon them.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is about the art of Zen meditation. Suzuki’s central point is that when studying meditation, one should always keep a “beginner’s mind.” By this, he means that every time we sit down and cross our legs to meditate, it should be like the first time: with openness, with no expectations, no pre-judgments, and no ego. Perhaps, even, with a little bit of wonder.

It’s a great way to meditate and also a great way to approach life, in general. But I think it is also especially powerful when we apply this kind of thought to our writing.

When we sit down with the page, we may, accidentally, bring all of our baggage with us: the frustration of having to put our passions on the back burner, the hope that what we write will be successful, and the fear that what we write will be terrible. In other words, we do not come to the page with our beginner’s mind. We come to the page with a mind trapped in the past and looking to the future.

But to truly create something new, we must live in the moment, and that means that we can’t become attached to that which we create.

It’s a radical concept, especially when it comes to writing, and I had an extremely difficult time adapting to it. As writers, we are prone to become attached to just about everything: our words, our characters, our worlds. We love what we do, and we care deeply about what we create. I am no different. I become especially attached to words, to sentences, so much so that I often avoid cutting scenes, or getting rid of extraneous characters, or changing my setting solely based upon the fact that I like the way the words sound.

But when I approach the page with a beginner’s mind—when thoughts about success and failure are absent, and I am writing merely to create, for the act of creation itself—fun stuff starts happening. Stories begin to unfold out of themselves like petals, so I might start with a fantastical story about a girl with wings and end up writing about normal girl who loses her best friend. Or, like my current WIP, I might start writing a speculative piece about space travel and the degradation of our planet, and end up writing about a mother learning to live, learning to be happy, again, after her daughter dies.

I love this unfolding of stories because each time it happens, I get closer to the story I am meant to tell.

I am in a much better place than I was prior to practicing meditation, and so is my writing. I have concrete plans for my WIPs, and I've started this blog, which means that I have written complete essays and put them out there for the world to read! Without my beginner’s mind, this would not have been possible.

Of course, I still struggle with thoughts about failure and success, but, on occasion— usually in the early morning before anyone is awake and I've just spent some time sitting quietly, listening to my breath—I am able to tap into that wonderful state, in which the only thing that exists is creation.

Mind-clearing exercise:

Sit with your eyes closed before you begin to write. Notice your breath as you breathe in and as you exhale. Do this for at least three breaths. When you open your eyes and begin to write, observe your mind. Any time you begin to fret about the past or swoon over the future, take a mental note of this movement and try to center yourself back in the moment of the story. If your story begs to wander, let it and see where it goes. You can always go back to where you started, but you may find a new, greater path.

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