Recently, I attended a dharma talk and meditation led by Steve Armstrong, in which he talked a lot about story: noticing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, how clinging to our story can cause us suffering, learning to let go of our story. As a good Buddhist, I knew what he meant, but as a writer and storyteller, I found myself analyzing and questioning whether I fully agreed with what he was saying and how I might articulate a more balanced point of view.
Here's the thing: meditators train themselves in awareness. We train ourselves to be mindful of our breath, our thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions-- whatever comes in and out of our awareness continuously throughout the day. When we are meditating and we notice that another thought-- or more like train of thoughts-- has been passing through our mind, we just note that our minds have once again drifted and come back to our awareness of the breath. We train ourselves to come back to the present moment, and to let go of the constant storyline-- what to do tomorrow, how it went yesterday, what we want to eat for dinner, how annoying that person is, why we are so stupid. Anyone who has ever tried to sit quietly and pay attention to their breath for even five minutes can attest to how hard it is not to think. We are constantly thinking without even realizing it, our minds are on auto-pilot, and most of the time-- if we pay attention-- we will see that our thinking follows certain patterns or storylines-- notably some version of the "I'm not good enough" storyline seems to be a popular one in our culture.
Writing is also a form of awareness training. Through the act of writing (or wanting to write) most of us naturally begin to pay closer attention to everything around us-- people, dialogue, colors, stories. We are constantly on the lookout--whether consciously or unconsciously-- for new seeds, new ideas, new beginnings of new pieces. We learn to notice the small details of our lives. And as we write, we learn to follow our stream-of-conscious thoughts and eventually enter that Zen state of writing-- where we are not thinking or plotting but instead, we are so in the zone that one word effortlessly follows the next and we are no longer in control of our words. It' s almost like channeling-- we allow ourselves to become so empty and open that the words and ideas can pour out and surprise us.
What I'm getting at is quite simple: both meditation and writing can both be forms of awareness practice, and a form of emptying out. With sitting meditation, we are letting go of thoughts, and with writing, we are following them. One is an inward practice, the other is outward and expressive. One dissolves, the other holds forth. Depending on how you look at it, they are either radically different practices or very much the same. It's paradoxical of course-- both are true.
Personally, I need them both. I value the little experience I've had sitting quietly for hours in retreats, and the knowledge that, yes, eventually, I can experience brief moments of nothingness-- no thoughts, no anxiety, no personality, just the peace of being, open, aware, alive. These moments are priceless, and I still consider myself a complete novice when it comes to truly reaping the benefits of such a practice (the longest I ever meditated daily was for one month while I was attending Rodney Smith's beginning class with SIMS- Seattle Insight Meditation-- invaluable; I would recommend it to almost anyone, regardless of your affinity towards Buddhism or spiritual beliefs). BUT, I am primarily and unabashedly a writer, a storyteller, someone who spends hours, months, years of my life exploring, contemplating, and unraveling my own experiences.
I write stories so I can relive experiences and fully understand their impact. I write stories so that I can better understand my relationship to specific places, people, and periods of my life. I write stories to celebrate, to mourn, to pay tribute, to grieve. So much happens in our lives and rarely do we have the time to pay enough attention as it is happening. So much happens, and before we know it, we are already moving on to the next great adventure, hardship, struggle, romance, loss. Through writing I learn to slow down, to pay closer attention, to not let things slip by unnoticed. To listen when a tug of the heart of a flash of an image tells me: write this down. This story needs to be written.
So here's the crux: we need our stories. Not the old, often-triggered, and unexamined stories, but the stories that we've truly taken the time to recall and lay out with full disclosure, without censoring to make ourselves look better, the stories we offer to ourselves and to others with full transparency and acceptance of the roles that we've played. We are never just helpless victims, nor are we ever just evil aggressors. There is always some kind of balance at play, a balance of being acted upon and acting out, simultaneously being affected by the world and affecting the world, absorbing and expressing. Yes, sometimes hard and ugly truths need to come out, but ultimately, we expose these in an effort towards healing, so those truths-- no longer unexamined and thus hidden-- no longer need to shame us. We look closely at ourselves, so that we can let go of old images of self. Again, it's a paradox. The more closely we have examined our stories, the more we can recognize them as just that-- stories. Not hardened, unchangeable definitions of who we are and will always be. But versions of who we once were, a gradual shifting continuum.
Ultimately, I knew I was on the same page as Steve (the dharma teacher), when he said something about mindfulness practice (i.e. meditation) being akin to the practice of grieving skillfully. In both storytelling and meditation, we learn to watch and listen as things arise and fall away, arise and fall away... we learn to mourn the passage of all these thoughts and people and stories. We pay attention, we see things for what they are, and we see how everything is constantly changing, birthing, dying, passing. We are alive, yet one day we will die. The only proper response is to love and to grieve. To honor this passage and to learn to let go of old stories that we no longer need to hold onto. To know that each time we learn to tell a story right-- to to reach that place where when we read or speak the story our hearts resonate with recognition as if we have finally articulated something we've always known inside -- then we are able to let go that story, to grieve its passage, our passage, into this new moment, and new life.