Writing as Spiritual Practice: Headlong Into the Abyss

Writing is the hero’s journey. It calls for vast reserves of energy and initiative.

To write consistently in the midst of solitude and fickle moods is superhuman. The phrase “being a self-starter” fails to do it justice.

Through writing, we understand the Zen Buddhist aphorism about courage in facing the blank page: “Climb to the top of a 100-foot pole. Then take one step forward.”

When I describe writing as spiritual, I mean that it includes dynamics that are also present in meditation. What stands out for me are the following.

Facing the abyss

The Encarta® World English Dictionary offers several definitions of  abyss:

a chasm or gorge so deep or vast that its extent is not visible…. something that is immeasurably deep or infinite…. a situation of apparently unending awfulness…. hell thought of as a bottomless pit….

Ouch. Kinda grim.

Yet while writing, you might find that such definitions acquire a dim resonance.

Just pull out a new sheet of paper. Or, open up a new file on your computer.

It’s blank.

That’s the abyss. Your job is dive straight into it and fill it with words.

In her book Yes, Please, Amy Poehler captures what I’ve felt about this process:

Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone” – blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book…. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.

Fortunately, the literature about spiritual practices abounds in description of the abyss. It’s been called the dark night of the soul, the cloud of unknowing, emptiness, the void, and more.

You can take comfort in this literature. It means that when you enter the abyss, you are not alone. Plenty of people have gone there before you.

And, they lived to tell about it.

Watching mind states come and go

Some writing teachers counsel you to avoid the abyss.

Never open up a blank space, they say. Pull out something that you’ve written before and revise it.

Or, do some free writing. Just start moving your fingers and write anything at all. Fill up the void as quickly as possible.

I understand the reason for such strategies. Facing a blank space strips us naked, psychologically speaking.

While we write into that space, thoughts and feelings of all kinds to rise to the surface of our awareness. These might include mental states that we’d rather not face.

Even so, there are benefits in entering the abyss on a regular basis.

What I’ve learned from years of meditation is that any feeling that terrifies us also has the potential to liberate us. The key is to simply greet it with mindful awareness, moment by moment.

If we drop the habit of resisting unpleasant mental states, we can simply observe them as they arise and pass away. Over time we develop a still point of internal stability — a place that is immune to changing conditions.

This is one way that writing merges with meditation.

Doing a daily practice

Like meditation and other spiritual practices, writing is also something that we do every day — often at the same time and the same place.

We don’t postpone writing until we feel inspired. Instead, we place our butt on the chair and get to work no matter how we feel.

After all, inspiration is fleeting and fickle. It arrives on its own schedule. We can’t control it.

What we can do is create conditions for creativity. Above all, this includes the act of showing up daily, no matter what. 

This might mean writing 1,000 words. It might mean writing 100 words. It might mean revising what you wrote yesterday. Or it might mean simply re-reading what you wrote yesterday.

All of these actions — even the smallest interaction with your own text — count for daily practice. It’s something solid and stable that you do in the midst of all your changing mind states and circumstances.

Like novelist Haruki Murakami, you might also discover that your various daily practices — writing, reading, exercising, meditating — all reinforce each other. When interviewed for The Paris Review, Murakami said:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

Service to others

As David Foster Wallace said, good writing means overcoming our self-centeredness in the service of readers.

“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader,” Wallace said. “If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

When we do that work, we create an experience of effortless flow for readers:

They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it — the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.

There’s an aphorism from David Reynolds, author of many books about Constructive Living: “Self-centeredness is suffering.”

When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on how other people are failing to give me exactly what I want. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.

Writing is a way to refocus my attention and restore perspective. Even though it seems so internally focused, writing means opening up to the world outside my head. It means working hard to create value for readers.

This is something to remember every time that we sit down and commit an act of writing. First we can take a few conscious breaths and pause to affirm our courage and generosity.

This makes it a little easier to continue scribbling into the abyss.