Writing as Spiritual Practice: Cultivating Deep Humility

The Sixth Patriarch asked Huai Jang: “Where do you come from?”    

Huai Jang replied: “I come from Mount Su.”    

The Patriarch said: “What is it and how does it come?”    

Huai Jang answered: “Anything I could say would miss the point.” 


Every time I finish a piece of writing, I see again the terrifying truth: Reality transcends anything that I could possibly say about it. 

Language, though necessary and beautiful, is a crude and blunt instrument.

I write until I see that there are certain things that cannot be communicated in words. 

Then I hit publish.

But what I don’t tell you is: I write to destroy the illusion that I know anything.

I write to stay humble. 


Life, as someone said, is just one damn thing after another. 

But writers impose an artificial order on experience. 

When I experience art, I don’t want life. I want an extract of life. 

Are you old enough to remember a movie called The Tree of Wooden Clogs? This film chronicles the mundane events of its characters’ lives. We see them grooming, cleaning, cooking, eating meals, washing dishes, and doing the hundred other things that fill our days.

It was excruciating. 

I sat through all three hours of this film in a theater and walked away saying: This is not art. It’s life.

Art is life with the boring parts left out.  


Writing is about beginnings, middles, and ends.

In stories, I want to see what happens when a character — someone I care about — faces a problem that matters (the beginning). I want to see what she does next (the middle). And I want to find out whether the problem is ever solved (the end). 

Of course, our daily lives are seldom like this. We experience problem after problem that we never resolve. We run into potential solutions and fail to recognize them. And often we fail to realize that we even have a problem in the first place.

But writers give us complications, developments, and resolutions. 

For a moment, life stops being one damn thing after another.

Of course, this is not really true. Order is an illusion. But sometimes it is necessary for us to take refuge there.


Every time I sit down to write, there is a part of me that feels afraid.

I know that I am about to fail.

Every article, every book, every blog post represents the destruction of a perfect idea.

Writing — especially the process of revising — is crap detection. Factual errors, gaps in logic, and fluffy sentences become obvious when they stare back at you from the page (or screen). They beg to be rewritten or simply deleted.

Sometimes, in fact, I discover that I really have nothing to say.

I end up deleting everything. And there I am, back at a blank page.

Welcome to the abyss. It is one of my oldest and dearest friends.

Sometimes I just want to publish that blank page. That would at least be honest.

But, alas, there’s no way for you to know what led up to that empty space.

And we’ve already agreed that pages exist to be filled with words and images.

It’s OK with me, as long as we remember that it’s not always true.


I never varied from my determination to evolve hard information, a way of being that could be relied on even in chaos. It was chaos that taught me. I was so ruthless in testing, suspecting every sentiment, that I came to feel I was a destroyer of ideas, and indeed my books are based on what I could not demolish. — THADDEUS GOLAS

Writing is one of the most transformative practices that I know. It forces me to take my cherished beliefs and subject them to the withering scrutiny of revision. 

Only the ideas that I absolutely cannot destroy will survive. And there are precious few of those.


Letting go of the fluff in your writing — especially when it’s stuff that you actually believe — can be painful.

The Buddha talked about overcoming “attachment to views and opinions.”

But what I’m talking about is more than that. It’s about being battered, broken, and ultimately opened.

Karlfried Graf von Durkheim described this:

Thus the aim of the practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a man to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered—that is to say, it should enable him to let go of his futile hankering after harmony, surcease from pain, and a comfortable life in order that he may discover, in doing battle with the forces that oppose him, that which awaits him beyond the world of opposites…. Only to that extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him.  

Dürckheim was writing about Zen. But his words also apply to the fire of editing.


I’d like to write to write one true sentence before I die.