Nowadays, it’s impossible to talk about mental health or even self-improvement without mentioning meditation in the same breath.
But I’ve taught meditation for a while now and I can say from experience that one practice that is an ideal fit for one person might not be great for another.
Everyone is different and each practice resonates with a person differently.One such practice that most people don’t identify with meditative, contemplative exercises is writing.
In her book, Writing Down the Bones, author and longtime Zen student Natalie Goldberg lays the path for a writing practice as deep as any meditation technique there is.
Writing can be a powerful and fulfilling meditative practice, one in which we can freely explore ourselves without worrying about what others think. It’s a way to unearth the subconscious thoughts and feelings that are so hard to uncover otherwise. In some ways, even better than meditation can.
Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.
– E. L. Doctorow
If you have a hard time meditating, you’re a writer or artist already, you’ve ever kept a journal or you just like the idea of writing as meditation, here are four steps to using writing as meditation from Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones.
1. Come alive to the world around you
Before ever putting pen to paper (or computer), you need to have fuel to write, substance to pull from. Life is your fuel.
It’s the writer’s job to notice the things that the average person never takes the time to pay attention to, so take time to start paying closer attention to everything in your life so you can build up the fuel to spark your writing sessions.
You can write about the last time you did something, went somewhere, or saw someone. You can write about what animal you think you are or your first intimate experience. Or you can write about your home: describe the light coming through the windows of your living room and the old armchair your grandpa used to sit in.
Once you start paying attention you’ll notice there’s so much to notice that you never realized was there. What starts as describing your fridge turns into your eating habits and quickly turns to your teenage pubescant years, your first love, and your sense of self-worth.
We’ll touch more on that later but the act of exploring the world around you allows you to eventually pierce through to a very deep place and there’s a lot of value in doing so.
2. Pen and paper are more effective for connecting with the heart and mind
Goldberg suggests using pen and paper as a more effective means of connecting with the heart and mind while writing.
Typing on a computer is fine, but pen and paper create a physical sensation that connects the moving body with the mind in a way that typing doesn’t. Your hand is writing the actual words and there’s something powerful about it– the scratching of the ballpoint pen on the paper of your spiral notebook.
3. Write continuously without editing
Now it’s time to write. Sit down somewhere you won’t be interrupted and allow yourself to write continuously for a set period of time– ten minutes, twenty, or longer.
You’ll often find that the topic you picked to write about will lead you somewhere else. Goldberg says that your first words will often be encumbered by ego. So, get those first words out so you can burn through them and get to the truth, free of fear or limitations.
It’s also important to not have any particular expectations when writing. Sometimes what you write is good, other times it’s bad. Don’t worry about that. You’re not writing a novel, you’re expressing your innermost self and you need to allow time for that to come out naturally without self-imposed constraints. Expectations being one of them.
4. Read your words aloud
As uncomfortable as it might sound, Goldberg suggests reading your words aloud once you’re done writing them.
Reading out loud has a special kind of magic. It allows for what you wrote to come alive and for it to touch others in a unique way. Don’t attempt to edit what you wrote while you read it aloud, express it exactly as you wrote it in the moment and let it sit in you.
You can do this alone, however, it’s more powerful if you can find someone else willing to do the exercise with you so you can share together. But don’t share what you wrote with someone unless they’re doing the exercise with you as they’re liable to judge you unfairly. This is a delicate process and you don’t need someone else’s ego getting in your way.
Stay with the practice
Life presents us with many challenges. And those challenges never go away. But by using a practice like writing as meditation you’re able to work through them, the scars and the memories, to find peace with yourself and a confidence to move forward.