I used to believe that I shouldn’t sit down to write unless I had a compelling vision of what I’d say. Unfortunately, this attitude was the reason why, for many years, I didn’t do any creative writing. Sure, I wrote a lot, but only when somebody else (1) gave me a subject to write about and (2) was willing to pay me a bunch of money or give me a good grade.
Eventually, I started taking a look at why I had this mindset. Why was I reluctant to just sit down and see whether any interesting ideas came up?
What I ultimately saw was that I lacked faith in my creativity. I was assuming that, if I tried to write without an airtight plan, I’d squander hours at my desk, and end up with nothing but frustration to show for it.
My Emptiness Experiment
Armed with this knowledge, I decided to experiment with simply sitting, and trusting that inspiration would arise. I committed to myself that, if necessary, I’d sit there all night. I’d only give up if I woke up facedown on my desk in front of an empty computer screen.
My prediction that I’d get frustrated proved to be right. I labored mightily to fill the blank screen with words, but none of my ideas or sentences seemed to satisfy me. My shoulders grew painfully rigid, as if I were trying to physically push the emptiness away.
After an hour or two of helpless thrashing, it dawned on me that I wasn’t following the spirit of my experiment. Instead of having faith that my creative energies would emerge on their own timetable, I was trying to force them to work.
Dropping The Need To “Just Do It”
I began making progress only when I dropped the struggle. I sighed deeply, let my shoulders relax, erased the words I’d written just to fill space, and simply stared into the creative vacuum on my monitor.
In the moment when my flailing ceased, the emptiness in my mind, and on the screen, began to dissipate. Effortlessly, fluidly, another article began taking shape. Within twenty minutes, the new piece was ready for editing.
As it turned out, the physical act of typing the article wasn’t the hard part of the writing process. The difficult part was trusting that, eventually, my creativity would come out to play — letting go of my need to fill the emptiness, and having faith that it would pass away on its own.
In other words, I see the emptiness we encounter when we’re writing, or doing some other creative pursuit, as a test of our faith in ourselves. We pass the test when we end our thrashing and trust that, in its own time, and in its own unpredictable way, inspiration will show up.
Many people see writing as a matter of “just doing it” — of forcing ourselves to write something, no matter how much pushing, fighting or flailing it takes. This “beat yourself into submission” strategy seems to work for some people. But if it’s wearing thin for you, I invite you to try simply sitting, relaxing, and waiting on your muse.
(This is an unofficial sequel to my piece at The Change Blog called “What To Do When Meditation Gets ‘Hard.’”)
Nearly 100% of the time (and it happened again last night), when someone asks me a question about meditation, it goes like this: “I can’t meditate because I can’t empty my mind.” Because this seems like a common concern, I thought it might be helpful to offer my take.
Notice that this question assumes that meditation is supposed to give you a particular experience — an experience of mental emptiness. If you don’t have that experience when you meditate, you’re “doing it wrong,” and you need to change your approach.
“Getting It Right” And Suffering
Of course, this is a familiar way of thinking. For example, we tend to assume that, if I’m feeling unhappy, I need to change some aspect of how I’m living — maybe get a new job or relationship. If I’m feeling angry, I need to vent my anger, or do something to “improve” my mood.
In other words, we’re deeply conditioned to treat certain experiences as “right” and others as “wrong.” If we’re having a “wrong” experience, we assume, we need to do something to make sure we have a “right” one going forward.
The trouble, as the Buddha pointed out, is that this is the very mindset that creates suffering. We suffer when we label our present experience as “wrong” and demand a different one — making complaints like “I should have more money,” “I should be happier,” “I should have a better relationship,” and so on.
A Place Where It’s Okay To “Get It Wrong”
As is often said, meditation gives us a chance to let go of this habit of judging our experience. Instead of resisting our thoughts and sensations, and grasping for “better” ones, it allows us to simply permit whatever experiences arise to be, just as they are.
We miss this opportunity when, as so many do, we see meditation as just another way to seek out a “good” experience. Many of us, like I said, see meditation as a method for chasing the experience of mental blankness. Others are chasing inner peace, relaxation, and so on.
The irony, I’ve found, is that letting go of the judgments we put on our experience is actually what produces peace. We’re at peace when we’re no longer fighting against our current reality and trying to force it to be different — saying “no, I shouldn’t be thinking, I should be empty.”
Experience-Chasing In Moderation
I don’t mean to say that avoiding certain experiences, and pursuing others, is always “bad.” After all, as human beings, we couldn’t exist if we weren’t chasing certain experiences from time to time — fleeing the experience of hunger and chasing the experience of having a full belly, for instance.
My point is that meditation gives us an opportunity to take a break from the cycle of constant experience-chasing — also known as the karmic wheel, or the cycle of suffering. When we learn to see it that way, I think, it can be an intensely liberating thing to do.