Like meditation, or yoga, writing can be a spiritual practice.
I first experienced the joy of daily practice, or sadhana, while I was living as a volunteer at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.
This was in 2002, after Swami Kripalu had passed away, and the ashram was transitioning into a retreat center for the public. Our Spiritual Lifestyle Program (SLP) was one of the last vestiges of the old ashram days, led by some of the original members. I was among a few dozen people who had come to Kripalu to serve the community doing seva, selfless service, and to get an education in the yogic life. We studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, learned about the ethical guidelines of the yamas and niyamas and practiced seva by cleaning guest rooms, working in the kitchen, and taking care of the grounds.
Our small group of spiritual seekers (mostly women and men in our 20s and 30s) were constantly practicing together. We practiced yoga together, sat in seated meditation together, and chanted sanskrit together. We did our chores together and even practiced brahmacharya, a moderation of the senses, by abstaining from sex, sugar and alcohol as a group, together.
During these months of daily practice, I learned just how valuable practice is, and how it could lead to spiritual and personal growth, as it did for me.
But it wasn’t until I started studying writing with Zen teacher, Natalie Goldberg, that I was able to see how writing could, itself, serve as a spiritual practice.
Natalie began to do sitting meditation in 1974; and spent twelve years studying formally with Zen Master Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Center in Minneapolis.
In Writing Down The Bones, Natalie says that whenever she asked Katagiri Roshi a question about Buddhism, she would have trouble understanding his answer until he explained, “You know, like in writing when you...”
Finally, after many years he said “Why do you come to sit meditation? Why don’t you make writing your practice?”
Natalie took the advice to heart and created “writing practice” -- bringing Zen meditation and writing together in a way that she says is no different from any other form of Zen “backed by two thousand years of studying the mind.”
In writing practice, like in mediation, we study the mind and record it through the act of stream of consciousness writing -- where we record first thoughts, what the mind is really thinking, not what we think we should write.
As a writer and writing teacher, this practice has been enormously helpful. If I get lost, or stuck, I come back to Natalie’s basic unit of writing practice -- the timed exercise. You can write for ten minutes, or even an hour, all that matters is that you commit your-self fully to it. Her rules for writing practice are simple:
Keep your hand moving.
Don’t cross out.
Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation.
Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
Go for the jugular.
In meditation, we are practicing awareness and being in the moment. Here, we are learning to pay attention to our own mind and writing what we see.
After years of practicing Zen with Katagiri Roshi, Natalie says she came away with three main lessons, which now guide her writing:
Basically, don’t give up, don’t let other people’s criticism deter you, and keep at it everyday -- even if you don’t feel like it.
Now, go write!
Jennifer Mattson writes about mindfulness, wellness, yoga, healthy living. She writes the Psychology Today The Wellness List column and teaches creative writing workshops at New York University and across the country. She started her career as a stringer in Budapest for USA Today, and her writing and reporting have since appeared in The Atlantic, the Boston Globe, Yoga International, Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, among others. She spent more than six years as a producer for CNN and also worked on the foreign desk at CBS News. For radio, where she was a producer at NPR’s “The Connection” and senior editor at NPR’s “Tell Me More.” You can find more of her writing on her website: www.jennifersmattson.com.