Here we are once again with me wanting and needing to write, and being absolutely overwhelmed with the who, what, when, where and why.
Wanting to find the perfect practice.
“I will write for 1 hour every day first thing in the morning”, my brain spits out.
I have done this a million times before, too.
I love the idea of a linear, consistent and disciplined writing practice. I want to be like those writers who go on interviews saying that they wake up at 5 am before everyone else in the house (Jimmy Carter, Stephen King, Stephen Pressfield are just a few that come to mind) to get a few hours of writing done before everyone is up.
That sounds wonderful, juicy and so inspiring.
The reality though is that I need my sleep. Yep, I need a lot of it. And while I would love to get up at 8 am and have a few hours of quite at home to meditate, do my morning practices and then sit down to write for you, there is the problem of that whole, ahem, cohabitation with others-thing.
I fantasize about all the years I was alone and how I could have written more consistently then. I did the best I could. And I am certain I am doing the best I can now.
It does seem dissatisfying though.
I’ve just participated in a two-day silent meditation retreat. I love the space it gives me to breathe and just be. It’s so funny that as human beings in this culture we feel we need social permission to just be. Like we are all so compulsive about doing something, that being gets relegated to something that other people can do … if only we had time …
Retreats are a way of providing serious social permission to just be. Most people don’t think of them as such but think about it.
You say you are going on a retreat and people think, “Wow. Must be nice. I could never do that. I have SO much to do and can’t afford it anyway. But it does sound wonderful …”
Being on retreat is like taking a big fat crayon, and making a big red circle around yourself on the playground of life:
“I love you guys. You are my friends. But for right now, I am just going to be in my little circle and am going to be with myself. Don’t worry, you didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll be back though, and we will play again together soon. Thanks for understanding.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could give each other permission to do that more regularly?
I am always impressed by the busy productive people I know who have clear boundaries around protecting their alone time.
Most of us are great at keeping commitments to be with others. We show up for doctor’s appointments, parent-teacher conferences, date nights. We also show up for things when we have skin in the game, either financially or for other reasons that have to do with our survival.
But how often do most of us honestly and without guilt say, “Here is my big fat crayon. And I am going to draw a circle around myself in the chalk for the next hour so I can be alone and just be"?
For me, doing so is a way of allowing writing to come forth. I am not one of those, like Elizabeth Gilbert, who can write for 15 minutes before getting on this plane to Bali or 20 minutes after doing a TV interview. I feel the compulsion to have oodles of uninterrupted hours to play with the blank screen or page and to get the sense I am actually making progress. I also want to hide out from the phone and social media and pretty much all human contact.
In many respects, I am really well suited to the monastic life. The empty silence nurtures me. The community of support in which we are together in our solitude and our common purpose excites me. The permission to truly serve something greater than ourselves without concern for self-protection, self-promotion or much of self at all attracts me enormously.
And at the same time, I remember Thomas Merton, peace activist, writer and Trappist Monk, also exploring the same tension in himself in his epic memoir, “The Seven-Story Mountain”.
The longing and line between quiet contemplation and a life in the world is one which he straddled throughout his life. His conclusion? The most sacred life was the one that integrated time for quite contemplation and reverence with service in the world. After all, the only way he created his books which have given solace, comfort and inspiration to so many others was by diligently, rigorously and compassionately taking out his big fat crayon and drawing a circle around himself, a circle in which he could commune with his Creator and creative process and give birth to works that have inspired millions.
A recent piece by award-winning author Courtney Martin prompted me to explore the notion of creating space for creation and being. Anecdotally, it seems easier for men in our culture historically to feel entitled to take space to create and be, while women – as the mothers, wives, sisters, teachers, nurturers – find so much more conflict about it. I don't know and certainly have no answers. But I do have incredible admiration and deep respect for anyone who creates something from their deepest source of being, just for the joy of it. When it is a mother with children still at home, I am floored. Each and every time. And so much of the time, the tension in the internal world (creation and being versus guilt) mirrors the social pressure in the external world.
Having spent my 20s trying to change the world on the outside, working in organizations like the World Bank, slaps in the face and defeat have taught me the great truth that the only thing we have any power over changing is ourselves. Yes, Dorothy, we must be the change we wish to see in the world.
It is a radical act of love for self and others therefore, when anyone takes a time out to be and be with something that is longing to be expressed. Whenever anyone takes that radical stance of picking up the crayon, drawing the circle and saying, “This is for me, and this is my radical act of changing the world”, it makes it easier for the rest of us to do so.
Every time I get a new, fresh book – or see a new documentary or taste a meal made with a new recipe using all organic and sustainable foods, or hear a song that a mother has written after cooing her baby to bed – I am inspired and feel hopeful.
I don’t believe revolutions happen from one moment to the next. They happen when we each stop, take a moment to pause and reflect, turn on the timer to take a time out for ten minutes or ten hours, and allow what is supposed to come forth the time, attention and care it deserves.
Without expectation or judgment about outcomes, simply as a radical act of self-love.
The only kind of love there ever really is.