Tell Me What You See

Rose

[Originally posted on the Story Circle Network blog, Telling Herstories, the Broad View]

The full experience of a rose requires that we see with our minds the inner energy, the hidden origin, the radical form, and not simply the manifested colors, shapes, and proportions.
– Thomas Dubay

Let’s begin this month with a little experiment. Sit comfortably, back straight, feet on the ground. Allow your gaze to settle upon a single object right in front of you. This can be anything, your pen, the mug of tea you carried with you to your writing desk, the flower you picked this morning and placed in a vase upon your table, the tree outside your window, the rain dripping from your leaking gutter. Picking up your pen, describe exactly what you see.

When you have finished, put your pen down and sit comfortably again. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths, settling yourself into your body. Continue breathing slowly, gently, allowing your breath to breathe you into a space of stillness and quiet. Continue for however long it takes to let go of the world around you, to sink into the depths of your quietened mind, to become one with who you really are. When you feel fully rested and relaxed open your eyes and look again at the object. What do you see now, in the very moment when first you see it again? Can you try to describe what it is, what it looks like, not just its appearance, but its essence too. Try to see how its inner reality, its inner being, what Buddhists call its “suchness”, shimmering around the edges.

The purpose of this exercise is to encourage you as a writer to identify and understand the essential difference between writing as descriptive writing, and writing as mindful writing. There are not just worlds of difference between them, but universes, whole galaxies of intuited meaning, and not meaning as ‘truth’, but as spaciousness, vast landscapes, the vision or seeing of which can only be grasped by the inner eye, the quietened mind, the ‘weaned soul’.

Learning to see how things really are, not just from a superficial glance, but what they are beneath the surface of their appearance, takes time and practice to cultivate. Still you may be wondering, how do we capture this experience of the ineffable, that which we intuit as present but cannot find the words to describe? How often have we pulled back our curtains, still sleepy and warm from our night time dreams, only to be stunned into wakefulness by the beauty of an early morning sunrise? How do we even attempt to capture that immediate sense of shocked wonder, the sharp intake of our breaths as we are jolted awake and aware by the vision of beauty which we almost missed, and would have if we had lain on a few minutes more? Yes, we can describe the physical contours of what we see, but can we catch in words the way we felt when first we were surprised by this superfluous gift from the skies above?

Our presence to the moment means something; we feel it in our bones, in our guts, that this vision is more than a random array of colours brushed across a pale grey and icy blue canvas. We may feel a vague sense of frustration as we succumb to the silent muteness which accompanies some of our almost ‘religious’ experiences of the ineffable, what Nina Wise calls “the realm of sensed reality that refuses to be reduced to words.” [‘a big new free happy unusual life’]

Return to your writing desk and look again at the thing-as-it-is-in-itself. Breathe deeply into the present moment and take this thing-in-itself into the depths of your own being, until you reach a point where it and you are no longer subject and object, but all of a-piece, something single, unified, one. Peter Levitt in his marvellous book Fingerpainting on the Moon tells us that “the Sanskrit language came into being when the essence of each thing first made its sound known to human beings. When people heard these primordial soundings they realized they were witnessing the self-naming of the physical world, and so the sound each thing made became the word by which it was known.” The tree whispers to us that its name is “Tree”, by which it means “I am This.” And the stone tells us that its name is “Stone” meaning too that “I am This.” And so we listen to everything and we catch the whispers of the world as it tells us, one thing at a time, that it is This, that this is its name, its essence. And then, because we are writers, but most especially mindful writers, we pause long enough to look, listen and hear what the thing-in-itself is telling us, and we write it all down.

Mind, Give Me

Mind, give me
the exact name of things!
…that my word may be
the thing itself,
re-created by my soul.
So that all who do not know them
go through me
to things;
all who have forgotten
go through me
to things;
all those who love them
go through me
to things…..
Mind, give me
the exact name, and yours
and theirs and mine, of things!

-Juan Raón Jiménez

Why I Write

 

[Originally posted on the Story Circle Network blog Telling Herstories ]

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” –Rainer Maria Rilke

I do lots of things – I embroider, I spin yarn on my spinning wheel, then dye the hand spun in a vast array of hues, before knitting it into hats and scarves, sweaters and mittens for family and friends. I love crafting, losing myself in a universe of texture and colour, dreaming about what to create next. I love to cook too, rustling up dinners and treats for a family whose hollow legs always seem to be running on empty! Gathering the ingredients, peeling, chopping, arranging in little dishes, splashes of colour which I can’t help but set out like the spectrum of a rainbow, anticipating the promise of aromas floating through the house, waiting to greet the hungry travellers when they fall through the door, back into the warmth and security of home.

The days simply aren’t long enough to do all the things I like to do, which means I have to choose. Trying to choose between crafts and writing is like attempting to decide whether to engage with left or right brain based activities. Except that it’s not, because both types of pursuits incorporate aspects of each side of the brain. Still there is a difference. And that difference manifests in the ‘felt-sense’ of these very different activities. Much as I love the sensuous nature of crafts and colour, it is only when writing that I feel most alive. Then, it is as if my senses have become hyper-vigilant; mindfulness is no longer a word or a movement, it is a state of being.

Mindfulness is a concept which can apply to any aspect of life. It is more an attitude than a process. It constitutes a way of seeing, a way of being in harmony with the world as it manifests in both the inner and outer realms. That writing mindfully is a practice becomes evident when we approach it as a method, a set of precepts on how to ‘do it’. And yes, the process is important, the practices we incorporate develop into habits bringing with them a sense of rightness as the rituals gradually become embedded in our practice, one writing session at a time. The practice then develops into a kind of trellis, a supporting structure, a habit we can rely upon to carry us from the minutiae of everyday distractions to the heart of what lies directly in front of us. Still, important and even necessary as it is, the ritual of the practice can only ever be like a finger pointing to the moon. The essence, or juice, of the practice lies curled up within our intention as we sit at our writing desk yet again.

When we first begin to write mindfully we notice an ever deepening sense of catharsis. It is as if our souls slowly begin to trust that we are listening to them, and so over time, we discover something changing deep inside. This sense of catharsis bears only a passing resemblance to that experience of release we sometimes notice when we write say, our memoirs, divulging our darkest secrets and our pain to the waiting blank page, (though of course, in practice the two experiences often overlap). Mindful writing takes us to a different place, and it is because of this that we refer to it as a practice, akin to meditation practice. For mindful writing is indeed a meditation practice, like sitting practice in Buddhist meditation for example. The similarities become most evident in their effects, both dependent upon the attitude and intentions we carry into our respective practices.

Writing mindfully generates a kind of wondering about the world, about ourselves, about everything which surrounds us. From this pondering emerges a sense of something that has been closed and locked away which just now is opening, like the petals of the lotus extending outwards, reaching up to the aery spaces above. We feel as if our souls are enveloped in a lightness of being, as if everything is just as it ought to be. Questions emerge and then disappear; answers are neither sought nor required. Doubt and scepticism have slipped away, leaving in their wake the beauty of pure wonderment.

“Every day, every day I hear
enough to fill
a year of nights with wondering.”

Denise Levertov

It is as if our minds are floating in a sea of light-filled consciousness, as if our entire beings are resting in this unseen, but deeply felt, space of awareness. From this perspective we intuit what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘beautiful’. We may not be able to quite articulate in words what we are experiencing, but we ‘know’ with a kind of ‘womb-knowing’ that all is good, even if outwardly it may appear to be anything but! When we hit this ‘zone’ we know we have written our way back home.

Mindful Writing Prompt:

See this month’s prompt below. Take your time, read it a few times, listening to the sounds of the words as they roll around your tongue. Breathe into the question, slowly. Allow the question to unfurl its meaning, to roll in front of you, to offer itself to you as a gift, a grace, a gratuitous opportunity to lift the veil between what you think you see, and what is really in front of you.

All of life, all living is held within the space of a breath. To remain still, to sit in silence and solitude, breathing, just breathing, envelops our consciousness in peacefulness and an all-abiding sense of calm, peace comes dripping slowly, permeating each fibre of our being. Breathing mindfully into the present moment opens us to seeing with new eyes, which we can then carry into our writing.
Take a deep breath. What do you feel rising in you with each breath? When you look, what do you see? What changes? What remains the same?

The Transformative Effects of Words

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As a child and teenager I read voraciously. Finding a quiet place in my rambunctious household wasn’t easy with six children milling around, fighting, jostling for their own space. Yet somehow I always found a corner, a seat to curl up upon. Head leaning downwards towards the words which held my attention, I was lost to the outer world, immersed in another realm, a combination of the author’s imagination and my inner response to the magic he, or she, was creating. My siblings often wondered how I could lose myself within a book to the extent that harass me as much as they would, they failed to get my attention. I simply didn’t hear them. I remember when finally I raised my head , I was amazed to find I was still sitting in my living room, enclosed by familiar walls. It was disorientating to realize I wasn’t sailing the high seas with a pirate queen, or walking the moors in the company of a wild and tempestuous woman.

This ability to lose myself in a book is a gift I don’t always allow myself the time to indulge. I do want to try and make it a more regular part of my life again. Books written by authors in recent years extolling the benefits of a year devoted entirely to reading regularly, such Nina Sankovitch’s inspiring account of her decision to read a new book every day for a year in her Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, my year of magical reading, thrill me with their recounted tales of the transformative effects of reading. They remind me of how I used to read long ago.

But regularly or not, getting lost in reading remains a favourite pastime. Nowadays a new element has been added to my reading routine. Invariably reading the words of master writers impels me to pick up my pen and start placing my own words upon the page. I find myself responding to the authors whose works I love, by writing my thoughts down, generating a kind of dialogue with the book itself. Sometimes all it takes is an image or a phrase, and this is enough to set me off on a new journey through the corridors of my mind. Wherever it takes me it is always thrilling, as exciting as the days when I curled up in my parent’s house lost within the covers of my grandfather’s books. Mindful reading gives way to mindful writing.

Last month a reader of this blog asked for a list of recommended readings and resources for mindful writing. What follows is a compilation of the books and web sites which have informed much of my own attempts to write mindfully. Of course any one of these titles (or blogs or web sites) can only ever offer the perspective of a single practitioner. The best approach to any source is to read it (mindfully), consider its suggestions, reflect upon it, perhaps through writing, and most important of all, engage with it.

One approach is to read until you feel called to lay down the book and pick up your pen and write. What better hymn of praise to sing to an author, especially one who has penned a tome on writing mindfully, than to respond to her/his words with an equally mindful response. Undoubtedly you may begin with a thought gleaned from your reading, but very quickly you will find yourself in realms previously unknown to you, which up ‘til now, you had yet to explore.

Of course buying or reading any titles on this list is not necessary – the guidelines offered in these blog posts are enough to enable anyone interested in writing mindfully to do just that. Still the wider our reading, the deeper our perspective, and I have always been a great believer in dialoguing with the authors whose books I have devoured.

On the other hand, some of my own favourite sources don’t have a word to say about the act of writing at all. These include works of creative non-fiction, novels, and of course, poetry and haiku. Any book which sparks a response and invites you to ‘dialogue’ with it is perfect food for the transformative practice of mindful reading and writing.

For this month the writing practice I offer you is very loosely based upon an ancient form of sacred reading known as lectio divina.

1. Begin by choosing a book whose themes resonate with you. Select a paragraph or short section to read slowly and meditatively. Read the passage aloud, notice the rhythms and tone of the language, how the images and metaphors become alive in your imagination.

2. Keep reading the same section over and over (four times is often recommended initially) until a sentence or phrase begins to resonate with you. In lectio divina you don’t analyse why this particular phrase seems to call out to you, its words shimmering and overflowing with meaning. Instead you simply let the words wash over you, bathing you in their light. Feel your heart and mind expanding into the message. Sit with it for a while.

3. When you feel ready to respond, pick up your pen and begin to write whatever thoughts come to you, whatever it is that begins to emerge from the depths of your being . This may, or may not, have anything to do with what you have read. No matter. What matters is that you respond at some level. Allow complete freedom to whatever thoughts emerge from your heart and soul flowing through your pen on to the page.

4. When you are finished, often a cathartic experience of feeling utterly emptied and exhausted (which might take 5 minutes or 20) lay down your pen, close your eyes and breathe deeply into the space where your heart continues to resonate in time with the gift of the present moment.

And now for the promised list:

BOOKS:

The Pen and the Bell by Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the WritingLife by Dinty W. Moore

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

The Intuitive Writer by Gail Sher

One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher

Writing Begins with the Breath by Laraine Herring

The Writing Warrior by Laraine Herring

Writing Wild by Tina Welling

Fingerpainting on the Moon by Peter Levitt

Writing Your Way by Manjusvara

 

BLOGS AND WEB SITES:

Karen Maezen Miller

Writing Our Way Home

The Mindful Writer

Mindful Writers

The Pen and the Bell

 

Books I use regularly when writing in a form following ‘lectio divina’:

A Year with Thomas Merton – Daily Meditations from His Journals, selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo

Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, edited by Robert Inchausti

Love Poems from God, Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

[Originally posted on Story Circle Network Telling Herstories, the Broad View]

The Practice of Mindful Writing

 

Mindful writing is a practice, which straight away places it into a psychic space that overlaps with the practical. It’s not something we just think about; it’s something we do. But more than this, we do it intentionally. In many ways much of the work or process of mindful writing happens with the silent or verbal articulation of our intention. Without the intention to write mindfully we are simply journaling. Not that I am minimizing the benefits of journaling. They are far too numerous and well documented to be dismissed. But journaling is not mindful writing.

Writing mindfully is closely aligned with a spiritual orientation towards accessing the deepest, most hidden parts of our souls, that which is capable of becoming illuminated through other practices, such as meditation, or devotional practices, or prayer. However, although there may be many overlaps between mindful writing and spirituality, they are not co-extensive; neither is mindful writing a form of some new kind of religiosity.

To truly appreciate the benefits of mindful writing we first need to establish a commitment to the practice, better if its daily, but at least as regular as possible. And preferably in and around the same time each day. Somehow the discipline of establishing the practice via the setting of a specific time and turning up to a particular place, the same place and time where you arrived yesterday and will come again tomorrow, these constants set up a kind of expectation which becomes an anticipation, the silent articulation of our intention to sit still in silence and solitude and write mindfully. I don’t think I can stress this more strongly. If you wish to write mindfully, it is necessary to commit to the practice as a practice, to engage with it as a form of spiritual practice, the aim of which is to seek higher meaning for our lives through the medium of words. Words are powerful elements.

“They can be a great help – words. They can become the spirit’s hands and lift and caress you.” – Meister Eckhart

We choose to write mindfully for many reasons, including the desire to slow down, to discover inner guidance, to find our authentic voices and selves, to learn to recognize the meaning of our lives, to find our way back home. There are many forms of mindful activities we could choose to engage with, but because we are writers we have chosen to express our desire for mindful living through the medium of words. We are wordsmiths; we discover who we are through the laying down of words upon the white virginal sheets of our soul infused pages.

Behind your image, below your words, above your thoughts, the silence of another world waits. A world lives within you. No one else can bring you news of this inner world. Through the opening of the mouth, we bring out sounds from the mountain beneath the soul. These sounds are words.”

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

Do you have a mindful writing practice? If you don’t what do you need to do to create one? Can you mark out a space in your surroundings where you can be assured of silence, solitude and uninterrupted writing time?

The amount of time required for the practice is not excessive. It is always best to be realistic thereby saving yourself from the ignominy of ‘failure’. We have a habit of always starting out with wonderful intentions and then when we fail to reach our own too-high standards we simply give up, berating ourselves for believing we could do it, that we dared to think we might somehow change the fabric of our lives for the better. Then we leave our dreams languishing behind us until one day something strikes us, some word or image, a line from a poem or a sentence from a writer we admire, and then we feel the desire rising again within. So we try again, and once more we commit the same mistake – we aim too high, too soon.

Far better to start small and slow, and see where our words may carry us. The point of a practice is that it is just that – practice, which is another word for process. The words are what they are, our writing means what it means – it is enough for today. For mindful writing is not about results, trying to make our writing count according to some objective standard.

Committing to a regular practice sends a message to your unconscious that you are serious about your new, life-enhancing activity, so that even on the days when you don’t feel like sitting and writing mindfully, still you drag your resisting feet to the table, you pick up your pen, find a prompt to start you off, or not, and write. Mindfully.

Natalie Goldberg recommends keeping a notebook, a sort of tally of your daily practice. In this notebook you jot down the date and the times you began writing and when you finished. No evaluations necessary, just a simple recording of time and place. Oh yes, and don’t forget to make note of the days missed, eg July 25th : missed! Whether we engage with the practice or not, recording keeps a continual relationship, Natalie reminds us.

In this way, our intention is always before us. This is why intention precedes practice, and is, in many ways, more important than the actual practice itself, or rather the practice has lost its juiciness if it is not illuminated by intention.

So what’s your practice going to be?

Remember – keep it simple.

Start with 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week. This allows room for fudging and adjusting to a new life practice.

Maintain a record of days when you did and days when you didn’t.

Trust the process.

Words are never just words. The range and depth of a person’s soul is inevitably revealed in the quality of the words she uses. When chosen with reverence and care, words not only describe what they say but also suggest what can never be said.

John O’Donohue, Beauty

[This post was first published on the Story Circle Network blog, Telling Herstories, the Broad View
http://storycirclenetwork.wordpress.com/2014/09/08/the-practice-of-mindful-writing/%5D

Waking Up, Writing Down

Last month we looked briefly at what it might mean to approach our writing from a ‘mindful’ perspective. This month we shall get down to some specifics. While there are many ways of engaging with the process of mindful writing, some styles are more conducive to meditative ruminations than others. Haikus spring immediately to mind.

Most readers, I’m sure, have heard of haiku, and know that they utilize a unique and precise structure. Traditionally each haiku consists of 17 syllables divided over 3 lines of 5 – 7 – 5. There is a marvellous freedom to be discovered within the confines of such a disciplined approach. Writing haikus is my personal preferred form of mindful writing, my go-to genre when feeling uncertain and perplexed. It never fails to ground me in a broader, deeper field of light-filled consciousness. Writing haikus lands me directly in the heart of the present moment, for a haiku is always a record of what is occurring right here, right now.

Here are a few of my most recent haikus:

Waterfall of rain,

curtain of transparent lace,

streams down my window.

*

Winter’s cold breath still

drifts over field’s feathered wisps,

farewell kiss of frost.

*

Transparent curtain

envelops world in grey shroud –

rain falling again.

*

Sudden summer storms

blustering across the fells,

orchestrated dance.

*

Hills etched like blue veins

horizon melts into mist,

gale squalls whipping up.

*

Torn buds, white and frail,

summer tries to show its face,

battered as it bloomed.

*

Blowsy blossoms fall

half-drunk with fragrant splendour,

summers whispered sighs.

Similar in brevity, though less rigid or formal in intention and technique, there is another, slightly different, approach to ‘mindful’poetry. Satya Robyn [http://www.writingourwayhome.com/], refers to them as ‘stepping stones’. Sam Green, in his poem ‘The Grace of Necessity’, prefers ‘small noticings’. Names may differ but intentions remain the same. A rose is still a rose.

To take the time to write a ‘small stone’ or ‘small noticing’ is to engage in a practice which helps us to focus and observe what is going on in our worlds, both inner and outer. We begin our practice by slowing down, allowing ourselves to find the still point of silence deep within. Using our senses we turn to that which we have decided to observe, and look, look closely, listen, touch, look again, waiting to hear with the ‘ear of our heart’ the first murmurings of our souls desires. Then, with senses saturated with sensual stirrings, we write down exactly what we have seen, heard, felt.

How much should I write? The answer to this is simple – as much or as little as you feel called to do. When I write ‘small stones’ I usually write something akin to the length of a haiku, eg a few short, descriptive lines filled with vivid imagery and luscious detail. But unlike haikus, I don’t restrict the structure of what I write to any pre-ordained or set order. Essentially ‘small noticings’ capture those moments when we are fully aware and engaged with the present. Nothing more, nothing less.

There are typically two main steps in writing ‘small noticings’ –

(i) Look and see, observing what is directly in front of you very closely, perhaps focusing on one particular aspect of the object. Be careful that you don’t rush through this step. Take your time.

(ii) Write down what you have noticed. Breathe into your noticing. Enjoy the sensual experience of conveying what you are experiencing through your opened senses on to the pristine white page of your mindful writing note book. Rest. Breathe.

And that’s all there is to it! As you engage in this practice, especially if you make it a daily practice, you will slowly begin to notice something else, something about yourself which perhaps you might not have realised before. Over time you may notice certain themes, symbols, images and metaphors which continue to manifest in your writing. Welcome them, sit with them, explore them. Most of all write your way into them. This is what it means to write yourself home.

Try and aim to write something every day. Remember this is not a practice which requires a lot of time. Indeed it may not call for much more than 10 minutes each day. But if you engage with it on a regular basis, you will notice a difference in how you see the world you live in, the everyday world which surrounds you and which you normally hardly notice. Writing mindfully, we are learning to see again with new eyes, new vision, so that everything old is new again.

· Let go of trying to direct your writing and the flow of your words. Let go of judging and worrying and criticizing your work. Let go of what you think your writing should be. Let go of all the ideas you have accumulated over the years about what it means to write. In mindful writing we just write.

· Especially for this awareness practice, I recommend that you carry a small notebook with you through your day and capture those small moments of heightened awareness as you move through the hours.

· Perhaps you might like to share some of your ‘small noticings’ in the comments section below.

There is nothing to achieve here, no goals to be reached. Mindful writing has more to do with deepening and enriching our daily lived experience than in producing a body of work, though of course it is more than likely that much of what we find ourselves writing here will serve as springboards to future works, whether these will be poetry, memoir, creative non-fiction or fiction. But for now they are simply small offerings, glimpses through the veils behind which lies visions and vistas yet to be seen or even imagined. Enjoy your mindful writing, and remember that ultimately it’s a practice designed to get us to slow down and notice the world we live in!

Check out the following website for lots of examples of ‘small stones’: http://www.ahandfulofstones.com/

– Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes occasional reviews, and spins exotic fibres into yarn. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold.

[This article was originally posted on the SCN blog Telling Herstories, The Broad View]

Singing our souls back home

[This post was first published over on the Story Circle Network’s blog, Telling Herstories, The Broad View.]

“Instructions for living a life:

pay attention

be astonished

tell about it.”

-Mary Oliver

summer field

Since its inception the mindful writing group I facilitate has largely focused upon the penning of haikus, or haiku-type poetry, sometimes called ‘small stones’ or ‘small findings’, either name conjuring an image of stopping, looking, noticing, each a gesture requiring long, lingering glances, drinking and imbibing images of wonder and delight, captured immediately, or stored for later translation into words dripping with sensuous detail. This is mindful writing – standing still, watching, listening, touching, tasting. Being here, now.

But, one of our members recently asked, must mindful writing focus on the poetic forms of haiku and ‘small noticings’ alone? The simple answer is ‘no’, of course not! The beauty of choosing the practice of writing haikus or ‘small stones’ is that they are both simple to learn, and easy to implement, making either the perfect choice for anyone who wishes to engage in a daily practice of mindful writing. [Next month we shall look more closely at both of these forms.]

Mindful writing is not a genre of writing, a particular form like, say memoir, or mystery, or magical realism, though the latter could at its best be mistaken for mindful writing. For, while mindful writing is not an immediately identifiable type, or format, it is recognizable by its effects. Mindful writing rings true, it shimmers with a brilliance and gloss which only the recognition of the extraordinary in the ordinary can bestow upon a subject, whether the theme is fictional or non-fictional.

There is a sense of the universal in every mindfully penned piece, the sum always greater than its parts. It is as if the simple gesture of slowing down, turning our inner faces away from the turmoil of our never-ending thoughts and fast-running streams of ideas, desires, and feelings, is enough to quieten our minds. Then we cast our gaze outwards upon a world no longer (at least for a little while) shadowed by the stains of our ego; we see with new eyes, with awakened hearts, with beginners’ mind. A peace descends upon us, enveloping our inner turbulent emotions, quietening our souls, until we are like nursing babes upon our mothers laps, a growing sense emerging that we belong to something much greater than ourselves, that we are connected to a web of life which, while we cannot properly say we can see, yet we intuit it through our awakened senses. Something deep inside begins to resonate in timeless time with the throbbing beat of the wondrous world we share and inhabit with all creatures, human and non-human, with all life which stretches riotously across the globe, its web of threads connecting even us, here, now, with all the streaming, gleaming life enveloping us exactly where we stand.

Any writing, any type, any genre, which captures this ultimate sense of meaningfulness without attempting to pin it down to any particular belief system or philosophy, whether fictional or non-fictional, no matter which, is mindful writing, recognisable always by its effects. It makes you stop suddenly in your steps, it catches your breath, makes your heart beat faster. And if you are a writer, it makes you want to write.

But lest you think that writing mindfully must result in an end product, a complete, polished piece of work, let me remind you of our discussion last month which focused upon the necessary open-endedness of mindful writing, how we always begin with no end in sight. We are simply conduits to the vibrational rhythms of a pulsing world, or rather receivers of the wonder and beauty of an earthly paradise we mostly ignore. So that at least so long as we are engaged in the practice, just that long, we are not thinking beyond the present moment. What we do later with our ‘findings’, belongs to later. Perhaps we will, after all, incorporate our mindful moments into our poetry, our memoirs, our stories. Or perhaps not. Perhaps our words will remain locked up inside our notebooks and our hearts, their only ‘purpose’ the marking of a series of moments which, arising over a period of time, ultimately enrich our deepest, inner selves, singing our souls back home.

Writing Prompt:

The following is an example of ‘mindful writing’ from the journal of artist and writer Emily Carr. Read slowly and mindfully. Then take a walk in your garden, or the woods, up a hill or down by the sea; stop, look, listen. Write.

“Everything is green….Everything is alive. The air is alive. The silence is full of sound. The green is full of colour. Light and dark chase each other. Here is a picture, a complete thought, and there another, and there……There are themes everywhere, something sublime, something ridiculous, or joyous, or calm, or mysterious. Tender youthfulness laughing at gnarled oldness. Moss and ferns, and leaves and twigs, light and air, depth and colour chattering, dancing a mad joy-dance, but only apparently tied up in stillness and silence. You must be still in order to hear and see.” – Emily Carr, artist and writer.

Not Just for Poets

[Note: The following review was first posted on Story Circle Book Reviews.]

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There’s a brand new tarot deck in town, but this deck is unlike any you have seen before. The Poet Tarot and Guidebook has been designed by poets Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy, co-editors of Crab Creek Review literary journal, and co-founders of the small independent publishing press Two Sylvias Press. Their aim is simple—to help creatives in any genre, whether poets, fiction or non-fiction writers, artists, or indeed anyone working on an artistic project, to explore the nuances of their creative process.

Using the tarot to help generate writing prompts is not a new idea. What makes this venture innovative is that, instead of a book, we have a brand new deck, which (as anyone who is familiar with traditional tarot decks will appreciate), is a rather wild and wonderful thing.

The Poet Tarot uses poets to represent each card in the major arcana, and follows the traditional tarot deck with a few variations. The major arcana is in direct correspondence with the traditional tarot, and is made up of poets including Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov and Emily Dickenson, among others. The guiding criteria when choosing who to include were simple—an equal number of males and females, and American and English poets who wrote, or write in English. A lot of time and care obviously went into the consideration of which poet was best suited to represent each card, as evidenced by the choice of Edgar Allen Poe for the Devil. And who else but Emily Dickenson could be the Hermit?

The minor arcana represents the stages of the creative process, moving through inspiration (the traditional Cups have been re-named Muses), creation (Wands transformed to Quills), revision (Mentors takes the place of Swords), and completion (Pentacles becomes Letterpresses). The traditional court cards have been altered slightly, with Pages and Knights removed, while Kings and Queens remain as poets.

Included with the deck is an 80-page guidebook, with card explanations, layouts, and ideas for using the cards. The Poet Tarot is an excellent tool for writers and artists who are looking for innovative approaches to their creativity, new ways to generate fresh work, and assistance in focusing on long and short term goals.

The poets in the major arcana function in a similar way to the cards in all traditional decks, offering archetypal imagery which leads to ever-deepening layers of psychological insight. If you pull Edna St Vincent Millay, for example, from the Poets (major arcana) you are been called to explore the rhythmic cycles in your creative life, the highs and the lows. From a philosophical perspective your attention is drawn to ponder upon your attitude to change, impermanence and uncertainty. So what if you have received nothing but rejections from the publications to which you have submitted your work—the message of this card is never give up, keep submitting. The accompanying Guidebook poses the following set of questions for this particular drawing:

“Ask yourself: Am I able to discern whether setbacks are within my control or out of my control? At this moment, am I in an “up” period or “down” period? What is my reaction to the word “karma”? Where do I see my current manuscript / project a year from now?” [Page 16]

The minor arcana, on the other hand, offer more practical suggestions and hints. So, turning to the Muses suit for inspiration, I might draw Six of Muses. If I draw this card I am directed by the Guidebook to “consider how past experiences and memories are sources of inspiration for your writing / art.” This is followed by a list of various suggestions and prompts. The Mentors suit has many practical recommendations for the revision process, for example, the Ten of Mentors suggests that I give myself “creative permission to break out of a situation that is no longer working…” [page 57].

One common experience shared by tarot users has also been discovered by those exploring The Poet Tarot. If a particular poet or suit card keeps turning up, then you can take it that its meaning is something you definitely need to explore until you mine the message it holds just for you. This is the nature of the tarot!

The Guidebook concludes with a number of suggested spreads, from a single card reading to a five card reading, and ends with ideas on how to take The Poet Tarot further by pursuing resources for using more traditional cards.

The deck itself is both lovely to hold and behold. As pieces of miniature art (the cards measure 2 3/4″ x 4 3/4″, so they fit perfectly into the hand) they are quite lovely, featuring faded photographs upon collaged layers of varying imagery, and symbols specific in meaning to the card itself. An interesting game, especially for those familiar with traditional tarot decks, is to relate these Poet cards to the more familiar ones, an exercise which can only serve to deepen the experience of both.

Though I have only had these cards in my possession a short time, I have already experienced the depth of meaning and import they are bringing to my writing, but more especially to my attitude and approach to the process. Like any other tool, they gain in proportion to how well and how often they are used, to the extent perhaps, that the associations formed over time will render the drawing and pondering of a card, impetus and encouragement enough to forestall any writer’s block. I highly recommend the use of these cards in your personal writing process. My deck holds a place of importance upon my writing desk. Where will you keep yours?


Two Sylvias Press was founded in 2010 by poets Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy (Co-Editors of Crab Creek Review literary journal). Two Sylvias Press draws its inspiration from the poetic literary talent of Sylvia Plath and the editorial business sense of Sylvia Beach. We are dedicated to publishing the exceptional voices of writers. Read more on the publisher’s website.

Walking mindfully through the world

[This article was first published over on Story Circle Network’s blog, Telling HerStories: The Broad View.]

Mindful writing is essentially writing which wakens us up, which asks that we open our eyes to what is right in front of us, here, now. Through our engagement with the process we will learn to see with new vision, to explore our world with ‘beginner’s mind’. Day by day, moment by moment, we begin to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary. We no longer see a tangled mass of flowers, bruised and almost dead after the storm. Instead our attention is captured by the curved contours of a single quivering tulip’s stem, pausing to watch in wonder at how something so fragile could hold the weight of something so beautiful. A pink tulip whose petals, on close encounter, are not florid pink after all, but flushed with deep crimson and carmine tones rising from a dark maroon centre, like a monk’s begging bowl, then shading into tones of cerise striped with threads of ruby-coloured claret, before paling to a tinted blush of watered-down pink along its outermost extremities, as if astonished by its own superfluous beauty.

Walking mindfully through the world, our perception of everything we encounter is altered, so that what had previously seemed so complex and difficult and even harsh at times, is, after all, utterly simple and beautiful. It all comes down to the one thing which lies beckoning, waiting, calling to us to come and look. Or maybe not quite calling, but just here, simply present. And we too can learn to be present to what is here, now, in this place, at this moment. All we need do is open our eyes and hearts and look. Be. Here. Now. Gradually, bit by bit, the manner in which we write is altered too. By its very nature this is a slow process. In all things mindful there is never any need to rush.

Mindful writing reveals what is hidden in the deepest recesses of our unconscious minds too, bringing to the light what has been lying hidden in the darkness, leaving traces of its unacknowledged presence in the detritus of our lives. We feel its presence, we sense it’s there, but we have yet to recognise it for what it is. Through the process of writing mindfully we pay attention to all our inner voices, whether they are whispering or clamouring to be heard. And gradually our thoughts, feelings, perceptions are enveloped by an ever widening circle of openness and inner spaciousness. We let go of our ego mind, our over-thinking and conceptual mind, and instead learn to go with the flow. Writing mindfully, we follow our river of words wherever they take us. And it is often a heady ride!

A few points to bear in mind when writing mindfully:

· Mindful writing is directed towards process rather than product, although you may discover much rich material for use in your other writing, especially for memoirs and creative non-fiction.

· Try not to allow your critical mind to take over. If your Inner Critic starts shouting too loudly, then stop and take a moment to return to your breath and, without trying to force it to be quiet, simply sit still and wait for it to dissipate. Do not re-read as you write for this invites your Inner Critic to take control. Just write. Let your words spill out on to the page. Words lead to more words which lead to sentences and paragraphs. Just keep writing.

· Writing mindfully is a meditation practice.

· Over the next few months I will include some simple meditative breathing practices to incorporate into your mindful writing practice. However please remember that these suggestions are not necessary to engage in mindful writing. They will simply be offered to you as an additional practice for those who might be interested in exploring other avenues towards deepening their mindful writing experience.

· You might like to develop some simple preparatory ritual/s which you engage in every time you sit down to practice mindful writing. Apart from serving as definite markers separating your solitary silent mindful writing practice from the rest of your hectic day, such rituals serve as bells of a sort, like those in a monastery calling the monks to prayer. Your writing ritual will be your call to write mindfully. They can be as simple or as complex as you like, eg light a stick of incense, or a small candle, or perhaps burn some aromatherapy oil in a burner, or drink a cup of herbal tea while pondering and observing the world.

· Choose to write either with a pen and paper, or on your lap top. If on your computer, then set up a special folder for your mindful writing exercises. Personally I prefer to use a pen and notebook for my mindful writing even though I can keep up with my thoughts more easily on the computer. The beauty of a simple method is that it can be used anytime, anywhere. This dovetails perfectly with my personal concept of mindful writing as a spiritual practice.

· Mindful writing comes in many guises. It is more disposition than method or technique. Next month we shall look at one particularly fruitful approach to writing mindfully. Over the next few months we shall explore many potential options to choose from.

· Finally, I would strongly recommend that you consider making some sort of personal commitment to your Mindful Writing practice. Make room for writing every day, or every second day, or three times a week, or whatever you decide will work for you. But whatever you decide commit to it. Make your writing practice a priority in your life. Doing this will reap benefits not just to the quality of your writing, but to your life.

Until next month, I wish you the blessings of many peaceful hours of mindful writing. And if you care to share some of your experiences, please leave your comments below. I’d love to hear how you are getting along!

Link to last month’s introductory post to mindful writing:

http://storycirclenetwork.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/on-mindful-writing/

On Mindful Writing

My inaugural posting on the topic of mindful writing over at the wonderful Story Circle Network blog, ‘Telling HerStories – the Broad View’. Check out the other marvellous contributors!

Telling HerStories: The Broad View

I first came across the concept of mindful writing many years ago when I was anything but mindful as I surfed the internet, enjoying the sheer pleasure of mindless distractibility. Clicking first on this link, then on that, I eventually landed on the web site of a Zen teacher who was offering classes (not online unfortunately) combining the art of meditation with that of writing. Instantly I knew I had hit upon something both important and exciting.

The concept of writing as a spiritual practice is not new. Christina Baldwin’s book ‘Life’s Companion’ had been my own companion for some years. It is still a book I recommend and use. But the difference between Baldwin’s approach and the class advertised, was that while Baldwin encouraged the use of deep writing to explore feelings and thoughts about spirituality, the Zen-like approach I had alighted upon, quite by accident, appeared to be…

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Girl Reading, a review

GIRL READING, Katie Ward. Virago Press, Little, Brown Book Group,100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DY,United Kingdom. 2011, 342 pages, £7.99 paper, http://www.virago.co.uk;

Scribner, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020, 2012, 352 pages, cloth,www.books.simonandschuster.com.

There’s something about stumbling upon a girl reading, something mildly subversive about the image, her head bent low over the pages of an opened book. The girl herself, of course, is not open. Her eyes are closed off, hooded, shielded from view. Her vision is turned inwards, her being inaccessible to any who look upon her.

This debut work, Girl Reading by English author Katie Ward, renders a series of evocative narratives, seven variations upon a theme of a girl reading, each linked, some more tenuously than others, so that while this book may at first glance appear to be a collection of short stories, it is, in fact, a novel of sorts.–unlike any novel I have read before.

While it is possible to read each ”chapter” as a separate tale, much would be lost in taking such an approach, for these stories build one upon the other. Thus we notice that Pieter Janssens Elinga’s portrait, ”Woman Reading”–the subject of the second tale–is based upon his studies of Simone Martini’s altar centrepiece ”Annunciation”, the theme of the first story. Further on, Angelica Kauffman makes a sketch of a composition of a maid alone in a room with her back to the viewer. We discover, in time, that she is drawing Janssens Elinga’s painting. And so the links remain chained, unbroken.

The novel too shifts from one historical era to another, the author skillfully penning each section in a different voice, creating scenes and landscapes so disparate as to seem written by different authors. Except for one noticeable idiosyncratic feature–her love of writing in tripartite mode. These function as her leit-motif, her trademark even. Ward runs her images, verbs, adjectives together, punctuation-less, word paintings that roll off the tongue, flowing like water washing everything clean–rendering all pristine, bright, clear. Thus she entices our literary senses, delighting us with word spills as captivating as sheet ice as new paper as porcelain; floating diving soaring; over wilderness over cliffs over the sea.

Within each tale itself, much is left unsaid: silences, ellipses, gaps, hanging like misty backgrounds, hazy and out of focus, redolent of the scene that serves as the epicentre of the narrative, like the ring setting for a beautiful multifaceted diamond.

Ward writes in simple, direct, spare sentences whose lyricism dances around the edges of her half-formed, unfinished sentences. Sense and meaning are expressed more through suggestion than direct, declarative statement. Her beautiful prose is reminiscent of poets who turn their hand to fiction, like the Canadian poet Anne Michaels. Ward shares Michaels’ love of a certain kind of prose, beautiful in its utter, stark simplicity. Only a poet can write like this, slipping between the cracks, free-falling to the deep, dark horrifying beauty of it all.

Word pictures are mostly left as sketches, albeit vignettes painted in glorious colors against a background, hazy, uncertain, unclear. The settings of her scenes are as much a part of the story as any of the characters, so skillfully drawn that it is impossible for us to imagine the characters anywhere else but placed firmly within its frame.

Each tale brings the reader face-to-face with some horrifyingly familiar aspect of reality, forcing the reader to recognize something that we would rather leave undisturbed–no need to waken the sleeping dogs, we are doing just fine as we are, thank you very much. But Ward disagrees. And this is what her novel is really about. Each portrait, each image, each story is an attempt by the author to unsettle the reader, to force us to look a little deeper, delve a little further into the dark continent of the subconscious.

Though the author deprives her readers of a complete resolution to all the uncertainties suggested, rather than leave the reader dissatisfied and somehow cheated, the effect is to enhance the ever present aura of ambiguity and doubt, generating a perception of enigmatic and evocative mystery. Ward’s writing is somewhat experimental. We watch while she plays with forms, adapting her approach in subtle ways to render each tale in a unique way. Her writer’s voice never repeats itself, never sounds quite the same as before. The timbre of her tones matches exactly the era it depicts, the landscape in which it is set.

The final tale is the story that gathers all the threads together, presenting them as a unified whole, encapsulating them in a philosophy of aesthetics about the beauty of humankind’s imperfect art. It is almost as if the author herself speaks through the voice of Sincerity, her protagonist. Here Ward fleshes out the theme of her novel, unveils it, uncovers it, and makes it clear so that if we have so far failed to understand, then through Sincerity, she will help us see:

Let’s say I did it for beauty. I did it because we humans intuit that beautiful objects can tell stories. We believe they have power. It is why we cherish things, because of the way they move us. They have voices, and would speak to us. They are imprinted with the past.

Ward’s debut is a thing of beauty with the power to speak to us. She ends her absorbing novel with an ode to love, Without you, life is entirely possible but hateful. The same could be said of beauty, and art, and words. And girls reading.

Edith O Nuallain

[First published in Calyx, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Summer 2013, Vol 27:3 ]