Saturday, July 9, 2011

Zen Guide to Writing

Reading Eckhart Tolle one would think that he has the answers to all life’s questions.  He has reached a level of spiritual awareness that is rare for a westerner. Usually such wisdom was the exclusive property of Eastern mystics such as Khrisnamurti or the Dalai Lama. Western spiritual leaders such as the Pope do not have this level of integrity because most Christian religions do not really practice the vow of poverty or austerity. The Pope after all lives in one of the most elegant and extravagant locations in the world. There is no image of simplicity in those televised mass in Rome during Christmas or New Year with all the majestic trappings of wealth. Well-knows spirituals like Tolle are ascetics who do live in comfortable setting but not in the same scale as some western spiritual leaders. This gives him the cachet of spiritual respectability. Tolle combines both the western love of logic and the eastern mystical tradition.

Does Tolle have any advice for writers? The problem with writing is that it’s a mental activity - often times with egoistic leanings. This is the bane of true spirituality. Do writers make good spirituals? Or is writing purely a hedonistic activity that is incompatible to being spiritual? Or is being spiritual detrimental to being a good writer?  Inferring from Tolle, one must avoid thinking and be aware of his consciousness. One is not his thinking mind. Good advice for writers as over thinking likely results in writer’s block or ‘paralysis by over analysis’. The other side is going forward by writing only about oneself and this becomes a boring tract unless one is a known public personality. So the key is striking a balance that focuses on the craft of writing and avoiding the cult of the ego. One must not look at the fruits of the act (being a famous and wealthy author) but in doing the act without any thought of the outcome. Hence, one should only focus on writing well without overthinking.

Exclusively focusing on writing is also not good because it becomes an external form where the mind will just keep churning. So avoiding the ego and just performing the work without thought is the Zen experience. This level of ease can be achieved after the appropriate number of practice hours is attained. The result will not cause the writer to be self-conscious because the notion of ego must be gone, too. The focus must be on the craft and not on the writing indulgences that one can be rooted in like in journal writing. It is a focus on self-reflection that has no end. As Eleanor Roosevelt said,’ one can be enamored in the voyage of self-discovery that one does not emerge from this journey.’  Writing does promote self-awareness but one does not remain in this spot but move forward with only the craft at hand. One does the job and moves on without thought of wealth or richness or glory that is the possible fruit of the endeavor. Even if the result is obscurity, the reaction is the same. One shows the same demeanor whether the project is a success or failure.   

The Harper essay by Jonathan Franzen is another proposal on how to succeed in writing despite the modern decline in reading. He raises a relevant question when asking whether social novels are still relevant considering television or movies are a much better medium for portraying social realities. The rise of technological distraction is another impediment.  Everyone prefers to surf the Internet, watch cable or go to the movies or play his smart phone or game consoles. The decline of readership will also mean the decline of the novelist. The same culprit is man’s never ending quest for instant gratification which cannot be satisfied by the discipline of reading. The answer is to focus on a certain segment of the population as the so called ‘general reader’ no longer exists. For example, one should focus on the suburban life of white Protestants in the mid-west or on the Indian immigrants in the West Coast. One should not attempt to write the great universal novel because the audience no longer exists.

Perhaps the only universal works are by writers like Tolle who write for people in search for the truth. These works come from an inner essence where true consciousness is expressed. Hemingway says that one should write one single true sentence a day at a time. Perhaps that is the secret: just get things done in a truthful manner without thinking about the result to the ego. Attending all that workshops or getting certifications should not enrich the ego but improve the craft. Targeting an audience as explained by Franzen is a tactic to succeed. But the inner skills that are needed to hone the craft are learned from Tolle. Attending workshops and training sessions is a good way to achieve an expertise that will result in a Zen like demeanor. Is the result a sort of spiritual Hemingway? Maybe not an interesting life without the good food, drinks, foreign travel and adventure. But it will not result in self-destruction and suicide which seems to be the fate of some writers.  A new earth is needed as Tolle says especially with the technological predisposition of today’s modern folks.

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