I couldn’t help but include this term in the title. It is a curious notion: “navel-gazing.” It’s even funnier to imagine visually. Whoever coined it was decidedly not a meditator. Try sitting like that some time. I did, and I was hard-pressed to even see my navel from the vantage point of a proper meditation posture—which, in any event, was compromised by the downward craning of my neck.
“Navel-gazing” is, of course, a pejorative term alluding to a popular view of meditation is an esoteric waste of time. It is perhaps an understandable misconception, particularly in the mind of our “hurry-up-and-produce” Western culture, which might consider a thirty-minute span of simple breathing and dedicated awareness to be, at best, suspect. Those of us who have practiced meditation for any length of time, however, know that we have come to an alternate understanding.
Like meditation, the pursuit of writing is also frequently misunderstood and even derided. Thus it is perhaps not surprising to find that many individuals who meditate are also involved in writing or some other solitary art; these are kindred endeavors, after all. The two practices also share many fundamental precepts, some of which merit discussion here.
Foremost, in each case we must sit and actually do it.
No one will reap the benefits of meditation simply by thinking about it or, even less so, by talking about it. We must instead cultivate the solitary habit of returning to the cushion time and again, preferably every day. On some days we will meditate like bona fide gurus; other times—and probably more often than not—thoughts will bounce around in our brains like sugar-enhanced preschoolers, and we’ll wonder what it is we’re doing wrong.
Rather analogous to the writing process, no? Are there not moments when we become so embedded in a story or essay that the “real” world around us drops from our awareness, if only for an instant? Ernest Hemingway describes this transcendental shift in A Moveable Feast, recalling how, on these occasions, the writing “went so well you could make the country so that you could walk into it through the timber….feel the pine needles under your moccasins as you started down for the lake.”
As creative writers, this is a precious occurrence for which we all long. It is the paramount blissful state of our craft. Yet, amid the bliss we also have days, often many of them, when we find ourselves unduly distracted by refrigerator noises, mischievous cats, or those irksome patrons who dare to walk into our coffee shop and shake our concentration.
But if we are sitting there, practicing in the midst of it all—no matter whether it’s meditation or writing—we are doing precisely the right thing, for showing up to stay is the first and most necessary step. Over time, and with dogged repetition, we will develop the ability to deal mindfully with distractions when they arise. After all, it’s not the distractions that shake us so much as our thoughts about them, right? And what are thoughts? They are electro-chemical impulses to which we assign meaning, and from which our bodies react physically. But the mental events need not always play out in the same way. In mindfulness meditation, we learn to consider stray thoughts as ephemeral—cottonwood seeds in a breeze. Without judgment or excessive mental strain, we endeavor to simply “observe” them as they float across our consciousness and out of sight.
The same tack can apply to the writing process. Rather than fighting those errant thoughts when they arise, or heaping shame upon ourselves for thinking them, we can adopt a basic technique from meditation practice: “return to the breath.” For this we pause, breathe deeply once or twice to re-ground ourselves; then, for a while longer, we do so more naturally, noticing each in- and out-breath with mindful intention. Sit apart from any wandering thoughts we might have, label them as simply thoughts, and let them travel on their way. Finally, we return to our work and pick up where we left off. If the distractions return (and they will) just repeat the process.
I know, it’s easier said than done. But it can be done. And the more often we employ this technique, the easier and more natural it will become. Return to the chair. Return to the breath.
Another guideline applicable to both meditation and writing is that it is wise to come to each new practice session relatively free of expectation. As we know, expectation implies an attachment to a specific future outcome. In some instances this is reasonable: we can expect that the sun will rise again tomorrow. But in the interminable play of the universe, even this is not an absolute; and in any case, it is not an outcome we can either influence or control by way of human power. This is an extreme example, to be sure, but we experience this truth on many lesser, everyday levels as well. We cannot, for instance, expect that our next meditation session will be as “good” (or, on the hopeful side of the scale, as “bad”) as the previous one. We can do our best to ensure a positive outcome—perhaps by not eating directly before sitting, or by first engaging in a stretching or yoga routine—but in the end, the session will be what it will be. If outside forces conspire against us, that is just the situation we face.
It is similar in the world of writing, though there are a few behavioral exceptions. Some writers are very good at disciplining themselves to achieve a forecasted outcome—a certain number of words per session, perhaps. Hemingway is said to have jotted down his daily tally in pencil on the sides of the cardboard boxes stacked alongside his writing desk—a drafting table at which he actually stood to write. (But then, he was always one to buck the trend, wasn’t he?) For writers of this stripe, it would appear that they have mastered the art of assuring a consistently positive outcome. Indeed, they probably hit their mark more often than not. But not even they can truly determine their immediate writing future.
As for the rest of us, we approach the writer’s chair brimful with either assuredness or trepidation. A lot of times, the mood with which we come to the task depends upon the day and—you guessed it—forces outside of our influence or control, such as past performance, the weather, the needs of others, and suchlike. And there is peril at the extremes too. Both overblown and undernourished attitudes regarding our work can undermine us. If we begin with air of pomposity, for example, especially one that’s not earned, we can almost count on not performing anywhere near the level of our inflated expectations. Likewise, sitting down with no confidence at all will yield predictable results.
Perhaps it is better to arrive without any predetermined outcome in mind, aside from a determination to simply be there and remain, irrespective of everything else. We might turn out a masterwork; we might stare at an empty computer screen for an hour. In either event, we have faced the reality of what is in front of us in the present. In the long-form accounting of things, that is an accomplishment.
In this way too, we are treating the action of writing as an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve something “higher.” The nobility, the beauty, is to be found in the simple act of showing up and staying put, and remaining aware of the present—just as it is. We do the same in mindfulness meditation, and come to a similar realization. If this all is frivolous “navel gazing,” then I defy the critics to proffer a more realistic way to consider “reality.”
I’ll not preach further along these lines, other than to say that if we keep in mind that the true rewards are already right there with us, we are well on course. And as long as we make ourselves available to possibility through the cultivation and practice of a dedicated awareness, then any extra windfalls—like publication, book deals, or even enlightenment—will appear as whipped cream on the pie.
But until any of these potential futures occur for us (or don’t), we remember: return to the chair, return to the breath, repeat as necessary.