The Spirituality of Writing

By New Lotus, Buddhistdoor Raymond Lam
Buddhistdoor Global | 2011-01-10 |
“Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation.” – Thomas Merton

I am writing this not to many, but to you: certainly we are a great enough audience for each other. (Haec ego non multis (scribo), sed tibi: satis enim magnum alter alteri theatrum sumus). – Epicurus
A short while ago I wrote a small reflection on the spirituality of reading. I see the very act of reading as an internalization of values and convictions, which is why reading a profound, informative, or engaging book is a powerful (sometimes life-changing) experience. Perhaps an even more multifaceted aspect of the human condition is the capability (and in some, the compulsion) to write. A “writer” strikes romantic stereotypes in modern media: s/he is sometimes glamorized as a bestselling, coffee-addicted two-timer, which while sometimes true (!), can mask the multiplicity of rich experiences s/he often enjoys after deciding to engage in the activity of writing.
If I am asked about my favourite writers, for example, none of them are bestselling novelists. They tend to be Buddhist Studies scholars who have influence within academic circles, or spiritual writers who (be they affiliated with an official faith or not) found their life’s calling by expressing and articulating a religious way of life through an enduring medium of communication (two immediate examples are Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton). Others may have different ideas about who deserves to be their favourite writer, and with this comes an entirely different package of experiences and values about what it means to write. Writing is curiously universal and private at once. It is intensely personal; baring a portion of what an individual thinks is his or her self. Yet there is no self, and we exist only in relation to each other. Writing is an implicit acknowledgement of this interconnected reality (contrary to Nietzsche’s uppity and oft-blustering protestations).
The value of writing is almost a truism. But this truism only skims the surface of an ocean of words, letters, alphabets, and histories. Writing has spiritual potential, which is the richest kind of potential. I am not referring to strictly “religious” potential here, although if one is a Buddhist or religious writer, parameters are set for the sake of transparency and honest witness to the faith. “Spiritual” potential resonates in anyone who is willing to be moved. We can actually be moved fairly easily: compelling plots, lovable characters or eloquent literary craftsmanship are sometimes enough to hit the spot. But when was the last time you found yourself nodding your head feverishly every time you turned a page of a novel, or clapped your hands and cried, “Yes! Yes!” at a book’s perfectly crafted argument? That is the power of good writing: to compel human beings to fall in love with black blots of ink shaped in a peculiarly ordered way. Is it any wonder why Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s adage “The pen is mightier than the sword” is a line more famous than the actual play he wrote it for? And is it any wonder that Napoleon once remarked, Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets”?
It is difficult for me to buy into the popular “romance” associated with writing. Certainly the rewards can be significant (and I’ve lost count of how many who would like to put out a New York Times bestseller). But the actual work – its external reality – involves sitting in a private study, perhaps with some quiet music and a mug of hot chocolate, and staring at a humming Macintosh screen for hours on end whilst punching fingers onto a slightly stained, greasy keyboard that, unlike a piano or harpsichord keyboard, makes no melody but only annoying clicking sounds. Maybe the determination and commitment associated with writing is what really makes it romantic! In any case, the inward dimension of writing is far richer and deeper, because it constitutes the interior conversation, a chamber where the voices of the mind echo off its walls. These voices are always silent to others and can only be heard by the one containing them: until s/he puts pen to paper, that is. And with that one act, a world is created from the interior of the human being.
Indeed, writing provides its own universe, its interwoven planets of adventure and constellations of inspiration and stargazing. Hence another stereotype of the absent-minded author who, beyond his books, can’t tie his own shoelaces, open a can of baked beans, or speak to women without spilling hot tea over his sandwich (and scald the ladies while he’s at it). Perhaps this is because the differences between a writer’s universe and the universe we see through our telescopes are many. Firstly, the writer’s cosmos need not be impersonal: in fact, usually it is infused with intensely personal meaning. It doesn’t need to be cold and dark, bereft of the warmth and oxygen needed for life: the mind is a vast place and there is nowhere one cannot go. Finally, it is much easier to explore: we are our own Hubbles, charting and scribbling down the frontiers of the stars with our own hands. That is what makes writing so diverse and beautiful, from a spiritual calling to a profession to a hobby everyone can try. It is the voice of the realm of divine silence, yet echoes into ours.
And best of all, you can keep at it after retirement!

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