No Shortcuts or Detours for Writing the Truth

Photo: Gus Moretta

You might have read my post about taking five deep breaths, inspired by the practices in a small but mighty book called “The Art of Stopping Time: Practical Mindfulness for Busy People” by Pedram Shojai. Many mornings, my wife reads me that day’s practice.

A passage from today’s really struck me, so I thought I’d come here to write a bit about it. Shojai writes:

“Your true self doesn’t exist in time; your true self sits on a perch of infinity and is in all the places at all times. This is the great secret of the mystics. Hearing it isn’t enough, though. So many people are infected by spiritual consumerism and go off thinking, ‘Okay, okay. I’ve heard that. Give me something new.’ That’s the mark of the beast. Having a slight intellectual grasp of a concept and thinking you’ve got it is a fatal spiritual flaw, one that’s infected the New Age movement and led to egotism and attitudes of spiritual superiority.”

He goes on:

“The experience of this timelessness is the most transformative moment of one’s life. Getting there takes lots of practice, and most New Age jargon is designed to sell you tricks that help cut corners. There are no corners to cut. The whole thing is round.”

We live in a culture of shortcuts and detours.

Consider these two lines I’ve always loved, from the Irish poet Paul Muldoon:

Where are you taking us? 
A detour on the shortcut.

The image of the soul sitting on a perch of infinity strikes me as quite beautiful. It’s also intuitive to the point of impossible if you’re trying to grasp it intellectually. And that is perhaps Shojai’s whole point here. Spirituality is not an intellectual exercise. And neither, I would argue, is the kind of writing that gets words on the page.

Writing that gets words on the page, you ask? Doesn’t ALL writing do that?

OK, yes, You got me.

I’m talking here about generative writing.

What is generative writing? Writing that gets things moving, helps you begin, and isn’t concerned with outcome — yet. Writing that pours forth possibilities you can later revisit and refine or expand upon. Writing that is not necessarily a thruway to a powerful conclusion but rather a roundabout with no corners to cut, no shortcuts to take, and no detours that will get you to the ever-elusive “there” any sooner.

To get really intellectual about this, writing and spirituality are the same thing. Or maybe a better way of saying this is that writing is a vehicle for spirituality, a practice that — like perching — can offer us a glimpse into infinity. A place that’s not a place at all, but an experience of presence, from which we can access something true and not informed by a gaping vortex of self-help myopia.

“Give me something new” is something that infects the creative process, just as it can be the engine that drives a person towards every program that promises inner peace under the sun. Our attention spans are so truncated and our desire for novelty so overfed that the commitment of a regular writing practice can feel lackluster, at best. After all, we want to write something brilliant! Something that will turn heads and evoke tears or spur a movement.

The thing is, this might happen. But it will  be a lot less likely if you rarely or never write. And the odds are quite high that much of what you do write will feel pointless at best and at worst, like complete and utter dreck.

Next time you sit down to write, imagine that sitting down on that perch of infinity.

There’s nowhere to go but now, here. Whether you’re writing a journal entry, a blog post, an essay, or a chapter for your new book, this practice will allow you to arrive more fully into the present moment.

Not very sexy, I know. And hardly a feast for the ego.

That is precisely the point. The ego has done enough damage, has it not? Sometimes, you take a class or join a group for the strokes; after all, who doesn’t crave approval and oohs and aahs at how amazing and talented we are. But to meet yourself on the page, to not go outside of yourself in search of the thing that will finally launch your dream of being a real writer — this is the place without corners or detours. And it can be pretty damn unflashy.

This is the place here you get to listen hard and go deeper and take risks bigger than anything you’ll ever pay money for. Don’t get me wrong — I make my living leading writing groups and coaching people towards greater ease in their creative process. Working with guides and mentors, joining groups and programs — these can all be deeply worthwhile and even transformative.

It’s not about how many “likes” or shares your words get.

Not the acceptance and rejection notices. Not even that anyone else gets what you’re up to (though I bet someone will — and reaching a single reader is worth the world).

At the end of day, how you meet yourself in the writing is what matters. How willing you are, to write towards what’s true. The only way to do it is do it. And doing it takes time, practice, and a deep well of compassion for yourself in the process. This last bit may be the hardest part of all.

Five Deep Breaths

My wife is reading a book called “The Art of Stopping  Time, Practical Mindfulness for Busy People” by Pedram Shojai. Each day offers a short chapter with a suggested exercise. It may be spending time in nature, or fasting from social media for a day.

Yesterday’s was to take five deep breaths every 30 minutes throughout the day, using a timer. I decided to try it.

Here are some observations:

Thirty minutes goes by very quickly. It seemed like every time I turned around, the timer was going off. I was also surprised by how much I packed into each 30-minute period. This shed some light on periods when I was focused — and the integers when I was multitasking and flitting from one thing to another. The timer gave me a chance to pause and check in with myself.

I spotted the impulse to do other things while I took the five deep breaths — stretch or look at my phone or simply keep working on whatever I was working on at the moment. It took a conscious decision to stop everything and ONLY breathe. I also saw this thought more than once: “I don’t have time to stop.” But not once did this turn out to be true. The five deep breaths took less than a minute.

At one point in the morning, I was nearing the end of a fast and furious freewrite when the timer went off. I was tempted to ignore it, but didn’t. The five deep breaths didn’t ruin my flow; in fact, they slowed me down just enough that when I returned to the keyboard, picking up right where I had left off was easy.

Full disclosure: I missed a few hours. At some point mid-morning, I forgot to restart the timer after my deep breaths. I walked to town to meet Luping for our hour of tutoring, then did some errands on foot. When I resumed my practice in the early afternoon, the five breaths turned into 10 along with some loud yawning and big jaw opening. Suddenly, the interruption was fully welcome, a reminder to get up off my ass, plant both feet on the floor, and say hello to the body.

Late-afternoon brought hot chocolate around a small bonfire with Pearl’s Hebrew school class, celebrating the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, also known as the new year of the trees. Along with this small caffeine hit, the cold woke me back up, and I detected a subtle connection between the deep breathing I’d been doing throughout the day and the singing we were now doing around the fire. Come to think of it, there’s also a natural correlation between deep breathing and trees, since without them we’d be in deep breathing trouble.

Today, I’m giving it another go. Having a chance to check in every half hour may seem excessive, but really it’s a good way to get in the habit of breathing more consciously throughout the day. I’m already feeling more aware of when my breath gets shallow or neglected. I like this idea of tending to it, in the same way I would another person under my roof.

If breath is life, who are we when we’re running around being busy or trying to cram 10,000 things into every increment of time? Is that actually living?

Practices like this bring me a chance to see my default habits anew. Rather than thinking I failed some test if I forgot to set my timer and breathe deeply the whole day, I’m always more interested in what happens when I don’t judge myself but bring patience and care to the process of trying things. Anything that smacks of holier-than-thou-ness will send me running for the hills, but I will gladly play with ways to wake myself up, mentally and physically, and make more of me available to whatever or whomever is in front of me.

I have six minutes left till my next five deep breaths, but you know what? I’m not waiting. I’m taking them right now, even as my hands fly over the keyboard.

When do you neglect your breath? When do you tend to it? What reminds you to come back to yourself throughout the day?