(Week Aug 4~Aug 10)
“I write because i don’t know what i think until i read what i say~ i write to discover what i know”
~ Flannery O’ Connor
People sing, people dance, people paint; some get into the rhythm of walking, cycling even running; others play some sport, go hiking, mountaineering or rowing; some write, some reflect and meditate — all aiming to go beyond a regular routine and reach an indescribable ‘zen-like’ zone where the practice calms your mind, brings about greater clarity and even infuses you with significant compassion. Zen-like is one of those enigmatic phrases almost impossible to precisely define; and yet the masters say there is nothing imprecise about zen. Zen, it is said is not just a habit or a state of mind, rather “it is a path to fully awaken to your true nature which is present right here, right now.” The word is derived from the Chinese word “chan” and the Sanskrit word “dhyana”. One may loosely translate the latter as ‘meditation’ but the root meaning is ‘to see, to observe, to look.’ Perhaps that is what a zen-practice is ~ to go beyond the obvious and wonder, and to answer that wondering with the deepest expression of your own nature.
Last year when i began my experiment in creative-writing with a 365-days-a-blog-a-day-challenge, i never thought of it as a zen-practice.The aim was modest enough ~ to cultivate the ability to write something everyday and reach an average of one or two thousand words a week; to use this creative-writing as a means of being productive with one’s free time; to reflect and ruminate over life’s many themes; and to write for the love of the craft, not for being published or read. The 365-days target was more of a disciplining tool, a strategy for better execution. Indeed this i have learnt from personal experience ~ unless you quantify the goal and set some ground rules, chances are you simply end up wandering aimlessly.
(Do read some earlier thoughts on the subject here #Day 75, #Day 98, #Day 100 and # Day 250)
As often happens with such projects, it turned into something bigger than what one had bargained for. As feelings, thoughts and memories unraveled, the words began to take on a life of their own. They lifted veils and heightened perspectives about interactions with the world and its inhabitants; at times they tapped into the very core of who you are as a human being; they made you learn about your imperfections and ended up teaching you some valuable lessons in humility. When i reflect upon the year gone, i can identify five habits that helped transform this writing activity into a near zen-practice.
# Being committed~
Commitment i have come to believe, is perhaps the most fundamental issue underlying so many themes of life. To make a choice is easy enough; to remain bound to the course you have chosen is what demands more from you as a person. The writing daily part was undoubtedly the most challenging. It’s not easy to write everyday. Some days the creative brain just keeps scanning through the scribblings on your inner-wall-of-experiences and no inspiration gushes forth. Some days life-events are so demanding that they consume all your energies leaving you with nothing for your blog-post-time. But if you manage to keep calm and post something through it all, the rhythm builds up and as time passes the discipline of maintaining that daily deadline becomes its own reward. For inspiration i looked at other bloggers who have been posting an update everyday for periods as long as eight years or even more! In fact just recently, in the month of June, our superstar Amitabh Bachchan celebrated 3000 days of continuous blogging. In his blog (srbachchan@tumblr) he wrote~
“3000 is magical for me…it was 3 at one point and i had never ever hoped that i would live to see this DAY…My gratitude pales before the attention and love that has come my way during these 8 years! 8 years of constant writing and responding is a blessing for me in some extraordinary circumstances…”
Reading such stories helps, for when you realise that even celebrities with hectic schedules to maintain can meet the daily deadline, it strengthens your own resolve to keep at it. The secret lies in making it your ‘riyaaz’—a term i borrow from the Hindustani Classical music tradition of our country. It’s a word from the Urdu language and refers to the honing of one’s vocal or instrumental skills through daily practice and repetition. Only those who seek mastery of their craft take it up seriously for ‘riyaaz’ implies intense discipline and dedication to your practice for years. Followers of the Carnatic music tradition call it ‘sadhakam’ or ‘sadhana’—a reference to the fact that only a total surrender to such assiduous rehearsing over and over again can elevate your performance to subliminal levels. Dedication and discipline alone make your commitment a bedrock of excellence for your craft.
# Planning and preparing ~
Even when you set out to do something as basic as making a cup of coffee for yourself, you first look for the right ingredients. The magician pulling a rabbit out of a seemingly empty hat also spends time refining the trick. Creating out of a vacuum is almost impossible. The best of writers brainstorm, explore and research before they commit to paper. Planning before execution has been a part of my nature since as long as i can remember. Some may even accuse me of being meticulous to a fault in that respect! So how could i not plan for this blogging-experiment?! A quick Google search threw up dozens of sites ready to guide and support this endeavour; some even promising a daily ‘prompt’ in case you ran short of ideas to write about! Among the many suggestions, the concept of an ‘idea-jar’ quite appealed to me. It involved jotting down the various ideas buzzing around in your head on a piece of paper and dropping these slips in a jar. The tip given was that once your jar had about 50 such slips, you could pull out one at random and start your daily writing, your idea-piggy-bank giving you the confidence that you won’t run out of supplies immediately. The notion caught my fancy for it resonated with my own theme of a ‘Dumbledore’s Pensieve’ of sorts into which i could siphon off thoughts, beliefs and memories. And so before i put my plan into action i scribbled down some 50 odd topics i wanted to contemplate and mull over in an ideas-notebook. It’s a great way to get into that zone where half formed ideas and thoughts come tumbling out of the foggy crevices of your mind. Random words and phrases coalesce to form coherent sentences that flash upon the ‘inward eye’ even as you go about your daily chores. Contemplative thoughts, beliefs, even those long forgotten come and go and you just let them do so with a certain amount of mindfulness— much like you glance at that ticker flashing important updates and running below your regular tv programme screen. Once you start writing patterns and links emerge, one subject leads to another and the idea-jar gets constantly replenished…and so it becomes an on going process keeping you focussed on the task you have set yourself.
# Understanding and remaining honest to your true nature
“This above all: to thine own self be true
and it must follow, as night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man” says Polonius in “Hamlet”.
The words may have been said in a different context but they encapsulate a truism applicable at many levels. Once it became apparent the underlying tone of my posts would be subjective, i had to find my ‘own voice’, my own individual style. There are so many authors out there whose writing you deeply admire…their perfect articulation, the flow of their thoughts, at times even their brand of irreverent wit and sarcasm. So often you read and are struck by how aptly the other’s words sum up your own feelings or opinions. That’s why you “quote”…and yes i do have an extensive quotes collection! Yet one cannot be a mere clone of anothers style. When you set out to explore life and its many themes you write best from what is familiar, experienced and true to your own nature…you write in your own voice, from your own reminisces and observations of the ways of this world. It is in this search for your own voice that you learn to tap into the very core of your being and better understand your own nature and its imperfections. You learn to get honest and get real with your own self.
# Chiselling away the superfluous
It is one of the French sculptor Rodin’s most famous quote: “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever i don’t need” he had said once when asked how he managed to make his remarkable statues. That is what striving for excellence is all about ultimately…you simply chisel away the superfluous till you achieve the desired perfection. When you write, the chiselling takes the form of editing. One may feel correcting and checking takes away from the spontaneity of your thoughts, but the fact is unless you are looking at an unstructured, unedited stream-of-consciousness style of writing, you have to edit and polish your initial draft. Perhaps at times even a narration in the form of stream-of-consciousness may need to be reworked! The best authors use the objectivity of a professional editor to ensure they hit all the right notes in the book they are writing. Every best selling author from Dan Brown to J.K. Rowling includes a grateful acknowledgement to their editor(s) in their books. A blogpost doesn’t quite need the services of a professional copy editor but it does need some content-management from you! Proof-reading your draft isn’t just about pandering to the grammar geek in you, it is also about saving oneself the embarrassment of typos and other auto-correct mistakes (the bane of our computer-dependent times!!). As part of this process you also learn to check certain facts or anecdotes you want to include in your post. The internet-searches and the extra reading further add to your knowledge on related(and sometimes even un-related!) topics and lend greater clarity to your thoughts on the matter. One of the best methods i have found is to disengage from what you have written for some time. When you return to it later, a fresh insight leaps out or you can instantly spot that glaring error you had missed earlier. Somewhere down the line it hits you even life situations can do with the objectivity that detachment brings…life too is eternally editable!
# Letting it be
“Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah let it be
There will be an answer: let it be
Whisper words of wisdom: let it be…”
Paul McCartney’s voice hummed those words on the juke-box-in-my-head pretty often in the last one year! When you have 365 days to reckon with, you are prepared for the fact that all days are not going to be the same. Life ebbs, life flows. There are times when you are in control, there are times when life-events control you. You have to learn to allow life, events, people, circumstances to enter and play out as they are. The zen thing to do is surrender to what is and have faith in what will be. Breathe in, breathe out, let it be. If the choice of words is not what you are looking for let it be. If the post you have written seems mundane, let it be. If you wanted to write over a thousand words and could manage only a couple of hundred let it be. Not every post you write should be a ‘wow’ one. Not every insight you share should have a reader going ‘aha’. On the most challenging days i learnt to be happy with whatever i managed to post, i learnt to be comfortable even with the ‘perfectly imperfect’.
At the end of it all, writing every day for a full year turned out to be a focussed activity that kept distractions at bay long enough to explore my thought universe. Sometimes it was inspiring and wonderful, sometimes disconcerting and disturbing, but almost always insightful and beneficial. It became like a daily meditation, a sweet spot best described with these words i again borrow from Flannery O’Connor ~
“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place…
Nothing outside you can give you any place. In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”
Getting there is getting into your zen place…