…These are all versions of what I’ve come to refer to as the ‘I suck’ voice. Pretty much everyone has some version of this dark angel sitting on one shoulder, speaking into our ear and telling us we’re not good enough.
We feel it all the time, the urge to create, to write, to tell our stories. And we hear it all the time, the inner voices that tell us that we are not good enough, nobody is interested in our stories anyway, why we even bother to attempt telling a good story from the beginning to the end.
But we believe that we have a good story to share and persistence is king. That’s why we started to dig deeper into the topics of mindfulness and creativity to explore how the practice of meditation can help us bid our inner critics good by and invite creative flow so we become better writers.
We asked Sean Murphy, Zen teacher and award winning author for advice. Here is what he has to say about this topic:
One of the most common questions I receive from writing students is: “How does meditation practice influence your writing?” As a Zen teacher who has also written and published four books, I always love to discuss this. The answer is in myriad ways, from subject matter (in my nonfiction book about Zen coming to the west, One Bird, One Stone, and my novel The Hope Valley Hubcap King) to my whole approach to the writing process.
For one thing, meditation opens the mind, makes it more malleable and free, less bound by habit and less afraid to go down unfamiliar pathways. So it can directly stimulate creative flow, remove blocks, and lead to a natural ease in finding one’s authentic writing ‘voice’.
Also meditation has become an essential tool for me in staying with the writing process even when it gets uncomfortable, as it often does when feeling ‘blocked’ during a project. This is something I learned the hard way while writing my first novel The Hope Valley Hubcap King – which is a big part of why it took me 12 years to finish it! Every time the process became uncomfortable or I didn’t know how to proceed I’d think to myself: ‘I bet real writers don’t ever feel this way.’ Then I’d put the manuscript away for months, or more.
Of course I was wrong in that assumption – I’ve learned that ‘real’ writers often feel uncomfortable, or uncertain how to proceed, and once I’d realized this, my writing process speeded up considerably. The first draft of my next novel, The Finished Man, took me less than six months to complete. So what was different? I’d learned through my meditation practice that occasional discomfort, blockage, or confusion is a natural and inevitable part of any project – and of the creative process in general. (Not to mention, an inevitable part of life!) If we face the discomfort and keep moving forward, it will eventually open up and we’ll discover how to proceed. This often tends to happen right when we’re on the brink of a breakthrough, so I urge my writing students (and meditation students – and myself!) to stay with the process, even when resistance becomes strong.
Another important lesson I’ve learned from meditation is how to let go of negative voices – you know, all that scolding commentary we have in our heads: ‘you’ll never finish it,’ ‘you don’t have anything new to say,’ ‘there are too many books in the world already.’
These are all versions of what I’ve come to refer to as the ‘I suck’ voice. Pretty much everyone has some version of this dark angel sitting on one shoulder, speaking into our ear and telling us we’re not good enough. Once we recognize that this is normal, that there’s not simply ‘something wrong with me’, we can relax and not be so driven by these internal booby-traps. Why do these negative voices exist and persist? I don’t know…to me they sound like the scolding of some long-forgotten elementary school teacher that got implanted at some particularly vulnerable time in my youth. Or perhaps it’s a built-in social control mechanism stored in our superegos to keep us in our places so we don’t all rush out and write novels and leave the world to starve. All I know is that somehow these voices have to be overcome or at least set aside if our creative spirit is going to gain its full freedom.
In fact, a central teaching of Zen and most other meditation forms is that thoughts, whether negative or positive, are only that – just thoughts. Thoughts are models of reality, not reality itself. They are conditioned by past experience, behavior, and learning, and although the brain creates them in an attempt to be helpful, they’re not always accurate. We can learn to observe them and determine for ourselves whether they’re useful and appropriate to our current situation, or whether they’re derived from some older time and place and no longer apply. Just because something appears in our minds doesn’t mean we have to believe it, although it takes some effort and willingness to free ourselves from this habitual attachment.
In the process of meditation we practice letting go of thoughts and returning to the direct experience of the present moment (often in the form of focusing upon the breath) again and again. As a result we become less attached to our thoughts and gradually they begin to lose their automatic grip upon us. We begin to be able to choose, or at least influence, what thoughts appear in our minds, and our lives become freer. The process takes time but it’s worth it. In fact everyone who has ever achieved something great in their lives has had to learn in some way how to deal with the internal voices of negativity and doubt. Meditation is simply a particularly effective tool for doing this.
Immense freedom is available to us when our thoughts cease to automatically drive our actions. Then when one of these self-defeating ‘I suck’ thoughts arises – ‘it’s all been said before’ or ‘it’s all pointless’ – we can recognize it for what it is: simply a thought. In itself, it has no power. We don’t have to believe it. Thus the motto for my Sage Institute Meditation Leader Program has become: ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’
That’s pure Zen, and great advice for writers or artists of any kind (not to mention government and religious leaders!) And when the negative voices no longer have a hold on us, what then? There’s room for the voices of creativity to step forward and express themselves freely. This is what the Zen of writing is all about.
About Sean Murphy
Sean Murphy is a Zen teacher in the White Plum Lineage of American Zen, as well as the Hemingway Award-winning author of three novels and a nonfiction book on the coming of Zen to the western world, One Bird, One Stone. He teaches meditation for the University of New Mexico-Taos, and directs the nonprofit Sage Institute, which offers an innovative Meditation Leader Training Program, as well as meditation, mindfulness, and creativity seminars for the general public.
For more information about Sean Murphy see his website at www.murphyzen.com or the Sage Institute at www.sagetaos.com or read about his upcoming retreat Zen & The Art of Writing at legendary Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.