May 1, 2013
Dear Writing Friends
Out there in my civilian life I teach an online course for writers in all genres called Found In Translation. The focus of the course is not the creation of legions of translators, but using the process of translation to learn skillful means of bringing a maximum expression to the writer’s own work, whether it is prose, fiction, or poetry. I’ve been teaching this technique for more than twenty years and it seems to work well, or so I’m told. Plus, the class is fun because my method (I won’t describe it now) has people translating from languages they most often don’t read, speak or understand. As I said, fun.
Here is a note I wrote to my class this morning. I decided to post it since it addresses one way to work with translation and our own writing that I hoped would be of use to my students and other writers. Something to consider, in other words.
The note relates to a poem by the Polish poet Josef Baran, who wrote a poem where, as the middle aged man he is, he goes to the window of his apartment to look at a falling of the season’s first snow.
Hello everyone: I thought I’d pitch in with my experience of the bones [NB: very basic word to word translation, often the first step in translation] and poem when working with the Polish couple who introduced me to it. At least a little bit.
Since we worked on the poem in Southern California, and the couple are not only poets but world champion body builders and trainers of athletes so they were wearing tank tops, shorts, and the sun was pouring through my studio window, I had to be not where I was but where the poet Baran was. I had to leave my present circumstance and whatever part of me was enjoying the heat with my companions, and go to a window, in Poland, in middle age, to see the snow.
Right there is an important moment in writing: go to where it’s happening. There is neither time nor space in the imagination, and there is only time and space, and so no matter where it is, it is always here, and no matter when it is, it is always now. We should have some confidence in the breadth of the imagination and its reality. As WC Williams wrote: Only the imagination is real. And when we are in what I call “an act of the imagination”, in any of its forms, it is quite real, as I believe you know.
So now, with California summer sweat on my arms and forehead, I was standing before a cool window–or getting there–slowly allowing myself to be gathered toward that window and the snow beyond and, beyond that, my life from childhood to middle age in a Poland I never knew until that moment. It is not an automatic movement, you know, to allow oneself to do such a time-space shift, but it is not difficult. We do it naturally when we are unconscious so we can do it when we are conscious if we practice letting go of the apparent and entering the transparent.
It is the transparent world I needed, after all, so that what was apparent in it could become part of me, and me of it.
Most often, when translating or writing we are working to touch and be touched by the ‘ineffable’ in life. The word is great and it means “that which cannot be said.” I believe this is the second time I’ve said that here and it is worth repeating, just so we understand the no-map we work with when doing our writing. I believe I also wrote that the word, as I read it, means “that which cannot be grasped”, for that is how I experience it and it is probably the reason that I, like many others, rub my thumb and forefinger together when trying to say what can’t be said and grasp what can’t be grasped.
Still, the body embodies the internal process quite naturally. And so, as has been mentioned here by others, I go to the quiet place, and use the quiet transparency of breathing to help me get there and remain there as I mutually permeate with the world before me in order to find the moment I need.
Does it make sense to you? To dissolve in such a way, albeit as an act of imagination?
Once there I had to enter the world of Baran’s poem-bones. The world of “firsts” and “snow” and “falling”. And the world in which I “grow old”. Everything so invisible visible.
You see why it was necessary for me to dissolve into the bones, for how could cognition alone do anything but crush a snowflake or a first or the lightness of flying upward and downward in a way that connects past and present, heaven and earth, with the peculiar childhood music one not so much hears as becomes? [NB: this is some of the action in the poem.]
Then the touching what cannot be touched began, and I found, as I have in other writings, it can be done, one word or moment, one vision, one reaching into by using parts of myself I may not even be able to name, at a time.
How do you work? How do you write? How do you, as WC Williams wrote, “get said what must be said”? Where are you in you when you write your work or translate these poems? What feels when a phrase is “yes” or “not quite” while trying to balance a world on your fingertips?
What knows “right rhythm” of the phrasing, or “too loud” in tone, and what makes it possible for your words to flow like the river that will take the reader downstream to where she has always wanted to go?
These are not idle considerations; they are the ways of knowing ourselves beyond the apparent world, for that is what calls us to write in the first place, and what makes it possible, too.
April 2, 2013
from a note to my translation students. I hope it proves of some use to you. Maybe I’ll call it
Notes from the Overground just to keep Dostoyevsy happy:
“empathic communication is one way to describe the intimacy writing requires. and yet, even in those words, I feel the slightest gap because empathy means one with another, or, one for another, and that means there are still two ie self and other. while of course there are self and other, there also is not self and other if we leap across the nonexistent gap. this is why your legs are so tired, you know. I’ve been asking you in one way or another to leap. Leap to where? Not to there. Leap to here, then. Where else can you find wang wei, or li or neruda, or pavese shuji baran you? How else can you find the hardness of stone, the heat of sun, the wetness of dew, the green, that green, particular, of moss beneath the pine? why else would Lorca write: Verde, que te quiero verde! = Green, how I love you green!
So we say “don’t just do something, sit there.” and, “don’t just sit there, do something.” Knowing when to move and when to stay is so much a part of what we do. The key, of course, in each and every, is presence. We cannot do anything without it. So we leap to a presence of being with until it is being as, and then we write. Sometimes being as comes up out of the act of composition, as you know or have discovered – so let’s celebrate the possibilities found in not knowing, in doing before we know so we can know through doing. So straightforward and, yes, simple. As Dogen said, we just. paint. spring.
Now it is spring here. The daffodils paint spring by being daffodils, and that completely. The geese honk until the air sings across the lake. The buds squint out on branches, not yet ready to open to themselves. Each each each pronounces its name. And we? We listen, deeply, from inside. Inside what?
As the line in the old film said, “All this and heaven, too?” Well, this is heaven, too, my buddies. So good.”
PS – to read about my upcoming summer retreat, please paste this link into your browser: http://trueexpressionretreat.com/
May 25, 2012
Working with hindrances when all you really want to do is write, or
How To Feed A Hungry Ghost
Some of my writing students have been discussing what’s often called ‘the inner critic’. For anyone involved in creative work, this topic is not unheard of. Far from it. Since this is one of the big issues in writing, painting, making music, and pretty much in general for people in all walks of life, I thought I’d excerpt what you see below from my book, Fingerpainting on the Moon: Writing and Creativity as a Path to Freedom. I hope you find it of use, and enjoy it as well.
How To Feed A Hungry Ghost
There is a tale about Saint Francis of Assisi that is a sort of ghost story. When I first heard it the significance of the tale rang so immediately true to my own life, and to the personal and creative lives of friends, that I felt an urgency to tell it to everyone I could. In each case, when I was through relating it, the person with whom I had been speaking smiled with a look of recognition that only experience can bring, as if to say, “It’s really true.”
Most people have heard that Saint Francis was a great friend of the natural world. You may even have seen images of him that show the intimate connection with nature he so clearly felt as part of who he was. But despite the feeling of empathy with which he approached all living things, it turns out there was one form of life the man who would become known as Saint Francis just could not abide: lepers. It may be shocking to hear this, but when Francis was a young man, even his great heart could not form a bridge to the men and women who suffered from this terrible disease.
The young monk considered this a great moral failing, of course, and he did not take this failing lightly. He knew that the power of his revulsion and fear was causing him to reject people who in all other ways were just like he, except for the misfortune of having been afflicted in this particular way. But try as he may, Francis was unable to get to the root of his feelings and overcome them. Every time the slightest thought of lepers crossed his mind, he felt so overcome that his natural goodness seemed instantly consumed by a kind of internal ghost whose hunger devoured his love for life. It even attacked his religious conviction to serve all of God’s creatures and ate away at the loving nature of his own heart.
As time passed, Francis cultivated those ways of living that helped to increase the depth of his spiritual understanding. His compassion for all other forms of life increased and his every move seemed inspired by the boundless love of the Divine. But the secret knowledge of his feelings about lepers preyed upon Francis deeply and undermined his belief in himself in one matter after another. Of course, this was the working of the hungry ghost. Day and night Francis felt the demands of its appetite as it roamed freely within his conscience and imagination. It gnawed at him. It prevented him from sleeping and taking food. It depleted his ability to concentrate in prayer. It stirred up so many seeds of self hatred and doubt that Francis became convinced he was a sham. He accused himself of insincerely playing the part of one who loves God’s world and this one thought shook him to the root.
Finally, feeling almost completely consumed by this demon-ghost, Francis knew he was incapable of withstanding the attack one more day. He rose from his sick bed and went to see his teacher where he confessed his dilemma and asked for help. Francis’s teacher was a very wise person who had at one time suffered quite deeply in a similar way. After hearing the depth of his young student’s agony and regret he simply told him, “Francis, just do your best to work this out. The boundless love of Jesus is our guide and right now, wide as your own heart is, you are being challenged to expand it even more.”
“I know,” said Francis. “But, as you can see, there is almost nothing left of me. What shall I do?”
His teacher looked at him with compassion and then said in a voice so subtle and quiet that Francis could barely hear, “What, indeed!”
Francis left the interview devastated by his confessor’s reply, and angered at being tossed right back into the very teeth of the devouring mouth. But he also knew that what his teacher had said to him was true. That night during his meditations and prayers he became determined to conquer this adversarial ghost.
In the morning Francis awakened early, took a bit of nourishment and resumed his ritual practices as part of the community in which he lived. By mid-morning, though he was feeling quite weak, he found himself walking down the dirt path toward the village. It was a beautiful day all around, capped by an unblemished, blue Tuscan sky. Wherever Francis looked every molecule of creation reminded him of the perfection found in all things. This opened his heart and Francis suddenly recalled that one of the mystical meanings of being born in God’s image is that since God is perfect, each of us must be perfect as well, despite what appearances imply.
As Francis walked along the path, contemplating this very thought, a man suddenly stumbled out of the thorn-ridden bushes Francis was about to pass. With one startled look, Francis saw that the man’s face was swollen with the deformity of a leper. Without quite knowing what he was doing, Francis leaped at the man, arms outstretched. Then he grabbed the poor man by the shoulders, pulled him so close that they stood breast to breast, and without the slightest reserve, he kissed the leper fully on the mouth. And in that moment, it is said, Francis became Saint Francis, and the leper revealed himself as Christ.
The ability for one person’s act to gain a foothold and inspire the life of another is one of the attributes of human truth. Such acts enter the endless body of our own imaginations and dreams. This is part of the mysterious functioning of all authentic expression and art. It is what we want the arts to do. I’m sure you have experienced this after hearing a line of poetry, or a musical composition, or sat in wonder as a dancer’s gesture inscribed your life upon the air. We just can’t turn away from the mirror such expression provides, from what it does inside of us when we recognize that the face beginning to appear in that mirror is our own. We just don’t want to deny how it leads us to know ourselves in a way that answers our human yearning.
Isn’t that what happens when you encounter the undeniable, the true, the real? Don’t you often feel that a question has been answered; one you may not even have known you had? I think it is likely that you do. When this occurs, the experience echoes long after the event. It echoes because truth survives. In this case, the truth that cannot be denied is found in the unforgettable echo of a kiss.
Francis’s kiss was sufficient to banish the devouring ghost forever. It was a kiss rooted in the desperation to which he had been brought, to be sure, but one also born of the wisdom and courage to draw toward him the embodiment of his greatest fears. In the end, those elements of his psyche that sought to destroy him and those that had to be awakened to keep him alive were not struggling against each other, but with each other, in a painful but freeing dance. The kiss was the powerful denouement that set him free.
In our lives the story is not usually so dramatic, though this possibility is not to be denied. Even a seemingly small appetite of this kind has been known to bring the enormity of our lives to a halt. All of a sudden we find ourselves in bed at odd hours, or not eating, or not going to work or seeing friends. We avoid sitting down to write, or nervously circle our meditation pillow one time before we head out of the room. This is what it looks like when our own hungry ghosts become stimulated without warning and begin to eat at us from inside. It is why this tale of Saint Francis is so easily recognized the moment we hear it. It is part of life for almost everyone, and we experience the hunger of these ghosts as real.
Both Eastern and Western religious and secular traditions have had quite a bit to say on the subject of ghosts. One common theme is that the association between ghosts and appetite is quite strong. There might even be an agreement that a ghost is appetite personified. In the West, it is believed that ghosts are the spirits of those who were never able to be satisfied when they were alive. Their spirit hangs on in some barely transparent form with the hope of attaining some measure of satisfaction at last. Some people are said to be trapped in ghostly form because of the harm they caused during their lifetime. Their spirit was left so unsettled it continues to suffer long after their final breath. These ghosts want to make amends and redeem themselves, but until this yearning is satisfied their haunted presence remains.
Another group of ghosts are the noisy kind. They stay within shouting distance, so to speak, because of what others have done to them. Their appetite is for setting things right as well, but their method is to get even with those who have wronged them. These are the horror movie ghosts I prefer not to pay to see.
Buddhism speaks about ghosts in a somewhat different way, though their main attribute is still their appetite. In Buddhist cosmology, ghosts are found among the realms of existence known as The Six Realms. These are the realms of Hell, of Hungry Ghosts, of Animals, of Human Beings, of Demi-Gods and Goddesses, and of Gods and Goddess themselves. It is said that our actions produce a certain momentum that propels us into one of these realms or another. This is a simplified description of the workings of karma, a word whose usage these days is found almost everywhere in the West. For those who believe that reincarnation is a constantly upward progression of the soul’s refinement, it is fairly easy to understand this list of six realms as a linear sequence where, with any good fortune, conditions make it possible for a life-essence or soul to rise fairly rapidly from the Hell realm to the realm of the Goddesses and Gods in a sort of straight line, with relatively brief, almost touristic stints among the uncomfortable dwellers of the intervening realms. (Actually, despite the seeming desirability of being counted among the Gods, traditional Buddhist thought considers the human realm the most precious of all because only human beings have the ability to become enlightened and free from the cycle, or wheel, of suffering.)
Another view sees these six realms as ever-existing places, or existential spots, in which we might find ourselves living in the future. Where we next appear is determined entirely by what we do in the realm where we currently make our home. Therefore, if we do well in the realm of the Animals, in our next life we may move on to the realm of human existence. But if in our human life we get caught by our various weaknesses, attachments and drives, we get demoted, so to speak, and may spend our next life among the animals, (which many of us find somewhat attractive), the hungry ghosts, or even in hell.
My own sense is that all six realms simultaneously co-exist as potential states of mind within each of us. When the conditions exist that nourish the attributes of one realm more strongly than all the others, that realm takes precedence as the one that most powerfully influences our thinking, feeling and behavior. So we may be solid, moral citizens of the world at one o’clock in the afternoon, and one second later we may find we have leapfrogged into the realm of the Gods, or Animals, or that we are simply living with our brothers and sisters in Hell. If you give it a little thought, you might see what I mean. For example, how has your day or your weekend gone thus far? Good? Not so good? And what have you been feeling? How have you responded to what has presented itself today? In just how many realms have you been?
Saint Francis was afflicted by a hungry, hungry ghost. Despite the avidity of its appetite in this story, it remains the kind of ghost most of us encounter every day. Buddhist iconography imagines these Hungry Ghosts, called preta in Sanskrit, in a way I find memorably descriptive. They are beings with huge bellies that serve as storehouses for all they can possibly consume, but their throats are as narrow as the needle you use to sew a patch on your clothes. Because of this conflict, no matter how much they place into their mouths they can never be satisfied. This is precisely why they perpetually devour anything they can get.
So, what are our hungry ghosts, our preta? What part of ourselves rises from the depths of our own psyche and drives the needs of its appetite into our daily lives. Who is willing to consume anything in its path without regard to what may be damaged or destroyed? Of course, for each of us the answer will be different and you may find it useful to spend some time asking such questions. If you do, please do so gently, with the simple desire to understand what makes you behave the way you do in both your inner and outer world. Any other approach means your inquiry is in the hands of a hungry ghost. I suggest that you focus particular attention on the various hungry ghosts that seek to interrupt the expression of your creative and spiritual life. These ghosts serve a master whose needs are relentlessly demanding and, as I mentioned, insatiable at the core, so their methods can be deceptively sly.
If you recall what happened to Saint Francis I think you’ll find a good starting place. He was beset by his greatest unspoken fear. If you could name your own unspoken fears in regard to your creative life, what would you say? Perhaps you might believe that you really can’t do it, can’t write well, or well enough to express what most wants to be said. Perhaps you fear that, in truth, you have nothing of interest, nothing deep or wise enough to say.
These types of fears are common to most artists and writers I know. But they are also very useful fears. While they do cause the very creative tension that drives us crazy with insecurity and doubt they also provides the energy necessary to go where we have to go to get said what must be said. It is a dual edged tension many artists consider an unavoidably necessary part of the creative process itself. Remember how essential to Saint Francis’s breakthrough his desperation really was and you will see what I mean.
If this energizing, maddening tension finds itself in the hands of the hungry ghost who serves the part of the ego that fears what you might discover or create, the situation can get very serious very fast. The awakening of this particular appetite can bring forth behaviors of a quite destructive nature. It can unbalance the creative tension and turn it into an unreasonable irritability or anger that friends and partners find hard to withstand. It can transform this unbalance into self-hatred. It can engender nightmares that leave us shaking with insecurity. It can enforce a monumental wasting of time during our supposed work hours which eventually eats away at our confidence and self-esteem. I’ve seen this self-destructive domino effect happen to people again and again. Remember how Francis’s fear set off a chain reaction within his body and mind? It is easily done.
Sometimes, in order to satisfy their appetite, the sleight of hand these hungry ghosts use might appear friendly. How many times have you set aside an hour, or a day, or a week, or made arrangements to go on a retreat to do your creative or spiritual work only to come back with much less than you had planned to accomplish? And how often has this caused you to doubt your sincerity and skill? How many times have the very things you’ve set in motion to help you express your deepest self seemingly turned against you? When expectations find themselves in the toolbox of a hungry ghost all I can say is, Watch Out!
There are countless examples I could offer but one I do want to highlight is so unnerving, and so common, it is worth going into. It occurs when our writing is going well. In this circumstance the shakiness of the destructive part of our ego, and therefore the appetite of the ghost, grows larger with every authentic word. The attention we give to our work during such times leaves this hungry part of ourselves feeling neglected. It realizes we have found a genuine way to express the depths of our lives and considers this a very threatening situation. What about me? becomes its mantra. Since its own continuity appears at stake it seeks to protect itself with a move so subtle that I can only admire its creative reserve.
It tests us with a sotto voce approach by allowing us a feeling of self-satisfaction. Not so bad, all in all, except that it simultaneously plants within hearing distance of our conscious mind the seed that perhaps this satisfaction may not really be deserved if looked at closely. In other words, we feel a certain amount of pride for the day’s work and may even allow ourselves a sigh of true satisfaction, but because we suspect that what we feel may be a bit too much, at the end of that sigh we experience a flutter of doubt. These are ghost tricks.
Once both elements of this move are in place the ghost begins to inflate us. It tells us we are really great. It may even mirror its own feeling of neglect and begin to argue that others are not as good as we are; that we deserve a kind of recognition we have not yet received. If this maneuver catches us unaware it is bad news indeed. Feelings of grandiosity are often the flip side of low self-esteem and once we become caught in this particular web the hungry ghost has succeeded. It has enmeshed us in a sort of psychic see-saw where no matter which seat we are on, our situation is not so good.
What I find most sad here is that often we have done work of true worth that day (which is why the ghost is making such a move) and if we get caught in this trap the ghost will have its way, consuming the healthy self-nourishment we have earned.
It may seem impossible to defeat such an internal process as the hungry ghost. It may feel unbearable to even consider what to do. This was the source of Saint Francis’s rage when his teacher answered, “What, indeed!” You may find yourself thinking, What? Another hundred years of therapy? And I agree with you. The idea of battling a common and, some may argue, natural process of the human psyche makes no sense to me. We do not have to defeat ourselves. We do not have to hate any part of ourselves. To engage in such a confrontation is itself a trick of the hungry ghost. Then it will really control the energy and attention we need to bring to other parts of our lives.
Rather than engaging them in terms they would find beneficial, we can understand the functioning of these hungry ghosts well enough to actually feed them, but in a manner that frees us from their control. In this way we are taking care of them while healthily assisting those parts of ourselves that give rise to such hunger in the first place. It is a life-giving action, an expression of love applied to ourselves, and it works out well in the end.
Once you have used the method I’ve learned for taking care of hungry ghosts, I hope you will agree that it is simple, wise, and effective. There is even a certain elegance of mind to it you may enjoy. It comes from the Zen practice of eating the lunch time meal in a ritualized, formal style called oryoki in Japanese. Without going into an extensive description of this beautiful and meaningful spiritual practice, I’d like to offer a brief definition of oryoki: “just the right amount.” When we learn how to prepare food, how to serve and how to receive it, how to eat and how to live “just the right amount”, we can apply it to our relationships, our creative work, our hungry ghosts, and to every aspect of our lives.
At a certain point during the meal, all of the participants put down their utensils and take a small pinch of food, sometimes as small as one grain of rice, from the first of the three bowls before them. This bowl, which rests on the left side of the eating mat, is the largest of the three. It is known as the Buddha bowl and therefore it is said to contain the food of awakening within it. The bit of food is grasped between the thumb and index finger and placed on the end of a utensil very much like a small spatula which will be used to clean the bowls after the meal. All of this traditionally takes place right at the mat where the person meditates, eats and sometimes sleeps. As the participants do this the leader chants the following words:
All evil sprits, now I give you this offering. This food will pervade everywhere.
This ritual is known as The Feeding of the Hungry Ghosts, and it is these ghosts that are referred to by the words, “evil spirits”. Please note that despite these ghosts’ identification as “evil”, they are fed directly from the Buddha’s bowl, the food of awakening. I am sure you will recognize right away the wisdom in this. If we offer the food of awakening to a part of ourselves that is lost, it has a chance to realize something it needs very badly. Of course, most people would rather bat it on the head and send it on its way, or even kill it, but as I have said, when we approach any part of who we are with this kind of attitude, we are doing that violence to ourselves. It is a path of greater clarity and kindness to feed it the Buddha’s food. After all, we are the one’s who get to eat.
When I spoke with a Zen master about this ritual I asked him how I could incorporate this banquet of one grain of rice into my daily life. He said, simply, “That’s pretty easy. These hungry ghosts are just parts of our own mind, our ego, our desires, the things that want and want and want, so they can hear us when we speak. When you feel one of them sitting down at the table, or beginning to eat, just give them a little smile and tell them, I fed you today. You already ate. You know, even though they may feel they get very little food, the food they get is the Buddha’s, so it really is enough to last all day. Tomorrow you can give them some more.”
I started to approach my own hungry ghosts in this way that very day and continue to do so in various ways. It actually makes me happy when I do it. Rather than becoming invested in the distracting drama they provide to pull me away from what I’ve set out to do, I take care of them. Let me suggest that you too can take care of your own hungry ghosts by ritualizing a way of feeding them “just the right amount”. What would that look like in practical terms? One technique that has proven to work well is done every day as you sit down to write. All that is needed is for you to jot down just one phrase of poetry, or even just one word that calls forth an image you really love. Some people prefer to write a word symbolic of a spiritual teaching that expresses their aspirations. Remember, whatever you write can be the symbolic size, and carry the symbolic significance, of one grain of rice. This means your offering can be small and big at the same time. The most important thing is for you to make your offering with the same kind of mind Zen practitioners have when they place that single grain of rice upon the cleaning stick. Do it with the intention of acknowledging your hungry ghosts and feeding them the very best of foods. Then, if you like, place the paper with the writing you have done into a beautiful bowl beside the area where you write.
Of course this is only one possible design for your ritual feeding of the hungry ghost, and it may work for you, or it may not be a perfect fit. In the latter case I do hope you enjoy finding a way to give something to your hungry ghosts with the intention of satisfying them. Lighting a candle, or a stick of incense works well. Closing your eyes, breathing quietly for a moment and saying to yourself, “I am here” works as well. The techniques you can devise are countless. They are also opportunities for you to enjoy your creativity in ways that may be entirely new. The most important part of this ritual, however, is the spirit and continuity with which you carry it out. Done in the right spirit every day before you write, it is an offering, a practice, well worth doing.
After you have performed this part of your ritual, there is one more thing you need to do for it to be complete. If you find that as you work, or later in the day after you have written, the hungry ghosts appear with their appetite in full disorder, offer them a generous and gentle smile of recognition that lights up their world as the most delicious of foods, and tell them, I fed you today. You’ve already eaten. Then, without a second’s thought, go back to what you were doing. And I mean without a second’s thought! This will remind them, and you, that they have been fed and will receive no further attention or consideration than that. With just a little sincere and consistent practice I know you will find how effective this really is. Even the most insistent intruder vanishes when they are fed this way.
I have tried to write the tale of Saint Francis and the teaching on feeding the hungry ghost in a voice that encompasses both the severity of our human dilemma and the lightness and wisdom of an approach that can help us to set ourselves free. We don’t have to meet big guns with big guns. A little real understanding of what we face, and a commitment to act based on that understanding, goes a long way.
I’d like to leave you with these thoughts. Once you perform some ritual gesture to feed the hungry ghosts, the simple act of reminding them that they have already eaten is a very powerful and yet gentle form of Francis’s kiss. Just as it was necessary for him to withdraw his projections and fears before he could realize his true self, our feeding the hungry ghost is a necessary part of our own process of becoming who we really are. The physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and creative energy we’ve used in the past to battle these hungry ghosts becomes released by these simple but skillful means. It is transformed into a wellspring from which we may draw. Then, when it is time for us to draw from the clarified depth of our own real self, the true nature of our being will spontaneously emerge.
As always, I welcome any comments or discussion. And, if you’d like to be alerted to further posts in this forum for writers, please just go to the bottom of the page and fill in yr email address where it says Subscribe2. Thanks.
A lone syllable. A single word. Sometimes a noun. Always, in the heart of it, a verb. All creative expression depends upon our willingness to take a risk, and yet just to say it creates a feeling of excitement and fear in most people, a sense of danger rooted in the threat of change. Years ago I was told a story in which the painter Paul Klee said, “When I paint what you know, I bore you. And when I paint what I know, I bore me. So I paint what I don’t know.” Isn’t that wonderful? Paint or write what you don’t know. Create what you have not even begun to suspect! This is risk. It is the freeing intent behind most original work. According to Klee, the means to help our deepest selves make their mark in the world is right here in the tip of our innocent pencil or brush—the one we hold in our hand—if only we will risk.
Often, however, we avoid taking this first step, and therefore never get to the last. We convince ourselves that conditions are not exactly right or that some special moment of inspiration or insight must occur before we can create. In order to help you move past such hesitation—which can last a lifetime if we allow it to grab hold of our lives—let me tell you what writer, painter and calligrapher Kazuaki Tanahashi had to say in his book, Brush Mind. “There is no need to imagine before you paint. Painting brings forth imagination.” In other words, no special conditions are needed. This was his way of encouraging us to have confidence in the life-giving capacity of risk. It has been proven time and time again. One brush stroke leads to another. One written word calls forth the next. All we have to do is begin.
Our willingness to risk brings the moment, ourselves, and our work to life in a way that did not exist just seconds before. It can be very exhilarating and powerful when risk-taking ignites us into the new. But, of course, while risk does create life, death is also present as a possibility. Often, just before we risk something in our lives, even something small, the fear of dying can be found.
It is only natural to feel this way, especially since in creative work something does die. Something must die for our work to create something new, even if it is only an old idea. The key is to risk everything, to let everything go and die into our work, as Tanahashi does when he paints. It was to honor this quality in him, and to remember for myself that I wrote this poem:
The painter dies
with each brushstroke.
That’s how he came
to be so old.
By now we have all lived long enough to discover that one gateway to freedom depends upon our ability to alter how we look at what is right before us. When we do, what has previously blocked our way appears to unlock itself, as if by sleight-of-hand. As it says in the Heart Sutra chanted in Zen temples around the world, when there is no hindrance in the mind, there is no hindrance at all, therefore no fear exists. What a joy it is when the wall falls down or the seemingly impenetrable dissolves. This is a kind of dying; it is the dying of one or more beliefs that were never more than sprites, illusions that whispered in our ear with such authority we took them for real.
Light as they might appear, however, these sprites wield a heavy power over our psyches and it takes the strong medicine of risk to unseat them. When we make risk our ally and tell these mental or emotional obstructions to move along, as if we were British bobbies speaking kindly but with authority, an onrush of creative, life affirming energy becomes available to us equal to the amount that had been held in check. Then the environment of our inner lives becomes more free and feels instantly permeated with a sense of rightful peace. Such freedom is what it is all about.
What I love about Klee’s commitment is the freedom it provided him as an artist to fully explore what he, in that very moment, proved to be. Once this freedom is fully embraced, it becomes embodied as part of the content of the work. It no longer belongs to the artist alone. Rather, it transfers, because freedom frees. It frees everything it moves through, everything it touches. Look at the playful quality of the paintings for which Klee is mostly known and you will discover in his free use of color and form precisely what I mean. Isn’t there a kind of transfer of the freedom he experienced while painting, through the work itself, all the way over to you?
For us to know such freedom, our creative work must be a vital, visceral act of exploration. It cannot just be a rehashing of what has already occurred, or what we have previously thought or said. Don’t forget, the word predictable means said before. William Carlos Williams pointed to this essential characteristic of composition when he said that the poet thinks with the poem, “and that, in itself, is the profundity.” [The emphasis here is mine.] This sensibility reveals a primary reason we love to write or paint or engage in any form of expressive creation: the meaning is earned in the act of composition itself. This changes how our work is usually seen. It is no longer simply the vehicle of expression, but the skillful means by which we discover and explore the deepest truths of what we are. Risk, which is needed for us to become intimate with what is solid and real within us, is at the fore.
Two Zen Stories
One day a monk was walking through the mountain near some cliffs when suddenly she felt the ground slip from beneath her feet. She experienced herself falling and at the last moment, as she fell, she grabbed onto a branch that was sticking out from the side of the cliff. Frightened, she called out, “Help! Help!” but no one else was around to hear her. After some time a teacher and some students who were walking nearby heard her cries and came to the edge of the cliff. When the monk saw them she shouted, “Please! You’ve got to help me!” The teacher looked at the situation and said to her, “Just let go!” Isn’t that wonderful? “Just let go!” The monk was terrified because she knew she was hanging vertically in mid air, high above the ground, and yet here’s this teacher telling her to let go. “I can’t!” she cried. But the teacher was very kind, and very firm, and told her, “You’ve got to let go! Without any hesitation, you’ve got to let go now!” So she did. The monk let go and found that she had not been hanging vertically in mid air after all. The entire time she had been lying horizontally on the ground, and the ground had been supporting her all along.
This second story is also based on a traditional teaching from the Zen tradition. It has been such an essential part of my own understanding of creativity and life for so many years I can’t recall where I first heard it:
One day, toward the end of the year when their modest temple was about to close during the most difficult weeks of winter, a disciple of an old and venerated Zen master invited his teacher to stay with him at his family’s humble home situated in the nearby mountains. The Zen master agreed and the two of them set out. As the disciple led his master along a mountain path during their journey to his home, they found themselves gradually enveloped in a thick fog which whitened the mountain air and made it impossible to see more than two steps ahead. Nevertheless, without the slightest resistance on the part of the old man, the disciple led his teacher forward into the thickening fog. Suddenly, with his teacher at his side, the monk felt his foot slip and grabbed his teacher’s kimono to keep from falling into what turned out to be a deep abyss of ice and snow that lay at their feet. When they looked at what was right before them, the disciple realized he had lost his way and, in his confusion, had brought his teacher to the edge of a treacherous cliff. “I’m sorry,” he said, feeling somewhat frightened and ashamed. “I seem to have lost my way in the mountain and have no idea where we are.” The teacher looked at his young student for only a moment, and then turned his old eyes back to the snowed in valley below. “Jump!” he said. “Take my hand and jump from this ledge if you value your life and mine.” The disciple could barely believe his ears but, despite his terrible fear and the shaking of his bones, he did exactly as his teacher said. Grabbing the hand of the person he most trusted in the world, he jumped from the icy cliff and in the very next second discovered that he and his teacher were walking, hand in hand, on the sun drenched road that led to the village where he was born.
As these stories show, risk implies that something we hold dear may be threatened. Perhaps it is our lives. But, as I’ve said, this is precisely where a writer wants to be. The truth is that the riskiest thing a writer can do is to try to be safe, to make an uncomfortable and secret peace with the idea that our life will be spent balancing on an icy ledge, or hanging from a branch over a seeming abyss. Anything, so long as we don’t fall.
This is the same as deciding to stay within the boundaries of the world the writer already knows. After all, it makes a certain sense. Haven’t we become experts in that world? Let me answer by saying simply that it is true such boundaries may keep us safe, and that decent work may be found within them, but they also hold us in and prevent us from discovering that infinite landscape and possibility our spiritual need and imagination hold for us, if only we will set out upon the road. And, as for being “experts” of such a proscribed realm, I ask only that you consider this statement from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who said: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
It is true. Just as every heartbeat and breath is the agency of a new beginning in our lives, taking a risk is the very same agency for maintaining this beginner’s mind with every word we write.
I think it is fair at this point to ask who it is, what part of ourselves wants us to be experts, to wander endlessly in the land of the known where in time even we will begin to believe the world is flat? Who wants to keep us from discovering the content of our being that most yearns to be discovered? Whom does it serve—always a good question to ask—when we are held at such a distance from ourselves?
Time and again, over the years, writers I have worked with have shown me perfectly authentic, driving, inventive work written from their depths and then, suddenly, sometimes even in the middle of a phrase, the writing dies right before my eyes. Whether their writing was based on some particularly painful or confusing aspect of their personal life, or parts of themselves that had never previously been expressed, or even the urgent need for answers from some spiritual quest, it is the same. No matter how powerful the initial impulse to finally get it said, the life goes out of the writing and it dies.
I remember one poem in which a writer who had lost quite a few members of her family in the concentration camps in Eastern Europe was finally expressing her anger at God, fifty years in the making. Suddenly, in the middle of this cry torn from the burning ground of her life, just as the poem was about to finally give voice to parents, uncles, aunts and cousins whose own voices had been turned to ash, everything became nice. Very nice. The writer became interested in a vase of daisies on her kitchen table. How beautiful they were. How they caught the sun.
“Just a moment, please,” I told her. “I’m reading your poem. Death and rage are in the room. A woman is screaming into the womb of silence left behind by an absent God. Ghosts of family and blood fly through the air like some nightmarish painting by Chagall, and suddenly we’re looking at these daisies? Which may be lovely, indeed,” I assured her. “But not now.”
Why does this happen? What makes us cut the creative flow of feeling, thought and association until we subvert the writing with a distraction, or turn off the power that drives the story or poem? Why do we lose access to the vital root of what clearly means so much to us? For most people the answer is quite simple: Intimacy with what is most essential to us dies the instant we feel that our exploration and expression are going into areas that either feel too unfamiliar or that may contain material we fear we cannot control. We would rather sidetrack the forward motion of discovery and avoid taking the risk such intimacy demands than go all the way through to truth. And through truth, to expression. And through that, to freedom.
But clearly not all of us wants such subversion. If that were true we wouldn’t write a word. Some part of us wants us to maintain intimate contact so we may give voice to those parts of ourselves we are finally coming to know. So who is it, then, that does not want to risk losing control? Who can’t bear the threat?
We can be very gentle with ourselves as we ask this question. There is never a need to cause ourselves unnecessary fear. Besides, the part of our psyche that likes things just the way they are, without any uncomfortable revelations, is frightened enough. I like to think of this particular part of our ego in a rather lighthearted way as a bureaucrat who believes it’s job is to keep it’s job. Anything that threatens the status quo has got to go. It has a sort of allergy to the kind of risk writers must take in the name of authentic writing, the risk that yields the greatest benefit. The last thing it wants is for us to discover the relationship between risk and surrender—for example, surrender to writing what we don’t know—and it will do everything it can to exhaust the psychic and imaginative energy our writing needs so that it may bring this process to a halt.
I characterize our ego in this way to have a little fun, but as you know this bureaucrat holds a lot of power. More often than we would wish, our lives are in its control. What we need to do, then, is to step off the ledge of this fearful inclination. Just step right off. This takes both risk and surrender. When we do, we strengthen our intimate connection to what makes authentic expression possible and, just like the disciple who jumped into the snowy abyss while holding onto the hand of his old master, the one whose beginner’s mind was ready for every possibility, we find ourselves walking down the road of unbounded joy that leads to the village where we were born.
Hillel: The First One-footed Jewish Haiku Poet
Rabbi Hillel, or Hillel the Elder as he came to be known in his later years, was the child of a wealthy Babylonian family, born one or two generations before the common era. As he matured he gave himself entirely to the study of Torah and, after coming to Jerusalem to continue cultivating his soul’s depth and understanding, he supported himself as a woodcutter. I can’t say for certain that he was a very good woodcutter for he lived in such great poverty that as a young student he could not even afford the admission fee for study. The seriousness of his intent, however, was so palpable that beginning with Hillel the long standing tradition of charging this fee was abolished for all who wanted to become intimate with the teachings.
In time, Hillel’s reputation as a man of wisdom and gentleness rose to such great heights that he stood at the head of the community as the great spiritual and ethical leader of his generation. This was at about the time when Herod’s reign was ending, approximately 10 BCE to 10 CE. You may have heard of Hillel because he is the person who said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” As you can see, Hillel was a man who placed himself beyond the horizon of safety, well in the land of risk.
I bring Hillel the Elder into this chapter because of a story I find of tremendous inspiration and use. It is said that one day a man came to Hillel and said that he would allow Hillel to convert him if Hillel could teach him the entirety of the Torah while standing on one foot. Using a turn of phrase common to people at the time, Hillel is said to have raised one foot off the ground without the slightest hesitation and replied, “What is hateful to you, do not unto your neighbor; this is the entirety of the Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go study!”
Given the spontaneity of his approach and the depth of his expression, I think there is little question that Rabbi Hillel and Paul Klee would have gotten along. Painting what you don’t know, jumping from icy ledges, releasing your grip from a branch one hundred feet in the air, and standing on one foot while articulating the heart of the Law of your people with spontaneity and confidence are all rooted in the same disposition of mind. But, for now, I want to focus on that singular, physical (some might say metaphysical) foot of this sage. Besides, it will give you an opportunity to move around.
Since we can learn quite a bit about risk from our physical makeup I ask you to please stand and keep reading. Make sure you have at least four or five feet of clear space in front of you. I’m going to ask you to read this next section through, hold it in your mind as you do what is described, and then pick up the book again. Following these instructions alone already qualifies you as a risk taker. So, here we go.
Stand with your feet at a comfortable distance apart. You may sway a little until your body feels more relaxed and loose. As you stand there I want to remind you that in our culture we have been told time and time again that we have to stand up on our own two feet. “Chest out, tummy in, get up on your own two feet.” This makes it pretty hard to breathe, or walk, or do just about anything but stand there. Even so, this image is part of the myth of the rugged individualist. “Yep, he went out there and he cut those trees and built that cabin and dug that well all by himself.” On the surface, this may not sound so bad, though it is only part of the story. After all, the trees were there to be cut and the water was waiting in the ground, and all of this took place in that fabulous conspiracy of what we call time and space. So our hero didn’t exactly do all of this alone, however phenomenal the courage and effort of his act.
It turns out that even when we appear to be doing something alone it may not really be the case. For example, what are you standing on? Of course you will say you are standing on your feet and you will be correct in saying so. But what are your feet standing on? If you said the floor or something of that order you would, of course, be correct again. And what is the floor standing on? Yes, it’s the earth, or Earth if you are thinking in a planetary way? And Earth? What is Earth standing on? I think it would be okay to say that Earth is standing on space? And how about space, then? What is it that space stands upon? Okay, the universe. And how about that? What is the universe standing on?
Do you see how big it can get? What is the universe standing upon? Let’s call a halt to our investigation here and just say the universe is standing on the laws that govern it, even though we may not understand what they are. So it turns out that while we may appear to be “standing on our own two feet”, it takes the floor, the earth, the Earth, space, the universe and the laws which govern all of it for you to be standing right where you are. If any of these are removed I think there is little doubt that you would not be standing there. How’s that for feeling supported, for not having to stand alone, or live alone, or write alone? We do not do anything in our lives without the truth of interdependence as an unseen foundation or ground. I like to call this the ground beneath the ground because it is always right here, no matter what we think or say, doing its job. Nothing exists without it functioning exactly as it does.
If you look deeply at your lives, and allow this idea of the ground beneath the ground to extend literally and metaphorically, you will find it is the kind of ground upon which Hillel stood. It is no different from the ground of understanding the two Zen masters helped their students to realize. Properly understood, it provides a context for us to see risk in a whole new light.
Time to move. Please slowly shift the weight of your body to one foot. Once there, lift the other foot slowly (very slowly) and take a slow motion step forward, bringing your foot to rest on the floor in front of you. Now shift the weight to the foot you’ve just moved forward, and lift the other foot forward, very slowly, as you take another step. We are really only slowing down the process of walking and taking two steps, but in slow motion. With each step, please put your mind in your foot, so to speak, and pay great attention to what you are experiencing in the foot to which you’ve shifted your weight, the one you’ve got planted for stability on the ground. Please do this one more time. Take two very slow steps forward, (as part of your investigation you may take three or four steps in this manner if you like) and then come back and read.
Did you notice a slight instability in the foot you were using for balance? Did you notice how as you lifted the other foot to begin your step it may have wobbled a bit, seeking the strength and balance required. Did you also notice how it knew, without being directed by conscious thought, to find its balance and hold its stable position so that the other foot could move forward? If you like you may do the exercise one more time now to test your experience against what I’ve said.
Just taking a step can teach us quite a bit about creative process and risk. We move from stability, through instability, to stability again. We do it every day thousands of times. Every time we walk we move from a stable position, through one that is less stable, to one that is secure and stable again. It’s how we move physically forward in our lives. We’re made to do it. We’re designed this way.
Our heart beats and stops, beats and stops. It is what pumps blood through our body and keeps us alive. Our lungs breathe in air, there is a moment between breaths some meditation teachers call the still point where we are neither breathing in nor out, and then we release the air, having received the nutritious oxygen we need to live. Our eyes open, close, open, close, more times every day than we can count. These are just a few of our natural processes. They do not need to be consciously controlled by intellectual knowing or thought of any kind. They are just the natural functioning of our body, part of the elegant, powerful ground beneath the ground that makes our existence possible.
Thanks to this miraculous design of being human, systems that do not require the assistance of our beautiful, rational minds, help to keep us alive. The same holds true for writing. We do not need to stay in control of every aspect of ourselves in order to write. Quite the opposite. We and our writing really live when “the bureaucrat” takes a break, a long break, during which time we demonstrate to our imagination that we are willing to meet it wherever it says to go. When we do this, our psyche likes it, feels we are trustworthy, and allows us to experience intimately what we really want and need in the exploration and expression of our lives.
Let me use this moment as a reminder: we are not only born to create, we are born to risk. These are actually the same. Taking a creative risk is not only essential and freeing, it is the least risky thing you can do. Any attempt to stay safe will never get you where you want to go. But, once you become used to risking everything so that authenticity bursts alive in your writing, that pesky bureaucratic part of your ego starts to take credit for it. It really does. It’s sort of cute in its transparency, because it sees where you are going and it doesn’t want to be left behind. That’s why it chases after you shouting, “See what I did? See where I was willing to go? I risked everything. I did everything. For you!”
When we write we are standing on one foot. At first we may be a bit unsure of our ground, but we can have confidence that we are rooted in a ground deeper than we can imagine. If Hillel had allowed the slightest wobble to cause his other foot to come down, we would not have the benefit of his wonderful teaching, or the example of creative and spiritual courage and trust his act provides. Likewise, if while writing we allow any wobble to throw us off track, we may not discover our own wisdom, our own creative and spiritual courage. Often the burst of energy we feel while taking a risk is the very energy that drives the writing and makes it possible for us to discover and express what has always crouched within, hoping to be found. This is true whether the nature of the energy is fear, anxiety or excitement of any kind. As Shunryu Suzuki once said, “A big block of ice makes a lot of water.”
So we must lift that foot and experience a seeming groundlessness before returning to our ground. When we do return, however, we discover that we are standing on new ground with a strengthened confidence in our spiritual and creative lives. It is a ground of great permission. Frequently, when people first experience the unbounded permission this ground provides, there is laughter and then there are tears. It is as if all the obstructions in our lives simultaneously disappear. As one student said to me when she discovered this for herself by writing on a painful subject she had avoided for years, “I just didn’t know they could! And even if it was only for a few moments—still. I was free!” This is pure joy, the kind I imagine Henry Miller must have intended when he entitled his book of watercolor’s: Paint (or in our case, Write) As You Like And Die Happy.
April 2, 2013
Notes from the Overground just to keep Dostoyevsy happy:
May 25, 2012
Working with hindrances when all you really want to do is write, or
How To Feed A Hungry Ghost
How To Feed A Hungry Ghost
“I know,” said Francis. “But, as you can see, there is almost nothing left of me. What shall I do?”
All evil sprits, now I give you this offering. This food will pervade everywhere.
The painter dies
with each brushstroke.
That’s how he came
to be so old.
Two Zen Stories
Hillel: The First One-footed Jewish Haiku Poet