Friday, December 14, 2012

The Metaphysics of Sitting

"Patience, consistency, and perseverance are important in establishing and settling into your practice." (ZCLA)

"I came home every night at twenty to eleven, regular as Kant." (Leonard Cohen)

Just as I am sometimes struck by the similarity between what I do and what motivational speakers like Tony Robbins do, I am often struck by the zen-like "wisdom" of my suggestions. I mean that in a self-deprecating way, I should say; without denying its wisdom, one has to admit that zen practice is a very simple thing. It is sometimes difficult to justify the role of a teacher or coach in its development. And yet, it is also the practice that is most iconically associated with "gurus".

The other day I noticed the very specific likeness of my writing proposal to what is called "zazen" meditation, which is often associated with a pursuit of "mindfulness" these days. There are two very superficial similarities. First, it is a program of daily meditation. Second, the recommended session lasts about 30 minutes. But the practice of "sitting" also aligns with my writing advice at a deeper level.

Lynn Kelly makes a suggestion that looks very much like mine: choose a time, choose a place, and choose a duration. And remember: "You have everything you need right now." This is exactly what I say about scholarly writing. Just decide to sit down every day, somewhere suitable, and write what you know. You already have the ideas in your head. Just write some of them down at a particular time in a particular place every day.

"At first, you may be surprised at how active and uncontrolled your mind is," Kelly tells us. "Don’t worry – you are discovering the truth about your current state of mind." One must repeatedly bring one's attention back to the chosen "object of meditation", like one's breathing. When writing according to my method, you are going to be making a similar effort to focus on your key sentence, to find in your mind those further ideas that support exactly the claim you are making in this particular paragraph. And here too you may find, in the beginning, that your mind is surprisingly, even distressingly, active, at times also outright confused. Don't worry, I also say, you are discovering an important truth, even if that truth is about the limits of your knowledge. "Accept and 'sit with' whatever comes up," Kelly says. When writing, I will add, this might simply mean sitting there in your ignorance struggling with your words. Over time, given discipline, your "monkey mind" will settle down and produce stable, coherent prose for you about things you know.

With admirable simplicity, the Zen Center of Los Angeles' instructions for beginners is called "How to Sit". It wisely urges patience:

Be patient with yourself, as it may take some time before you can reliably focus your attention for an extended period of time. At first, you may only sit a few times a week, for a few minutes. At your own pace, gradually increase the frequency and duration of your sitting until you can sit daily for 30 to 35 minutes at a time. Don’t rush this process, but allow your mind and body to gradually adjust to the practice. Some people prefer to sit in the morning, others at night, and some do both. Experiment to find which of these works best for you, then make it your own regular practice. When practicing, it is useful to sit in the same place and at the same time of day, if possible.

Again this is exactly what I say about writing. Get yourself gradually into shape to "reliably focus your attention" on the composition of a single paragraph. I urge people to aim for 27-minute sessions (with three-minute breaks), with more advanced writers sometimes writing one in 18 or even 13 minutes (with two-minute breaks).

But I also emphasize that this is your writing practice. Find a practice that works for you. The important thing is to sit down every day and write. Like Zen, however, you can benefit from the experience of a teacher. And that's where I come in, I guess.

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