Writing—and paying attention

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The plaza on a different day. Imagine us on the bench at the right, looking over at a bench on the left.

This fall I became a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs New York City public high school girls who have a passion for writing with professional women writers who pass on their craft. I find myself going back to basics, trying different writing styles and genres; it’s a little like being a baby writer again.

My mentee and I began with exercises in the building blocks of writing: interviewing, note-taking, description. Last week, we did character description. We sat on a bench in a plaza outside a mall and picked out a man sitting a couple of benches away. For 15 minutes, we both wrote as minutely detailed a description of him as we could, then compared our texts. We chose a woman and repeated the exercise, this time trying to write in the other’s voice.

As it turned out, the comparison wasn’t that interesting, for we had noted pretty much the same items—clothes, details of face, hair, what the woman was carrying, what we thought the person was feeling—and made rather similar observations. What really struck me was how interested and involved I became in these two quite unremarkable people.

I had felt rather resistant to this exercise, perhaps because I associated it with fiction, which I haven’t tried to write in a long time, although I’ve done essentially the same type of description in my nonfiction. But it turned out to be intensely engaging. By the time we finished I was dying to know these people. The man appeared to be Latino, maybe 60, with a poker face; the woman was black, about 40, very well groomed and dressed, and looked tired. Each obligingly stayed put on a bench for just the 15 minutes we needed.

I see now that my shift from faint hostility to fascination resulted purely from the quality of attention forced on me by the exercise. Because of the set, almost grim expression on the man’s face I assumed he was bad-tempered. I kept watching, because I had to, and saw him smile at the antics of a couple of children running around; his expression changed completely. Suddenly I saw him as quite kindly.

We had guessed that the woman might be waiting for someone (since she looked at her watch), but then I thought: maybe she was taking this rest on the bench as a brief respite—time for herself before she had to go home, cook dinner, and take care of other people. The more I watched, the more I felt for her, shouldering these obligations after working all day. Maybe I was right—no one came, and eventually she hoisted her bags and walked off. But I wished I could have talked to both of them and found out.

So what generated this involvement? Simply: paying attention. There’s a famous story about Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who taught for many years at Harvard. His new students were presented with a preserved fish on a tin platter. He would tell the student to look carefully at the fish, then leave the room, not to return for hours. One student,

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Haemulon carbonarium, a member of the fish family that Samuel Scudder observed. By Williams, J. T.; Carpenter, K. E.; Van Tassell, J. L.; Hoetjes, P.; Toller, W.; Etnoyer, P.; Smith, M. [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Samuel Scudder, wrote an account of being left alone with the smelly, hideous fish. He thought he had seen everything there was to see in that fish after 10 minutes; but after several hours, desperate, he had the idea of drawing it, “and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.” But when Agassiz returned, and he proudly recited his discoveries, the professor said, “‘You have not looked very carefully… Look again; look again!’” And he left me to my misery.” With nothing else to do, Scudder started to see still more in the fish. Each time he gave Agassiz a new list of observations, the professor said, “That is good, but that is not all; go on.” The misery continued for “three long days.” Only later did Scudder realize “the inestimable value” of this lesson in how to observe.

And here was I, feeling pressured by having to observe for 15 minutes. After 10, I too thought there wasn’t much left to notice. What would have happened if I had extended my observation for an hour?

The lesson I draw isn’t the same as Scudder’s. It’s about a different effect of close attention: the emergence of interest, curiosity, empathy, even loving kindness. In meditation you are supposed to observe with nonjudging “bare attention,” without agenda or assumptions. I wasn’t even doing that—I had the opposite of an open mind—yet look how this brief exercise changed my mental state.

Where does writing come from? (part 2)

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Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton, Woman Writing in an Interior, 1904, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Mavis Gallant, a Canadian short-story writer, died in February at 94. A notice in the New Yorker got me curious about her. After a brief early marriage, she moved to Europe in 1950, at 28, giving herself two years make a living entirely from writing. And she did it, making the tradeoff so many women have felt compelled to make: “She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” as one scholar put it. So when she explains what drives someone to become a writer, she knows what she’s talking about.

In an afterword to a collection titled Paris Stories, Gallant says:

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keepclick to go to Amazon book page going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams. Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping visions of things seen and things as they might be seen. All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing. It is the basic requirement.

What interests me is this phrase holding the breath while going on breathing. And why it’s the basic requirement.

To me, it sounds like an ability to inhabit two alternate realities at the same time, or two different levels of existence, one a kind of internal timeless being and the other the world of objects in time. There is a meditation practice of shifting focus from an object of concentration to just the awareness of the knowing of that object. As I understand it, this practice trains you to be increasingly able to experience pure awareness.

With respect to writing, I think “holding the breath” equals accessing the timeless subjectless place ideas arise from, at the same time that you’re finding language and constructing sentences that make these ideas into an object—the words on the page (or screen) that exists in time and space. I’ve had the experience of dissolving into the process of writing such that my sense of myself simply evaporated. I have usually only gotten to this point when I was able to work continuously over a period of time. Once someone called me at such a time—not a close friend, but someone I knew more than casually—and I embarrassed myself by forgetting who she was.

This is the best experience of writing that I know of. Nothing beats it. Sometimes I think that my entire motivation for writing another book is just to have it again. Perhaps Mavis Gallant felt the same.

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Suzuki Harunobu, A Woman Writing, circa 1764–circa 1768, Brooklyn Museum

Between the Door and the Street: the stoop, and a conversation

Between the Door and the Street: conversationSitting by a stoop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with three other women, discussing gender politics—as an art form. The yellow scarves signal that we’re part of Between the Door and the Street, a work of socially engaged art by California artist Suzanne Lacy. We were among 84 groups on stoops along the block, “performing” our unscripted conversations for a large crowd that strolled the sidewalk, stopping and listening at different stoops as they chose. We stoop sitters represented a huge range of local activist groups.

Suzanne Lacy, Between the Door and the Street

Photo by Matt Weinstein.

My own group’s subject was second-wave feminism—how it changed us, how it changed society—and what didn’t change. Women still earn less than men; they still take on more responsibility for house and children. Rape remains a huge problem. These facts tell me that even though women now take on roles they rarely had before—CEOs, elected officials, and so on—the underlying power structure remains intact. Moreover, despite all advances, women as women remain deeply problematic, for their sexuality and ability to generate life frighten men. This is no less true today than it was centuries ago when the witches were persecuted in Europe. It’s why feminists have asserted that rape is primarily an issue of power, not of sex (I wrote about this fear in my book The Women Outside).

The four of us on the stoop had a great time talking to each other, but except for a couple of moments when we got a laugh, I had no idea how people were responding. It was really supposed to be performance, and we’d been told not to break the fourth wall, so I tried diligently not to look at them. When at the end we were cued to go out into the street, we did talk to a few people, but those who had listened earlier and moved on were gone. I think this fluidity is a signature quality of Lacy’s work—very Buddhist.

Interesting phenomenon: so many women there looked fabulous, incredibly attractive.

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

Scarves! Photo by Matt Weinstein

It wasn’t just that they knew how to put themselves together (although the scarf-tying creativity on display blew me away), but that they knew who they were. Beyond mere self-confidence, I saw a sculpting of their being, a refinement that showed in their features—a chiseled look arising from experience and the wisdom gleaned from it. Look through this portfolio of photos by local photographer Matt Weinstein, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.

In the same way, when someone is a dedicated meditator, their practice often shows in their face, which appears both well defined and quite open—undefended, since the person has no need to feel defensive. There is no hiding, the full being shines out.

Such people have digested experience into something that nourishes spiritual health. The clothes, hair, and makeup on the women last Saturday all looked good because they knew who they were and weren’t trying to be someone. Not surprisingly, the real stars in this respect were middle-aged and older.

Floored by a foot

A six-by-three-foot foot. It sat like a huge bench right by the elevators at the Asia Society, part of an exhibit titled “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art.”

This gigantic stone carving of the Buddha’s right foot, inscribed with 108 auspicious symbols, packed a wallop, more than anything I saw in the exhibit rooms. It felt personal and close, as though the Buddha had just been there, striding through the lobby on his way to the galleries. You could sense the sculptor’s pure longing to feel his presence. I had never seen a Buddha footprint before, and went home to figure out why it moved me so.

Buddha footprintI did some research and discovered that Buddha footprints (buddhapada, in Sanskrit) are quite common. Both artist-created footprints and “real” prints—foot-shaped impressions on rock, believed to have been made by the Buddha himself—were and still are objects of devotion throughout Buddhist Asia. (The image at the left is of second-century Buddha footprints from northern India at Yale University Art Gallery; the one I saw at the exhibit is here.)

In fact footprints (handprints too) have been created and venerated across cultures and history all over the world—from the Chauvet caves in France 30,000 years ago to a temple in Syria dating from 10,000 BCE to the prints of movie stars outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. One famous “natural” footprint, at the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, is claimed by Buddhists; by Hindus (as the footprint of Shiva); by Muslims (as the print of Adam); and by Christians (as the print of St. Thomas the Apostle).

There are also footprint paintings. Many Tibetan thangkas (paintings on cloth) include the actual handprints and/or footprints of the lamas they depict. But it was the three-dimensional carvings, conveying as they do a sense of the Buddha’s corporeality, that touched me most.

So I started thinking about feet. I read about their symbolic, metaphysical, and psychological associations, the ambiguous nature of the footprint as indicator of both presence and absence, mortality and divinity.

Scrolling through the “Buddha’s Footprint Inspiration Gallery” on a tattoo website, I found:

[The footprint] reminds us that the spiritual life has its feet on the ground, and that while we aspire to “transcendence,” we should never lose awareness of the material plane of existence. At the same time, a disembodied foot speaks of Buddha’s absence, the absence of the human personality, and by extension, his non-attachment to this life.

I love symbols, so I found all this fascinating. More:

  • A central Buddhist teaching is the noble eightfold path, the “way” to enlightenment. What else but a footprint to represent it?
  • A footprint’s ambiguity makes it a type of liminal, or transitional, space. You can imagine yourself filling the Buddha’s shoes (as it were), being imbued with his spirit. Suddenly this thing we’ve been assured we have—our intrinsic Buddha-nature—connects with its universal manifestation.

But none of this really answered my question.

Finally I found a report by Faxian, a fifth-century Chinese pilgrim traveling through India. He came across a buddhapada that changed size depending on who observed it. It was either long or short, noted Faxian, “according to the thoughtfulness of a man’s heart.”

“It exists,” Faxian added, “and the same thing is true about it, at the present day. Here also are still to be seen the rock on which he dried his clothes, and the place where he converted the wicked dragon.”

So perhaps the footprint I saw—which I’m happy to note was pretty long—helped open my heart. It tamed whatever dragon might be making me feel more wicked than I needed to be.

Note: for someone else’s very personal reaction to Buddha footprints, see this blog post.

Where’s the OUTRAGE?

A city dweller—a true child of concrete—once spent the weekend with a friend in the suburbs. The friend’s cat snared a bird and as cats will do, deposited the corpse as a gift on the doorstep. The city visitor was indignant. “Aren’t you mad at Rudy for killing the pretty bird?” she demanded.

“Why should I be angry at a creature for acting according to its nature?” the friend responded.

Even at the time, I perceived a real wisdom in this answer (that city creature wasn’t me, by the way). But only recently do I see why.

Sorry, I was going to post photos of a couple of these billboards—they sure have great entertainment value—but decided I didn’t want to give those vodka makers any more publicity for than they already have. I hope that’s an example of wise discrimination. Photo by Gary Deibler.

Not long ago a friend showed me a photo of a now infamous Wodka Vodka billboard near the Brooklyn Bridge. On a red background, next to an image of a vodka bottle together with a lamb wearing something resembling a sombrero (don’t ask me!), a headline read “ESCORT QUALITY—HOOKER PRICING.” It was one of a series of so-called shock ads; others included “CHRISTMAS QUALITY—HANUKKAH PRICING” (two dogs, one wearing a yarmulke) and “BLACK RUSSIAN,” showing a muscular black man in a wifebeater and a fur hat in front of an image of the Kremlin. The Jewish/ Christian one had been taken down following a storm of outrage.

My friend had shot the photo with his cell phone while driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. He showed it to me in anticipation of feminist outrage. But I didn’t produce any, and I think he was rather disappointed. I thought the billboard was pretty disgusting, but I couldn’t work up any ire over it.

Fact is, I don’t get angry as much as I used to. That’s where the cat story comes in. Creatures (including people) are the way they are, they act according to their nature. And they may or may not be at a place where their nature can become kinder, gentler, wiser, whatever. If what they do is harmful, you try to prevent them from doing it, but more and more, indignation and outrage seem to me like a waste of time and energy—even a form of self-indulgence.

Occupy Wall Street: a spiritual movement?

The other day I visited Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti “Park,” essentially a paved strip one block long between tall buildings. What struck me first was how dense it is. Little

Tents at OWS, photo by Atomische • Tom Giebel

bubble tents are close-packed, with narrow aisles here and there so you can thread your way through. Almost all the square footage is taken up by these tents and by various organizational/ administrative booths: the “Think Tank” where seminars and lectures are held, the Library (writers, note: lots of real books), Information, Community Affairs, and Legal. A large hand-lettered sign listed a full schedule of activities for the day: seminars, speakers, actions.

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Sanitation department, photo by David Shankbone

Not everyone was young. Middle aged and elderly people staffed booths, held signs, played guitars and banjos, wandered around in costume talking to visitors.

The low wall surrounding the park marks a marginal area where occupiers engage the outside world. Sign holders, musicians, people offering flyers present themselves to a lineup of onlookers wielding video and still cameras—many press people and lots of tourists. The site is only a couple of blocks from the WTC memorial, so the tourists make this another stop.

At the west end, on Church Street, I encountered a group of about 10 nattily outfitted senior citizens from Westchester, who had driven down to Fort Lee in New Jersey, then cycled into Manhattan. “We do this every year,” one man told me, so this year they picked OWS as their destination. He reminisced about the 60s, when construction workers beat up anyone with long hair. His group smiled quite kindly on the occupiers.

The level of organization and community structure in the park is remarkable. Signs hang from the wall:

  • To reach an OWS Community Affairs Representative, call __________.
  • Good neighbor policy: Zero tolerance for drugs or abuse of personal or public property (and about a half-dozen more items I didn’t write down).
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The altar, photo by David Shankbone

I browsed my way through the tents, behind a young man with dustpan and broom who was sweeping the foot-wide aisle between two rows. The occupiers represent a great variety of groups, ranging from far-lefties to the people who set up the altar that sits at the west end near the wall, on which at least one man sat apparently meditating. The photo shows one side of the altar.

I noticed several statues of the Buddha, images of Hindu gods and Kwan Yin, incense, plants, beads, pebbles, little medallions, an orange pepper, a photo of Gandhi (“he would have been here,” said its sign), feathers, pumpkins, the Virgin of Guadeloupe, Tibetan scarves. Nearby a trumpet accompanied a group of drummers. I dug out of my handbag a foreign coin that my colleague Mary, who sold me the purse, had slipped into a compartment for feng shui (never leave a purse or wallet empty, she advised me) and left it in the lap of a Buddha as a token from both of us.

Everything goes on against a background of continuous music: drumming but also guitars, in groups and solo. It heightens the heady, high-spirited atmosphere. Inside the park it feels like school is suspended for the day; there’s a rent in the fabric of everyday life allowing something extraordinary to flow in, something joyous and completely unprecedented. My question, like that of so many others, is: will this produce anything meaningful?

Wandering back along the other side of the park, I encountered a man holding a sign that read “I am not a protester—I am a change agent” being interviewed on video for a website. I asked what his sign meant. “This movement is different,” he said, “because what we need is a shift in consciousness. We can’t change the system using the same methods as past movements of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. We need to align our energy and attention with what we want to happen, not waste it on anger.” His name is Steven Morrison, and he teaches sessions in the park in what he calls the Spiritual Workout. “Everything is energy,” he says, and by increasing the number of people who make this shift in consciousness, we can actually shift reality—something he believes is already being demonstrated by the growth of the OWS movement.

Now I’ve heard all this before. In fact I’ve seen people who profess these same ideas stuck way up in the air, spinning a fantasy so enchanting that they quite lose their grasp on reality. Until reality proves intractable, and they hit the ground with a crash. So I couldn’t help feeling dubious.

Many commentators have asked, “What are their demands?”  Like others, Steven answers that these protesters aren’t making demands, because the system that exists isn’t capable of responding. Look at Congress. It can’t do anything.

This is true. We really do need a paradigm shift. So my question is: how do you keep your feet on the ground and stay connected to reality while doing what you can to make that shift happen? How do you know whether you’re lost in a dream world, spinning brightly colored wheels in the air?

I’m hardly the wise person on this, but my experience in organizing and political protest, plus my Buddhist training, suggest that at least one major component of any paradigm shift will be letting go of anger. Many people on the left learned activism as an expression of anger. Think of the vocabulary: Fight! Struggle! Outrage! And as a Buddhist would say, they’re still clinging to that anger.

When I worked with homeless women, I learned why anger feels so  good. Physiologically, it gets the adrenalin flowing; you feel empowered, invincible, righteous, alive.  You actually get addicted to the high. And like any form of attachment it prevents you from seeing clearly with what Buddhists call ‘wise discrimination.” You don’t notice that you aren’t really invincible—you’re not even all that righteous.

This week, some commentators suggested that OWS has indeed created a change: it’s shifted the public dialogue. The Obama administration wouldn’t have backed off the Keystone XL oil pipeline otherwise. A change in consciousness isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight, but despite my doubts I’m still hoping this time something really has shifted. Well, we’ll see.

The sky of mind: vast like space

Buddhist meditators practice experiencing the mind as a vast, clear sky, through which thoughts, feeings, and all other experiences pass like clouds, appearing and then vanishing in an open space of awareness that’s not limited to the inside of the head. (Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes this practice here.)

Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Blue Sky combines that image of the mind as vast open sky with an experience I’ve had when writing at a very deep level. Part of the conceptual work for my books about homeless women and about self-sacrifice was simply discovering what they were actually about. I came across incidents, articles, and books, and generated images from my imagination, that I knew were important, but I didn’t know why, or what exactly they meant. And normal-type thinking about them didn’t help. Read more

What’s the “practice” of writing?

I practice yoga, and I practice meditation. And I also “practice” writing. I like this concept, because it connects skill and inspiration. I’ll begin with skill.

One authority defines practice as “systematic training by multiple repetitions.” Other sources emphasize frequency, skill, instruction, discipline, and “artful management.” (Here is a thought-provoking collection of definitions.)

The BuddhaMy practice of insight meditation shapes my thinking about writing as a practice. In meditation, you train your mind to stay focused by systematically returning over and over to your breath. You need instruction to learn how to do this. There is an art to choosing the particular technique (out of many) that is appropriate to a given moment. Read more