Tag Archives: Meditation

Writing Fiction: Meditation 2

So, another retreat, another series of creative ideas.  This time, the main one came on the first day as such a simple storyline that I almost ignored it.  Also, it was quite different to what I have been working on recently.  Not least because it announced itself as a screenplay: a series of images or scenes.  By the end of the 11 days, I had plot, characters, beginning and ending, and passages of dialogue.

I’ve written before about the challenge of whether to pursue a creative idea on a retreat or do what you’re supposed to do and keep returning to the object of meditation.  In a way, it was easier on this one as the theme was mindfulness itself.  So the focus was receptivity rather than concentration.  My creative ideas could be treated as ‘mind objects’ to be observed as they came in and out of being.

Being a regular issue for me, I raised it in the discussion and had two interesting responses.

The first was that this is just what the mind does.  In Buddhist terms, objects arise in the mind on the basis of conditions.  Though you can never be quite sure what those conditions are.  We tend to think, ‘I am thinking x or y,’ but the thoughts come of their own volition.  At best, ‘I’ (let’s not go there) can just observe the process.

It just so happens that two of the conditions for me are almost certainly a) the fact that I’ve been trying to write fiction for the last nine years, and b) that I’m always looking for new ideas.  To expect this process to stop would be a little like expecting a driverless bulldozer to stop at the steps of the retreat centre.

The second observation came from a woman who had, in a number of early retreats, found herself writing letters of gratitude in her head during sits and trying to remember them afterwards.  She said she had learnt to ignore the content and bring awareness to the quality of gratitude.  In doing so she had created a sense of confidence that it could occur outside the meditation.  She suggested I could do the same with creativity.

I would understand ‘quality’ as the physical sensation that accompanies such moments, one which often prompts further images and words.

Trying this out, I found two types.  The first was a sort of patient confidence.  Like sitting by a pool waiting for fish to come to the surface (like that illustration of the different pools in The Magician’s Nephew).  Ideas did, and always have, come when they were ready to come.  If I started splashing around in the water trying to find them it all got a bit confusing.  But I could ask questions or make observations.  A response would (or would not) then come of its own accord.  For example, an idea that I thought was hackneyed was followed two days later by the same idea but turned into something more surprising.

The second kind of quality was similar to the sensation of coming up with the punchline to a joke.  There is a set-up of thought, a vacuum, and the punchline appears inside it.  The quality is a little like an open hand being held aloft or like torchlight being shone on the back of a cave.

I certainly found that I could extend the physical sensation by bringing awareness to it.  Which was often quite pleasant, and a nice contrast to the usual state of slump or ruminative resentment.  How it will affect the writing process I have yet to find out.

There is an interesting afterthought to this.  I was discussing the ‘quality’ comment with another attendee who said that she agreed, but for a different reason.  For her, it was about the willingness of the meditator to ‘let go’ of desired experience.  She had once been on a retreat where they were asked to alternate twenty-minute sessions of mindfulness of breathing and walking.  At the end of one breathing session she found herself in a heightened state of mind and did not want to give it up.  And she could have stayed with it, it was the final session before a break.  But, perhaps because of the routine established, she stopped.  To her surprise the quality that she had established then stayed with her for about three weeks.  She attributes this to her willingness to give it up.  As I say, interesting.  And maybe there is an application to creativity in meditation.

By the way, that was my last retreat for a while, in case you’re wondering how I seem to be able to go so often.

Writing Fiction: Meditation

I have returned from a 14-day meditation retreat with a great new plot idea for my novel.  Happy me.  The thing is (and I can see a few people with their hands up at the back) that’s not really what these things are supposed to be about.  If anything they are to develop greater concentration, or to generate loving kindness for one’s fellow human beings.  Not to come up with a plot twist for your hope-to-be-bestseller.

The trouble is that, as I mentioned in ‘Writing Fiction: Altered States’, at a previous retreat I was given a plot development that transformed my second novel.  So, of course, I went this time – having been told that the synopsis for my third novel was thin on plot – hoping that it would happen again.  And it did.  A piece of information that solves several other plot problems and gives the novel greater focus, momentum and depth.

Of course, this is no guarantee of the quality of the final product.  Nor, is it a suggestion for a new fix-it-quick method.  I was meditating for three years, including a daily sit and regular retreats, before any significant writing idea came to me.  And I wasn’t even looking for it.  But it’s an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.

It’s not just me.  I’ve spoken to several other writers, musicians, a choreographer, and an artist, who have all had similar experiences.  There is a German monk called Lama Govinda who says, ‘Art and meditation are creative states of the human mind.  Both are nourished from the same source.’

On this retreat I had a chance to observe the process as it happened.

The first week was mixed.  I was aware of my desire to get an idea, while at the same time conscious that it was not really the point of the retreat.  After about four days I entered a period when a large number came to me, but though each promised to be the one, they were generally no more than an extension of the sort of thoughts I’d had before I’d gone away.  And then it all went silent, as if I’d passed through some asteroid belt.

In the second week we went into actual silence, and about eight days into the retreat I had a personal insight into my own thoughts and behaviour.  So strong, in fact, that I was aware of a physical sensation of almost being laid out.  At the end of it, it occurred to me to think about the novel.  It was like seeing it from a different vantage point, and the new plot development occurred to me

The experience was a little like being presented with the solution to that nine-dot puzzle.  ‘Thinking outside the box’ is too thin a cliché, it was more like an Aha! moment.  I’ve been writing it up since I got back and it really does have a powerful effect on the whole story.  Hoorah!

But let’s take a look at this from the meditation point of view.  During that ‘asteroid belt’ period, I was bombarded with ideas, each one promising to be the one.  Each one took me further away from the focus of meditation.  Some people say that you should write the idea down and then it will go away.  Whereas for me, when I did, it was as if the brain was saying, ‘Oh, so you’re listening are you?’  and went a bit mental.  In the second week when I was presented with the real deal, I actually didn’t write it down for about two days, because it felt as if it needed to marinade.  And then, when it became a burden, I wrote it down, and I got nothing else.

My meditation advisor told me all of this was mental sensory desire.  The ego, threatened with, at best boredom, at worst extinction, starts to create projects to bolster itself.  The advice is to acknowledge the desire and keep returning to the object of meditation.  Which is fine when it is easily recalled, but sometimes there is a particular wording.  For example, it occurred to me during one of the meals that one of the things I hate is people who chew in a spritely way (yeh, I was a real angel).  Now if I had waited to the end of the retreat to write it down it would have subtly changed eg people who chew in a vigorous way.  Not the same.

So, where do I stand?  In a way, it’s a paradox.  I may want creative ideas but in searching for them I am taking myself away from the object of meditation and thus the kind of deeper experience that may result in those very ideas.  To be honest, I’ll probably continue doing what I have done to date.  But both writing and meditation are important to me, so I suspect the debate will continue.  Usually in my head, and when I’m supposed to be concentrating on the breath.

Writing Fiction: Altered States

Sorry, I just had a vision of William Hurt suspended upside down with snakes on his face and various flashing lights, but that isn’t what this is about at all, and anyway, that’s Ken Russell for you.

What I was actually thinking about is how often an altered state of mind can help in writing fiction.  In 2009 I was on a meditation retreat in Italy.  At the time I had been working on my second novel.  It was going ok but the plot lacked something dynamic.  I had put all thoughts of writing aside for the retreat and was meditating one day in the lovely converted chapel which was our shrine.  Suddenly, unbidden, the solution to the main plot problem came into my mind.  Even afterwards it seemed perfect (and does to this day) but I hadn’t sought it, if anything I was probably battling the pain in my knees.

And this wasn’t the only time.  Often in my morning meditation, a sentence that I have written the day before will be presented to me in a better form (and then there is the battle of whether to write it down or continue meditating)

There was a fashion in the 60s and 70s, of thinking that the only real writers were drunk ones and that getting pissed or high on drugs was the best way to access the inner writing daemon.  A quote from Aubrey’s Brief Lives in a recent article in The Guardian described how drunk Ben Jonson was whenever he sat down to write: “He would many times exceed in drinke (Canarie was his beloved liquour); then he would tumble home to bed and, when he had thoroughly perspired, then to studie.’  I’ve tried this but my handwriting got so bad I couldn’t even read it after, (but I’m sure it was genius).

Charles Dickens used to go for a good old-fashioned walk: pounding the heath and talking to the various characters in his head.  Stephen King listens to loud heavy metal music.  Jenny Colgan suggests having a bath (it wasn’t personal).

I guess this is all just another way of talking about accessing a ‘muse’.  It doesn’t seem to be something that can be forced.  Occasionally I’ll find that while writing I can see the next few sentences ahead of me and there is a race to get them down in time.  The sensation is a little like being in a trance.  For the most part, however, it’s just good old plodding along putting one word in front of another.