Natalie Goldberg on Zen & Writing Practice
Here's an instructive excerpt from an interview with Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones and other books) that was published in The Sun Magazine. I've met Natalie a few times and read many of her books. Just last year at a bookstore I asked her how to best combine meditation and writing practice, and her response was, "The writing IS your meditation."
Genie Zeiger: You talk about how Zen practice and writing practice are aligned. When you sit and follow your breath, or engage in whatever meditation technique you use, do you experience the same kinds of things as when you practice writing?
Natalie Goldberg: One difference is, when I’m writing, I’m physically doing something. I’m holding a pen in my hand, I’m moving my hand across the page, and I’m recording my thoughts as they come through me. When I’m meditating, I’m relatively still. My legs are crossed, my back is straight, and I’m using the breath to anchor my mind. I’m letting go of my thoughts by returning to the breath. With writing, I let go of the thoughts by putting them down and moving on.
I’m more adept at writing practice, because I’ve given my life to it. When I write, my self disappears. That’s ultimately what happens with Zen practice too, but I linger more on my human life with Zen, whereas with writing I’m willing to give it over completely. When I’m done writing, I feel more refreshed, as if I’ve eaten and digested my angst. The same thing can occur with meditation for me, but in a lesser way. Writing is more alive.
Zeiger: Isn’t the ultimate goal of meditation to quiet the mind?
Goldberg: There is no ultimate goal in meditation. Meditation is an acceptance of the mind, however it comes to you. And the mind changes all the time, just as the ocean waves change. Sometimes the water is turbulent, sometimes calm. Thoughts rise and then disappear; you don’t grab hold of them. The heart beats, the lungs breathe, and the mind continues to produce thoughts. Even if you’ve practiced for a long time, it will still produce thoughts, but you’re no longer thrown by them. You don’t have control of your mind; it goes where it wants to go. But with practice, you can have a relationship with it.
Zeiger: Do you feel it’s important for people to work with a writing teacher?
Goldberg: I think that, at some point in one’s life, it’s good to have a teacher, because a teacher can reflect you back to yourself. Katagiri Roshi once said to me, “I see that you’re Buddha, but you don’t see it. You only see the greatness in other people. When you see it in yourself, that’s what being awake is.” To be a Buddha is to close the gap between who you think you are and the greatness of being human. It’s not about being conceited or selfish. It’s just a deep acceptance of what it is to be human, to have an open heart, to be generous. Often I’ll have students who write exquisitely, but there’s something missing because they are not connected with their own writing, with their own large human life. I call it “the gap”: the distance between who we think we are and who we really are, which is something much greater. Link