Writing is an activity of the body, not the mind

I was halfway through writing my first novel when the pandemic hit. March 2020, and suddenly I was told to go home from work and not come back. I was elated; it meant I had all the time I wanted to sit at home and write, and that is exactly what I did. I couldn’t do it all day, though – after a while you burn out. Might be after three hours or three thousand words, it’s different for everyone.

What I also took up again, as much a way of filling those long hours at home as anything else, was meditation. I’d travelled around India in my early thirties and had dabbled in those things which most people do when they go there, namely yoga and meditation. I could never properly get into yoga, but the Vipassana courses I took really got me invested in the practice. And I stuck with it for quite a while after leaving the country. But, like all things, I grew bored.

Until the pandemic hit. Then, faced with restlessness and the threat of deteriorating mental health, I took it up again.

Sitting for a half-hour or an hour, motionless, is not easy. It’s extremely demanding on the body. Your limbs seize up and become stiff, you have insane pins and needles, and when you finally do ‘unfold’, you have a world-class dead leg that takes a good five minutes to get the circulation back into. If you’ve never sat in the lotus position before and have become accustomed to bad posture, then sitting with a straight back might cause you excruciating pain. There was one French guy on our course who suffered such intense agony he spent the first three days rocking and crying like a baby. It’s tough.

But the discomfort you experience physically is nothing to the shock you get when you discover how unruly your mind is, when you realise your mind is a wild, untamed horse, incapable of being still for even ten seconds. Yes, that was frightening. (Go and take a one-day course in meditation, see what I mean.)

When I took up meditation again in March 2020, getting back into the lotus position felt very, very good. It felt reassuring, like returning home after a long sojourn. And I slipped back into it easily. What I didn’t foresee, however, was the way it would affect my work. These were things we’d touched upon during the courses but which I’d never experienced in real life.

After a successful meditation session, writing becomes effortless. And not only that, but productivity goes through the roof. And why is that? Is it because your mind is ordered and calm? No. It’s because your mind is empty. The kind of meditation I’m talking about here is not where you focus on the shape of a crystal for an hour or you repeat a mantra 108 times (though I’m sure there’s a time and place for that kind of thing). The meditation I’m talking of is about emptying your mind in order to bring about focus, pure focus. But isn’t focus an activity of the mind? Not necessarily. Focus is when your entire being is engaged in the task that it is performing at that very moment. It might involve the mind and very often does, but it is not a prerequisite of the state.

Take creativity, for example. Painting, writing, playing music, carving, designing… is the mind engaged when you’re doing these things? Only in the most abstract way. But the one thing you’re not doing, is thinking. If you are, I would suggest you’re doing something wrong.

Thought is the death of creativity. Thought will murder your creative output, whether it be musical, oral, literary or visual. Thought has no part to play in these processes. Those familiar with the state of ‘creative flow’ will know the sensation of being ‘carried along’ on a wave, the words or pictures manifesting on the page before them without any seemingly active input on their part. This is what occurs when one lets go of the interfering influence of the mind and lets the body take over.

What I’m not saying here is that ‘the words are in your body’, though there may be an argument for that, who knows? (How much of what we produce, for example, might come from the information contained in our genetic make-up as opposed to that within our subconscious?) What I am saying is that the mind (the active mind – that part of which we are aware and that we use daily) has no part to play in your writing.

Does the mind have any part to play in your craft? Yes. In editing, for example, you need to analyse the logic and music of a piece of prose (or poetry). Analysis requires a sharp, logical mind. Or in planning. If you’re a planner, then logic is required to shape out your story. But when it comes to the act of writing, to the extent that is possible, you want to be out of your mind.

I do it by meditation, sitting quietly until I’m acutely aware of the sensations on the surface of my body. When I’ve reached that state, I’m aware that I’m situated in my body and not my mind. Sometimes I’ll spend a little time concentrating on my fingertips ­– that’s where your body meets the keyboard, after all, your fingers the instruments by which abstract concepts from the ‘cloud’ (the great lake of the subconscious) are turned into words on the page. It’s nice to feel your fingertips bristle, ready to get to work. It helps if you know how to type properly (I’m still learning), since you’ll need your fingertips to keep up with the lightning pace of your newly-cultivated creative flow.

But yeah. Before writing, take a bit of time to get into the body and out of your mind. When it comes to creativity, mind is not a friend but an enemy.

‘Writing is a activity of the body, not the mind’, posted here with the permission of Ultan Banan. Please ask before republishing.

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