When a Writer Meditates (quite incidentally includes a cure for writer’s block)

I’ve recently returned from a ten-day silent meditation retreat at the Queensland Vipassana Centre. Another one? Yep. It was the eighth time I’ve sat in silence for days on end, trying to meditate. I say ‘trying’ because usually I spend the first four or five days with a head whirling full of unstoppable thoughts and stories. This time it was no different. Over the ten days I came up with the ending for the latest novel I’m writing, the outline, beginning, plot and ending for the next one and the next two after that. I also came up with changes to an unpublished manuscript I still have great hopes for.

On the fifth or sixth Vipassana I did a few years ago I was having trouble stopping my mind from coming up with story ideas and it was causing me some angst so I went to have a chat with the Assistant Teacher. (Yes, it’s a silent retreat but you are able to ask questions about your meditation troubles to the Assitant Teacher who conducts ‘interviews’ at 12 noon most days.)

‘Oh, you’re a writer,’ she said. ‘I have a special technique for writers.’

‘Really, what’s that?’ I hoped it might involve pen and paper and a special place in which to write down all the spectacular story ideas I was having, each of which was bound to be a best seller.

‘Put your writer in a separate compartment in your mind, give her a typewriter, not a computer because she’ll only surf the internet, but a typewriter. Then let her go for it while you get on with your meditation.’

‘So, I compartmentalise my writer in my mind. What if she tries to break out and take over?’

‘Kindly but firmly insist that she goes back into her writing room and leaves you in peace so you can meditate.’

‘But what if I want to know what she’s writing?’ My writer could be coming up with brilliant ideas, more sure-fire bestsellers. I’d never know what they were about. It was a worry.

‘Then that’s when you have to master your own mind, observe the breath, observe sensations. Do not let her distract you.’

‘Right.’

It was a great idea in theory but my meditation practice is far from perfect.

So on this most recent meditation retreat I tried to tuck my writer away yet again but she absolutely refused. She wanted to play and came up with endless ideas which she told me in such an entertaining way that I couldn’t resist. A couple of times I said to her, ‘That’s enough. Go back to your room and type all these novels up. Stop telling them to me, I need to meditate now. I need to observe the breath, observe sensations and I can’t with you yapping away with all your oh so clever ideas and notions.’

She didn’t listen to me, she never does. So instead I gratefully received her idea for the ending of this latest novel. (It had been bothering me because I wanted a happy ending and there are not many happy endings in the area about which I’m writing.) But her idea was sweet and sad, melancholy and funny. It’s a total fantasy, but still it is a lovely ending. I also gratefully received all her ideas for the next umpteenth novels and patiently waited for her to slow down, which I knew she would do, eventually.

Sure enough at the end of day four her voice became softer and sometime on day five she floated off, popping back only occasionally to make sure I was still breathing. (I was and observing the breath while I did so.)

I won’t say that for the next five days I meditated perfectly. (I mentioned I’m not a perfect meditator but we aim for progress not perfection don’t we and some progress was made.) But my mind did become quieter and I even had moments when I could observe the breath and observe sensations without any other thoughts in my head. (Not many moments, but some.)

And now? Can I remember anything she told me over the course of those chatty days? Yes, thank goodness. You see, my writer does come up with good ideas and then, while I’m trying to meditate, she repeats them to me over and over and over again. And then a couple more times for good measure.

I don’t have writer’s block but if you do, I know the sure-fire cure for it. A ten-day silent meditation retreat. Meditating for over eleven hours a day. No reading, no writing, no talking, not even looking at another person is permitted. No distractions at all. Except your own head. I promise you, your writer will have a field day.

 

 

Buddhism for Pets

When I sat my first 10 day Vipassana meditation course I wasn’t expecting the amount of theory that was dished out every night in the teacher’s discourses. The Introduction to the Technique, required reading before sitting the course, stated that Vipassana had nothing to do with organised religion or sectarianism. But what was taught in those evening sessions was clearly Buddhist doctrine; the Eightfold Noble Path, the Four Noble Truths, the Three Stages of Wisdom, the Four Elements, the Six Senses, the Four Aggregates of the Mind. I couldn’t keep up with it all. Fortunately the teacher told us it wasn’t necessary to. We were to experience the technique for ourselves, give it a try and see if it worked for us. Then perhaps later, if it did, we could delve more into its depths.

As part of delving into those depths, a few months later I visited The Chenrezig Institute in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Established in 1974 Chenrezig  was one of the first TibetanStupaBuddhist centres in the Western World. It’s home to a Tibetan Lama and a community of monks and nuns.

After experiencing the Vipassana centre where there’s not so much as a stick of incense, no candles, no banners, no statues – nothing, Chenrezig was a shock with all its colour, prayer wheels and flags. When I went into the temple and was confronted with brightly painted devas, lotuses galore and prostrated monks I was astounded. From the ‘no distraction’ edict of Vipassana meditation to the garish busyness of Tibetan Buddhism, it was like visiting another dimension. All I could think was Buddhist monks must get really bored to have to invent all this stuff.

My next visit to Chenrezig was to interview a nun for my radio series Soul Train, in which I investigate different religions and faith-based organisations on the Sunshine Coast. I spent a wonderful hour talking with her, sitting in the shadow of an ornate stupa. She had been studying Buddhism for over twenty years yet she told me she had only scratched the surface of all the theory.

“It gets increasingly complicated,” she said.

Bored monks, I thought to myself again. Bored and making stuff up.

For my third and recent visit to Chenrezig I took my 13 year-old niece, her friend and my husband with me so they could experience it for themselves. The 13 year-olds took many photos and loved the fibre optic lotuses and the many faced statues. The Hubby, like myself, found the theory a needless distraction. But our opinions divided inside the stupa.

Stupas are the oldest forms of Buddhist architecture and they hold Buddhist relics and holy objects. Inside the big stupas are smaller stupas which people can buy to hold theirphoto-12loved one’s ashes. I was delighted to find little stupas in memory of not only people but their pets. There were cats and dogs mixed in with their owners and sometimes with a little stupa all to themselves. The Hubby left, retreating from the heady incense, piped music and Buddhist knickknacks, while I stayed, fascinated by these memorials to beloved animals. When I found a little stupa dedicated to two Belgian Shepherds I was sold.

We adopted our Belgian Shepherd from the RSPCA. She was six years old and had been abandoned. In the eighteen months since she became part of our family, we have discovered why she was abandoned. Anti-social, anxious and prone to biting other dogs. She loves us but no one else. We manage her behaviour, keeping her away from dogs and other people. Sometimes I wonder what goes on in her hyper-sensitive mind and whether she will ever find peace. Perhaps, years in the future, after she’s died from old age, I can put her ashes in a stupa and there, at last, she will be at rest.