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Today we’re delighted to host Beth Adams.
Beth Writes: January brings a new River of Stones to the literary and spiritual blogsphere, right at a time when our attention to the world around us might be flagging, along with our spirits. This challenge — to write one small observation each day — inspired large numbers of us last year and I have no doubts that it will be the same in 2012. For some, this is the beginning, or renewal, of a daily writing practice. For others, it’s the first taste of what that might be like. But the real challenge for all of us, no matter how long we’ve been doing this, is how to keep going.
There are lots of reasons why we find it hard to continue writing every day, and I’m only going to talk about one of them here, but it’s a big one. Somehow, as we read what others have done, and re-read our own efforts, a little voice in our head starts making comparisons and judgments, almost always at our own expense. Maybe we hoped for more comments, more support, more encouragement. Maybe what we’ve done falls short of our own expectations. Maybe we think other people’s writing always tends to be more___________ — fill in the blank — creative, interesting, unusual, perceptive, clever, intelligent, poetic. Most of us, I think, have been in this kind of negative, paralyzing place whose sole purpose seems to be to tell us, “You aren’t good enough, this is too painful, this is pointless…just stop.”
Of course, all the arts can be problematic in this way: it doesn’t matter whether we’re writing small stones or a blog or a novel, or trying to practice the piano, or make a drawing every day. My worst crisis over my own work came in my mid-thirties, when I was mostly working in the fine arts. I had had some conventional “success” but was convinced I was missing something significant; that something inside me was holding me back. I became so discouraged and frustrated about art that I gave up painting and drawing for five years, but I was equally determined to find answers.
During that time I learned to meditate, and studied the writings and teachings of masters of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and the contemplatives and mystics of my own Christian tradition. There were common threads, one of which was mindfulness and attentiveness to the present moment. With the experience of meditation as a practice, I gradually found a new way, which still continues to deepen twenty-five years later. The point of making art, I gradually realized, is not the finished piece of writing or art and the praise we hope to receive for it, but the process of creation and what it teaches us.
Shunryu Suzuki helped me a great deal. I still remember the first time I read his essay, “The Marrow of Zen,” in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, in which he wrote:
If you study calligraphy you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art and in Zen. It is true in life.
The awareness that you are here, right now, is the ultimate fact…In continuous practice, under a series of agreeable and disagreeable situations, you will realize the marrow of Zen and acquire its true strength.
Eventually, I began again. I learned not to judge my work, or continually compare it to others: just to do it, and let it go, moving on to the next piece of art or writing. It’s one thing to be inspired, and to study work we admire, and quite another to allow our expectations and fragile ego to rule us. In meditation we follow our breath, noticing thoughts as they arise but not judging them, and then we let them go. We try to do this, we fail over and over, but we continue practicing anyway. Likewise, a daily writing practice is an opportunity to observe, think, and write to the best of our best ability right now, and then let that work go without judging, simply moving on to the next day, the next small stone. It’s important to have faith in the process and its ability to teach us. That’s difficult at the beginning, but — please trust me — it gets easier.
We are all meant to be creative beings; I firmly believe this is a big part of why we are here. Eventually, changes are wrought within us as we practice being observant, mindful, and creative. These changes have almost nothing to do with “success” in the eyes of the world, and everything to do with the contentment and peace and quiet wisdom that come from feeling our deep connection to everything around us. There is no hierarchy or limit to this potential; it is within each and every one of us. Even in the face of great difficulties, knowledge of our deeper selves — including our own inherent creativity which is one with the inexhaustible creativity of the universe — sustains us, and is a great gift which we both receive and give.
Beth Adams has been blogging at The Cassandra Pages for almost nine years.
She’s a graphic designer by profession, the co-managing editor of qarrtsiluni online literary magazine, and the founder of Phoenicia Publishing, a small publishing house in Montreal. Her biography of Bishop Gene Robinson was published in 2006, and she’s currently at work on another lengthy writing and art project.