Monday, March 9, 2015

Corpse Pose (or Relaxation Pose) for Writing

When we reach the point where we can't create because we're too preoccupied with our worries, too caught up in hopes for a particular outcome, or facing roadblock, we need to restore ourselves to a more open, inventive position. The Corpse Pose for Writing (or Relaxation Pose) is a method for reducing anxiety around a piece of writing. It's a way to give ourselves a fresh start.

Clear your desk or writing area of any signs of the project (including pens, pencils, Post-Its, notebooks, review letters, feedback). 

Divide the draft into 5-7 parts. Each part, no matter the genre, should not exceed 250-500 words. The pieces should be of a length that you can read with ease in a minute. Dividing the work in this way may mean you need to select from a much longer document, so select sections which are particularly troublesome for you. Do include your current opening or introduction.

Place each part on separate screens or print out onto separate pieces of paper. Move in reverse order, putting the chunk closest to the end of the document (the feet) on the first screen or sheet of paper, followed by a subsequent passage on the next screen, until the very last screen or page of paper holds the opening (the head) of this document.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention to the "feet" of the document--only the feet. Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for any images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the feet of the document. After a few minutes, release this part of the document. Release the feet: let it sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention now to the "calves and thighs" of the document--only this section. Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Again, don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for any images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the legs of the document. After a few minutes, release this part of the document. Release the legs: let them sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Move now to the "pelvic area" and "belly" of the document. Repeat the same steps as above. Then let go of everything concerning those sections.

Move to the "torso" or "chest" area of the document. Repeat the same steps and then let go of everything concerning that section.

Move to the "arms" and "hands" of the document. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections. 

Move to the "shoulders" and "neck" of the document. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections.

Move to the "face" of the document, observing even the finest strain of mental-musculature tension. Because this is the face, it is what the world sees most about our writing: it is the most noticeable part of our document. The beginning of the document thus can contain the most complicated of stresses, built up over time. Repeat the steps and then let go.

Last of all, move to the "crown" of the document, the space above the first section, perhaps where a title lies or might reside one day. By now the rest of the document is relaxed. You are probably relaxed. Spend a few moments in this state. If it is possible, have a writing companion ask you a question about your document or writing experience. In this relaxed state, so close to the floor, so close to the unconscious, you may find insights and ideas not possible with a strained, tight mind. 

Variation: try each of these steps as a freewrite.

(If you liked this post, try "Yoga for Hands" from 9/11/2012: it's another embodied writing technique.)

* image from

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Keep Nothing Day

We have Write-a-Novel-Month, we have poem-a-day initiatives.1 Try Save Nothing Day, a session in which you delete or 
 discard whatever it is you have written. Write your own sand mandala. Do not keep notes toward what you have written. Do not save drafts. Do not memorize passages to keep for later. Do not tuck them discretely under a folder or notebook when no one is looking. Instead when time is up for your writing session, press delete, drag the item to e-recycling bin or crumple the sheet of paper into an actual waste bin. Using a paper shredder might be a better option for it keeps at bay the temptation of retrieval.

Write your own sand mandala—art that gets blown away. Reach beautiful insights, find colorful structural strategies, realize new points and segue, create whole stretches in an aesthetic approach—and then erase. This deletion is a different type of deletion from the norm for it is not the back stepping, not the hitting of the backspace bar as one writes, it is not the false mixing of composing with editing, of generating with pruning, of writing with proofreading. Typically, there is much deletion as part of a writer’s process, deletion that causes more harm than good, that overlooks the absence of the audience in the present, that anticipates a future audience and is defensive toward it. The deletion of disposable writing is different for it is a deletion of product, not process. We follow the moment, we enjoy the motion of writing, and at the end we relinquish product, unattached to outcome.

Who should join the tradition of those who Keep Nothing?
·         Those who are stuck in their writing and find everything they have written to be precious.
·         Those who need to think everything through before writing, who need to be perfect as a defense against anticipated criticism.
·         Those who spend time daydreaming about product and outcome, of how the end result of writing will personally benefit them, change their status, improve their lot with others or with themselves.
·         Those who will not allow words to be in their natural state and those who will not allow writing to be ordinary and prosaic in its constant generation.
·         Those who worship writing.
·         Those who wait for regeneration of their writing, either of their overall ability or a specific project.
·         Those who place their own standards and motives before the motion of writing.
·         Those who don’t see writing as a movement occurring in time but instead as an object, static, like a trophy or an expensive knick knack.

The benefits of disposable writing are the lowering of standards the practicing of detachment. For the practitioner, there is trust in this letting go: one trusts the abundance of impermanence, knowing that just as good writing arose in this moment, it will arise again in another moment.

What does one write when keeping nothing? Write as one would normally write or write as one would not normally write, but at the end, delete. Write with an audience in mind or write with no audience in mind, and at the end, shred. Give oneself a focus, genre, approach, or do not give oneself a focus, genre, or approach and instead freewrite, and at the end, crumble. Write the next step in a draft on a particular project or begin something new. The content, stage, and genre do not matter—as with any writing session, decide those on your own—but at the end, delete. Many find the disposable method most useful and least intimidating if done with freewriting or with the earliest stages of invention. A person of advanced training in the mindfulness of writing will practice disposable writing at advanced and more polished phases and with genre of increasing distinction.

You can of course decide to retain something you’ve created, but don’t allow yourself this trump card too often for the lessons of disposable writing then will retreat and the benefits of acknowledging impermanence will fade away. It is possible to keep your writing and at the same time maintain the disposable mindset: this requires a sincere dedication to impermanence while you write, a true tracking of the passing moments. It is possible then to cheat the recycling bin, keep the results of your honoring of importance, but the person who does so must have a strong mindful writing practice. For it is too easy to become ensnared in attachment.

Write your own sand mandala—art that gets blown away.

1  A quota means focusing on doing, which is good because that is a focus on process, but at the same time these sort of initiatives dangle the charm of a particular genre (I wrote a novel; I wrote a sonnet today), and therefore harden patterns of attachment (I wrote a whole novel; I wrote an actual sonnet today).

* image from

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mantras from My Students

The following are mantras created a few years ago by students enrolled in my undergraduate Overcoming Writing Blocks course. I came across them the other day in my files & wanted to share these wise words with you. Which of these strikes you?

Don’t let audiences take the joy you make on your own.
Higher standards do not necessarily produce better writing.
Every thought should be written down because a person does not know which is better for their paper: ideas are always new and changing.
Writing changes; don’t sweat it.
Preparation and a state of groundlessness will help alleviate writing blocks.
The writer is always the block.
Writing blocks are like standing up against a brick wall because what you want is on the other side: ideas, flow.  I can either break through, go around, or climb over.
Unconventional tactics to overcome writer’s block are a regular occurrence, whether we realize it or not.
People get in the way of writing; the writer is a person.
Watch the art, not the words.
Writing is like time; it should be a constant flow of movement that never stops, never pauses, or never goes back.  It may be slow and grueling at times or so fast you wished it never stopped.  One thing is for sure: like time, writing is part of our nature, and it will always be with us.
In order to go forward with writing, sometimes you need to take a step back.
I’ve noticed that my writing becomes much stronger and more powerful when I don’t care about it, don’t think about it, and don’t go back and try to revise everything.
Overcoming a writing block is something that won’t happen overnight; it takes a lot of practice and experience.
An audience is not a block or deterrent but a tool for the individual to achieve a medium between a block and a product.
Change is inevitable, but we have lost only when we cannot accept it.
In understanding how to proceed, there must be delay.
Once you realize that there is no ground for the writing block to sit on, you will soon realize it will not be blocking for much longer.
By being aware of the constant changing of my mind that is groundlessness, I can better capture my ideas to the fullest by writing.
Every audience is fake because the person is not physically writing their paper in front of anyone; the writer can start over or erase as he or she pleases.
In the teaching of groundlessness, this sentence will be read differently by every other person: it will never be the same sentence.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Thus I Have Heard

What now is the Extinction of the Suffering of Writing, oh mon chéri?

            It is complete liberation from the craving to write and from an attachment to outcome for one’s writing in the immediate term and from attachment to outcome for one’s writing in the long-term.
            But where might this craving be extinguished? Wherever in one’s experience there are delightful and pleasurable things associated with writing, there might this craving be extinguished. Wherever positive or productive, interesting or fascinating, praised or acclaimed experiences with one’s writing occur, there might the mindful writer practice relinquishing attachment to those positive, productive, interesting, fascinating, praised, or acclaimed sensations. It is the time of highest outer success—a book publication or prize, an article acceptance or a high grade—that presents strong opportunity for relinquishing craving. Let these experiences wash over one and observe the responses of one's mind but do not be carried away by their charm, do not attempt to repeat the circumstance and thereby resist the impermanence of the moment of zenith. 
           But where might this craving be also extinguished? Wherever in one’s experience there are painful and displeasing things associated with writing, there might this craving be extinguished. Wherever too negative or wordless, boring or worthless, criticized or condemned experience around one’s writing occur, there might the mindful writer practice relinquishing attachment to those negative, wordless, boring, worthless, criticized or condemned sensations. It is the time of lowest inner or outer success—a publisher’s rejection, a negative review, a burdensome and long request for a rewrite, a failing grade—that presents strong opportunity for relinquishing craving. Let these experiences wash over one and observe the responses of the mind but do not attempt to alter or eliminate them in order to avoid discomfort, boredom, frustration, despair, or anger.
            Whosoever regards the pleasant and the unpleasant experiences of writing as equally impermanent will be free of craving.
            Whosoever is altogether free of the craving for writing will never return to the suffering of writing and for the remainder of her writing days encounter an openness of possibility, writing sessions free of anxiety and turmoil, doubt and hubris. She will have whole areas of content and types of genre available for her work. She will approach her writing desk with curiosity and freshness and leave her writing desk bowing with gratitude and filled with connection with herself and with others. She will have the training to resist attachment to positive or negative developments in her writing activity, her primary task an allegiance to the present moment.
            This verily is the peace of writing, the forsaking of preconception of genre, audience, and process. It is a condition of grace, of acceptance, of clear seeing.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Years Wishes for Your Writing

May your writing in 2015 be free of suffering and anxiety.

May your writing dwell in the present moment.

May your writing bring you much joy and peace in 2015.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Right Attentiveness

This post discusses one part of the Sevenfold Path of mindful writing.

What now is Right Attentiveness, oh disciples?

            The only way that leads to the attainment of a calm writing mind, to mindful ability to write, to a consistent and joyous practice of writing is through the fundamentals of attentiveness.
            And to what is the mindful writer attentive?
            A person is attentive to her breath and to the moment, and because she wants to write, wants to understand and perceive language, she is attentive to the possibility of language, to the ways that language can arise in the moment.
            The mindful writer is attentive to the language occurring inside the present moment.
            And what is inattentiveness for writers? To what is the unmindful writer inattentive?
            Forgetting to observe the in breath, forgetting to observe the out breath, forgetting to observe the moment, the unmindful writer becomes absorbed by thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future.
            These movies of the mind rarely have anything to offer to our writing. They are illusions that trick the mind into watching them full-screen without any awareness of what we are doing. If about writing, these story lines about the past or future are usually commentaries on our writing abilities or mirages of reception in which an as-of-yet-unwritten text by us is read by as-of-yet-not-present audiences in an as-of-yet-nonexistent place and time.  
            And how is the mindful writer attentive? How does language arise in the present moment?
            The mindful writer puts her mind on the in breath and on the out breath. The mindful writer notes the physical sensations of breathing, the billows of breathing, the three-part inhalation, the pastel temperatures of the breath, the ascent of rib cage and torso, the rise of the belly, the mellowing of the face, the push of the breath to the peninsula of the body, to the fingers and toes, beyond the knees. If the mind wanders off the breath, the writer places it gently back. This is the practice to develop baseline awareness.
            And how is the mindful writer attentive? How does language arise in the present moment?
            This one-pointed attention on breathing is difficult. It is very hard to make breathing the subject of each moment. So the mind departs from the moment to make movies of the mind but also to generate language. This mind-generated language rides on top of the crest of the watched breath. This mind-generated language is a verbal banner above the watched breath. This mind-generated language is seen at the bottom of the watched breath. This mind-generated language appears like an italicized thread through the center of the watched breath. It is a like a scribble on the screen of each moment.
            The mindful writer can wait for language to arise in response to the large emptiness of the moment. Free of context, such words are often enigmatic, metaphoric, the impulses of the unconscious. It is as though they are large fish drawn to the surface, attracted by the nutrition of mindfulness. Such words and fragments emerge in contradistinction to the moment, as a response to the call of awareness.
            Or the mindful writer can steer her discursive thought, training the mind to generate words by asking a question, tossing the question into the waves of breathing. These can be questions about the content of a piece, questions about the structure of a piece, questions about an image, about a single word, about a comparison, about a contrast, about a narrative, about a metaphor, about a simile, about a line of dialog, about a topic sentence, about a thesis, about a supporting sentence, about a question, about a rebuttal, about an assumption, about a definition, about a noun, about a verb, about an adjective, about an adverb, about a subject, about a predicate, about an object, about punctuation, about a list, about a fragment, about a long passage, about a short passage, about a stanza, about a paragraph, about a line, about a sentence. The mindful writer watching her in-breath asks the question of the moment, and the mindful writer watching her out-breath waits for the answer from the moment.
            This is Basic Writing. These are the basics of writing.
            When these fundamentals are forgotten, when these fundamentals are misplaced, when these fundamentals are perhaps never taught, the act of writing becomes covered with vines of theory and vines of pedagogy, ever more complex, and the individual who wants to write becomes further and further away from the present moment and from the joys and tranquility of writing. The individual who wants to write becomes entangled in theories and tied down by worry and doubt.
            And how is mindfulness different from mindful writing?
            The mindful person does not seek out language, does not fish in her discursivity, is not attached to thought or words, does not sort or respond to inner words but lets go of the words like a fish caught in a catch n’ release. A mindful writer does fish in her discursivity and does respond to inner words. But a mindful writer also maintains detachment, oh learners, recording the phrases but suspending judgment.
            Stock your voice, oh disciples, as you would an ornamental fish pond, with the phrases of others.
            And it is here that the venerable Dariputta, a twenty-something contemporary poet with several awards from literary journals, stood shifting his robes and interrupted, saying, “I read Ashton Joberry each morning. He puts my unconscious on spin cycle.”
            And the Writer nodded, saying, “Yes, that is good. Find a writer who puts your unconscious on spin cycle.”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sutra on Preconception


            Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer appeared in the hallway outside the administrative offices at the University of MFA Program, and a great many disciples were miraculously assembled, having paid conference and retreat fees and taken time off from work. The Writer knowing of the mental agitations going on in the minds of those assembled (like the surface of the ocean stirred into waves by the passing winds), and his great heart moved by compassion, smiled and said, We have spoken about the prolonging of invention, and now we must speak about the prolonging of emptiness. We have discussed the prolonging invention, but before invention comes emptiness.

Experience arises from emptiness,

and emptiness arises from experience (Suzuki).

From whence does language arise? Because language arises, because it is not always present, because it changes from word to word, there is something else, something always present, and that something is emptiness. Just as there are gaps between typed words, so too is there a gap between the moment before writing and the moment of writing.
            All writing is thus preverbal. All writing is built on emptiness, and emptiness is preverbal. We say “preverbal” and not “nonverbal” because the presumption is that language will rush in, that intrapersonal talk is definite, that it is only a matter of time (a few moments) before the blankness ends and fills with the conversation of our consciousness. But emptiness is also nonverbal in that it is freedom from all obligation, all mental formulations, all perception, including the obligation to write, including mental formulations about the act of writing, including perceived images and words that create the content of writing.
            There are different kinds of unknowing, oh bhikku, but they must be differentiated from mindless unknowing which is a blank or erasure that replaces the present moment versus the other kinds of unknowing that we discuss, for they are the contents of the present moment mindfully perceived. Mindlessness is a kind of pollution on pure mind. 
             There is the unknowing of unfamiliarity, the disorientation that makes the routine suddenly remarkable, that lets us perceive the uniqueness of that which we have thought of as a copy or repetition. This unfamiliarity is usually on the small scale: not recognizing a word, a word of routine suddenly looks strange, its spelling odd. 
             There is the unknowing of the fragmentary, that which occurs between the floes in our internal voice. Not knowing where one’s mind will next jump, the coming up of ideas entails leaping over wide expanses of unknowing. 
              There is the unknowing of the duration or how long it will take to complete a writing project, not knowing whether it can be completed in a few days or weeks or will take years or decades before the writer has a complete picture of the idea. 
               There is the unknowing of the unconscious, that which will take wide swipes at one’s awareness, the erasure of what has been only a moment before provided by the present, the abduction of a new thought greeted only seconds before it is pulled like a seal by a killer whale into the cold depths of unknowing. The unknowing of the unconscious pulls too at the writer, making her drowsy, making the writer nap, those siren calls to join it in a deep white sleep. 
               Preconception is a form of false knowing. It is an overstocking of the present moment with contents not found in the present moment. Preconceptions are the Ego’s attempt to control the vastness of the possible moment. They are false starts on the moment. They are a gamble on the moment: rather than reside in the non-verbal to consult the possible, we prefer to fill the moment with guesses. We replace possibility with a smaller, shorter, diminished content. We shackle ourselves to a premature commitment. Because of impermanence, the ever-shifting moment offers more manifold possibilities than a seemingly static preconception. We substitute one type of unknowing, that of emptiness, with another type of unknowing, that of preconception, a far lesser grade, oh bhikkuni. 
             For what can be known outside of the present moment, oh disciples? For what action occurs outside of the present? Even the action of knowing occurs in the present moment.
             There are preconceptions of alphabet, there are preconceptions of syntax and grammar, of vocabulary as well as how to hold a pen or pencil, form letters or type. A notion about how many pages or word count would make a successful writing session is a preconception. Preconceptions of the content you think you should or will write, preconceptions of the amount you should or will write, preconceptions about the genre you should or will write. Preconception too is the notion that to write is a positive thing as well as to write nothing is a negative phenomena. Preconception of how long it will take to complete a text, preconception that a text will ever advance or be finished or even read by others. You can not know in advance how long you will sit under the gnarled tree. Preconceptions of structure, organization. Preconception of what is mindfulness and what is mindlessness. Preconceptions of skill, knowledge, and training. Preconception of how many pages you will write today or the next day. There are preconception of process, of where one is in the writing process, ones that lead to misperception of one’s actual actions in the moment (See Keith Hjortshoj).
            Practice approaching one’s writing with a blank mind, free of preconception. Gradually decide which pre-existent abilities, content, or approaches can be returned to the mind. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them (Suzuki). Reel back in your literacy, your ability to write in the language, to follow grammatical rules. You may find you want to return a certain character or approach to voice or way of engaging in the writing process. Bring them back into the moment of your writing but do so mindfully, with awareness of their presence and impact.

*Material borrowed from Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, as well as Goddard's The Buddhist Bible.