Thursday, June 8, 2017

Mara and the Buddha, Audience Phantoms and the Writer

The challenges presented by how writers talk to themselves while writing are symbolized in the legend of the Buddha after he resolved to sit meditating under a bodhi tree until he obtained enlightenment.
On the third successive night, Gautama was taunted by the demon Māra who was determined to keep him in the cycle of craving with “the last lash of Ego." 
Riding in on an elephant, Māra first assaulted him with nine storms and then unsuccessfully with lust, thirst, and discontent, personified as the demon’s attractive daughters. Guatama was undeterred from his meditation. 
Māra’s next strategy was to directly confront Guatama and “ask him by what right he sat there beneath the tree." This vexation corresponds with a frequent struggle faced by writers to view themselves as having the authority to write.
How Guatama choses to react to Māra is important because he viewed her with non-violent loving-kindness rather than condescension, in part because he recognized that Māra was a projection of himself, a manifestation of his thinking. Guatama responds by touching the ground with his right hand—a gesture routinely depicted on statues of the Buddha—which then causes Māra to fall off his elephant and his armies of distractions to flee.
An analogous gesture for writers is a placing of a “hand” on their immediate writing circumstance, claiming the cognitive-physical space for their own, banishing audience ghosts, and recognizing the discursive straying power of their own internal talk.

The most consequential illusion manufactured by internal talk is that an audience is present during the activity of writing and has immediate access to a writer’s words as they’re produced. It’s as simple as believing that writers occupy the same space at the same time as readers.
In actuality, any audience noted during a present rhetorical situation is a construction of the writer’s intrapersonal rhetoric: an amalgamation of the writer’s thoughts about the past and best guesses about an interpersonal future.
Intrapersonal rhetoric is the self-to-self interior discourse that assigns a position inside the writing situation to an interlocutor self or a chimeric reader—often both as the experience fluctuates. Usually, much of intrapersonal rhetoric is devoted to maintaining this illusion.
For whatever reason, probably our education, we don’t imagine a reader in our workspace who welcomes a draft from us, who Christmas Carol-like visits us from the future (or the past) to counsel us about a maturing text.
Instead, the imaginary reader presumes access to a polished text: part of the haziness of audience comes from the flickering between two visualized scenes, one in which a reader appears in the writer’s work space expecting a polished piece regardless of its location in a writing process and the other in which the writer’s text acts as the writer’s emissary and goes forward, without the writer, to the reader’s future space.
The problem of course is that the text has yet to be finished—it also is an imaginary entity—and no matter how much time remains for us to complete the task, the impression is that a deadline has already passed. We also continuously denude our actual context for best guesses, conjecture, wishes, and hopes, giving up information we could have gained from the present rhetorical situation, a poor exchange.

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, 1998.
Lopez, Donald S. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise guide to Its History & Teachings. Harper, 2001.
Trungpa, Chögyam. Meditation in Action. Shambhala, 1970.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Momentwriting: A Mindful Alternative to Freewriting

To be increasingly mindful as we write, we might need a new exercise to complement freewriting.

Without a doubt, freewriting is invaluable in helping writers capture their internal language on the page or screen. Usually, it's one of the few times in a mainstream writing education in which students are encouraged to see their natural ongoing inner verbal production as a legitimate form of writing. Freewriting does wonderful work in helping writers practice acceptance of flaws and redundancy.

Momentwriting, however, is possibly a more complete depiction of the present moment. In momentwriting, writers are attuned to their literal situation. The device fosters mindfulness because it does not ask the writer to omit any part of the present writing moment.

Momentwriting does not prescreen the moment in the way that freewriting does. Instead, it invites new wording as well as nonverbal experiences. The preconception that we are to keep up a non-stop writing pace is dropped.

Unlike freewriting, momentwriting doesn’t goad the hands to keep up with a certain handwriting or typing rate but rather lets the pace happen in accord with intrapersonal talk and emerging mental formations. There are moments in which the person is not producing words while remaining attentive, through the breath, to the writing moment.

Instead of a forced verbal march that pushes past blank moments, momentwriting includes blanks as factors in a writing situation that are worth recording: the shriek of a blue jay, the after taste of coffee, a sudden wave of wordless energy, a wordless image, a passage in which mainly the breath is noticed, attention to a gesture made while typing.

What does unite the experience of momentwriting is not the push to keep writing but instead an ongoing awareness of the breath. A person doing a momentwriting may very well stop writing down words for minutes at a time, but throughout that time, he or she is observing inhalation and exhalation.

Momentwriting allows people to track impulses and instincts, the inchoate and nonconceptual, and to honor them as part of their writing experience.

Writers use visual elements to record the no conceptual parts of a momentwrite (blanks are depicted through tabs or brackets; parenthesis or italics is used for material typically omitted from a freewrite, such as a tension in one’s shoulder or a scratchy sleeve).

In the below momentwriting, I’ve used brackets to indicate a lull where I’ve left the writing and backslash to indicate when I was aware of a physical sensation related to the posture and effort of typing without putting the sensation to words (on other occasions, words did arise for a physical sensation):
Reason why my impulse is to change pens mid-stream during a writing session—moving from Mont Blanc to Bic ballpoint to magic marker to dollar store mechanical pencil, from black to blue to pink to green—is to reflect (and capture) demarcate changes in time  [               ] that it is a new moment, that the phrase or idea is on a distinct flow in that intrapersonal babble passage. This tea tastes nice. An attempt to not be unified not hold writing together at this early stage of invention. /////  To do so suggests undue precautions taken for considerations given to an unknown and future audience. And that means departing from moment. ///// For a long time, I have wondered though without doubting or challenging or correcting it why I have this inclination. In a passage like this one where I don’t change pens—I’m pounding the keys too hard—state of flow “inspiration,” glued together with more continuation through voice, sense of non-stop moment, this tempo of getting it all down, that shoulder is hurting. Sometimes change in pen though a form of evaluation (did I forget to answer that email from M.) to highlight potential excellence—so to evaluate, remind myself of what to (later) pursue.
Like freewriting, it should navigate from the left to right margin: this preserves the intrapersonal rhetoric as a text, endowing it with the semblance of a more formalized piece of writing.  

A message reinforced by momentwriting is that all of a writer’s internal experience is acceptable: freewriting went to considerable lengths to send this message of acceptance, but momentwriting is possibly a more radical form of writing self-acceptance.

 * image from alchemyindesign

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Mind Waves, Mind Weeds, and Rhetorical Constraints

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki uses two conceptual metaphors to describe the mental formations that arise across the surface of emptiness--mind weeds and mind waves.
Mind waves are sensations that momentarily disturb the calmness of the mind, but these sensations are not distinct from the mind. Instead, the waves are mind-generated: “Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion."
Mind waves connect to the Buddhist concept of emptiness in that the arrival of a mind wave in a meditator’s mind indicates that she may be treating the external world as something with independent rather than dependent origination, as something separate from herself to which she is reacting—and therefore as a discrete, static, permanent entity. Mind waves therefore provide opportunity to reengage with formlessness and overcome binaries. As Suzuki explains, “If your mind is related to something outside itself, that mind is a small mind, a limited mind. If your mind is not related to anything else, then there is no dualistic understanding in the activity of your mind."
While mind waves are like disturbances in a calm mind during meditation, mind weeds are difficulties that arise in a person’s meditation practice. Mind weeds are like cognitive dandelions: they invariably happen, but the important point is that mind weeds when pulled out and examined can be used to fertilize mindfulness practice. Suzuki advises, “We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment… So you should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice."
I need to emphasize the importance of an accepting stance toward both mind waves and mind weeds: in a mindfulness practice for writing, they should be treated as equal to possible content for a piece of writing, nothing more, nothing less.
Like dandelions, mind weeds and waves are ubiquitous and hardy—so encounters with them are inevitable. Actual dandelions could be said to be pretty—dabs of highlighter yellow across an otherwise monotone lawn—and categorizing them as nuisances is a matter of perspective. This sort of value judgement—applied to cognitive rather than floral weeds—needs to be monitored since it could well contain product overemphasis for writers.
By studying mind waves and weeds with a detached mind, the meditation practitioner can gain insight into habits, obsessions, delusions, and so forth. It’s these very mind weeds and waves that put a mindfulness practitioner at the crossroads: depending on how weeds and waves are handled, suffering or release from suffering ensues. A cycle can ensue in which mind waves lead to more mind weeds and vice versa, and soo for instance a writer may grow a mind wave that is an emotional reaction to a preconception.
For writers, mind weeds are the assumptions and judgements that arise via intrapersonal rhetoric during writing practice about the emerging text as well as about the rhetorical situation. Mind waves, on the other hand, are affective responses to both of those matters. Mind weeds are lapses in critical thinking; mind waves are emotional and physical responses to something in the writing situation.
Essentially, mind weeds and waves function as rhetorical constraints, in Lloyd Bitzer’s original sense, in their effect and in their source—with a slight difference. I would like to highlight how mind waves and weeds are mind-made and a result of intrapersonal dialog. Whereas rhetorical constraints largely concern events and matters external to the writer (in Bitzer's theory) and to which the writer must respond, mind waves and weeds do not distinguish between self and other, interior and exterior, since it’s all undifferentiated emptiness. For instance, Bitzer mentions constraints “given by situation” such as “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives and the like” which originate externally to the writer and which his discourse “harnesses." 
Bitzer adds a second type of rhetorical constraint, one that originates in the writer who, when he “enters the situation, his discourse not only harnesses constraints given by situation but provides additional important constraints—for example his personal character, his logical proofs, and his style." These writer-provided constraints, I would qualify, are not static qualities (personal character) imported into the writing situation but are also manufactured by the writer’s ongoing intrapersonal dialog or monkey mind.
Mind waves and mind weeds are generated by intrapersonal dialog. Both are mind-made.
Just as a meditator gains insights into his or her tendencies, obsessions, compulsions, etc. from seated meditation, the same is the case with writing: we might be surprised by the concoction of rhetorical factors inside us. For example, even a seasoned and published writer could be taken back by how he is framing a current book project, noting that every third thought discourages or presupposes an unwelcome outcome. A student may believe she is generally unhappy about needing to revise an essay, but upon closer inspection finds that the content of her intrapersonal conversations reveals a more subtle mix of curiosity and trepidation.

* image from alchemyindesign

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Article on Mindfulness I'd Like to Recommend

In my research for my book on mindful composition, I recently came across a marvelous article, Erec Smith's "Buddhism's Pedagogical Contribution to Mindfulness," in the Journal of the Assembly of Expanded Perspectives on Learning:

I highly recommend it! I recommend the article, hoping you have access to a library database.

In part, Erec Smith examines the Lotus Sutra as a rhetorical treatise. He also makes connections between mindfulness, Kairos, and critical thinking in the writing classroom.


Considering the rhetorical elements in the Buddhist text “The True Aspect of All Phenomena” opens the possibility of teaching students a more mindful approach to writing.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Article on Mindfulness Finalist for Rhetoric Review Award

The Role of Mindfulness in Kairos
I am pleased to say that "The Role of Mindfulness in Kairos" was selected as a finalist and Honorable Mention for the 2016 Theresa J. Enos Anniversary for best article published annually in Rhetoric Review.

Here's the link:

The natural inclination of writers is toward mindlessness or inattention to the present moment despite the benefits understanding the present can bring to writing. Although temporal consciousness is apparent in notions of writing as a process or of writing as situated in a rhetorical context, these ideas largely overlook the present. Buddhist Mindfulness can help with the development of kairotic or present-moment specific practice by including impermanence in the rhetorical context, by emphasizing real time in composing, and by providing access to intrapersonal rhetoric. Increased understanding of the temporal factors of writing calls for an Eastern-mind progymnasmata in rhetorical praxis.

Friday, October 7, 2016

3 Qualities of the Present Moment That Help Writing: #2 Is It's Endlessly Discursive

Image result for thinking
The present moment is curated by an internal voice. 

This internal talk is a procession of phrases, images, emotions, prompts, fragments, overheard language, self-generated judgments about writing ability, Vygotskian inner speech, William Jamesian stream of consciousness, sensations, after-images, anticipations of audience, and crystallizations of past writing performances, as well as moments made blank by the unconscious. 

We may not be aware most of the time of the ongoing chat, despite how it steers our actions and outlook, unless we are trying to develop our present awareness. 

With the language-covered present, hundreds of moments pass carrying innumerable phrases, concepts, images, and traces of voice, like a series of boxcars covered in interesting graffiti. 

This internal talk serves a critical role in writing, perhaps especially so during invention. Through intrapersonal rhetoric, a writer frames his or her writing ability, addresses audience, and participates in inquiry that leads to creative-rhetorical discoveries and content. Writers can scan this internal talk to locate potentially interesting content as well as pinpoint assumptions they may be dragging into the writing occasion.

The important point is how this internal talk is low-stakes, messy, disordered, and readily available. Writers are constantly generating text due to the nearly unavoidable discursivity of the human mind. Having “nothing to say” or “feeling at a loss for words” or any writing block is really a condition of mindlessness: a lack of awareness of what’s really happening in the present moment. 

* image from

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

3 Qualities of the Present Moment That Help Writing: #1 is Impermanence

I'm happy to say that Southern Illinois University Press has given me a contract for a book of theory and pedagogy on mindful writing. I'll be posting some thoughts from that book project on this blog as the book manuscript unfolds.

If noticed, the present moment displays three qualities important to writing: it is impermanent, discursive, and embodied. I'll discuss the first in this post and the other two in upcoming posts.

Impermanence and Writing

In the Buddhist view, “All formations are transient (anicca)... Form is transient, feeling is transient, perception is transient, mental formations are transient, consciousness is transient." No moment completely resembles the next due to this continuous changeover. Individuals suffer because of a faulty relationship to impermanence. They try to deny or control impermanence to retain pleasantries and ward off inevitable fading and decline. 

The typical ways in which writers mistakenly resisting impermanence are by maintaining rigid composing rules; overemphasizing product, coveting the finished text and disregarding the messier state of drafts; and maintaining a static perception of their own ability as writers. 

For writers, perceiving continuous change provides access to abundant content. It also makes it possible for writers to shift how they perceive their overall writing ability as well as ability specific to the task at hand. 

The present moment provides a content based on transience, meaning that what emerges (language, image, physical sensation, emotion, etc.) is fleeting as well as ongoing. Something is always arising; what is observed in one instance fades and is replaced by something else. The present moment is endlessly inventive.

The present moment because of its endless fluctuation is fundamentally a low-stakes task. That is, observing impermanence can position writing as a low-stakes, informal writing task and make exploration more possible.Writing feels less risky or daunting.

A view toward transience reduces premature editing since the constantly changing present doesn’t lend itself to polishing or correcting. There isn’t time for both fully observing transience and revising. 

The stance of non-evaluation that comes from the observation of the present can result in a healthy detachment, separating process from product.  

Finally, the radical contingency of the present moment--the way it's constantly changing--emphasizes context over generalizability. To observe the present is to observe the ever-changing situation in which one writes.