Writing Down Your Mind

I came to Buddhism, like a lot of people in the 60s, through Zen.

I’ll warn you that the video is about 12 minutes long, but that’s a really good talk by Alan Watts, whose books were among my first teachers of Buddhism. There are probably a dozen columns in it, so it’s a real time saver.

Zen, as Alan explains, is widely imagined in the West to be anti-intellectual, but it really isn’t — it’s, instead, non-intellectual. It says that underneath the intellectual uinderstanding of Buddhism, there is a place where you are already the Buddha; Zen is, as Alan says, a way of directly pointing to that underlying reality that simply can’t be achieved intellectually.

So, of course, I’m going to write today about reading and writing and how my academic studies have affected my understanding.

I didn’t really start reading the sutras until … well, I guess it’s been quite a long time now, ten years or more, but seeing as I’ve been a Buddhist for something getting close to 50 years, it really came rather late in life. I started with the maha-prajña-paramita-sutra, the “Great Sutra at the Heart of Wisdom”. Fairly short, pithy, and very obscure on first reading. There are all these words for which the translations aren’t very satisfactory. So I started reading more widely, into the Pali Canon, the Tripitaka, and reading various people’s commentaries, and paying more attention to studying Sanskrit and Chinese.

This isn’t really foreign to Zen; there are lots of writings used in teaching Zen, and lots to be learned from them. I was thinking about listing some, but I think I’ll save that for another column. In the year I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve really found pretty much everything can be taken back to the Dharmachakra Sutra, the first teaching Buddha offered, directly after his Liberation. That’s where he first explains the Eightfold Path and the Four Great Truths.

No, I won’t repeat them here; you can go back to some previous columns.

But writing these columns means that I do have to think about Buddhism as well as not-think about Buddhism, and I think it helps. In particular, I’ve noticed over and over again that my own questions and a lot of my own practice, and a lot of the questions I’ve answered for others, have come down to “suffering”, duhkha, and the roots of suffering, which today I think can be simply stated as “the desire for pleasure”, “the desire to become”, and “the desire to erase”. That is, we want to get pleasant experiences; we want to make things be the way we want them; and, we want to erase from our world that displease us. Especially in the last year, I’ve found myself doing a practice of paying attention to my thoughts, identifying ones that agitated me as duhkha, and looking to see which of the roots of duhlha underlie the thought.

All that means being attentive to those thoughts, which is really what meditation is all about: “sitting quietly, doing nothing” and when a thought comes by, observing it, greeting it, and then dismissing it, letting it go on its way instead of dwelling on it.

When you are meditating, especially as a beginner — which is to say the first couple minutes of meditation no matter how long you’ve been practicing — one of the ways of dwelling on thoughts you notice is that there are some thoughts you really jump back from. There’s an internal voice, a censor, that looks at a thought and says “Oooh, bad, you’re not supposed to think that! Stop thinking that! Stoppit!”

Of course, that’s the “desire to erase” and a root of duhkha in itself.


Eight or so months of morning pages.

As well as sitting, though, there’s another practice I’ve been doing for — it has to be 22 years. Back when it was first published, I picked up a copy of the first Tarcher edition of The Artist’s Way, and started to do “morning pages”. Especially at first, I often did more that the required 3 pages a day; I’d just gone through a divorce, I was dealing with my chronic depression through talk therapy — this was shortly before I started trying anti-depressant drugs — and after some promising starts, I was finding “real” writing to be impossibly hard. Writing out my thoughts every morning let me take them out and examine them.

Early on I suspected morning pages and sitting meditation had some similarities, although I wasn’t clear on what, and certainly as a practice I’ve found it very helpful. But, you know, why?

Here’s what I think now. As I say, the central thing in sitting meditation, mindfulness meditation, is being attentive. You notice the thoughts that come to mind and the sensations that come to your attentino, then having noticed them, you set them aside. You let them go away on their own, without dwelling on them.

So in morning pages, we pay attention to our thoughts and write them down. Certainly for me, writing them down gives them — well, it gives them a place to go. It’s as if, being written down, they don’t have to be on my mind any longer. The longer I wrote morning pages, the more I noticed certainly things that came up over and over again, things like angry episodes from my life, arguments in my head with people who I felt had hurt me, things I wanted to do. I also noticed there were some different voices, different sides in the arguments. One of them was the Critic, who kept telling me to go back and cross something out, or not to talk about some things I was thinking. (Here’s a secret to morning pages: write it all down. You don’t have to keep the pages, you can shred them if you like, later, but write it all down.)

Now, in the last year as I’ve thought more and more about suffering and the roots of suffering, I’ve realized there’s another aspect to morning pages. As you keep writing, especially as you learn to let the critical thoughts go and not to dwell on them, you realize that in some fundamental way, they’re just thoughts. You may be talking about how lonely you are or how depressed you are or how happy you are or how horny you are or how much in love you are, but they’re just thoughts. From the standpoint of Buddhist teaching, a lot of them are thoughts about the roots of sufffering, but if you write them down and let them pass, they no longer cause you to suffer. Just thoughts.

Like a bad dream, thoughts can’t hurt you.