We sat with one of our artists' groups last night, and the discussion started out centering around the question of giving oneself permission NOT to work. One of the things we like to stress is the need to simply show up, as a first step to getting the work done--but of course showing up to oneself does not necessarily mean showing up in the studio or, in my case, at the writing desk. There are times when it's enough to show up in different ways. As Ellie often points out, getting the work done as an artist can sometimes mean doing the dishes, or taking a walk, or gardening, or reading a book, or seeing the work of another artist at an exhibition... And, as someone else pointed out, the mind continues to do its work even when we're not aware of its activity. One painter in our midst gave the example of several years spent without access to paint or studio--but also without deviating from his sense of himself or his intention as an artist.
All very true. Still, my own thinking is that the actual practice of creative activity is as essential as the practice involved in meditation. In my experience, showing up in other ways is fine, but it doesn't get the writing done. I've heard people tell me many times that their form of meditation is to listen to music or gaze at a flower. Or, of course, in that now famous phrase, to carry water or chop wood. I myself see this as being one of the desirable results of meditation--to do even the smallest things in a full state of consciousness. Meditation, for me, though, is different. Meditation is showing up in that particular way, sitting in silence with closed eyes and attention on the breath.
As I see it, too, it's not a matter of just watching the restless processes of the mind, or of giving the mind a rest. It's true, certainly, that the mind is working constantly, and all too often in useless pursuits. Mindfulness, as I understand it, is about being aware of what it's up to at any given moment. Meditation, though, gives me the opportunity to grab a hold of the mind and direct it, to train it to do my bidding for a while and not its own. Left to its own devices, it can fly off in a hundred different directions. Sitting is when I try my best--and always with only qualified success--to get it to do exactly what I tell it to do. The breath gives me object of attention. When the mind wanders, bring it back...
As for the choice not to show up in the studio or at the writing desk, I want to be sure that if I make that choice, it's not dictated by some old unconscious habit of mind but in full, honest consciousness. In my own experience, fear is both the great enemy and the great friend. If some old interior voice is telling me that I'm wasting my time, that I'll never succeed, that I should find a more profitable way to spend my energy... I want to be fully aware that it's that old interior voice and not some wishful, inspired notion that doing the dishes is as great as showing up at the writing desk. I want to be sure that my mind is not inventing wonderful excuses to cover for my fear. If I get to be conscious of the pattern that's controlling my behavior--be it fear or some other mindless, learned reaction--then the feeling becomes my friend.
My own fear works in subversive ways. Most commonly, it insists that I won't have anything more to say the next time I sit down at the computer, and compensates by plaguing me at unwanted moments--even during meditation--with constant worries about what to say, what to say... Of course, this has a completely paralyzing effect on all creative thought. I asked Than Geoff, this past Sunday, whether his mind still wants to write when he's meditating and, if so, what he does about it. He conceded that yes, he still catches himself writing and that when he does, his response is a simple "Not now." I especially liked his answer when another sitter asked him how long he meditates each day. "Five hours," he said--and must have noticed our reaction, because he added, cheerfully: "But I'm a professional." We all had a good laugh at that.
Well, I'm no professional in that sphere, and I don't claim to know the answers about how it should be done. But I am beginning to understand what works for me. And when my mind begins to write while I'm trying to sit, I remind myself to respond with a simple, Not now.