Several times a month I come across the question, "What do I do when I'm stuck?" Every writer faces this problem, the feeling of being unable to move forward, of having a cast of characters who are no longer talking to their creator, of reading the last few pages written that morning or afternoon and thinking they're all junk. The heart sinks.
Every one of us has faced this problem, and all of us have ideas about how to get unstuck. The advice may range from plotting exercises to techniques for discovering your character's inner life and the like. All of them will involve some form of writing activity. Some are simple--just write whatever comes to mind until the story flows again. I like the idea of keeping to the task at hand even if it takes another form--writing about something as long as I'm writing. But that's not my favorite solution.
To overcome almost every obstacle I encounter I turn to meditation first. There's something magical about sitting quietly, following my breath and disregarding my random thoughts, letting them glide through and, I hope, evaporate like mist, while I let my mind become blank, the chatter fading. I first learned to meditate when I was twelve years old, by the minister of our local congregation. He may not have known that was what he was teaching me, but when later, many years later, I turned to meditation in graduate school, learning from another student in Asian Studies, I recognized the technique right away. I've been meditating off and on (I wish I'd been more consistent over the years but alas . . . ) for the last fifty years. I began with ten minutes, progressed to twenty, and then to thirty to thirty-five minutes every day. My new goal is one hour a day.
What I've learned from meditating every day is that the problem I'm confronting really isn't there. Yes, I can hear the sound of gnashing teeth from thousands of writers across the land, but I do discover that the problem that seems to have stalled me, thwarted my work, made me feel helpless and hopeless, is an illusion and with enough attention it evaporates. By "attention," I don't mean sitting at my desk and struggling to work on it. I mean, "letting it be" as I sit and meditate away from my desk. The knot of despair unties itself, and the ropes themselves shred into nothing, wisps of a cloud that floats away. I don't then see a specific solution as feel I can move forward. Sometimes I see a scene of characters behaving in a certain way, and with that I can move forward. At other times I return to the manuscript and continue where I left off, the path now clear.
There is probably a scientific reason for this. Neuroscientists have become fascinated with Buddhism, and the Buddha's (and his followers') prescience about the world and the human mind. The tests of humans who have meditated for years (often Buddhist monks) have brought neuroscientists closer to understanding how the brain works and to validation for new insights. All of that is fascinating, but, more important, it underscores the value of this simple practice. The answer to almost everything that is blocking us is accessible in stillness of the mind.
I grew up not far from where I live now, in a town typical of the United States, which means in a culture of striving to always be better, do better. I found the same living in other states and in India. Humans are the same the world over. Perhaps that is why this core practice of Buddhism (and other religions) has been adopted country after country in recent centuries. The idea of discovering what is of lasting value and how to live in doing nothing but emptying the mind in stillness contradicts most of our culture. And yet, there it is. And anyone can confirm it with his or her own experience and practice.
Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw