“How do I forgive?”
When I wrote this question in my notebook, I was practicing being present. I had noticed my breath moving in and out of my body, felt the pencil between my fingers, and heard the coarse scratches of the pencil tip on the page.
And yet, when I read this question a few minutes later, I made a certain kind of discovery, one that felt both captivating and fresh: I am not who I used to be.
In recent years, I’ve been grappling with a difficult relationship in my life, and many of the thoughts that had been emerging in my seated meditation practice were the product of anger, heartbreak, and grief. These thoughts had become so familiar and repetitive that it seemed like they had solidified into a permanent understanding of who I was. But seeing the word forgive in the bright, wide-open space of the page was a stark and unexpected shift in my inner workings. It pulled me right out of the fixed impressions I had of myself and into a more uncertain and open mindset.
Perhaps this is the power of writing as a kind of meditation practice: it is a method by which we can make our thoughts visible. This lets us practice being present with whatever arises during the experience of writing our thoughts down and reading them shortly after.
Some may wonder if keeping a notebook or reading your writing is actually a form of lingering in the past. Almost every time I finish writing and read my work, I feel surprised by something I wrote down. This is a fleeting but powerful experience that pulls me into the present moment. When I first read my thought about forgiveness, I was shocked that it had come from my mind. It ran counter to what I had been thinking and feeling for years. There it was, though, staring at me from the center of the page in my own handwriting.
These moments of surprise—low-grade jolts that shake my mind out of familiar patterns of thinking—loosely remind me of a katsu, or a shout, that some Zen Buddhist teachers have used to startle practitioners into silence. Upon hearing an unexpected shout from the teacher, the practitioner’s mind stops for a moment, and time may even seem to stand still. While I don’t include shouting in my writing practice, I do allow the sudden or unexpected to arise, as doing so can bring about a deep immersion in the present moment.
When it comes to practicing writing as meditation, I find that there isn’t one approach that works for everyone. However, one method that I enjoy is using writing to notice everything around me.
On a warm day, I’ll sit on a park bench and start writing about objects that are large and nearby, like an ancient oak tree near the entrance of the park. As time passes, I challenge myself to notice more subtle aspects, like the contrast of light and shadow on the tree’s leaves or a broken acorn wedged in the sidewalk crack. For me, this is a way to practice being present in the world, and recording my observations makes me feel responsive and engaged.
This exercise is a different kind of writing than, say, this article, a term paper, or an email to a colleague. When I record my observations, I prioritize awareness and presence rather than productivity or accuracy. I write in a fluid and continuous way; I don’t pause to reflect on an idea or edit a sentence to improve my grammar. I just keep writing. The exercise, then, calls for honesty and a full suspension of judgment and criticism.
This stream-of-consciousness writing can function like the practice of noting, when a meditator labels a thought as a way of letting go of it. By writing an observation down on the page, I shift its location from my mind to a landscape that feels removed from myself. Seeing my thoughts on the page reminds me that I am not my thoughts. I’m not my emotions, either, or my ideas. Instead, I am a witness to all that moves through me, to my ever-changing nature, and to the myriad ways that I am connected with the world around me.
During this practice, I also allow myself to shift back and forth between external awareness and internal awareness, which can lead to unexpected results. The way tree leaves filter the light might remind me of a park I played in as a child, and I’ll find myself writing about the squirrels that scampered under the willow trees in that park. Other connections that emerge may not be as direct: a cluster of clouds on the horizon might prompt me to write about my boss, or a group of ants feasting on a piece of strawberry beneath my bench may lead me to write my older brother’s 1986 Pontiac Firebird.
In her seminal book Writing Down the Bones, writing teacher and author Natalie Goldberg—whose books explore writing as Zen practice—discussed the benefits of inviting these leaping thoughts and recording these seemingly strange connections. “There is no separation between writing, life, the mind,” she writes. “Your mind is leaping, but it won’t be artificial. It will reflect the nature of first thoughts, the way we see the world when we are free from prejudice and can see the underlying principles. We are all connected.”
I have a stack of old, weathered notebooks next to my bookshelf, but I rarely flip through them. I don’t feel the need to. I wonder if this is a result of my writing practice itself. I think I’ve become much more interested in letting the present moment surprise me than allowing the past to pull me away. It still happens, though, and when it does, I grab my notebook, slip on my shoes, and head to a park bench or nearby cafe. If those aren’t accessible, I’ll sit at my kitchen table, open to a new page, and let the vast, ever-shifting amalgam of myself unfold.
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