Where Has Spiritual Practice Been?
It’s been a while since I’ve written about spiritual practice. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about gentleness and persistence in the context of spiritual practice. It’s been a while since I’ve written about the ancient and powerful art of writing as spiritual practice.
And frankly, it’s been a while since I’ve written for myself, that wonderful practice that was the bedrock of my practice for so many years.
I kept a journal from the time I was in eighth grade, pretty consistently until I was in college. And then once I left undergraduate school the first time, I took the practice up again. I didn’t think about it as a spiritual practice. I thought about it as a sanity practice.
My father said that writing for himself, putting down what he called his Ravings, boxes and boxes of them, was a way of “unbending” his mind. He also made gorgeous illuminations of poems, calligraphs of Biblical passages, and beautiful drawings of flowers and leaves.
Unbending Your Mind
This “unbending” is important, as Julia Cameron made very clear in her classic—may I call it classic? —book, The Artist’s Way. Just writing, writing, writing for half an hour, no more no less, no editing, no going back and fixing, no censoring…Or just writing, writing, writing three pages, no more no less, no editing, no going back and fixing, no censoring…
These exercises, often called, after Cameron’s terminology, “Morning Pages,” have been the bedrock of my spiritual practice for years. And I will tell you a secret. Right now I am having a very hard time with them. I am having a hard time writing for myself, in part because I am doing so much other writing, and partly, well, my wife would say, I work too much.
I tend to leap into work right after breakfast, sometimes even right into meetings. More often, though, it’s right into writing, planning, writing, brainstorming, writing, social media stuff, writing…
And then I work off and on for four hours or so until lunch. Mostly with writing.
And this writing is good, but it’s not for me. And if you write for a living, I imagine you know what I’m talking about. Even if you don’t, I bet the idea of just writing for yourself, writing whatever comes to mind first thing in the morning may sound calming, opening, artful—or scary and oppressive.
Really, it’s not oppressive. Really, it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to write for no one at all, save the writing itself. Longhand, mind you, yes longhand. Of course, if you have pain or disability that makes longhand writing terrible, that’s one thing, and of course you should do whatever works.
Otherwise, longhand. Trust me, it makes a difference. (Sometimes I think I might prefer to write these blog posts longhand and transcribe. Ah, the master, expediency.) My father, in his unbending exercises, writing at the diner where he had his coffee before his 8:00 am class, would wind his left hand around on the page—he had been taught to write “as though he were right-handed” when he was a boy—and press his wide-nibbed cartridge pen into his lavender, college-ruled paper.
To write longhand is to connect body, heart, and mind in a way that typing just doesn’t. To write longhand, to have the option to doodle in the margins or draw a picture, to watch your handwriting change depending on your mood, how sleepy you are, and where you are in your writing…It’s wonderful.
And it’s wonderful not to have to read it again. Sometimes I’ve read mine months later, but not usually. Usually I finish a book of Morning Pages and leave it unread for years…I may not even read it ever. I don’t need to.
It’s the getting things out, not the working things out that is most important in Morning Pages. It is the writing that’s important, not the reading.
The Reading and the Writing
Now journaling is another matter. And it’s what I think my father mostly did, now I think about it. I think he was, like Pepys, what we call a “diarist.” He wrote about his days, he wrote in his datebook, and he wrote his Ravings in the diner or at his desk.
And in his Ravings, he wrote about how he felt about this and that. He wrote about relationships. He tried to work things out. He wrote about his frustrations. He wrote as honestly as he possibly could, telling himself firmly that no one would ever read his words. He let the feeling of the moment be real, no matter how unreasonable it seemed at the time.
He wrote about his classes and how he might make his teaching better. He wrote about his family. He wrote about his mother, especially once she moved to town and became more and more difficult, sicker and sicker, closer and closer to death.
Journaling, for me, is when I allow myself to write as much as I’d like. Journaling is when I write and write, 7 pages, 8, 10. Journaling is when I respond to a prompt in a class I’m taking.
Journaling, in my experience, is more about working things out than about getting things out. Morning Pages are about getting the crap of my system so that I can get to the good stuff later on.
For example, my spirit journal is currently devoted to a yearlong course I’m taking with Briana Saussy, called Spinning Gold. In Spinning Gold, we work on learning our own stories through folktales, myths, and other stories. We study six tales over the course of the year, from The Ballad of Tam Lin to the Book of Job, with the myths of The Baba Yaga in the middle.
As part of our work—and oh, but the work is good! —we are offered “Delphic Questions.” The Delphic Questions are prompts to work with after we’ve listened to the tale once, twice, a few times and then engaged an active imaginative journey related to the story once, twice, a few times. This first tale, Tam Lin, had several questions you could choose from. I only worked with two over the course of two months. And then I worked with a question Briana asked on a call.
I wrote and wrote again about these three questions. I wrote pages and pages—big, quadrille pages—about the story, the imaginative journey, and the question. I wrote to find things out about myself. I wrote the way one writes about one’s dreams, nearly scribbling in the dark, unaware of what was coming out until I went back and read it.
More to Come
Now that I get to dreamwriting, I find that there is so much more to say. There are gratitude lists, and the Examen, and the recording of dreams. So let us return again soon and talk of these things.
I remind you that down below is a space for comments. I’d love to hear your experiences with writing as spiritual practice. Has it been for you, as a mentioned above, a “bedrock”? Has it been a struggle? Has it been something that’s made you throw the book across the room? Or is it something you enjoy, yet go back and forth about?
Wherever you are is fine, even good, even perfect. Start from now, as Carol B says. Start from now doing what feels fruitful. And when you need to shift, go ahead and shift.
And watch this space for the next installment of spiritual writing. Love!