Moments, yes. But never an entire day. Not anymore.
But it’s not easy. It’s a balancing act; with a safety net that includes enough sleep, exercise, mindful healthy meals and meditation. Once I have those in place, the real work can begin.
This morning, for instance, my husband, Michael, got up early to attend a spiritual talk. I chose to stay in bed as I need 7-8 hours of sleep to keep at bay my cranky-irritable demon. Plus, I wanted to spend some time writing first thing after waking, in an effort to keep one of my 2013 vows to finish a book I’m working on. I was looking forward to a morning of nothing else to do but write.
When Michael called after the talk and told me that the session was “transformative” for him and many others, I was jealous and felt sorry for myself that I’d missed it and pissed that I hadn’t forced myself to get up and go.
I questioned my whole plan for the day. The old bogey man ‘there’s something better than this/you’re missing out/you’re not a real writer’ attacked.
I knew I was comparing my morning to someone else’s and if I didn’t nip it in the bud, I would slide down the hole of agony that contains judgment, self-hatred and regret. And ruin my day.
The Tao says: When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
Zen Master Bassui said: The mind is originally pure… we call it Buddha Nature.
I knew that my Buddha Nature had gotten corrupted over the years, perhaps beginning with my first breath, but I also knew that my job now is to hark back to that which comes natural, that which is pure, and remind myself every day of my own transformative abilities. To transcend the negative, judgmental voice. To embrace and disempower my deep anger. To return to the moment and go to the healing silence within.
So I sat on my cushion for 20 minutes to begin to return to my day, to what I had intended for my equanimity today, to my true nature. Had I got up earlier, I’m sure I would have enjoyed the talk and taken something away from it to “make my day.” But it would have been a different “good” day than the one I am having now. The one I chose to live today is not better or worse than any other, but it is rich and textured and full of possibility.
My first surprise came when making my normal breakfast of oatmeal with fruit, nuts and raisins. I like organic frozen fruit in the winter and usually add an assortment of blueberries, raspberries and peaches. When a large beautiful strawberry fell from the raspberry bag, I was surprised. I had remembered buying raspberries, but in my hand was a bag of strawberries. Old me would have berated myself for not being more mindful when shopping. But the new me was happy for the variety.
As I often tell my students and clients: mistakes can be opportunities to wake up and be present NOW. So I took my own advice, enjoyed the strawberry and got down to writing.
A perfect beginning to another good day.
The night before I quit smoking forever, 25 years ago, I chain-smoked a whole pack of cigarettes. I had a smoker’s cough; I wanted to free myself from the tyranny of nicotine; and I did not want to follow in my father’s wake and die from lung cancer. But I also didn’t want to lose my friend, my companion, my crutch that helped me cope with feelings of uselessness, self-pity and fear.
The toxic inhalation of 20 cigarettes in a few short hours, to help quell the panic I was feeling about quitting, satisfied nothing, but made me feel sick enough the next morning to delay the inevitable craving I knew would come. And other than a cigarette here and there over the years—when I spent three months in Paris in 1997 I would sometimes smoke in an outdoor café while sipping my café au lait; I told myself it didn’t count, it was Paris—I never returned to the habit.
Today is the day, once again, to give up refined sugar, the drug that doesn’t look like a drug.
Two nights ago, in preparation, I ate a 12.6 oz bag of my favorite poison—the one I consume when I’m lonely or depressed or angry—M&M’s peanut chocolate candies; hoping it would make me sick enough to stay away from sweet things for a day or two. It didn’t work. I loved eating every sugar-coated-chocolate-covered-colorful peanut. And I wanted more the next day! I didn’t have more but I did eat another chocolate treat last night for my final hurrah.
Proof that I’m a sugar addict: I cannot eat just a bite, I cannot order a sweet with my café au lait in Paris, I cannot not want more.
It was about 20 years ago when I first decided to swear off sugar. I don’t remember exactly the day or the year as I hadn’t yet admitted I was an addict, but I was on a health kick and knew sugar wasn’t healthy, so I stopped eating it and felt better. But I do remember exactly when I decided to fall off that wagon and eat some chocolate.
It was April 1992 and I was living in a Zen Buddhist Monastery. I had lost my job and I was somewhat lost myself. My favorite monk had died early in the year and I wasn’t sure why I was there. All my usual touchstones, grounding me to life as I knew it, were not available. I still have a visceral recollection of missing my phone and answering machine—there were no cellphones yet—every time I walked into my austere room. I was lonely, out of touch and scared. It was a very strict environment with no entertainment or distraction. Except, each morning, there would be a small sweet offered with our tea. I caved early on in my stay and savored every tiny morsel. There was never enough to over indulge so I convinced myself I could finally eat sugar responsibly. Until I returned to the real world, when slowly but surely my consumption of it escalated into the danger zone and once again I had to quit.
Much as I hate to admit it, I’m an all or nothing gal when it comes to addictive substances.
I have been refined-sugar free for most of the past 20 years. I wish I had kept closer track. Today, Monday, August 13, 2012 I once again swear off eating refined sugar products—no matter how I’m feeling, no matter what is going on, no matter whom I offend by declining an offer of sweets.
I choose this date because I know I’ll remember it: two years ago on Friday, August 13 I got married. I wasn’t depressed or lonely or sad. I was happy. I wanted to celebrate. I ate the dessert. It was beautiful, it was scrumptious, it was perfect.
I told myself that would be it, just one day of indulgence. Instead, no surprise here, it triggered the sugar craving that lasted two years and culminated with that bag of M&M’s.
Already I am beginning to bargain with myself about this resolution. At the end of this week I leave for a two-week vacation in the country, where most of the entertainment is self created. A visit to the local Creemee Stand each night after dinner is our recently established custom.
I’m thinking that I may allow myself a scoop or two and start the no-sugar-no-matter-what diet after vacation. But I don’t have to decide that right now. All I know is that for today I vow not to eat any refined sugar products. We’ll see about tomorrow, tomorrow. Wish me luck!
What would I do if I couldn’t write?
What would I do if I couldn’t read?
Have someone read to me.
What would I do if I couldn’t hear?
Learn to read with my fingers.
What would I do if I couldn’t feel?
Take a walk and smell the roses.
What would I do if I couldn’t walk or smell?
Sit and eat delicious food.
What would I do if I couldn’t taste?
What would I do if I couldn’t think?
What would I do if I died?
Be. Just be.
As I reinvent myself one more time, and at last begin to fulfill my lifelong passion to write fiction, I must finally learn how to practice the “cultivation of leisure.”
This phrase: “cultivation of leisure,” which I know I got right, has lived in my right brain since I heard it probably 20 years ago—but I do not recall the writer who said it. Even Google has failed me here. (And it’s not Oscar Wilde, though I suppose it could have been. But my memory says no, so I will trust that.)
It was said in reference to fiction writing: if you want to write fiction there is no better teacher than the cultivation of leisure. Or something to that effect.
It must have been said by a 19th or early 20th century author because I remember thinking: that’s fine for you who does not need to work and make a living, for you who comes from money and has the luxury of time, for you who is a trust fund baby. So I moved on and put my dream of writing fiction on a shelf. (Here’s a recent NYTimes column worth reading about our 21st century ‘busy’ trap that many of us are buried in. So not the cultivation-of-leisure lifestyle that a writer, or anyone else who wants a meaningful existence, needs.)
But the dream and need to write fell off that shelf, so I wrote a few non-fiction books that called to me to write, that helped to pay the bills, that taught me the discipline of writing a book from beginning to middle to end. I learned how to live well with very little money. I did everything I wanted to do, helped many people in their spiritual practice, and never regretted a day of it.
So now, at the ripe young age of 60ish, I want to write fiction, I want to write good fiction, I want to write fiction that people will read, enjoy and perhaps learn something interesting from. I wrote a mystery novel several years ago that I recently self-published after it sat in a drawer for years, after it got rejected by legacy publishers, after I had once again given up my dream. And I have a second one that will be published in the fall.
So I must cultivate leisure. For my imagination to have space and air and freedom to roam.
The whole idea of cultivating leisure goes against my New-England-bred, Southern-Baptist-raised, Puritan-work-ethic self. But my heart tells me to heed this advice from my nameless forebear. What I do remember is that he (and I’m sure this mentor was a he, damn it) was a writer I read and admired—there are so, so many of them. And if I want to be any good at all I must slow down, listen to my imaginary machinations, and allow myself to take chances, to make mistakes, and as Natalie Goldberg—a contemporary mentor—once told me: allow yourself to write “the worst shit in the world.”
The cultivation of any garden, be it vegetable or literary, needs a huge pile of compost. So I will write some shit. I don’t have to, and won’t, publish the smelly stuff; I’ll wait for the fruit to bloom. That’s all part of cultivating leisure.
But I do not want to forget the shit—that’s what makes any good fiction worth reading.
I write volumes in my head while riding my bicycle. Recently, while on vacation in Vermont, I averaged about 25 miles a day. By the end of 7 days I had written a best-selling novel and a few blog posts—all in my head.
If only I had a wire attached to my brain to record it all. Hell, maybe that’s a good idea for a sci-fi novel. Or maybe it’s already been written. Doesn’t matter, it entertains me. Besides, most of what goes through my head while on the bike is best left on the road.
Until I begin climbing hills and the rhythm of riding takes over, when I get seduced by the scenery and the motion of the wheels and gears turning into just pedaling and not thinking so much, I might stop to jot a note or take a picture lest I forget whatever brilliant idea is coursing through the grey matter at that moment.
Here are some random notes from a recent ride:
- Can there be too much green? (I stopped to snap the photo here)
- Everything good happens on the exhale: insight, orgasm, deep thoughts…
- Everything bad happens on the inhale: fear, anxiety, worry…
- Don’t bother inhaling.
- Sugar ain’t sweet.
- FEAR: feel everything and ride; fuck everything and run; face everything and relax.
- Move your body, write your mind.
- Bicycle Buddha.
- Graham Greene only wrote 500 words a day.
- Ernest Hemingway always left a sentence unfinished at the end of a day of writing.
Now it’s time to get on my bike, take a few spins around Central Park, see what’s in my brain, what needs clearing out and what might remain at the end of it.
Have a good thought today.
You know that moment when you’re alone in the house, or no one is talking, there is no TV or radio or computer on, and all of a sudden the refrigerator motor turns off and the house is filled with quiet and you realize that you weren’t even aware of the sound of the frig until it stopped? Perhaps you then take a deep breath, stop what you’re doing, and notice the silence?
That is akin to the space between thoughts that can occur when we meditate. Delicious!
How I wish Goodreads had been around back in March 1994 when my book group read and discussed our first book over dinner. I might have a more extensive account of the 80 books we’ve read so far, and the countless books I’ve read on my own. Or not.
We were all six working at Simon & Schuster and we all loved books, which is why we were in the publishing world—it was a different time back then. Not one of us still works there and only two members are still employed in that business. Other than our maiden book choice, Shipping News by Annie Proulx, we all agreed that S&S books were to be excluded from our discussions—we read too many of them as it was and wanted to venture further afield.
Aside from one member leaving the group in 1999 and another taking his place, the group has remained intact over these 18 years, and except for a few last minute emergencies no one has ever missed a session.
When I was slogging my way through the 1,074 pages of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, I rued the pact we’d made to show up having read the entire book—we couldn’t leave any part of the book unread no matter how much we hated it.
Hands down Rand’s book was the most painful reading experience of my life. Oddly enough I am glad to have read it if only to now hold such strong feelings about it. Many of us who worked in the business held many strong opinions about many books we never read, but it was all bullcrit. My judgment of Rand is justified and well earned.
There were a few other books I didn’t enjoy reading and some that were just dreadful, but not one of them is seared into my memory of disdain as deeply as Ms. Rand’s tome. Much like a conversation about politics or religion, the books that were the most hated led to the liveliest and most heated discussions.
Proust falls into the category of most-hated-author for some members of our group. But not for me. Proust’s language is slow, easy and rhythmic: I love to immerse myself and luxuriate in his sentences. Juxtaposed to this, Rand’s egotism shines through her every word and just makes me angry.
We read the first two volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (or as some may remember it: Remembrance of Things Past) and whenever I want to rile up the group I simply need to mention that my next selection (we take turn choosing titles) will be volume three.
I wish I’d taken more notes on every book I ever read so that my memory of the reading experience could be triggered and refreshed by my review, much in the way Proust’s memory was stimulated by sounds and tastes and petite madeleines soaked in tea.
She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petite madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?
Mmmmm… delicious! Non?
On second thought, much as I love modern aids to memory such as Google, Ebook readers, and Goodreads reviews, I love even more taking the time to flip through a book I read years ago to help jog my memory and find my opinion. As I just did with this passage. (In transcribing the above excerpt I discovered that the thick and heavy Atlas Shrugged was good for something: to hold open Proust’s darling book as I typed.)
Both my opinions of particular writers and my reading tastes have changed over time. I have a vague memory of reading The Fountainhead in my 20s and holding a more positive opinion of Rand—but I was young and very self-centered back then, much like Howard Roark, so it makes sense.
As I read the last line of Atlas Shrugged: “He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.” I have a visceral reaction to it and recall in my body the unpleasant reading experience it was in 1997 and have no desire to read more.
Yet I can open up Proust to any page, read a passage, and immediately enter Marcel’s world and re-experience my pleasure and awe. Here are his most luscious last two sentences of volume one, Swann’s Way:
The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
I think the last sentence of a book can tell us more about the book than the first, and volumes about the writer. If I had read neither Rand nor Proust before and was given the last sentence of these two books I think Proust would win, hands down.
In less than two years, on March 11, 2014, our book group will celebrate 20 years together. I think I’ll suggest a trip to Paris and reading the third volume of Proust. Maybe the Proust haters will find something to love in his writing while visiting the city of lights.
I don’t care what anyone says, it is not possible to multitask!
When I first bit down hard on the inside of my lip while eating I hardly noticed. I was absorbed in some other task at the same time. But when it kept happening the pain called to me and I had to pay attention.
Yes, I teach and practice and write about meditation and mindfulness. Yes, I try to be a model for my students. Yes, I am merely human, not perfect and just another student myself. Sometimes it takes a little bodily pain to snap me back into the moment and remind me to pay attention to every small moment of life, and, in this case, every small bite of food.
As a self-employed writer and teacher, and now a self-published author, I am always writing, if only in my mind. Creating ideas, characters, scenarios and plots, teasing out story lines and rewriting again and again fills my days and my imagination. I love it all. Add to that the business of writing, teaching my classes and coaching my clients, my waking life is full and dynamic. The recent decision to self-publish my fiction put me on a steep learning curve and since the monetary rewards have not yet kicked in, I took a part time office job to help pay the bills and take some of that worry off my shoulders. It is the first time I’ve worked outside of my home office for someone else in 16 years.
Overnight my life went into super drive. I had to keep doing everything I’d been doing and find 15-20 more hours in the week to step out of my routine without sacrificing my serenity and those precious, quiet, undisturbed hours I need to devote to my writing process (more about that in another post).
I don’t care what anyone says, it is not possible to multitask!
The first task that was compromised with my new schedule was eating. With no forethought I simply began to do other things while I ate: talk on the phone, prepare for a bike ride, answer emails… I quickly stopped paying attention to what I was eating, how I was eating and why I was eating. I was just shoveling food in my mouth to get it done and move on. Then I started to bite down on my lip as I was inattentively chewing. Whenever I put a forkful of food in my mouth before finishing the previous bite I’d bite down on my lip. It hurt each time.
The pain would snap me into the moment, I’d take a breath, chew mindfully for a few bites, get distracted by something else and do it again.
After a few days of this my lower lip was sore and my overbite was creating a bigger problem, causing me to bite down on that spot even when I wasn’t eating. It occurred to me that if only I had had my teeth straightened when I was younger I wouldn’t be having this problem. But I also knew that was my denial searching for an excuse and a reason to not change my behavior.
I soon realized that I was saving no significant time by eating mindlessly, I was hurting myself and giving short shrift to whatever I was doing while eating. So I slowed down, returned to eating mindfully and doing one thing at a time. And voila! my lip healed.
Maybe we can all chew gum and walk at the same time, but we cannot savor the doing of either activity or truly know what it is to do either unless we pay attention. As Buddha might say: when walking, just walk. When eating, just eat. By doing this we can be fully awake in each moment and avoid getting a fat lip.
I hate riding my bike over the George Washington Bridge. Yet I do it every weekend at least once and often twice. I do it because once I get over the bridge and onto the other side, well after 10 or 15 more minutes of not so pleasant riding, I reach the wide shoulder on Route 9W and some delightful riding, the sweet center of the excursion. Trees on both sides of the wide road offer beauty, seasonal eye candy and plenty of oxygen. The terrain is varied and there’s plenty of room for everybody, even for vehicular traffic.
I share this city cycling exodus with hundreds, if not thousands, of New York City cyclists. The trek up Riverside Drive with cars and no shoulder; the climb up the narrow ramp, with a hairpin switchback, onto the bridge with crazy testosterone-pumped cyclists flying toward and around me; eight hairy negotiations around two stanchions, each with four right angle blind turns, and passage only wide enough for two abreast; dodging pedestrians, picture takers, inexperienced bikers, joggers and tourists, is all part of getting to the good stuff. Being a New Yorker and well-seasoned to putting up with inconveniences, I generally take such things in stride.
So I’ve come to accept the bad (the bridge) in order to have the good (the long, clear ride to the state line, about 30 miles round trip; or Piermont, NY, about 40 miles; or Nyack, NY, about 50 miles; or any number of backcountry-ish roads).
Every time I take this ride, and I’ve done it for years, I think about how much I dislike the bridge and count down in my mind the three worst parts so I can relax and breathe and begin to enjoy the ride.
On a recent ride I decided to stop hating the bridge. Just that. I didn’t decide to love it; I just decided not to hate it so much. Not to get upset at the crazies who get in my way or make me feel unsafe. Not to judge how others traverse the same expanse over the mighty Hudson River. Not to discount the first half hour of my ride—the necessary evil—but to embrace it, one breath, one pedal stroke at a time. And not to dread the worst sections of the ride before I reached them, which served to take me out of the moment, the place, the experience I was having along the way.
I decided to approach the ride, and my new commitment to not being negative, as I would a meditation. Stay in the moment, don’t project, watch what arises without judgment, don’t wish for it to be over; embrace the difficulty, the pain and the fear with a smile.
For the first time ever I did not hate the ride across the bridge. I did not take myself out of whatever moment I was in to think ahead to the hated sections and think: “Just two more to go and then I can enjoy this,” or “One more and it’ll be done.” In fact, such thoughts, once I made the decision to stop hating the bridge, never even arose. Since they were such regular passengers on my rides to New Jersey, I thought it might take more effort, more time to banish them. But simply by making the choice before I got to the bridge was enough.
Here’s what replaced the inner grumbling:
- I had more patience for myself as I walked up the ramp and did not judge my decision to do so. It felt safe and I was not in a race; nor did I have to impress anyone with my bike handling. This led to more patience with others.
- I noticed that many people were more tentative, rather than reckless, and less experienced than I: they weren’t at all crazy, just timid. I felt more compassionate and patient. I even smiled a few times.
- I inhabited every second of the trip across the bridge, paid attention to every person, every patch of rough terrain, every breeze floating up from the river.
On the way home I prepared my mind for the inevitable crossing—as I might prepare for a meditation session—and was so focused on each moment that the eight tight angle turns and the steep ramp off the bridge with its sharp switchback and its 90 degree turn at the bottom onto a narrow sidewalk bearing a metal plate and approaching cyclists became interesting rather than bothersome points in my journey. Then I found myself cruising down Riverside Drive toward home without the usual I’m-glad-that’s-over thought in my head. It had been replaced with “That was a great ride!”
Turns out it was my fastest time this season, maybe ever, to the State Line and back—not that I’m intent on breaking any speed records, but it was a nice surprise. And I can’t wait to do it again.
One thought that did occur to me somewhere in the middle of the bridge was: “I wonder if I’ll still be doing this when I’m 80.” Last week I would have said: “I doubt it.” This week I said: “I sure hope so.” Then I brought myself back to the moment.
I felt ageless, joyous and free. What a difference a little samadhi makes.
*Samadhi: a nondualistic state of consciousness in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object. An abiding in which mind becomes very still but does not merge with the object of attention, and is thus able to observe and gain insight into the changing flow of experience. (Wikipedia)
My 90-in-90—days of writing in that many days—is already 5 days old. I’ve established a routine: so far so good.
Soyen Shaku’s heart burned for his daily meditation practice, as mine does for my daily writing practice. Like him: ‘Upon awakening, I leave my bed behind me instantly as if I had cast away a pair of old shoes.’
Mornings are for writing. Before breakfast, with a cup of tea, I head to my desk. I glance at my email just in case an emergency has arisen overnight. I respond to no one; everything can wait till after my morning session. I realize an urgent message would be delivered some other way. Soon I will wean myself off looking at all until I’ve put in my hours.
I turn off my phones, pick up my pen and start up where I left off the day before. Yes, first draft is always with pen and paper. It brings me closer to the words. It’s messy. There is no sound but the scratching of my fountain pen, no light straining my eyes, and no Internet calling to me.
Hemingway always left one sentence unfinished at the end of a day so he wouldn’t have to stare at a blank page first thing in the morning. I’m no Hemingway, don’t want to be, but I like that.
I write in a spiral bound notebook, the ones kids use for school. You can buy them in bulk, cheap, in September when school starts. Natalie Goldberg taught me this.
Afternoons are for the business of writing. There’s so much of that to do, as I climb the steep learning curve of self-publishing, that it could become a full time job; but I won’t let it, because writing is what burns in my heart.
Self-publishing is empowering and exciting; and thankfully, it is losing some of its stigma of old as some self-published ebooks outsell major name authors at much lower prices.
I am getting into the swing of Tweeting, following people, having people follow me, finding other writers out there working alone and yet in community—a virtual speak-easy or salon, but rather like junior high. As with most of us who follow a solitary pursuit, I’m not big on socializing, but this I can do. Come to think of it, I was pretty happy in junior high school.
I don’t have all my ducks in a row yet for a crackerjack marketing campaign for my new book, my first novel, my new child so to speak. And if I were a legacy publisher (this is the new term for the Simon & Schuster’s of the world, a company I once worked for) I’d give up on myself by now, as sales are slow out of the gate. This giving up on authors, or being unwilling to take a risk and nurture new talent, may eventually be one of the nails in the coffin of book publishing as we once knew it.
I’m sure it will take time to build a following, to build sales, to get noticed and reviewed. But that’s okay, I’m not going anywhere and I won’t put my book out of print. Because there are so many books out there, especially with so many people jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon, it’s harder than ever for readers to wade through and find the gems. But they do and if mine is one, it will be found.
My years of meditation practice and honing patience will come in handy as I travel this new path. I believe in my story, my characters, discriminating readers and our future together.
If you’re a writer and want some motivation to write, join me and @tootsuter on the 90-in-90 writing journey. Find us on Twitter at #90daysofwriting. Get your pen moving! Get your heart burning! Get that book you’ve always dreamed of writing out there in the world!
[In tandem with my 90 days of writing One Hand Killing will be available exclusively at Amazon for 90 days. The timing won’t sync perfectly with my 90 day writing calendar, but whatever does? (I have a small twinge of guilt turning my back on all my friends at Barnes & Noble (I used to work there too!) and taking my book off sale for Nook readers, but it’s only temporary. They probably won’t even notice.)