Thursday, December 15, 2011


For a long time, I've been wanting my writing to be a spiritual practice, but I didn't have much idea what that would look like.  I think I had this idea it should be a more exalted experience than the plain old hard work that writing is.  It wasn't becoming meditative or prayerful or anything otherwise new.

In the years since grad school, I have had serious doubts about my work.  It's incredibly hard to get published.  Why is it taking me so long to finish the novel?  What's wrong with me? Are my stories irrelevant?  Am I irrelevant?  What's the freakin' point, anyway?  I play the comparison game: "So-and-so won a big literary prize, but can't get published.  I didn't even make the freakin' finalists in the same contest.  What does that say about MY chances?" There are times when I turn the writer's life into a losing game of Snakes and Ladders. 

The thing is, considering what I have accomplished wasn't really helping me.  This doesn't negate its intrinsic value, but it keeps me in Snakes and Ladders mode.  I'm on Rung Two!  It's better than being on Rung One!  Yes, but I'm not on Rung Twelve!  And I just went down that really long slide! The fact is, as Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals put it in the wonderful album Lifeline: "There's always someone younger, someone with more hunger/ don't let 'em take the fight outta you." As long as I'm thinking Younger, Published, Not-Published, Well-Published, Crap Published, whatever, I'm stuck in competitive mode.  And this does not energize me. It takes the fight outta me. 

Envy mode.

I needed a whole nother approach--a spiritual approach, in fact. So a couple of weeks ago, I went unsuspecting to my writing group (we work on our own stuff rather than critiquing); had a miserable couple of hours fighting to get some writing accomplished while sliding around on the Snakes and Ladders board in my head, and afterwards during our tea and discussion, I let it all spill.
Confusing, isn't it?

Being wise souls, my friends didn't encourage me to consider my accomplishments.  They suggested a practice to undo my feeling of isolation and competitive envy.  In Buddhism, Mudita (Pali) is rendered in English as vicarious or sympathetic joy. Sharon Salzberg puts it: Sympathetic Joy is the realization that others’ happiness is inseparable from our own. We rejoice in the joy of others and are not threatened by another’s success. I've already found one of her talks on the subject very helpful.  

Because it's a practice, I don't have to beat myself up for still feeling envy.  But I enjoy writing again, and even better, I am not separated from the community of writers.  I never really was.  I belong, but  not because I have to prove anything.

The lesson is still there to learn, of course.


Catherine Stine said...

How helpful! We all could benefit from this. I know when I'm feeling competitive, or fretting about any number of things, it always helps me to meditate. Always.

HelenQP said...

Yes, it's not easy to meditate, it goes against the apparent force of thoughts, but what a difference!