by Jeff McMahon
A few years ago, I studied tai-chi with a Buddhist teacher who was, like me, a writer and a teacher of writing.
After class one evening I asked her, “How has your practice affected your writing?”
“It stopped it!” she said. “In Buddhism, there is no narrative.”
She didn’t mean Buddhism has no narratives, of course. It has many, including the story of the Buddha himself. She meant Buddhist practice takes you to a place where narrative doesn’t apply. I had experienced something similar:
When I came onto a compelling path of yoga, I had been intensely practicing journalism every day, and the practice of yoga made the practice of journalism suddenly almost impossible.
Yoga pulls us inward—to the present, to a place of stillness and silence and timelessness, a place where there is neither language nor need for language.
“Yoga is the restraint of the mind-stuff,” Patanjali tells us in the second Yoga Sutra.
Journalism is the agitation of the mind-stuff. Journalism depicts the past, instills anxiety about the future, distracts us from the present. It turns us outward, to the external world, and focuses on immediate, mundane, temporal conflicts and anxieties: The corporation spilled the oil, the president’s advisor is a communist, the solar company wasted taxpayer money….
Not all writing agitates the mind-stuff (see the poems of Mary Oliver), but most writing aims outward, at an audience of many, while yoga ushers us inward, to a place where the many are one.
In this way, yoga and writing can be at odds.
Often the writer hooks the reader with conflict or fear or a problem, even in fiction and poetry: the wolf is knocking on the door of a straw house, the grandmother is a wolf in disguise, the princess is caged in the consulate. This is a technique for launching a narrative that mimics the way we organize our external lives.
“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images,” as Joan Didion put it, “by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
Yoga thaws the frozen ideas that shape our external world so we can see the phantasmagoria as it is — a fantastic dream distracting us from our reality.
Often, yoga and writing serve different masters.
Yoga overcomes ego, but ego is the motivator—for better or worse—for much of the world’s writing.
“The way of self-expression, individual accomplishments, results in egotists, sure of the right to their private interpretations of God and the universe,” writes Yogananda. “Truth humbly retires, no doubt, before such arrogant originality.”
Yet Yogananda himself, author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” was one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th Century. How did he reconcile yoga and writing?
And where would we be if he hadn’t? How many of us would have found the path without the guidance of yogis who came before us and wrote down some directions? Where would we be without Vyasa and Patanjali? How would we know the Buddha’s teachings if they had not been recorded?
Some yogis not only master their minds, they master their writing too. They find a path for writing that, like yoga, leads past the mind-stuff, past our narratives, past the ego.
“Can there be creation in the most profound sense of that word as long as there is egotism?” asked the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. “As long as there is the demand for success and money and recognition?
“I say there is a state where there is creation, where there is no shadow of selfishness.”
Where is the state of selfless creation for writers?
Many writers have struggled to reach a selfless state, and perhaps we struggle because it was ego that led us to writing in the first place. Once ego has led us to writing, it does not serve us well. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, the one demand we make of art is “redemption from the I.” Whether or not it serves the individual, art (like yoga) must serve the universal.
In a 1997 interview, George Harrison describes this problem in song writing:
“Because of my influence from Indian music and that whole spiritual thing… I don’t see the point to writing most songs. I could write hundreds of songs, I could churn them out, but I don’t want to. If I’m going to say something I’d like it to have some kind of importance, some value, so that in 20 years time it will have some value, not just some dumb song that made some royalties. I mean, the royalties are nice but it would be good to be able to have something a little deeper. That’s why ‘The Chants of India’ is much better, because it’s all there in Sanskrit. You just say the Sanskrit, and they’re all mantras, and they’re all prayers, and they all have a spiritual connection.”
Kirtan has provided the soundtrack to my own path, and I have experienced the power of chanting to restrain the mind stuff.
But if kirtan were the answer—if we only wrote in Sanskrit, and only repeated the names of divinities—we would lose the great spiritual writing of our day: Pema Chödrön, Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tenzin Gyatso….
Anthony de Mello suggests a less extreme solution. He tells us, simply, that writing goes astray when it divorces from love:
“You have probably been brainwashed into the following consumeristic way of thinking: To enjoy a poem or a landscape or a piece of music seems a waste of time; you must produce a poem or a composition or a work of art. Even to produce it is of little value in itself; your work must be known. What good is it if no one ever knows it? And even if it is known, that means nothing if it is not applauded and praised by people. Your work achieves maximum value if it becomes popular and sells! So you are back again into the arms and control of people. The value of an action, according to them, is not in its being loved and done and enjoyed for itself, but in its success.”
Instead of writing for an audience, DeMello suggests, we should write for the love of writing. And sure, writing for love hews closer to a yogic path—but notice that the greatest yogi writers have also been of service to others. So how do you write for the love of it, in a way that serves others?
Joseph Campbell taught that all speech and writing is a manifestation of Brahma, every vowel an expression of Om, the vibration of the universe. We make fresh arrangements within that eternal symphony by dropping consonants among those vowels.
How best to arrange those consonants, is the question before us, so that they embrace yogic principles?
In the same way, perhaps, that every yogi learns to guide every action.
“Make every action an act of worship,” Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.
We might do the same with every word.
In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali identifies five principles, the yamas, to guide ethical action. Might they also serve to guide a more yogic writing?
1. Ahimsa. The yogic principle of non-harming prohibits not only physical pain to others, but such subtle forms of aggression as judgement. “The vow of ahimsa is broken even by showing contempt towards another,” writes Swami Sivananda, “by entertaining unreasonable dislike for or prejudice towards anybody, by frowning at another, by hating another, by abusing another, by speaking ill of others, by backbiting or vilifying, by harboring thoughts of hatred, by uttering lies, or by ruining another in any way whatsoever.” This principle poses a particular challenge to journalists and pundits, who cast judgements like seeds to the wind. But imagine how political discourse would improve if we subtracted contemptuous, hateful, judgmental speech. Yogis, too, stray from this principle: think of how we write about our fallen gurus. Ahimsa offers writers an opportunity not only to elevate writing but to elevate the conversation and its participants.
2. Satya. Truthfulness is already an ethical principle in non-fiction, of course, but that doesn’t keep writers from circulating false stories. “The government is taking over health care” was the biggest lie of 2010, according to Politifact, and “Republicans voted against Medicare,” was the biggest lie of 2011. Both camps are lying, and how did those lies get so big? Writers repeated them. “The greatest failings are harming others and not speaking the truth,” writes Alberto Villoldo: “They always result in suffering. They are caused by anger and desire. Remember this.” But truthfulness does not belong only to the realm of non-fiction; it benefits all writers. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway advised a stuck writer. “Write the truest sentence that you know.” What did he mean? Write a sentence that strikes the bell that rings within us all. Truthfulness touches our true nature. And truthfulness has another benefit, writes Swami Satchidananda: “With establishment in honesty, the state of fearlessness comes. One need not be afraid of anybody and can always lead an open life.”
3. Asteya – non stealing. This post is filled with quotes from teachers because nothing in it belongs to me. I owe the knowledge in this post to my teachers. Even knowledge I gained from personal experience depends upon the teachers who either pointed my way or tipped my canoe. At best, a writer may achieve a fresh arrangement of vowels and consonants that helps readers see their own paths in a new light. Even then, the light is the reader’s light, the path is the reader’s path. To every written text, every reader brings a new reading, with meanings inspired by that reader’s own knowledge and experience. Without readers, writing has no meaning. In this sense, writing should be a humble endeavor. It depends entirely on others. When we write well, what we write never belongs to us.
4. “Brahmacharya is almost always translated as sexual chastity or continence,” writes Ravi Ravindra, a scholar and translator of the Yoga Sutra. “but it literally means dwelling in Brahman. Brahman literally means the vastness. To dwell in the vastness, which is possible only when one is freed of self-occupation and me-me-me, is the real brahmacharya.” Chaste writing abstains from sensationalism, from exploitation, from pettyness. I read a lot of articles by yogis, about yoga, that agitate the mind stuff—whether we are criticizing fallen gurus, Western yoga, kirtan leaders…. Citta vritti—the agitation of the mind stuff—generates page views, which generate income. But yogic writing, like other yogic practice, quiets the mind. This could mean abstaining from writing a timely post about a fallen guru, in a publishing world driven madly by page views, unless the writer is certain the post dwells not in pettiness, but in the vastness.
5. Aparigraha – Patanjali’s fifth yama is a prohibition against greed, the hoarding of resources that we should share. What do we hoard when we write? We hoard a claim on truth. We hoard the point of view. We claim to know. Aparigraha in writing means entertaining the perspectives of others, acknowledging that we might be wrong, accepting disagreement and criticism, lending voice to others and respecting that voice when it rises. The conversation between writers and readers can be particularly volatile online. “All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever,” writes Pema Chödrön. “Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’ Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’”
Teachers and teachings:
The Poems of Mary Oliver (text)
George Harrison Interview (video)
“Ahimsa” by Swami Sivananda (text)