The Gifts That Yoga and Meditation Bring to Writers, Part 2
In my coaching and editing work, I help writers develop the qualities of mind and heart, and learn effective techniques and tools that Yoga can bring to the writing process. Deep creative work is a spiritual practice that we can aptly call Sadhana, whether it includes the physical practice of Yoga or not. My goal is for each client to establish a writing process centered in the deep, calm focus that opens the creative channel and makes artistic discovery possible.
When I launched this blog several years ago, I promised to describe in greater detail these foundations of a method I called SWAY, Saraswati Writing and Yoga, to honor the Indian goddess of artistic creation. Since then, life, writing books and organizing Deep Yoga Retreats put that intention on hold. So allow me to continue where I left off, with some of the parallels between the disciplined practice of Yoga and creative writing.
Yoga cultivates stillness. The physical postures are both a metaphor and technique for stilling the fluctuations of the mind, which is how the founding texts, including The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, define Yoga: “restraint of the modifications of the mindstuff.”
Writing, too, requires mental stillness amidst imaginative agility and flow – or as Wordsworth described poetry in his seemingly contradictory formulation: “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin in emotion recollected in tranquility.” Only by achieving a calm mind can deep thought and emotion rise again to the surface as part of the creative flow.
Keats described this quality slightly differently in his famous negative capability letter. There he described the tranquil creative state as one in which the artist can “be in uncertainties, doubts, mysteries without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” The true artist, he writes, “takes as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen— for they both lead to contemplation.”
In daily life as well as creative work, Yogis cultivate this prasadanam or undisturbed calmness by maintaining an attitude of friendliness toward the happy, delight towards the virtuous and disregard for the wicked. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way offers similar insights into how writers, especially “recovering creatives,” need to nurture their art by exercising discretion. She cautions all creative people to ignore the wet blankets who negate or block their flow, to avoid spending time with people whose dramas are toxic.
Steady Practice and Detachment
Abhysa and Vairagya help us remove the chattering ego from our efforts whether on the mat or at the writing desk. These practices keep us from becoming frustrated or anxious about when we will experience results (a better downward facing dog, a fat advance, a published poem or book). We practice for the sake of practice, not worrying about circumstances over which we have no control. We do not practice for perfection, worldly results, or praise.
Yoga (in the Bhagavad Gita and other texts) counsels the wise always to do their duty, engaging in skillful action without attachment to results. As Lord Krishna describes the wise man to Arjuna (in the gorgeous Stephen Mitchell translation)
With no desire for success,
no anxiety about failure,
indifferent to results, he burns up
his actions in the fire of wisdom.
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
The resolute in Yoga surrender
results, and gain perfect peace;
the irresolute, attached to results,
are bound by everything they do.
Cultivation of Opposite Emotions
A tremendously useful Yoga tool is Pratipaksha Bhavana, or the cultivation of opposite and uplifting emotions. The ancient sages knew that when we are in dark or negative moods, feeling like victims, self-critical, angry, afraid, defensive, we should cultivate gratitude, acceptance and compassion, positive emotions that eventually replace negative ones as we literally re-program our minds, the samskaras or habitual grooves of thought and behavior imprinted by experience. This is not to say we fling ourselves into some la-la land of mindless inertia, however.
When employed during the writing process, I call this technique Befriending the Demon Critic. Instead of fighting, getting angry or collapsing into quitting when negative voices or patterns get in the way, we invite them in, name them, (Herod? Darth? Lady Macbeth?) and begin a dialogue with out shadow side, as well as with the destructive elements of the psyche.
Soon enough the belittling critic begins to lose its power or slinks away for good; certainly the technique diminishes their capacity to thwart, warp or stop the creative drive and process. In her Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, Henriette Anne Klauser has a useful chapter, Assertiveness Training, about interviewing and getting to know this Inner Critic. Cameron views this aspect of ourselves as The Censor, a vestigal response to the unfamiliar that views every fresh, original, exploratory creation as DANGEROUS.
Both Yoga and writing require us to study ourselves, our own moral natures and internal critics, our mental chatter and self-talk. Doing so can help heal damage from the past and remove false perspectives, creating mental clarity instead. When the ego is seen and sidelined, we feel unburdened, free to shape the metaphors and scenes and characters (fictional or real) that rise unbidden from the depths.