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Writing is Hard Work

September 25th, 2011 · Buddhism, Meditation, Quotes, Writing and Meditation

“Writing is hard work (Lewis Carroll’s school in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland taught reeling and writhing), and there is no point in fooling ourselves into believing that it is all a mater of inspiration. Many of the books that seem, as we read them, to flow effortlessly were in fact the product of innumerable revisions. ‘Hard labor for life’ was Conrad’s view of his career as a writer. This labor, for the most part, is not directed to prettifying language but to improving one’s thoughts and then getting the words that communicate these thoughts exactly. There is no guarantee that effort will pay off, but failure to expend effort is sure to result in writing that will strike your reader as confused. It won’t do to comfort yourself with the thought that you have been misunderstood. You may know what you meant to say, but your reader is the judge of what indeed you have said. Keep in mind Matisse’s remark: ‘When my words were garbled by critics or colleagues, I considered it no fault of theirs but my own, because I had not been clear enough to be comprehended.’”

—Sylvan Barnet, A Short Guide to Writing About Art

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The Parable of the Burning House

January 1st, 2011 · Buddhism, Meditation, Quotes, Uncategorized, Writing and Meditation

“There was an old man, who was wealthy and owned a ramshackle dilapidated house with but one door. When he was outside the house one day, he saw that it was on fire. He had five, ten or twenty children, who were playing in the house. He did not know what to do. If he had entered the house and tried to take hold of the boys in order to save them, the foolish children would have run away from him in all directions. He called to the boys and cried: ‘Come, my children. The house is on fire.’ But the boys did not heed his words, and they did not even understand what he meant by ‘fire’, so ignorant were they. He then showed his upaya-kaucalya by calling out: ‘Boys, I have put bullock-cars, goat-carts, deer-carts and other beautiful toys for you outside the door. Come out and take them.’ When the children heard this, they straightaway ran out of the house and were saved from the jaws of death. The father gave them splendid and costly carriages.

“In this parable, the father is Buddha; the children is life in this world; the three carts are the three Ways of the Buddhist Church, which lead to different degrees and kinds of sanctity; the costly carriage is the highest Way, the Mahayana.”

—From the Saddharma-pundarika, quoted in The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature by Har Dayal

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Six-Word Memoir

October 11th, 2010 · Writing and Meditation

This past weekend (October 8-10) my coteacher, Rikki Asher, and I offered our annual Memoir as Buddhist Practice workshop at Omega Institute in New York state’s gorgeous Hudson Valley.

In one of our exercises, we asked people to write a six-word memoir, fashioned after the famed book, Six-Word Memoirs, edited by Smith Magazine. Here are a few samples of what people wrote:

Don’t chase what you don’t want. –C.E., New Paltz, New York

My joy. My Sorrow. No difference. –A.B., Westbury, New York

Thought I knew. Hadn’t a clue. –J.C., Greenwich, Connecticut

Turn page. Time for a new story. –K.R., New Jersey

I love you. Not said enough. –M.D., Upstate New York

Words fail me, time for piano. –S.T., Brooklyn, New York

Anyone have a six-word memoir you want to contribute?

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Memoir as Buddhist Practice Workshop October 8-10, 2010

October 11th, 2010 · Writing and Meditation

Group photo of our Memoir as Buddhist Practice workshop this weekend. Great people, excellent work, new friendships.

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Natalie Goldberg on Writing and Awareness

October 10th, 2010 · Quotes, Writing and Meditation

“In order to write we must have an awareness of who we are—and who we aren’t. If you don’t know either, writing can help teach it.” –Natalie Goldberg, An Old Friend From Far Away

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Mary Pipher on Writing and Meditation

October 10th, 2010 · Meditation, Quotes, Writing and Meditation

“Both writing and meditation are ways to expand and enrich time. In meditation, we learn to examine our thoughts and feelings from a new perspective, to watch the river of our consciousness flow by, observing it but not attaching ourselves to it. We train ourselves to have a meta-consciousness that observes ourselves observing, and that enlarges moments into infinity. In writing, we also develop that meta-consciousness. We experience our lives as lived events, but also as material to be carefully examined later for richness and meaning. Just as meditation makes life more aware and joyous, so writing allows us to live more deeply and fully. Both involved the sanctification of time.” -Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World

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September 30th, 2010 · Uncategorized

I am in the passenger seat of my traveling companion’s car and we are bumping along a narrow and winding road through Ireland’s Connemara in the Western part of the country. I feel like I am on a carnival ride because back home in the States when I sit in the left front seat I am in the driver’s seat. Here in Ireland, when you sit on the left side there is no steering wheel. And the traffic comes at you from the right side. It messes with your head. And then there’s the vast landscape before me and I feel even more confused. And awestruck. And speechless. The person driving the car and I are not talking now, although up to now we’ve been talking all the time for days. But now we are silent, like we’ve suddenly come off a busy city street and into a big cathedral full of glorious stained glass windows with the sun streaming through them and picking up dust motes in thick shafts of colored light. What we are looking at now is a window into eternity and we are falling into it and the mind seems to go blank. Or perhaps not blank but so full wonder you just don’t know what to say to express yourself. It’s as if silence is the only valid response.

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September 4th, 2010 · Uncategorized

As part of our Memoir as Buddhist Practice workshop, we ask participants to bring in three photos of important times of their lives, and to write about them after a guided meditation about a memoir structure that focuses on scene, summary, and musing.

One of the workshop participants from our 2009 workshop recently sent this to me. I remembered her sharing it in the workshop. This offering, like so many of the others, touched me deeply.


It took 26 years for the pony I yearned for at 10 to find me.

My first pony ride when I was 10 sparked something. It was just a little dark pony at a carnival walking a circle, around and around. But when I got off, I wanted nothing more than another pony ride.

The real pony was so much more than the merry-go-round horses, which is all I had known until then. I will always wonder why pony passion was ignited in me that day.  From that moment forward, I was obsessed; begging for more pony rides, drawing them again and again, trying to convince my parents that our back yard was large enough for a pony of my own.

I’d almost forgotten about that childhood dream of a pony of my own. But I resumed riding as an adult, on an irregular basis, and the passion rekindled.

In this photo, the photographer has captured a moment of pure happiness. My mare is responding to my patting her neck, really more of a caress and she is expanding into my hand, as if she is touching me back and asking me not to stop. I love the expression on her face here, the three quarter angle that accentuates her fortunate face and kind, expressive eye. The photograph enables me to recall and re-feel a moment of pure bliss from a most happy phase of my life.

Almost everything was about to change.

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Making Yourself Transparent

August 30th, 2010 · Uncategorized, Writing and Meditation

In memoir we want to be doing the kind of writing that comes from our very being, our heart. Writing and meditation work in tandem to help us see into and express our hearts with all its victories and failures. When we write from our heart our writing becomes richer, more true, and more transparent. And by transparent I mean that others can see into you because you have made yourself open to being seen. Is it worth the risk to you?

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The List

August 22nd, 2010 · Uncategorized

This post has been a long time coming. I was in a rush to get this blog going before the summer began at Omega, where I am program curriculum developer. I had a sense I was going to be swamped when the summer began, and I was right. I’ve been running hither and yon almost nonstop since my last post in May. My life has since quieted down some. Enough, anyway, to get back to this blog and start communicating with you often.

A few weeks ago I was a moderator for a panel discussion at Omega’s Memoir Festival. As part of my introductory remarks, I listed a few qualities I found in each of the memoirs I’d read by all the faculty teaching that weekend. Far be it from me to predict that my list would be such a hit.

Many people came up to me throughout the weekend to ask me for the list, and when I showed them they wrote it down. Alphie McCourt, one of the faculty members, joked that he thought the words should be engraved on a couple of stone tablets.

I think what happened is that these qualities are universal qualities of a life lived fully. And, as such, they capture the qualities we want to see in any memoir.

And now, the list: fear, failure, doubt, guilt, hope, shame, confusion, euphoria, bewilderment, ambivalence, disappointment, expectation, dislocation, pain, heartbreak, love, lust, decision, indecision, adjustment, loneliness, rage, and redemption.

Can you think of any others?

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