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8 Ways to Write Like a Zen Monk

One of the most transformative experiences of my life was the brief time I spent at Eiheiji Monastery in Japan in the fall of 1971. Eiheiji introduced me, at a very young age, to the simplicity, tranquility, and quiet of monastic life and, in some ways, got me started on the path I still follow (a path which, however, has taken quite a few twists and turns!)

The adherents of Zen will quickly tell you that it is less a religion than an approach to living skillfully: a set of practices that can enable you to go through life with clarity, equilibrium, and focus.

Zen practices can be applied to every aspect of your life—your relationships, your livelihood, your housekeeping, your recreation. It can also be an immense boon to your writing. Incorporating the basic insights and values of Zen into your writing life can help make your writing practice flow more easily and feel lighter, and it can bring freshness and lucidity to your writing. Applying Zen to your writing life takes some adjustment--but it is worth the effort. Here are 8 relatively simple things you can do to make your writing practice Zen-like:

1. Write mindfully. When you write, just write. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by the lure of email or text messages. Don’t interrupt your writing to finish other tasks, or let your mind wander to how you’ll handle a problem at work or what you’ll cook for dinner that night. Don’t worry about whether you’re writing well or poorly, whether your work is going to get published, or who is going to read it. Many teachers will tell you to write to an audience or for a particular market. I would like to tell you to just write.

2. Write less. How many blogs and articles have you read telling you how you churn out more, more, and still more writing? In our society, productivity is king. From early in our lives, we are encouraged to get a lot done and and quickly move on to the next thing. Continually adding to our list of “accomplishments” is valued above almost everything else.

But trying to get more writing done doesn’t lead to writing better, and too much of a focus on how much we’re producing can reduce not just the quality of our writing but the quality of our writing lives. You are not a  factory manufacturing products on an assembly line. You are an artist. Art is not measured by how much of it there is.

3. Write slowly. A corollary to writing less is writing slowly. Again, this is a value that conflicts with 21st-century Western values. Yet, learning to slow our writing, to focus on smooth flow rather than quick pace, is amazingly liberating and stimulating.

Deliberately slow your writing down. Practice writing at a measured pace. Envision your writing as gentle stream, rather than a raging river. When you have the urge to speed up, take a breath and gently return to the quiet flow of that stream.

4. Keep a schedule. Life in a Zen monastery is all about scheduling. A gong sounds, and it is time to sit. Another, and it is time to walk. Eating, sleeping, cooking, cleaning, meditating, all are done on a carefully kept timetable. Not a hurried one—a very slow, simple one—but one that is diligently adhered to.

Of course, in our everyday lives, we can’t keep the kinds of schedules monks keep. But we can design schedules that factor in the flexibility and spontaneity that modern life requires. Schedules help simplify our lives by reducing the need to constantly decide what we should do next. “Should I write now or balance my bank account first?” “Should I get my grocery shopping over with or send this story out?” “How much writing can I get in before work this morning?” These kinds of questions disappear when we have a well designed schedule to write from. With a schedule, we easily move from one activity to the next—and soon we become so used to writing at a specific time that it begins to feel like the most natural thing in the world

5. Create space in your schedule. If you’re like me, you tend to create schedules that put one activity back-to-back with another, without a moment to breathe, rest, or think between them. When you schedule, allow a space between your writing and what comes before and after it. That space doesn’t mean “Oh good—now I have time to check my email before I do my aerobics” or “I’m going to run into the kitchen and make a cup of coffee because I’m not starting the next thing for ten minutes.” It means a genuine space. It means time to do nothing in between tasks: Not time to fit in something extra, but time to simply be.

6. Serve others in your writing. Rather than writing with an imaginary audience in mind—people who you envision reading and admiring your work—write with an awareness that you are serving the living beings of the Earth, and the Earth itself. Your work is your contribution to the Universe. Do it with a consciousness of service.

7. Create rituals. I’m always surprised when I hear people talk about rituals as if they are purposeless. Rituals serve very important functions. They mark the beginnings and endings of periods in our day. They remind us to be mindful as we work. They embue our work with a sense of importance.

My writing rituals are simple in the extreme. I spend a moment clearing my desk. I pause. Then I strike a Tibetan singing bowl. The brief time I spend clearing my desk has a practical purpose, but it is also a metaphor for clearing my mind in order to begin writing. The pause enables me to set my awareness to one of openness and calm. The chiming of the singing bowl signals to me that I am beginning sacred work.

Create your own brief, simple rituals drawing on whatever traditions or metaphors have resonance for you.

8. Be humble. Write from a place of humility. See your writing as a tiny part of a great Whole. Humility doesn’t mean you devalue your writing, your talent, or your importance as a writer. It means recognizing that we are all united, that our strength and skill comes not from ourselves alone, but from the Universe.