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Meeting the Mind
Back in ninth-grade biology class when Mr. Albert Tint announced that we would study the involuntary organs — the heart and lungs — he forgot to mention the mind. My guess is he didn’t know about it, but in truth it’s as though the brain were an automatic thought-producing machine — I don’t like this dress. I’m hungry. I miss New York. How did I get so old? I wonder where I put my keys? Did I mail that letter? I need to cut my nails. Next time I’m going to buy a car with automatic transmission. I hope I didn’t bounce my last check. Maybe I should try acupuncture — just like the popcorn machine in the movie theatre lobby that explodes kernel after kernel.
What’s remarkable is that before I sat meditation and tried to focus on my breath when I was twenty-six years old, I didn’t know this about my mind: that I couldn’t stop it from thinking. I was full of arrogance in my twenties. I thought there was nothing I couldn’t do. And then I discovered I wasn’t in control.
The first morning of my first retreat I woke early — it was still dark — dressed quickly and went to the meditation kiva, a small mud room, on the side of Lama Mountain, seventeen miles north of Taos, New Mexico. The bell rang — we were to sit still and focus our attention on the breath. What breath? I couldn’t find it. Instead I was plunged into a constant yammering. Rushes of thought ran through me. Endless commentary, opinions, ideas, stories. The bell rang a half hour later to signal the end of the period. Wow! I opened my eyes. Who was that wild animal inside me?
It was my own human mind. I needed to understand it. Why? It’s the writer’s landscape. Imagine that a painter has that wild animal to capture on canvas: arresting its fangs, the raging color of its eyes, the blue of its hump, the flash of its hoofs, the rugged shadow that it casts. We writers have that beast inside us: how we feel, think, hope, dream, perceive. Where do words come from, sentences, ideas? They manifest from our minds. Yikes! Suddenly we’re blasted into a vast jungle, with no maps, no guidelines, no clues. How do we manifest a landscape so full of robust life? What do we say? When there’s so much — it’s boundless — we usually close down, disconnect, shut up.
That’s how I was anyway: confused. I knew my teachers in public school were trying to teach me something — mainly, they were good, earnest people. But I couldn’t figure out, not even a hint, how a writer wrote. I managed to squeeze out dry little compositions; nothing burst into flame. Carson McCullers, Steinbeck, Joyce — the writers we studied were a million miles away from me. How did they do it? They might as well have been nuclear scientists. Yet they possessed the same things I did: pen, paper, English language, mind.
My teachers couldn’t teach me because they hadn’t connected with writing’s essential ingredient: the mind and how it functions. Instead, they taught me how to organize what was outside and around the pulsing lifeblood. I learned to make an outline, but that skeletal plan was built exterior to the heat of creation. Why was this? Western intelligence, preoccupied with thinking, avoided examining the mechanism of thought. Only saints or the insane traveled that interior territory. And what was the result? They cut off their ears, shot themselves, or were burned at the stake. Better not go there. We looked suspiciously on the inner world. It wasn’t productive: it could lead only to suffering or turning nutty as a fruitcake. We in the West were better at developing athletes. We knew about bodies.
But then suddenly in the sixties large numbers of young Americans ingested psychedelics, which blasted us inward. Wanting to understand what we experienced with these “mind altering” drugs, we turned to Eastern religions to find answers.
What the East gave the West was a safe, structured way to explore the mind. Those of us who sought meditation were taught a fundamental, disciplined posture. The directions were specific: cross legs, sit at the edge of a hard round cushion, hands on knees or held just below the navel, chest open, crown of the head a little higher than the forehead, eyes cast down and unfocused. When the bell rings, do not move. Go! And where did we go? Noplace, at least externally. The instruction was to pay attention to our breath, but as soon as we tried we found instead hurricanes of thoughts and emotions — rebellion, desire, restlessness, agitation.
It was all I could do to sit still. Suddenly I wanted to sob at the memory of my grandmother and the feel of her thin skin; I recalled why my tenth-grade boyfriend had dropped me ten years earlier, and how it felt when the novocaine on my first root canal ran out while Dr. Glassman was still drilling. No wonder our schoolteachers stayed away from the meat of writing. To have us contact our raw minds in class would have incited immediate chaos: hordes of teenagers bolting from their neat rows of wooden desks and dashing for the water fountains as though the roots of their hair were on fire.
But with meditation we found a steady tool to enter this wild space and explore it. The sitting bell rang again, marking the end of the period. We uncurled our legs and looked around. The earth was still patiently beneath us, and we had had a small opening — say, thirty minutes — to taste our minds. Zen was smart: it did not just lower us into the hot water and leave us there to boil. We were dipped in and out. We went under and then came back up to sip green tea and munch cookies. In this way we slowly cooked and digested ourselves.
There was another reason some of us were drawn to Zen meditation. It told us what to do: wear black in the zendo, bow to your cushion, don’t make any noise, be on your seat five minutes before the beginning of a sitting session. After an initial rebellious tantrum where I walked out of the instruction class, I loved it. I longed for order. My guess is others in my generation craved that, too. I had had a laissez-faire upbringing. As a child I lounged around the kitchen eating boxes of Oreo cookies. My mother simply walked by, patted me on the head, and commented, “That’s nice, dear.” I missed at least one day of school a week. “I just don’t feel like going,” I’d tell my mother, looking up from under the bedsheets. She nodded, endlessly understanding, turned around in her housecoat and left the room. “Natli doesn’t learn that much there anyway,” I could hear her thinking. I sat in front of the TV all weekend in my pajamas. No rules, no requirements. On my own I decided it might be a good idea to brush my teeth and wash my face once a day.
When my friends hear this they feel envy: “Why, it’s ideal for raising a writer.” Not true. Life was staggering. I needed organization. And the sixties didn’t help. Those years only made me more confused instead of free. In Zen there were precepts: Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t create suffering through sexuality. That one I read over and over. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but at least there was a scent of guidance, an intimation of direction.
So when I tried to figure out how to write — living in a small adobe in New Mexico, the clear Western skies out my window, the land spotted by sage, bare yellow dirt everywhere and three horses in a corral — I looked to the Eastern world for hints. I copied the structure of meditation. Sitting had a time limit — OK, writing would, too. At the beginning I wrote for rounds of ten minutes, eventually increasing them to twenty and thirty. I kept my hand consistently moving — as in meditation we couldn’t move — for the full time. I told myself if the atom bomb dropped eight minutes after I began, I’d go out writing. (In recent years I have softened: I concede to my writing students, “Well, if you’re writing with your best friend when the bomb drops, you might pause a moment to say good-bye. But then get going again — you don’t have much time.”)
Writing became a practice. I wrote under all circumstances, and once I started, I continued until the time was up. Especially in the early days, like Zen students who sit together, I wrote with others, not alone. I let Zen inform my writing practice because I needed writing to be rooted — not Natalie’s creative idea. I wanted writing practice to be backed by two thousand years of watching the mind. Enough of my free-wheeling childhood. I was serious.
Years later at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center where I studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi, we chanted the lineage of teachers all the way back to Buddha. I learned that one Zen master lost his mother at nine; one was the son of a whore. My own teacher was the youngest of six children; they lived over a small noodle shop owned by his father. Nobody in the lineage began as someone special. I saw that the only way to elbow my way into the lineage of writers was by sincere effort. The fact that my father owned a bar, that my grandmother had plucked chickens in a poultry market, did not deter me. I understood that it was no more helpful to have a parent who was a well-known writer than to be the child of an army general. Actually I might be luckier with the general — then I wouldn’t be working in my famous parent’s shadow, my path darkened by my mother’s successful novels. But no matter what, it was up to me.
I never gained control of my mind — how do you dominate an ocean? — but I began to form a real relationship with it. Through writing and meditation I identified monkey mind, that constant critic, commentator, editor, general slug and pain-in-the-ass, the voice that says, “I can’t do this, I’m bored, I hate myself, I’m no good, I can’t sit still, who do I think I am?” I saw that most of my life had been spent following that voice as though it were God, telling me the real meaning of life — “Natalie, you can’t write shit” — when, in fact, it was a mechanical contraption that all human minds contain. Yes, even people with terrific, supportive parents are inhabited by this blabbing, resistant mouthpiece. But as I wrote longer, went deeper, I realized its true purpose: monkey mind is the guardian at the gate. We have to prove our mettle, our determination, stand up to its nagging, shrewish cry, before it surrenders the hidden jewels. And what are those jewels? Our own human core and heart, of course.
I’ve seen it over and over. The nearer I get to expressing my essence, the louder, more zealous that belittling voice becomes. It has been helpful to understand it not as a diminishing parent but as something universal, impersonal, a kind of spiritual test. Then I don’t have to wither or sneak away from censoring dad, carping mom, or severe schoolteacher with sunken chest when I hear that onerous yell. Instead, it is my signal to persevere and plow through. Charge! I scream with pen unlanced.
But this intimacy with my mind did not come quickly and I never gained the upper hand. Instead I’ve learned to maneuver in the territory. It is something like when I first got my driver’s license at eighteen. My father’s big blue Buick convertible felt massive; it was like propelling Jell-O through the streets. If I smelled sulfur from a factory, or autumn leaves burning by the curb, I panicked and stomped on the brake, certain the car was on fire and about to blow up. Other than putting the key in the ignition, steering around corners, and turning on the lights and radio, I had no idea what to do with this enormous moving animal. Later, with the sprouting of feminism, I learned to change a tire, the oil, a filter. These things — plus I had more driving experience — gave me a closer relationship with this entity called an automobile.
In the same way in my late twenties as I continued to fill spiral notebooks in cafes all over Taos and to sit zazen in friends’ early-morning gardens and in my thick-walled adobe, I developed a connection with my mind. But like a juniper’s unhurried growth in the dry Southwest, the relationship matured slowly through the turning of many seasons.
In the late spring of 1978, as the green leaves finally broke through the heavy Midwest winter, I moved to Minneapolis to marry. I felt a new force in and around me. I walked the well-organized streets and city blocks and a desire woke: I wanted to record the writing odyssey I had been on and share with the world what I understood of practice and the mind. I was entrusting myself to marriage, why not commit my inner journey to the page? I would write a book!
I woke early and kissed my new husband good-bye. He was off to work. The morning sun splashed in the bedroom. I looked out the window: the street in front of our duplex was crowded with cars. Everyone had a job to go to — and suddenly I did, too! I rushed down to the Cedar-Riverside area of town and purchased a ream of white paper and a batch of fast-writing pens. Then I returned home and sat down behind a small wooden desk in front of a window in our living room to begin.
I wrote “when” in the upper left-hand corner of my page. Naa, I said to myself, you can’t start a book with that. I sighed and crossed “when” out. I stared out the window. Deep maples lined the street. A short woman walked by with a dachshund on a leash. He barked and in a flash the word “while” came to me. I grabbed my pen and jotted it down. I paused, nothing else came. I heaved a deep breath and struck “while” out.
C’mon, Nat, I coached myself, start with the most proletarian word you can think of. I wrote “the” below the two other scratched-out words. Ahh, now I have something, I thought.
Then I looked out the window again. I hallucinated emeralds in the trees. I stared down the marigolds in my neighbor’s yard and I cleaned my index fingernail with the cap of my pen. My eyes watered. The shadows shifted in the room. I was thirty years old, bored out of my skull. Two hours passed. A column of eight crossed-out words decorated a single page of paper. A day of writing was finished. I drifted over to the kitchen and made a shrimp-in-wine-sauce quiche for my new husband. This I liked. I had purpose; I felt alive again.