By becoming attached to names and forms, not realizing that they have no more basis than the activities of the mind itself, error rises and the way to emancipation is blocked. — Buddha
The writer of these lines has nothing whatsoever to teach anyone; his words are just his contribution to our common discussion of what must inevitably be for us the most important subject which could be discussed by sentient beings. — Terence James Stannus Gray (a.k.a. Wei Wu Wei)
When three respected spiritual leaders—each writing from a different tradition—declare that “words,” “thoughts,” and “names” are wrong-headed, it makes me pause. Although they may indeed be correct, I wonder why they impart their wisdom using ... words, thoughts, and names.
It’s taken me some time, but now I can accept the paradox and the ironies involved. After all, those of us (and I include myself here) trying to achieve some insight into the mystery of our existence have to dig pretty deep to penetrate all the cultural “noise” that gets in the way. For example, is it possible to enter a state of self-realization while tapping your toes to the latest tune from Britney Spears? Or whilst sipping a single malt whiskey, or digesting the news about the Japanese tsunami?
Most spiritual guides would say, “No.” The spiritual journey must be undertaken unplugged—“unplugged,” that is, in the sense of The Matrix. In other words, you need to disconnect yourself from all the cultural personas and social diversions to get to the centre of life. According to the gurus above, that includes unplugging the “self” that you’ve constructed with words, thoughts and names. When (or if) you achieve this state of pure being your self will have dissolved, and as a result, there will be no “you” to experience it.
So, despite claims to the contrary, the relationship between spiritual awareness and writing is perhaps stronger than with any other art form. Apart from various tribal and animistic practices (which DO rely on painting, sculpture, music and dance) the world’s great religions depend on the written word to mark their authority, to provide continuity through time, and to render a grand narrative that offers transcendent meaning to their followers.
Furthermore, it seems to me that religion needs writing more than writing needs religion. There are so many marvellous poems and novels and plays that provide a direct conduit to self-awareness (even in the spiritual sense of the word) and most of them achieve this success without constructing new religions from their foundations.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of writers who attach spiritual value to the act of writing. Several European Romantic writers and the American Transcendentalists testify to this bond. In our own era, many of the American Beats allied their creativity with the Zen notion of fully inhabiting the present moment. As Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg used to say, “First time, best time.” In other words, artistic intuition is the best guide to artistic excellence; never edit inspired phrasing into proper diction.
For me, the daily act of writing is the closest I get to levitation. It’s a practice I maintain for its own sake. With that perspective in mind, the pressure to publish diminishes, and the need to cater to the public taste and fashion dissolves. Ultimately, this approach offers a kind of creative freedom. And if that freedom can be completely unleashed—so that even unconscious self-censorship is eliminated—then the novel can dictate its own narrative, the characters will speak freely, and artistic clairvoyance can emerge.
In short, the novel can simply BE.