The Writing Life: Zen Practice, Full Journals

This post originally appeared on One Minnesota Writer on May 13, 2020.

This week, my partner Mick and I are incorporating daily meditation into our lives. We get up, let the dog out, and, once we have her food bowl filled, head to our front room to practice zazen. We have our cushions in front of an east-facing window. The morning light bathes our backs as we keep with the Sōtō school tradition and face the wall. We don’t practice for long in these daily sessions – just 15 minutes – but it’s enough to shift how we start our days. Enough to feel ourselves breathe deeply, perhaps set an intention, sweep out any lingering mental clutter. We start the day with calm, clear heads.

You might think that just waking up offers a clear head. But, as someone who remembers my dreams quite vividly, I can tell you that my dreamtime is most active right before I wake up. I often wake with images colliding in my mind. Everything I worry about shows up there: all the news that’s frightening, things I miss, people I love and can’t hug right now. I lay there a few minutes, watch them fade, and then move on. Sometimes the images linger.

Our current zazen practice, an extension of the twice-weekly longer meditations we already did, reminds me of when I was a kid and said prayers every night before bed. This is different, of course, in that it’s all about emptying my head rather than filling it with supplications and thanks. That emptiness makes space for other things: strength, kindness, love, empathy, art.

emptiness makes space for other things

What I have space for every weekday morning after zazen is a trifecta of journaling. First, I scribble a small list in a gratitude journal. Then, I write three pages in a spew journal; whatever crosses my mind gets dumped in there. Third, I draft a poem in a poetry journal. All these different forms of writing are their own kinds of meditations, another way to put pandemic or any other anxiety in its place. Sometimes I get blog posts from those scribblings. Sometimes they are ways to process what’s happening all around. Sometimes they are nothing more than play or brainstorming.

The importance of practice has never been greater than it is right now. While it’s hard to feel productive when worrying about the entire world, permission to practice without required progress updates might be a path toward a saner existence. What I miss the least during this time of staying home is a full schedule. Daily lists of tasks. Errands that need to be done. The life-sucking sight of a Google calendar with stuff written after every daytime hour. I still have things in my calendar – almost all of them involving Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype – but the vast white spaces are lovely and calm.

Morning meditation is like that white space. Open. The room fills with morning light, pure and life-giving. For a few minutes, nothing is required of us but to sit, breathe, stretch our heads toward the sky.