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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

the artist's wandering mind

I'm a distractable person. I'm not sure whether I'm more or less so than other people, but my attention seems to wander.

I venture to guess that most people would say I'm the opposite: I have good apparent powers of concentration. If I recall correctly, in graphoanalysis concentration shows in the smallness of one's handwriting; my handwriting--what little of that there is nowadays--is fairly small, and has definitely grown smaller over the decades of my adulthood.

So what do I mean. I do tend to have an active or hyperactive mind. In my meditation career I had to get used to the busyness of my mind. In general one does not seek to control mental busyness in meditation, since efforts to do so tend only to produce more thoughts, more mental churning. It's like telling someone to relax: it tends to make them more tense. In meditation, the main way to settle the busyness of one's mind is simply to meditate more. This is one of the major benefits of a longer, more intensive meditation program or retreat: one meditates much more than usual, and the mind gradually exhausts itself. You get bored with your thoughts and kind of give up. The present moment becomes much more interesting and stimulating, and you become more anchored in it. I think of a crystal paperweight: the mind becomes clear but also heavy, in the sense that it isn't easily pushed around or jostled away from where it is. It seems to sit down, just as your body sits down on a meditation cushion.

But if you don't have six or more hours a day to meditate, there are some tricks that can be used to tone down the hyperactivity of a restless mind in meditation. One such trick is to think about your own death and the deaths of your loved ones. These thoughts, if entertained seriously, tend to have a depressing effect on the mind, which is the same as saying that its busyness is dampened. When I was a monk at Gampo Abbey, even though there was a fair amount of meditation every day, I found there was not enough sustained meditation to really get my mind to sit down, so I found myself resorting to some of those tricks, with mixed results, I found.

While I could never prove it, I believe that I am more inclined than most people to "dial out" of reality and entertain myself with my own thoughts and fantasies. Indeed, this may be one reason that I am a creator: I have a vivid imagination, and I use it. Or rather, mostly I do not use it, in the sense of harnessing it to productive purpose; but rather I kind of hang out in it. I get bored with what's going on around me, and vanish into my own thoughts. I do this with an ease that I myself find sometimes distressing (because I like to think of myself as a well socialized person). It can also be irritating for others, since they sometimes--not all that often, to be sure--might ask for my agreement or opinion on something, and I have to admit, "Sorry--I wasn't listening."

As I say, I suspect I am more "tuned out" than most people. Most of the time it doesn't seem to make too much difference. Indeed, I'm alone much of each day, so I don't really need to be socialized too much better than Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away. (I don't have a volleyball to talk to, but there are some cushions, glassware, and in fact any inanimate object that can do in a pinch.) But I worry that my distracted state puts me at a disadvantage with regard to my writing projects. The very imagination that makes creative writing possible also pulls me away from the task at hand, and has me chasing other rainbows all the time. Indeed, as evidence I can point to a host of abandoned projects lying rusting at the side of the road of my life. I start things, then, in the slowness of my execution, lose interest in them and start something else. This is entertaining and stimulating for me, but fatal careerwise.

When I was in my early 20s, working as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital, before I ever took up meditation, and knew I had a reputation as a "thinker" because I often seemed to be absorbed in my own thoughts, I became interested in what I was thinking about. I recall sitting in a chair in the ultrasound department one evening, making a mental inventory of the kinds of things that occupied my mind. In truth, I found that "thinking", in the sense of working through problems and so forth, played a very small part. Mostly I was in reveries: memories or fantasies of one kind or another. Mainly I was just trying to enjoy my mind.

The artist's task is to leave off enjoying his own mind--at least for a little--and to get its products out there for other people to enjoy. Can I stay on track enough to achieve that?

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  • In Graphoanalysis, "concentration" is a technical term.

    It can help one focus more deeply in a meditative state, or wander even further away from any resemblance of a meditative state. It all depends upon what else is in the personality.

    By Blogger Jonathon, at May 23, 2007 12:06 PM  

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