Writing as Practice – Karen Shoji Robbie

I’ve tried quite a few things to keep sane in the last seven weeks. I felt optimistic when lockdown started. A honeymoon phase. I was glad the schools had closed and I didn’t have to do any more supply work. But everything felt strange and upside down. The news was heartbreaking. The death, grief and sadness overwhelming. There was also the madness of panic buying. I wasn’t sure why I was buying toilet rolls. Why there wasn’t any pasta or UHT milk on the shelf.

I was looking forward to hiding away and getting into quiet and simplicity. I decided to do a solitary retreat. As solitary as could be managed with Jez and the dog in the house. Lucky Jez has a shed and we’re quite good at avoiding each other when we need to. So that unexpectedly lasted for five days. I built up momentum and found it difficult to stop. The highlight was dharma talks at 12 o’clock each day. The wonders of youtube, podcasts and zoom.

So getting back to writing as practice. This has happened quite recently. About a week after the retreat I felt bereft of any kind of structure. I didn’t realise how much my life revolved around being out and about, working, my Zen, women’s circle, poetry and writing groups and just being with people in an everyday, social way. I’m not going to go into my ups and downs of living in lockdown but I’ve found it quite hard. My emotions have been full ranging. My shadows beckoning. I didn’t want to push them away but I didn’t want them either.

Sometimes it’s hard to practice when life gets tough. Too much monkey mind makes it difficult to do anything. Recently I stumbled on a Natalie Goldberg talk on YouTube. She’s an American writer and speaker and has practised Zen for over 30 years. Sometimes something stands out in a dharma talk. She spoke about the importance of structure and the possible benefits of writing before sitting. She explains if you write everything down, get it out and on the page before you sit then your mind is far less occupied and more ready to settle and go deeper. It made sense. So I started writing immediately. Writing everything down as it came into my head. Quick and fast for up to 30 mins. Instantly my mind was more spacious.

I’ve written out a schedule that I’ve sellotaped to my bedroom door. A structure for the day. My safety net. It’s not written in stone. It offers more options and possibilities in this new world I’m at times struggling to understand. It’s hard to believe it’s happening. I might be getting used to uncertainty but I still hold on to the old ‘me’ quite a lot even though I think I’m not.

Is this going to be the new normal? Our new ordinary? Joshu’s ‘Ordinary Mind is the Way’ from the Mumonkan collection feels relevant. What if we take out Mind and just have Ordinary. Is ordinary the way? Nothing special. Just waking up, brushing our teeth, getting dressed and eating breakfast. Doing the next thing. One step at a time.

Yesterday I found myself looking up at the clouds and wishing I was floating on one because it looked so soft and comforting. I thought about how kind my neighbours have been. About my friend over the hill who takes his cat out for a walk every night. Our chats over the fence have been funny and uplifting. Coming home last night I noticed our neighbour’s son had planted a hazelnut tree at the bottom of our track. It felt like a gift.

Roshi Joan Halifax asked these three questions in a beautiful zoom talk I listened to recently. ‘What is the root of your suffering?’ ‘What are you carrying in your bag that wants to be let go of? And who are you really?

‘Humans do not awaken when they are in their comfort zone,
They awaken when they are out of their comfort zone.
This is a great opportunity.’
Eckhart Tolle