The Paradoxical Relationship Between Writing and Mindfulness

Professor Maria Teresa Miró from La Laguna University in Tenerife, Spain, reminds us at a recent conference that the invention of writing is at the root of our chronic modern incapacity to live the present moment with plenitude — to lead mindful lives.

In this article I will argue that, paradoxically, writing is also the ultimate tool for getting back our capacity for mindfulness if we engage with this timeless technology in the right way.

But let us first summarize Professor Miró’s fascinating argument:

Sound versus sight

The invention of writing took us from a world of oral speech where audition was the predominant sense for manipulating human language, to a world of language of predominantly visual symbols.

Audition functions in the acoustic space

A diffuse space of echoes where sounds seem to lack a material support. Sounds seem to exist only in the here and now.

As much as they are evanescent, sounds are enveloping. We feel as if we are in the center of our auditive space.

Sounds connect us with others through conversation in a particularly strong sense

When I speak to you and you listen to me, it’s as if we automatically conform a new unitary structure. As if we were opposites being harmonized by the magic of sound.

Audition as an integrating force

These attributes of sound as the primary means of communication tend to reinforce a strong sense of inner unity and the perception of the world as devoid of boundaries between living beings, and between these and the cosmos.

The separateness of visuality

On the other hand, a world of written language imposes a visual organization of human consciousness that contributes to a sense of being separate from the information transmitted through language.

From being at the center of our auditive space, information seems now to be in front of us. There is a sense of distance between us and the information we are manipulating.

The kingdom of dualism

This sense of distance and detachment strengthened our capacity to observe the world as an inherently external phenomenon. To the extent that we felt connected to the cosmos, it was by means of an immaterial self or a soul separate from our physical bodies.

This later led to dualism, the notion that mental phenomena are immaterial, and ultimately strengthened our impulse to observe nature and the creation of the scientific method.

Exploring the inner world

Our increased sense of detachment from language facilitated introspection, which paved the way for the notion of individualism; but it also led to the intensification of religious experience as mysticism.

Storage problems

In non-writing cultures, people only know what they can remember, so it’s only natural that they would be so adept at using repetitive, rhythmic, pleasurable formulas of vivid imagery to facilitate the memorization of knowledge.

Concrete thinking is supreme in these societies. The Illiad and The Odissey are prime examples of concrete knowledge arranged in a sort of tribal encyclopedia that prescribed how to function in life’s most diverse circumstances.

“The Particularity of orally remembered discourse has the continued effect of calling a shovel a shovel, and not an excavation instrument.” ~ Eric A. Havelock

Abstraction

Whereas in the oral tradition concreteness was king, writing gives way to abstraction and the de-contextualization of language.

We see this in the dialectical method: Socrates and his contemporary philosophers isolated language from the speaker, questioned what was said, and invited the speaker to say it in a different way, so as to “break the spell” created by the emotional attachment that people naturally developed towards ideas learned through the repetitive formulas of the oral tradition.

The printing press put this whole process on steroids

With the massive production of books, reading became an individual, silent and inner experience. There was no need to share the single manuscript in town with the rest of the community listening together to a single reader pouring its contents out loud.

The perception of life as a continuous, uniform and linear space to be filled with content is also a key metaphor reinforced by the book.

I think, therefore I am

The Cartesian notion of the utmost certainty of the existence of the self, of being overwhelmingly conscious of an “I” over everything else in life, is a particularly prominent example of the revolution of consciousness caused by written language and exacerbated by the printing press.

The subjectivity of experience was now the new thing

I am myself the matter of my book

Montaigne’s immortal phrase also captures this feature of modern consciousness to perfection. He was perhaps the foremost example of the writer that wrote from a profoundly personal perspective.

The emergence of the modern novel was also nurtured by the exploration of the inner world, with Cervantes and his Quixote as the quintessential example of man’s struggle with an outer reality much in contrast with an imagined world nurtured through reading and rumination.

The lure of the future and progress

The exacerbation of the tendency to project our inner private contents was matched by our modern disposition to give a predominant position to the future in our lives. After all, the future is the quintessential domain of pure cognition — of imagination.

The notion of progress was born directly out of this predisposition to imagine.

Our tendency to imagine a better future unleashed the creative power of our minds on an unprecedented scale

But also brought about upon us a marked tendency to contrast the present moment as it is to what we expected it to be.

This tends to produce hyperreflexivity — the plenitude of the present moment is lost, constant tension ensues, and with it, our modern tendency towards neurosis.

Electronic communications: curse AND blessing

There is no doubt that the advent of the internet and electronic communication has the potential to further damage our already unhealthy relationship with information.

But it is also true that today, more than ever before in the history of humanity, we have access to the ultimate tool for mindfulness, which is, as paradoxical as it may sound, writing itself.

The ubiquity of the personal computer and its centrality in modern work and play means that the capacity to put together coherent strings of text is more than ever indispensable for functioning in the world.

As much as the written word might have opened the can of worms and inserted us in the vicious hyperreflexive circle of modern neurosis, when done well, it is the ultimate tool for eliciting and articulating the diffuse and confused ideas swirling in our subconscious.

Here are some ways in which writing can lift enormous psychic weight from our shoulders and and get us back on a path of mindfulness, personal growth and meaning:

    1. Emptying the mind. Intellectual confusion is one of the main causes of modern anxiety. There is so much contradictory knowledge out there on such an overwhelming variety of topics that our basic sanity depends on our capacity to systematically stop ourselves on our tracks and give some structure to our intellectual chaos. Writing down our stream of thoughts on a given subject is the most effective way of doing this. And while there’s obviously no guarantee that we will reach the ultimate truth about anything, writing will at least allow us to understand what our opinions are about something; or equally important, how we feel about a particular issue. Every time I write down and articulate my thoughts I feel it is easier to focus on the present moment in all the other areas of my life. This is similar to the “mind like water” principle that ensues when we empty our minds of pending to-do’s by means of organizing and recording the progress of our projects on an external device such as a GTD personal productivity system. Furthermore, by eliciting and clarifying the unstructured ideas in our minds, writing not only reinforces the knowledge that we already have, but allows us to create new associations between ideas and therefore create new knowledge. Writing is an inherently creative process.
    2. The power of literature. Literature is very much the art of telling stories with the vivid imagery that characterized the ancient oral tradition. Novels and other works of fiction are probably the most characteristic in this sense, but the beauty of the writing craft is that it can produce all sorts of ambiguous cross-pollination among genres, giving birth to such wonderful creatures as “magic journalism,” epitomized by the work of geniuses like Ryszard Kapuscinski. But if reading literature is powerful, writing some is genuinely transforming, and you should give it a try despite your stubborn ideas about your lack of literary talent.
    3. Read less, write more. A great part of our modern pathological approach to information arises from our compulsive approach to reading. Web surfing can lead to the worst type of addictive, endless consumption of unconnected bits and pieces of information, but books themselves, on paper or electronic format, can immerse us in a Quixote-like world if we use them for evading ourselves from the outer world. My take is that we should produce at least as much text as we consume. A good way to start balancing the equation is to write essays about the books we read, or at least take notes and organize them in a coherent summary. The first approach is probably better for fiction, the second for non-fiction books.
    4. Write at least 750 words a day. You can do this with pen and paper of course, but if you are like me and the countless millions that are hopelessly dependent on a keyboard for stringing text together, then try 750words.com. If the prospect of writing 750 words a day overwhelms you, start with half of that. Still too much? Free write for 15 minutes a day, 5 times a week. This means simply writing whatever comes to your mind without editing or polishing at all. Once that habit is ingrained, try adding 15 minutes a day of more structured writing (working on a short story, essay, article or blog post). Rosanne Bane, author of Around the Writer’s Block, uses these simple techniques for breaking the resistance of writers of all levels of expertise. Leo Babauta says that writing even one sentence a day will eventually get you going. Tim Ferriss never tries to write more than two crappy pages a day when he is writing books.
    5. Write for flow. Flow is nothing else than a particularly strong state of mindfulness, and with some practice, writing will get you flowing relatively quickly. We can achieve flow writing almost about any subject. Free writing is particularly helpful for this. Write about your cat, the landscape in front of you, the girl next door or whatever otherwise trivial subject you can think of, and take it to an art form by the literary transmutation performed by the written word. Or write about something you care deeply about, something that makes you angry, or anything that stirs your passions in some way or another.
    6. Kill your demons. To get him off drugs, Stephen King King’s family and friends staged an intervention, dumping evidence of his addictions taken from his office including beer cans, cigarette butts, grams of cocaine, Xanax, Valium, NyQuil, cough medicine and marijuana, on the rug in front of him. William Burroughs was a heroin addict and accidentally killed his wife during a drunken game of “William Tell”. Balzac could drink almost 50 cups of coffee per day. Edgar Allan Poe’s alcoholism is legendary, as well as Rubén Darío’s; and Jack Kerouac’s, who died at the age of 47 due to an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis. Dostoyevski developed a gambling addiction which led to financial hardship and an embarrassing period of begging for money. The list of tormented, addictive, eccentric and downright crazy geniuses of literature is endless. They have usually declared that writing is the only activity that kept them minimally sane. Perhaps their minds were in such a constant whirlwind of ideas, of associations among the most disparate aspects of reality (this is in the end the essence of creativity) that it was probably too much for their psyches to handle. While you and I are surely not at the same level of creative genius and/or existential torment, we all have demons deep withing that need to be tamed by letting our creative expression run free. Actually, writing can help us realize many of those demons exist within us, just like it helps elicit other forms of knowledge from deep within our subconscious.

    We can let electronic communications interfere with our mindfulness, or we can use them to enhance it. It’s really up to us to decide. ~ Anonymous common sense

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