For over a year Sean Murphy was on the road conducting interviews with some of the most influential figures in Western Zen, including Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, and Gary Snyder. Compiling his research, Murphy then went on to produce the engaging One Bird, One Stone: 108 Contemporary Zen Stories, a book which explores both Zen tales and teachers. In the following excerpt from this recently re-released book, Murphy profiles Natalie Goldberg, the renowned writing teacher and author of Writing Down the Bones and The True Secret of Writing. According to Goldberg, the basic rule of writing practice is to keep your hand moving—no editing, no crossing out. In this way you don’t leave any space for monkey mind—the commentator, the internal critic—to come in and get in the way. “If something comes up that feels dangerous, go for it,” she says. “That’s where the juice is.”
“All right, ten minutes, go!” says Natalie Goldberg, picking up her pen and diving into her five millionth empty page, one of her infamous fast-writing pens clutched between her fingers. Young for her years, dark-haired and intent, she chuckles occasionally to herself as she writes, bending over the page with all the earnestness of a child making her letters for the first time. But then, Natalie might say, if you’re doing writing practice correctly, you are making your letters for the first time.
It’s spitting rain in the twilight of a Minnesota fall, and we’re in the zendo of the Clouds and Water Zen Center in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where Natalie is teaching her weekly writing practice class. She’s come here for a year to deepen her practice with Dosho Mike Port, a dharma heir to her teacher, Dainin Katagiri, and to go through a new level of lay ordination in her lineage. We’re onto our third or fourth writing of the afternoon, and I don’t remember what this particular assignment is any more—but at this point, I’m writing about where we are. It’s a former railroad warehouse, a grand old building, the zendo on the ground floor with its shoji screens, exposed water pipes and quadrant of white industrial pillars—the four pillars of Zen, I joked to Dosho when he showed me around this morning after zazen.
They’ve stripped and refinished the lovely wood floors that would cost a fortune today—thick and deep grained, they still bear an odd array of humps and gouges (during walking meditation, one has plenty of time to notice such things), as though some variety of heavy machinery was once dragged regularly across them. They also now bear an array of black sitting cushions—zabutons and zafus—in place of whatever railroad machinery once dwelt here. Tall rectangular windows peer out over the street, through which, between the scratching of pens, come the whine of engines climbing their gears upward in the city traffic.
Nat is sitting, scribbling away in front of the altar, with its candles and ikebana flower arrangement and two brass bodhisattva figures: Manjusri with sword upraised, enjoining us to keep our pens moving, and Kannon, with her countless arms reaching out to help all sentient beings—or perhaps, wield countless pens. As always, she’ll do whatever is appropriate to the situation. This morning we chanted the Heart Sutra, and now the circling shadow of the ceiling fan blades against the pillar in front of me, alternately dark, then light, then dark again, seem to speak its echo: form—emptiness—form—emptiness.
The best feature of the place, though, is the dokusan room, where Dosho Sensei gave me advice this morning on my practice—and where, Natalie recently told me, she’d leapt at Dosho in response to a koan she’d been trying to answer and pinned him against the floor, glaring into his face (don’t try this in your home), and he’d responded simply, “Pretty good.” Converted from an old bank vault, it is set into the brick of the back wall, its gigantic steel door, with numbered dial still intact, standing permanently ajar—welded open at the hinges, lest it swing shut and trap some unsuspecting Zen student in dokusan hell forever.
“Make writing your practice,” Katagiri Roshi had suggested to Natalie Goldberg, years before when she was a beginning Zen student at the Minneapolis Zen Center.
“Why?” she’d asked innocently.
“Because you like it,” Katagiri told her.
Now, twenty-five years later, Natalie continues to exude unquenchable enthusiasm for the two practices around which her life is built: writing and Zen. She doesn’t make much distinction between them. “I teach people to accept their minds,” she says, “just like in zazen—it’s all just studying mind. No good, no bad. In writing practice we use the same basic principle as in zazen— you make a commitment for a period of time, and you keep the practice going no matter what. In the case of writing practice, it’s usually ten minutes. The basic rule is: keep your hand moving. No editing, no going back or crossing out, forget about spelling or punctuation. If something comes up that feels dangerous, go for it. That’s where the juice is. By keeping your hand moving you don’t leave any space for what we call monkey mind—the commentator, the internal critic, to come in and get in the way.”
“Katagiri Roshi taught me to trust my own deep mind,” she explains to me later, “to let it come forward—not to try to be Hemingway, or to be the best writer in the world. To let writing do writing. We’re taught many structures from the outside in.
But I’m using writing as a tool to come from the inside out. This approach brings a shining self-confidence—you learn to just rest in your own mind with a belief in who you are, and with your feet on the ground.”
That it works is pretty much a proven fact. Natalie’s system of writing practice, as delineated in her best-selling book Writing Down the Bones and the sequel Wild Mind, has made her perhaps the most sought-after writing teacher in the country, and gave rise to a boom in books on writing and creativity that is still going on today. Natalie is also the author of Long Quiet Highway, a memoir of her years with Katagiri Roshi, one of the best personal accounts of Zen training available.
“When you’re writing, where do your words come from?” Natalie addresses the room, now that we’ve set our pens down and are ready for a bit of guidance. “Out of nothingness,” she answers herself. “When your words come out of nothingness, writing does writing. This is the ground of creation—a connection with your Wild Mind, which doesn’t end where your skin stops. Wild Mind is not only you—it’s the clouds, the wind, the glass you’re drinking from, the person beside you—it’s all life coming through the pen, or the paintbrush, or camera eye, or singing voice.”
I’m reminded of a workshop I did with Natalie in New York City, where she led the entire group of one hundred students out of the building and down the street to do walking meditation in Washington Square Park. It was one of the first warm days of spring, and everyone was out—people walking dogs, people playing Frisbee and strumming guitars, bike couriers munching sandwiches on the lawn beside their steeds, old men playing checkers. As we walked step by slow step past them all, beneath trees with the first pale shoots leafing out from their tips, a silence fell across the multitudes. People stopped what they were doing to whisper amongst themselves: “What are they doing?” Then finally to call out: “Hey, what are you all demonstrating for?” Meanwhile, a man walked past, pushing a shopping cart laden with all his belongings and shouting the one thousand names of God in three languages, while no one paid him any mind at all.
“We’re just walking,” answered Natalie, and for the next twenty minutes we continued to do just that, until we’d become just another part of the afternoon scene in the park, and everyone returned to their lunches and games.
But now, here in the zendo, I can tell she’s about to go off on one of her rolls. She’s trusting her own mind, and every word, it seems, is golden:
“Our conscious mind doesn’t know much. It maybe knows to go out and get some more milk when we’ve run out. And maybe we should just leave the conscious mind for those things. Our real life unfolds some other way. We never really know who we are. Odd, isn’t it? The deeper you go the less you know—but the more awake you are.
“Our work is to move closer and closer. To abstract is to move further and further away. Until in politics you can drop bombs and you don’t really know there are people there.
“Life doesn’t make sense. Stand around waiting for your life to make sense and you’ll spend your life waiting on the sidelines. “The mind, if you get out of the way, already knows the rules of art—because the rules of art come from Wild Mind. I still don’t know a thing about writing.”
Is she talking writing or is she talking Zen? The distinction has dropped away. Meanwhile, across the street the Mississippi, artery of the nation, rolls past, and over it all broods the giant brick smokestack of the Schmidt’s Brewery, which you can smell from just about anywhere in the city if the wind is blowing in the right direction. The wisdom of the yeast, I can’t help thinking to myself.
Natalie, in fact, assigns the class to meet for the first hour next week in the parking lot below the brewery, whose architecture she’s fond of. There they’ll do walking meditation as a warm up before writing practice.
“But what if it snows?” someone protests.
“Bring a coat,” responds Natalie, and here it comes again, that unquenchable enthusiasm: “Can you imagine walking meditation in the snow in the Schmidt’s Brewery parking lot? Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Reprinted with permission from Hampton Roads Publishing, One Bird, One Stone by Sean Murphy is available wherever books and ebooks are sold or from the publisher at 1-800-423-7087 or www.redwheelweiser.com.