Zen Mind, Writer’s Mind

Author Natalie Goldberg discusses Zen and the writer’s practice.

Natalie Goldberg
9 September 2022

Natalie Goldberg: About two hours ago, my mind snapped to something that I want to tell you about. My partner Michele’s grandmother was brought up in France. When Michele’s grandmother was 26 years old and her mother was a little girl of five, the Nazis came to Paris. They took Michele’s great-grandparents. The family was told they were going to work camps. Next, the able-bodied men were taken, so her husband and brother were soon gone, too. The women and children were next. Eventually, everybody was taken. Suddenly she woke up and understood that nobody was coming back. Immediately she contacted the underground, and she and her daughter went into hiding for three years. She was an ordinary housewife who loved to dance and play cards, and suddenly she was in the underground protecting her daughter, hiding out in small French towns, doing this and that to survive.

Today she lives in the U.S. She has a short perm and loves Las Vegas and action movies. But if you go to her and carry on–“Oh, Nana, I lost my job”–she’ll listen to everything, and when you’re done she’ll say very quietly, “Not so bad.”

After spending some time with her, I’ve come to realize that she had a deep awakening experience when she realized no one was coming back from the camps. She didn’t have anyone to tell her, “Oh, you’ve become awake.” But her mind changed. She saw things in a real way.

It was the combination of Zen and writing that woke me up.

When you’re with her, she’s so ordinary you can’t believe it. At the same time there’s something different about her. You feel this complete acceptance from her. But you have to pay attention, because she’s also like any other 85-year-old Nana. I love being around her.

I think the combination of writing and Zen did something like that for me. In my first book, Chicken and in Love, a book of poetry, I wrote about ordinary things, things that you would think a Jewish American woman from New York would write about. I wrote about the Holocaust, about marrying a non-Jew, about times I was unhappy. But I found my true voice when a Japanese Zen teacher and zazen crossed this Jewish woman’s life. The combination broke my voice open, and that’s when I wrote Writing Down The Bones, which is totally based in the dharma. I think if I had just continued writing Natalie’s stuff and being Jewish and from Brooklyn, it would have been good, but it wouldn’t have broken open my voice. It was the combination of Zen and writing that woke me up.

I was lucky. I didn’t have to be in the Holocaust to wake up. I didn’t have my lover dying of AIDS, or, like Zen master Dogen, have my mother die when I was very young. A lot of Zen masters had very tough early childhoods, losing one or both parents at an early age.

Steve and I are here tonight to talk about being writers and being Buddhists and how those two realms work together. I’ll start by saying that writing without Buddhism means nothing to me. Zen without writing is okay, but it’s not as lovely or as alive for me without the writing. For me, the combination is my true expression.

Steve Hagen: While Natalie was talking, I was thinking about the 1992 vice-presidential debates. Do you remember Admiral Stockwell, Ross Perot’s running mate? When it was his turn to speak, the first thing he said was, “Who am I and why am I here?” I feel like I’m in that situation right now. You see, we’re billed as two Buddhist writers and I suppose I am one–I was ordained a Zen priest over twenty years ago and I’ve published some books. But I don’t go around with any sense of being either a Buddhist or a writer. In fact, much of the time I try to forget what I am altogether and just be here in the moment.

Still, I have to admit that even as a child I was interested in Buddhism, and I was also interested in writing. This practice of writing and looking at your life, seeing who you are, is very much a Buddhist practice as well. It’s a wonderful practice for stepping out of ourselves, for stepping back and freeing ourselves from rigid structures that say, “You must do it this way.”

I think it’s for each one of us to find our own way, to find our own expression, to find how we can best express ourselves. You don’t have to follow in anybody’s footsteps or imitate anyone else. Just realize your own voice, your own mind, and express that.

At first I felt that I couldn’t think of myself as a writer until I had published a book. But when I published my first book, How the World Can Be the Way It Is, I still didn’t feel like a writer, although I didn’t know what a writer was supposed to feel like. I thought, “Well, probably I have to publish a second book, because to really be a writer you have to be able to do it again.” Then I published a second book, and I still didn’t feel like a writer. So I’ve given up on that. I would just say, whatever you are, just be that and express that totally and freely. It isn’t for us to determine it ahead of time, or to try to force ourselves into some particular idea we might have.

Scott Edelstein (moderator): So then an artificial discipline superimposed from the outside can get in the way of genuine creativity and accomplishment. With that in mind, can each of you say a little bit about the proper role of discipline in your practice as writers and as Buddhists?

Goldberg: Well, I trick myself by using the words “pleasure” and “love” instead. I say to myself, “Follow what you love and it will take you where you need to go.” Certainly you have to show up, but discipline is such a heavy word in our society. “You’ve got to do this.” “But I don’t want to do it.” “Do it!” “No!” So I end up in a fight with myself. Meanwhile, there’s another person inside me who just shuts up and goes over to the notebook, or just shuts up and gets up for meditation at five in the morning. It’s almost as if I have no reason. I just do it while the other parts of me are fighting.

I avoid the word discipline, mostly because I’m a teacher and I know that there’s such a barbed message in our society regarding discipline. Instead, I’m a great seducer; I seduce myself and other people into writing and into zazen.

Hagen: I think that’s really it. We have the notion that discipline is kind of drab and dreary, but really it’s just to go over to the notebook or get up for morning zazen. Just go ahead and do it-for no reason, as Natalie said. There’s joy in that, real contentment-deep, heartfelt contentment and peace.

I remember many years ago, walking by a field and seeing a dog behaving very strangely. He would stand up, take a few steps, crouch, then move again, all in a very deliberate way. I soon realized this dog wasn’t just acting on his own; he was following someone’s directions. So I looked and off in the distance, at the far end of the field, I saw a man holding his hands in front of him, giving the dog subtle commands with his fingers and hands. The dog was absolutely focused on that man. The remarkable thing about it was that I could tell that this dog was absolutely full of joy and happiness. This dog knew what he was about, what he was doing.

I think this is what discipline can offer. If we think of discipline as some kind of drudgery, something that’s imposed from the outside, we haven’t found what discipline can offer us. We have to find something within ourselves that gets us to the notebook, gets us to the practice.

A publisher recently asked me if I would do a book of daily meditations on writing. I told them that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. You don’t meditate about writing, you write.

Whatever it is that you want to take up in life, just do that and do it completely, wholeheartedly. Even on those days when you don’t feel like doing it, just go ahead and do it anyway. Ultimately what we cultivate is a very profound joy, peace and contentment, and a sense that we actually have some control in our lives, instead of things controlling us.

Goldberg: I like the word joy even better than pleasure. Pleasure has a lingering quality, whereas joy is instantaneous.

Edelstein: You both talked about how we have some real misconceptions about discipline. What other misconceptions would you say that people have about either writing or Buddhism?

Goldberg: A publisher recently asked me if I would do a book of daily meditations on writing. I told them that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. You don’t meditate about writing, you write. There’s this idea that meditation is like cogitation. But if you’re going to meditate, don’t do it to think about writing.

Hagen: When people take up the practice of Buddhism, or even the practice of writing, they’re often looking outside, looking for something out there that’s going to land on them and improve them in some way. I think we can just forget about all of that. Just look within and find something within yourself to express.

I was a writer before I was published. Once in a while I would think, “Boy, it would be nice to be published,” but generally I realized I had to forget about that and turn my attention to what I was writing. I had something to say and I wanted to say it as clearly as I could, in the best way I could. There was great joy in doing that. To the extent that we look for something out there to fulfill us, we lose it. We have to find it within ourselves and let it be.

Goldberg: You also have to be patient and not grab too quickly for something. I finished my last book about a year ago. I’d been writing books for the previous twelve years non-stop, so I was very nervous. Now I haven’t been working on a book for almost a year, and I keep saying to myself, “Nat, keep giving it space, give it space.” At first I was frantic, and then the space was really nice. I’m happy. I’ve gotten to really enjoy doing nothing. Still, little shoots are coming up. Even when I don’t want them.

I want to remind you of that: be patient. Make some space so something you really want to say has the space to come up.

Edelstein: Do you want to talk about those shoots that are coming up?

Goldberg: I did start one thing. Meditation retreats are very destructive for me. I’m talking about a seven-day retreat, where you sit in meditation from five a.m. until nine or ten at night. You alternate between sitting and walking and it’s very formal and it kills you. There’s nothing organic about it. You really come up against the wall. At some point during these retreats I get very creative. I don’t want to, but tremendous creative energy is released, and suddenly out of nowhere things come up that I know I should write. I’m not looking for them; I don’t want to write them.

I was doing a retreat this past March, and the beginning of something came up, and it wouldn’t leave me alone. I finally said, “Listen, if you leave me alone now, I promise that when the retreat is over, I’ll try writing it.” About two weeks after the retreat ended, I said to myself, “Well, I promised; I better do it. Otherwise it will plague me at the next retreat.” So I went to a café, and I sat and wrote for about an hour. I thought, “Oh, this was kind of fun,” so I went back the next day and wrote, and then I just kept going. I kept adding on with no purpose, letting it happen. I would only write when I felt like it-about two or three times a week. I was very sweet to myself. There was no demand about it, nothing.

Two or three months later I was sitting in the same café and writing, and suddenly I was sobbing, just sobbing and sobbing as I was writing, and I thought, “Nat, where did you think this would lead? What did you think-you were just going to write happily ever after? You didn’t think it was going to go deep and sometimes get painful?” So it was almost a trick. Often that’s how I write. I feel like I smell something far off and I start over here, but I know I’m going over there.

Question from the audience: Natalie, in your early books you talk about the act of just writing, without worrying about what you’ll do with what comes out. But in Thunder and Lightning you say, “Don’t just write; do something with it.” This turns up the heat and intensity. Should I have some sort of goal?

Goldberg: I’ve told my students that they should just do writing practice for at least two years. I’d like to tell them to do it for fifteen, but Americans won’t listen to me. So I start out with two years of just writing and discovering your own mind and not worrying about it. But I felt I had a responsibility to help people take the next step-not just leave everybody with writing practice. What do you do after you’ve let out all your wild horses, after you’ve really met your own mind? What do you do with all the notebooks you fill? People kept asking me, so I had to answer.

Questioner: Do you think writing naturally tends to get to that place where you do something with it?

Goldberg: No, not everybody has to. But I wanted to say in print, “If you want to, this is the next step.” You don’t just do it when you feel like it and have fun. I wanted to take people further, and I also wanted to establish writing as a true Zen path. I think I lost my popularity with that book. I mean, it’s been well received, but with Writing Down the Bones, everybody just wanted to write their asses off. Now I’ve given a little weight to the practice of writing. The book starts out with a warning that says most of my writing friends are unhappy. I also say that if you want to see your own face, if you want to drop off the old yellow coat of yourself, pick up the pen. I hope I’m enticing people, too, but it’s a deep enticing.

Questioner: Earlier tonight you said something that intrigued me: that first you were writing as a Jewish girl from Brooklyn, but then your writing practice changed. Am I correct in that?

Goldberg: Yes, I was writing out of my life. I still write about my life, but it’s turned inside out.

Questioner: I’ve read a lot of memoirs about writers’ lives, but as a reader, I’m looking for something more. I’m looking for the writer to get outside of her life, to get into a larger space. Is that what you meant when you said you started writing with your life, but you don’t do that so much anymore?

Goldberg: Yes, in some way. But memoir can open out into a larger space if the writer really connects with their life in a large way. I’m thinking back to what I said in Thunder and Lightning. You ask yourself, “What do I love deeply? What has brought me to my knees? What has totally broken me?” The combination of these answers can give you a voice.

Zen practice broke me. It broke my idea of the way the world was.

Zen practice broke me. It broke my idea of the way the world was. It broke my whole Jewish, New York, American, female way of seeing things; it cracked me open. So for me it was a combination of really loving my life, and then being broken and really loving writing-but, having been broken, I saw it in a different way.

Questioner: Some people write from their own pain. But I’m not talking about that.

Goldberg: I’m talking about something different, too. I wasn’t talking about my own pain. What broke me open enabled me to see the world in a bigger way–like Nana. Something extraordinary happened to her and it broke her, woke her up. I’m not advocating the Holocaust as your wake-up medicine, of course.

Questioner: Is discovering your mind in writing different from discovering your own mind in meditation?

Hagen: Well, how many minds do you think you have? Is a writing mind different from your mind, or from some other mind that you use for something else?

Questioner: How did I get into this spot? I think not; I think they’re the same.

Hagen: Right.

Goldberg: I came back to the Twin Cities because I suffered from the idea that my writing mind was different from the mind of the people who had received dharma transmission, an official endorsement to teach Zen, from my Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi. Or that the writing mind was different from the minds of Zen students who had become priests. But I dropped it all; I feel free of that now.

Hagen: We don’t really have any mind at all. We think we have a mind; we think we have this thing called “my mind,” that it’s a particular mind. Then we lock ourselves into this structure of our own creation. It’s a little prison we put ourselves in. But actually, we aren’t anything in particular at all. Once we realize this, then we have complete freedom-whether we’re exploring the mind through writing, or through just sitting there quietly, observing the thoughts as they come up. It’s all the same; it’s the same free-flowing mind that’s taking place. It can be found and expressed in any activity.

Questioner: As an actor, I know that you have to develop a voice. In writing it’s the same. But how do you go about doing that?

Goldberg: Forget about it. I only realized twenty years later, in a class I was teaching, that Zen is what gave me a voice. I finally was really communicating something and really had something to share. But for twenty years I’d never thought about it. I’d just shut up and write, just take on my life without thinking about it.

Questioner: When you take all of the things that you’re talking about-finding your voice, finding your space, and getting comfortable with structure-how do you maintain all of it in the face of deadlines?

Goldberg: It’s fabulous, because a deadline puts you up against the wall. That’s how I do all my writing. If I don’t have a deadline from someone else, I make a deadline. I’ll tell a friend, “I’m going to have ten pages for you.” “Well, Nat, I don’t want ten pages.” “I don’t care, I’m bringing you ten pages.” Otherwise I could sit forever and daydream about what I’m going to write. The only thing that made me a writer was the physical act of writing. When I finished Writing Down the Bones, I was so scared of not being a writer that I wrote another book, and then another one. So deadlines are good.

Sometimes I feel like I’m writing with my heart. It’s aching as I write, but I’m just in there. I trust that more than if I’m writing from my head. You keep writing no matter what; you just accept it and you keep going.

Hagen: I find them dreadful. I fold with deadlines, so I try to avoid setting them.

Goldberg: Yeah, but you show up for morning meditation. What time is zazen here, 5:30? For me, that’s the same as a deadline. To be completely honest, I have no trouble with deadlines in writing, but in Zen I fight the early morning meditation times like crazy. I don’t want to get up, I don’t want to get up…

Hagen: I have no trouble with that anymore.

Questioner: Natalie, earlier you talked about finding yourself sobbing over your work. What do you do when you get to that heart place in your writing? Do you stay with it or do you let it dissipate? How do you go forward from there?

Goldberg: Sometimes I feel like I’m writing with my heart. It’s aching as I write, but I’m just in there. I trust that more than if I’m writing from my head. You keep writing no matter what; you just accept it and you keep going.

Hagen: And there isn’t anything you need to do with it or about it. Just go ahead and express yourself; forget about what you’re going to get out of it, or what anybody else is going to get out of it. Don’t try to deliberately make use of it. If you do that, it will drift up into the head and out of the heart.

Questioner: But when you’re not writing in any specific order, simply doing writing as practice, at what point do you have a process or a trigger mechanism that pulls everything together? At what point do all the pieces seem to come together so that you say, “This is what I really want to say”? Do you even have a process, or does it just happen?

Hagen: My experience is that it just happens.

Goldberg: It happens if you’re awake to it. What I do-what I used to do; I don’t do it anymore-is when I’d finish a notebook, I’d sit down and I’d read the whole notebook. I’d go someplace where I don’t usually hang out and I’d read it and underline things I liked. I studied my own mind: What are my obsessions? What do I keep bringing up? Who am I, anyway? Sometimes I’d find a whole poem and just type it up. Sometimes I’d find one good line. When I first lived here in Minnesota, it was a hard time for me. I was going through a divorce, but this line appeared: “I came to love my life.” I kept trying to write a poem from it. I never got one, but I loved that line, and as I kept trying to create that poem, I got a lot of writing done. Things kind of evolve, but they evolve when I digest what I’m doing. What is it I used to say? “Composting it.”

Besides Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg is the author of Thunder and Lightning, Banana Rose and Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World. She is assistant teacher at Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Steve Hagen is the author of Buddhism Plain and Simple and How the World Can Be Be the Way It Is. He is the dharma heir of Dainin Katagiri Roshi and head teacher at Dharma Field Zen Center in Minneapolis, where this symposium was held.

Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within (Shambhala 1986), The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life (Shambhala 2016), and other books on Zen practice and the creative process.