Inertia. Apathy. Terror. Monkey Mind.

Inertia. Apathy. Terror.

Was I alone in my delusion that becoming a published author would cure this ill, drive it from my mind? Having books out in the world with my name on them hasn’t fixed it. Rather, the critical internal voice has grown stronger and more bold.

“Who do you think you are?”

Imposter syndrome. Low self-esteem. Personality quirks. Sloth. Insecurity. Anxiety. Chronic depression (recurrent, severe).

This is what I face nearly every time I sit down to write. Call it what you want, but one term fits better than any other:

Monkey Mind.

“According to Buddhist principles, the ‘monkey mind’ is a term that refers to being unsettled, restless, or confused.”—Psychology Today

Monkey mind can take many forms. It might be a voice in your head or mild (or extreme) agitation. It could send you to the refrigerator (or the drug dealer) and is probably why you’re unloading the dishwasher (or going for yet another dog walk) instead of writing that piece you promised your editor months ago. Monkey mind transforms itself and reformulates as quickly as you find a solution.

Monkey mind is the great chameleon.

Best-selling author Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home) explains one theory about the tenacity of monkey mind. In Thunder and Lightning, Natalie calls monkey mind “The guardian at the gate.”

Monkey mind, she explains, is like those enormous and somewhat terrifying statues that “guard” the gates to a monastery. They’re put there to challenge entrants. The guardians ask if you are willing to face these demons (and your own). Are you worthy of the teachings? Are you up to the challenge?

Sensei Sean Murphy of Sage Institute for Creativity and Consciousness recently discussed something similar with our 200-hour meditation leader training cohort. As he traveled across the country interviewing Zen teachers for his book One Bird, One Stone, many of the teachers did their best to evade him, refusing to answer his questions. They only wanted to teach the serious, the persistent, the rigorous. Sensei Murphy continued to show up and, ironically, their antics, playing guardian at the gate, gave him great stories to tell.

What do grotesque statues and reluctant Zen masters have in common with your unrelenting desire to play just one more game of computer solitaire?

Inertia. Apathy. Terror.

They are protecting the jewels.

The part of us trying to write terrifies the part of the mind that thinks we need to be protected. Monkey mind believes it is doing you a favor. But this guardian at the gate of your heart and mind also knows you’re getting close. The story that needs to be told, the mystery only you can solve, the message you must tell the world awaits just behind the temple door.

The guardian asks, “How bad to you want it?”

And how do you prove you want it?

By writing.

Simple, but true. In another piece I’ll talk about how the only cure for writing is writing.

Is that it? Just write? Yes, and no. Other techniques can help you still that chattering monkey which will, in turn, allow you to face the page.

For me, it’s meditation both on the cushion and out in the world.

Sitting meditation, writing practice, and moving meditation (usually running) have brought my own monkey mind out of hiding. It’s stealthy, slippery, persistent, but not invincible. When you sit through terror, run through inertia, and write about (and through) apathy, monkey mind realizes you’re not fooling around.

But why bother if writing is so difficult? Why not take up plumbing or mathematics or binge-eating instead?

Because the rewards are huge. Not much beats the feeling of pushing a pen across a page. And when you’re done, you have the victory of having made a thing, first a raw, often ugly, rarely sensical, thing, and later, a more lovely, shaped, and formed creation.

You’re at the temple gate. Will you walk through?

For more writing wisdom, please check out You Should Be Writing, the new writing journal from Mango Publishing by Brenda Knight and Nita Sweeney.

That Nasty Little Voice

“Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.” – George Sheehan, columnist, cardiologist, running legend

When I woke today, that nasty little voice told me I couldn’t run. I hadn’t run in three days. Two of those days were required rest after a 22-mile run on Saturday. The third was an additional rest day because I had a very minor medical procedure. The voice pressed the issue, but I knew what to do. I thanked it for the information, pulled on running clothes, leashed the dog, and headed out the door.

Next month is National Novel Writing Month, that time when hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world join in a common goal: to write 50,000 words (primarily of fiction) in thirty days. Most of me is excited. I can’t wait to hang out in coffeehouses hammering out words side-by-side with other writers. I also love compulsively updating my wordcount on the NaNoWriMo website. And who doesn’t adore telling their friends about the latest insane plot twist the mind conjured in the writing process.

But as the calendar turned to October and the trees began to show hints of scarlet and orange, that little voice began trying to ruin my fun. “It’s a waste of time. You never finish those books. You should keep working on that other book. You’ll never publish anything if you keep this up.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Natalie would call this voice “monkey mind” after the Zen reference to that jumpy, skittery state of mind that tries to distract us from our heart’s desire. I’ll be the first to admit there is some truth in the little nagging voices. But there’s a larger truth I want to remember. Life is very, very, very short. If hammering out 50,000 words during the 30 days of November (that’s a mere 1667 words per day my friends) floats your boat, then by all means do it!

Still, I’m going to keep Dr. Sheehan’s words in mind. While I’m competitive by nature and I’ll be pushing my wordcount as hard as I can, I’m going to try something new. I’m going to challenge myself. Not numerically. I’m not going to try to beat my highest wordcount. Instead, I’m going to plan. You heard it right. I’m going to spend some time during October plotting my strategy. It won’t be elaborate. Don’t mention the word, “outline.” But it will be more structure than the list of semi-related topics or random character traits I usually have by November.

So, fellow Wrimos, ready-to-be Wrimos, or never-to-be Wrimos, I’d love to hear from you. I’m sure some of you are plotters who have a master scheme for your book before the first word is written. How does that work for you? We learned some techniques in MFA school, but I want to hear YOUR version. How do you prepare to write a book? And do you have any wisdom for the new Wrimos? What do they most need to know during October to prepare for the November writing challenge ahead? I look forward to reading your advice.

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