Recently, I was asked to speak at the Nashville Path & Pen Writers Conference. My topic was originally "Writing as a Spiritual Practice," but the more I thought about it the more it made sense to add "-And Spiritual Practice as a Writing Tool." In my experience, it works both ways: deepening your connection to the divine enhances the writing process, and the writing process can deepen your connection to the divine-if you approach it with the right intention. (Virtually everything I say here can be said about painting, playing music, dancing, or any other creative form. I focus on writing because it’s what I do, and because everyone can use writing as a spiritual practice by journaling.)
First off, let's dispense with one issue. What makes writing spiritual is not the subject matter. You can write a hymn to God or a song of lament about betrayal; a poem in praise of Jesus or Buddha or an essay about fixing your car; what makes it spiritual is the consciousness you bring to the writing. It’s the inner, subjective elements that turn the mundane into the sublime. Yes, certain topics are more likely than others to evoke in you a higher awareness or the presence of the sacred. But what lights the sacred fire in each of us is both highly individual and highly unpredictable. Whatever you write about, therefore, and whatever form your writing takes, engaging in spiritual practice will enhance its quality and substance—and, in turn, the writing process itself can be approached as a spiritual practice. This is true whether you write for publication, for the private enjoyment of friends and family, or in a journal that no one but you will ever see. And it’s true for any subject or genre that brings you deeper and takes you further than your ordinary awareness.
Let's look at both sides of the equation. First, why is spiritual practice an aide to writing (or any creative process)?
I'm a pragmatic mystic. To me, meditative or contemplative disciplines have great practical value, and both the sacred texts and scientific research confirm this. Done properly and regularly, any spiritual practice worth its salt will give you some or all of the following:
- A quieter mind. The turbulence of an agitated mind is like a pond when the mud is stirred up: you can't see into it very well. When the mud settles, you-the silent witness to all thought-can see the mind's content with greater clarity.
- Access to intuition and deeper levels of feeling. Great writing comes from the depths of the soul, and spiritual practices can guide your attention to those depths.
- Greater ease and calm. Yes, angst and torment have been the springboard of many a work of genius, but at the moment of creation the mind of the writer (or artist, musician, etc.) is an island of stillness in the storm.
- Less ego. Spiritual practice gets the small egoic personality out of the way and lets the higher impulses of your true nature come through. In more concrete terms, nothing inhibits creativity like the fear of failure, the craving for recognition, and feelings of either inadequacy or self-importance. The more secure your connection to Ultimate Reality, the less such demons inhibit the flow of creative energy.
In sum, contemplative disciplines open the mind and heart to levels of awareness and sensitivity that can infuse what you write with greater depth, whether you're writing sermons or sitcoms, epistles or emails. Try it. Next time you have to write something that matters to you, begin with 15 or 20 minutes of prayer or meditation. It won’t turn you into Shakespeare, but it will definitely make a difference, and even more so if you do it routinely.
As for using writing as a spiritual practice, that requires intention and attention. If you pay attention, you'll notice that the act of writing is a microcosm of the spiritual quest. When you sit before an empty page or blank computer screen, you are staring into the void, and when you lift your hand to compose the first word you are entering the great mystery that gives form to the formless. As someone at that writer’s conference I mentioned put it, it’s as though God gave us language so we could recapitulate Creation itself.
On a less abstract or theological level, the act of writing, like meditation or prayer, can open a crack in the self-imposed wall that separates you from the divine. If, during a creative act, you've ever had the sense that you weren’t actually doing the work but that something was flowing through you, you've had a taste of the ego-transcendence that mystics of all traditions have sung about.
On a still more concrete level, if you pay attention, you can learn an awful lot about yourself through the agony and ecstasy of writing, and many of those lessons are spiritual in nature. As you plunge into the dark unknown symbolized by that blank page, you learn a lot about faith and doubt, trust and fear, resistance and surrender. You learn the value of getting your ego out of the way—and about the tenacity with which the ego tries to stay in control. You learn about self-created blocks to your own unfoldment; about being mindful and present in every moment; about desire and attachment; about self-delusion; about the mind-distorting influence of your cravings and aversions. The whole curriculum mirrors the lessons every seeker has to learn as we hurdle the obstacles on the spiritual path.
So, whether you're writing a novel or keeping a journal, meditate and then write, and write as a meditation. Or pray and then write, and write prayerfully.