Using Zen Philosophy to Improve Creativity and Overcome Writer’s Block
“We teach ourselves; Zen merely points the way.” -D.T. Suzuki
Of the many obstacles that plague an ambitious writer, that of the blank page demanding to be transformed into beautiful literature is the most daunting. It was once said that if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Likewise, what makes the blank page so fearsome is its ability to reflect its untapped potential back into the writer’s eyes and, perhaps, reveal a similar void in the author’s soul.
Do More to Overcome Writer’s Block
Fear magnifies fear. However, the fear of having to write generally minimises motivation, originality, creativity, and an author’s mastery of language. If sufficiently intense, this fear may leave even the ambitious writer feeling devitalised and totally empty.
Many in the literary world have suggested countless ways to overcome this emptiness, improve writing and expand one’s creativity. Among other things, you will undoubtedly have been advised to:
- Carve out portions of your schedule and dedicate them to writing. Just write. What if it isn’t great? Doesn’t matter. Just write! You’ll soon find a profusion of sapphires in the mud. In other words, with quantity comes quality.
- Try mind-mapping: use a diagram to visually arrange your ideas on paper and you might discern novel connections between ideas.
- Live your life and use your experiences as source of creativity.
- Try free-writing.
- Read. Read. Read. Then what? Read some more!
- Seek inspiration in things that aren’t immediately connected to writing.
What unifies these principles is the assumption that creative productivity is attained by doing more; be proactive and your muse will reward you accordingly.
While writers are fortunate to have been informed of these techniques as means of overcoming emptiness, the problem itself could be the solution. In other words, these principles might prove useful, but we mustn’t discredit nothingness and passivity as worthwhile tools in the creative process.
What is Zen?
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (6th Century). The word Zen is ultimately derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as “absorption” or “meditative state.”
Oddly, it is simpler to define Zen by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. It is not a collection of doctrines, beliefs or dogmatic principles. It is not a formalised and crystallised way of knowing.
Rather, Zen attempts to catch life as it flows, without adding mystery or spiritual complications. Zen allows its practitioners to embrace the inner workings of their being, to attain freedom, and to do so in the most direct way possible.
Furthermore, in the words of Zen master D.T. Suzuki, “The truth of Zen, just a little bit of it, is what turns one’s humdrum life–a life of monotonous, uninspiring commonplaceness–into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.”
So how may one apply this to the writing process? This article will isolate three basic principles of Zen, which when appropriately considered can diminish writer’s block and improve creativity.
More often than not, ‘writer’s block’ isn’t a shortage of ideas but rather a stifling self-criticism. Quickly name a random object. Now, quickly imagine a completely surreal and absurd situation. There is a strong chance that you did so successfully. Your ideas are always there and willing to flow from the depths of our psyche into conscious awareness. However, writer’s block manifests itself when one proclaims that an idea is only worthy of being expressed if it meets a stringent expectations.
Zen encourages us to watch the mind without judgement or expectation. Allow your stream of consciousness to flow without hindrance, and don’t be too ready to understand what flows through your mind. Remain a passive and impartial witness watching your inner self operate as it pleases. You’ll find that doing so reveals an abundance of ideas whose existence was doubted when you faced the writer’s block.
How is this different from free-writing? It isn’t wholly different. The idea here is that judgement and expectation have to be eliminated before one can write freely. Related to this is the peripheral idea that writing and editing occupy separate realms. A writer writes. An editor edits. This is a crucial distinction.
And remember Bruce Lee’s words: “Running water never grows stale. So you just have to keep on flowing, baby.”
Now, this isn’t an instruction to embrace laziness. It is, instead, an encouragement to recognise the pitfalls of misguided proactivity.
To understand nature is to appreciate the principles of Zen. Broadly speaking, nature does not make any mistakes, and yet it produces nothing short of the miraculous. Nature operates without any real preconception of what it must achieve. Nature does not formulate a plan. It simply does. It does simply.
As Zen philosopher Alan Watts once said,
“Clouds never make mistakes. Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No, they always do the right thing. If you would treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, and realise that you can’t make a mistake whatever you do. Because even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it will all come out of the wash somehow or other.”
We, as writers, tend to have a strange anxiety that if we don’t interfere, ‘it’ won’t happen. We agonise over the correct formulation of words during the initial stage of the creative process. We sometimes demand perfection of ourselves from the very start.
How often have you thought something like “This sentence has to be perfect! I will only write it down if it exactly conveys my intention.” Through these lofty self-impositions, we work ourselves up into a paradoxically unproductive frenzy.
It is when you stop trying that all that wasted energy is suddenly available to you as a creative source. If you really want to write something clearly, you must not try. You must simply trust and allow your mind, brain, nervous system and your inner author to do their things.
The basic idea here is that the more you give ‘it’ away, the more ‘it’ comes back to you.
Accept the Suffering
Creative writing is remarkably difficult. It is the evisceration of one’s soul and its preservation on paper (or on-screen). To enjoy writing is not necessarily to enjoy every aspect of it. It’s worth keeping in mind that writing can’t always be fuelled by a pleasant and electrifying motivation. It can be a gruelling, torturous and sometimes unrewarding process.
Part of the secret to overcoming writer’s block and improving creativity is to accept the suffering as a necessary component of the process.
A young monk once visited his Zen master in an attempt to overcome the heat of suffering.
He asked: “Master, it is hot. How shall we escape the heat?”
The master replied:“By going right down to the bottom of the fire.”
The monk, perplexed by this counterintuitive approach, queried: “How then shall we escape the scorching flame?”
To which the master decisively responded: “No further pain shall bother you.”
Zen deeply recognises that each thing has its own way. Here’s to you finding yours.
Alan Watts Radio Lectures
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki
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