Writing for Mindfulness: The Foundations of Mindful Writing

Marc Olmsted  |  June 17, 2021  | 

Being present, focusing on images, appreciating goodness: these are the foundations of mindful writing. Writing for mindfulness is a skill that any writer can develop, helping you to sharpen your language and keep it succinct.

What are the foundations of mindful writing? Let’s explore what writing for mindfulness means in depth.

What “Mindful Writing” Means

I’m very influenced by the simple instructions of Padmasambhava, the Indian meditation master who established tantric Buddhism in Tibet: “Don’t recall the past, don’t anticipate the future, remain in the present, leave your mind alone.”

That sentiment—leave your mind alone—defines the essence of mindful writing: it’s a process of documenting, rather than reining or controlling, the mind.

Mindfulness: leave your mind alone.

Mindfulness contrasts another approach, that of the academic poets that tend to end up in The New Yorker. These writers polish, polish, polish, so that there’s very little sign of that original graph of the mind moving.

How Mindfulness Combats the Inner Critic

Writing for mindfulness really helps us get out of our own way. It’s a safer way to suspend the inner critic than what was often the tradition, which was to get drunk or high.

Writing for mindfulness really helps us get out of our own way. It’s a safer way to suspend the inner critic.

When there’s a mechanical thing—when you’re sitting down to meditate or to write—you no longer sit down saying, “Gee, I hope I write something really mind-blowing. I’m feeling inspired.”

William Burroughs once said, “When I’m feeling inspired when I’m writing, I throw it away.” I don’t know if he did that, but there’s something to that. The feeling of inspiration really has little to do with what appears on the page. I often don’t know whether I’ve written a good poem until a month later.

Without that sort of excessive criticism, internal or external, I think we find more joy in the writing process—rather than hunting some sort of success, which doesn’t really seem to have much to do with the haiku moments of existence (the real pleasures).

Marc's Upcoming Courses:

Writing Mindfulness: Sensual World/Poetry Mind

March 20th, 2024

A four-week class, melding the language mind with the sensual: How to turn detailed observation into a poem. With Marc Olmsted.

How Mindfulness Can Improve Your Writing

The mindfulness establishes a certain grounded quality, a sort of calm abiding. And in that grounded quality, one is able to observe what’s going on in the mind and to allow spontaneous insight as it arises.

That mindfulness quality is what we see in things like haiku and other popular forms of Asian poetry: the observation of things unadorned, without any sort of editorial about them. They come out, you see them, and it’s like a snapshot or a little movie.

That quality of mindfulness seems to offer a wonderful way to improve one’s poetry writing: if you emphasize image rather than editorial language, you often have greater poetry. Everyone knows you can say “I’m sad,” “the world is messed up,” “I’m really angry at this president,” that sort of thing. But observation through mindfulness—of what’s going on in the body, maybe, or of happening to glance up at a billboard in a moment of thought and there’s a synchronicity—these observations allow one to look for phenomena directly: what’s in the mind and in the world, in a way that doesn’t really need to be glossed, cleaned up, or romanticized, that is quite amazing in and of itself. There’s a long tradition of art having this echo of the sacredness of the world, and we can certainly use more of that.

7 Tenets of Mindful Writing

1. Mindful Writing: When the Mind Wanders, Gently Bring it Back

Of course, the mind wanders, so what do you do with that? The mind wanders on the page, as well. In the case of writing, what happens is you can just cut that part later. You bring the mind back, you just keep writing.

2. Mindful Writing: First Thought, Best Thought

You may have heard of the phrase “First thought, best thought.” This came up in a conversation between Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa and his student, poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg later clarified. “First thought, no thought, then see what comes up.” In other words, there are gaps between thoughts, and rather than sit like a cat ready to pounce, “Is this the first thought? Is THIS? How about this one?”

Instead, we just observe and learn to start writing down which rises into our heads. And why do that? Because inspiration is uncontrollable: it rises when it rises. It seems to have something to do with spontaneity. The tighter we are, the more we try to generate something “important,” and the less likely anything on the page is very good.

And that sensibility connects Trungpa and Ginsberg, and before them Kerouac, Joyce, and really all the way back to Shakespeare—who, according to Ben Jonson, “never blotted a line”—and is very much a part of this idea of writing for mindfulness, which is a graph of the mind moving. It’s a Beat approach that is spontaneous, raw, and conversational.

Mindfulness: a graph of the mind moving.

Ginsberg emphasized, “Keep all the first drafts.” That doesn’t mean that the first draft is always good, by any means—I think there has to be some craft or discipline—but a lot of us write over our first draft. We polish, and then polish that, and polish that, and we lose what we initially wrote down. We have no way of going back and seeing what the original was, which, in many ways, might have said it better.

3. Mindful Writing: Being Here, Now and Beyond

So the point of being present is not just to enjoy the moment. There is a constant strobing of thoughts. The awareness of that strobing and the gaps between those flashing thoughts slowly introduces the insight that we are more a process than a solid fixed entity, more a verb than a noun, to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller. This seems akin to being “in the zone” that runners or musicians sometimes describe.

4. Mindful Writing: Snapshot Poetics

Snapshot poetics is a phrase of Ginsberg’s. This mindfulness quality is what we see in things like haiku and other popular forms of Asian poetry: the observation of things unadorned, without any sort of editorial about them. They come, you see them, and it’s like a snapshot or a little movie. In mindful writing the same can be done with our interior mental world—our memories and dreams.

5. Mindful Writing: No Ideas But In Things

This is a phrase of William Carlos Williams. The quality of mindfulness seems to offer a wonderful way to improve one’s poetry writing: if you emphasize image rather than editorial language, you often have greater poetry. Everyone knows you can say “I’m sad,” “the world is messed up,” “I’m really angry at this president,” that sort of thing.

But observation through mindfulness—of what’s going on in the body, maybe, or of happening to glance up at a billboard in a moment of thought and there’s a synchronicity—these observations allow one to look for phenomena directly: what’s in the mind and in the world, in a way that doesn’t really need to be glossed, cleaned up, or romanticized, that is quite amazing in and of itself. There’s a long tradition of art having this echo of the sacredness of the world, and we can certainly use more of that. That sacredness is appreciation without grasping tightly, whether one believes in God or not.

Mindfulness: appreciation without grasping tightly.

6. Mindful Writing: Basic Goodness

From that sort of appreciation, a kind of empathy rises, and a generosity, warmth. I think that comes pretty quickly in anyone’s experience of sitting meditation—the idea that there’s some worth that’s not based on one’s appearance, wealth, success or lack of it: just a basic goodness, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said. We can write from that without ignoring what comes up, the fact that existence is very bittersweet, that the world is often a “shit show.”

It’s okay to write about one’s depression, loneliness, anger, but if we’ve begun to make friends with that, there’s the possibility of being more authentic. Walt Whitman called that “candor.” We can give voice to the voiceless, assuring others they’re not alone.

7. Mindful Writing: Sacred View / Empathetic Conduct

Ultimately, basic calm abiding allows for the development of sacred view and empathetic conduct. I think the best writing contains both these qualities. Take Shakespeare. Everybody knows Shakespeare’s great, and a lot of it has to do with this incredible recognition of the human condition—without judgement, really.

Go Deeper in Mindful Writing

There’s much more to say about the foundations of writing mindfully. For an in-depth video interview exploring mindful writing, see below:

Explore Mindful Writing at Writers.com

Mindful writing can be practiced anywhere, but if you’re looking to learn more about the practice, take a look at my course Writing Mindfulness: Sensual World/Poetry Mind

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