On resistance and grace

“Making space" for something or someone looks a little like this

I’m a fan of Buddhist teachings, and I spend a lot of time wondering about how to encourage an ongoing creative process, how to maintain consistent habits, how to ease up on myself. Actually, the only thing I spend more time wondering about is how Janyce does all of these things so easily.

“You know, I have to remind myself that a short walk around Del Carte takes a full hour with him now,” says Janyce, leading our old dog into the living room and directing him to his bed on the floor. I’m in pajamas and wrapped in a blanket on the couch. Outside it’s a bright October day, the air is crisp, the house inside is quiet, no music, no kids anymore, just the sound of the Saturday morning traffic on our busy road. From here it sounds like rushing water. My laptop is open beside me and it’s the start of the first two-hour writing exercise.

“The writing has a hard stop at 1:15,” says the instructor on the screen. “Begin.” 

I’m on a Zoom call with about 52 other people from around the world and we’re taking an all-day online course that claims to teach us about creativity and meditation for writers.

“I can’t talk to you, I’m supposed to do this next part without speaking,” I say. Janyce, my spouse, is standing in the doorway to the garage with the keys to the jeep in her hand. I’ve since shuffled my way into the kitchen and now I’m arranging a cold slice of turkey, a cheese stick still in its wrapper, and a garish blue-purple berry granola bar onto a plate. With my notebook and pen in my free hand and my plate in the other, I pass by her again on my way back to the couch. She’s been up for hours already, worked out with her trainer, showered, dressed, talked to her mom, and walked the dog at the nature preserve down the road.

“Have a great day and class,” she says. “I’m headed out.” I nod in her direction, still nursing a head cold that started days earlier, and although I’ve managed to get through the first meditation session, I’m already skeptical about this class. The last thing I have scribbled in my notebook is: I’m not sure what I am getting from this class. I scribble some more. My back hurts. I’m tired from the sinus meds. I’m worried about the workload for my job. The laundry is piling up. 

Within minutes, I’m back in the kitchen again, scanning the cabinets for the last Pepperidge Farm cookie. Am I too impatient? Already questioning the validity of this class before I have even filled one page? Outside the window, I watch orange leaves blow around on the carpeted expanse of our backyard. Okay, I’ll start again. The dog circles around and around on the floor in front of me trying to find the right spot. I brush cookie crumbs off of my sweatshirt and pick up the pen as a trite little phrase pops into my mind: “What you resist, persists.”

This is something I remember hearing in my twenties during an enthralling weekend I spent in the company of other confused people searching for wisdom and divine inspiration called “The Forum.” At the time, I was impressed by this statement even if I didn’t fully know what it meant. In fact, I’m not so sure I do now. If I resist writing when I have set aside the time to do so, isn’t this pithy little statement saying that it’s the writing that persists? How does that make sense? I fling the notebook aside and walk back to the kitchen cabinets. I unwrap a bourbon cake ball I discover from behind the vinegar on the top shelf. A box of them arrived as a mail order gift a few months ago and this one is slightly stale. I eat it anyway.  

Back on the couch again, my computer screen displays the bowed head of my instructor busily writing and a row of tiny videos of my fellow writers at the top of the screen – each also busily writing, or scratching their faces, or arranging a pillow behind them on the chair. I decide to write the phrase again in the notebook and interrogate myself. Why did you sign up for this class? I write freestyle and fast. What are your goals around writing? What are you noticing about your behavior right now? And then it hits me. Years of emotional eating have made me aware of this familiar pattern of frequent trips to the kitchen, choosing the worst things to put in my mouth in steady succession, the mindlessness of the action, the repetition. I’m resisting something alright, but it’s not the actual writing, it’s the fearful feeling I’m having as I’m sitting down to write in this timed setting. And when you resist fear, it’s the fear that persists.

The whole point to this technique is to first experience the meditation, and then a free write exercise, followed immediately by a two-hour span of personal writing and to do this in a timed setting in the company (virtually in this case) of other writers. It’s a technique that ends up “making space” for the creative process by paradoxically creating a container for how and when you write. I take a deep breath, and armed with my resistance realization, start to let the words come out. And you know what? It actually works.  Hours go by and I fill pages, ease into more meditation and find myself staying put in one place absorbed in writing.

I’m a fan of Buddhist teachings, and I spend a lot of time wondering about how to encourage an ongoing creative process, how to maintain consistent habits, how to ease up on myself. Actually, the only thing I spend more time wondering about is how Janyce does all of these things so easily.

Janyce is something of a Buddhist master herself. She rarely seems to need the assistance of any of the classes, podcasts, seminars, articles, and book chapters I am forever reading out loud to her when she hands me a cup of coffee in the morning. Inevitably, she is already back from an early morning weight training routine and has a full day planned, yet she will quietly sit on the edge of the bed and listen. I think her easygoing goodwill toward my impromptu morning poetry readings or meditation lessons has something to do with her natural energy. It’s an energy of flow as opposed to resistance.

See here’s the thing, if you interrupt Janyce when she is talking, she will just stop. It can be very disconcerting. You’ll end up getting your point made easily because there won’t be any resistance to the rest of what you are saying, it will be quiet behind your words. And it will be quiet for a few seconds after you stop talking, too. Just enough time for you to realize that you talked over her. I hate to say it, but I do it all the time. In the eleven plus years we have been together I still haven’t been able to catch myself before I interrupt her. She doesn’t point it out to me either. Instead she allows me this space for my words to come out, even over hers. To me, this is a supreme act of grace. Come to think of it, it’s the same act of grace I’m trying to practice right now for myself with this day-long meditation and writing course.

“In the next few minutes, get ready to stop. We’ll end with time for questions.”

Outside, the sun is a small ball glowing through the branches of the trees in the backyard. The dog is now at the side of the couch whining for his dinner and I can hear the garage door opening. Janyce is back.

“How did it go?” she says, peeking her head into the living room from the kitchen doorway. “Did you you stick with it? I was worried that maybe you wouldn’t.”

“Hold on a second, the class isn’t quite finished yet,” I say while patting the dog on his head and gathering myself straight to face the computer and the final moments of the class. “Let me tell you about it tomorrow over coffee.”