I have been reading Zen in the Art of Writing ever since reading Vicki Winslow’s awesome post about it. The book is a collection of essays, all by Ray on writing, and I have been working my way slowly through these precious pages. There is one essay called “Run Fast, Stand Still” which has been sitting like dew in my brain cells; and that essay is the inspirational backbone of this post.
In it, Bradbury talks about how he made a list of words by doing free association. This is basically a practice of saying or writing whatever words come into your mind. A well-trained psychoanalyst could use this technique to get at some of the material in your unconscious. For Bradbury, the beauty was that with each word of his list, he could make a whole story because that word was pertinent to that subconscious part of himself. Once he realized why it was there, he could make a story about it, such as The Lake. Usually there was an unresolved conflict or situation or a scary memory associated with the words.
I think that we can use this same approach and knowledge towards dissolving some daily annoyances; especially the most vague, pestering, and festering ones. Not by making a list, but by watching what things seem to arise time and time again no matter what we do. The jealousies, the insecurities. Let’s see if we can work some magic here.
“Nothing is Ever Lost.” To the subconscious, nothing has been lost. The paper that you wrote quotes on for your blog post is not lost; it is just in a book you haven’t opened yet. The fear you felt in the cafeteria in grade school when you weren’t sure if you zipped your pants isn’t gone; it’s down in there somewhere. Some of the things that happened long ago don’t just disappear, they grow roots, they make flowers; just think of the last onion you forgot about.
Bradbury is not the first to call attention to the idea that nothing is ever lost, and psychoanalysis is not the only practice to make use of it. There is the idea in Hinduism and Ayurveda of the Akashic Record. I am not incredibly familiar with these theories other than the Record is supposedly of every single thing that has ever happened, ever.
Then there is the Huna tradition of Hawaii. Huna is fascinating to me even though most information on it is untrustworthy. Basically, there is part of you, called the Unihipili, that is always aware of what is going on and it stores everything that happens. Your Uhane, or middle self/ego, sorts out what you end up paying attention to and reacting to and so on. The Unihipili, or low and more nature-oriented self, takes it all in all the time; and does not forget.
During our lives, there is a part of us, whether we want to call it the unconscious, subconscious, Unihipili, or our plug-to-the-Akashic-record, that simply records and is aware of each little thing. Every joy, fear, dream, thought, meal, and experience.
For Bradbury, this is a goldmine. You can find fuel for potent stories by diving to the depths and finding pockets of thick and gnarled roots surrounding crystal caverns just glittering with details. The way you find them is by tracing back from the flowers; and what are the flowers?
Well, let me just tell you about this lady at my work. She is so annoying. She is always talking about her kids, and then she wears that horrible perfume, and also she never works and then I have to do more work because of it and blah blah blah…and also, my girlfriend, she is just always flirting with other people and I just know that she doesn’t love me and that she’s going to cheat on me someday so I should just leave her now, so that she doesn’t break my heart like my last girlfriend and the one before that……those are some flowers. I never said they were gonna smell good.
Bradbury’s technique of using that Free Association list to get his story ideas is fabulous; and I think we can use a similar method to find out how to chip away at our unresolved issues.
Except we don’t have to make a list. The list is what happens every day. What problems do you come home with after work or wake up with every morning? What things seem to absolutely plague you, no matter what you do to solve them? What fears arise time and time again in daily life?
What things do you complain about to your friends, endlessly? What issues come time and time again in each relationship, or in each job you have? I mean really, think about it. Which jealousies, insecurities, fears, and let-downs happen over and over no matter what you do? Just pick the first one you think of.
Once you have one, put it on the examination table. Not the sterile white cold examination table. The cozy one; the one covered in a satin sheet of your favorite color, the one gently touched light from a lamp that wouldn’t even burn a baby moth if he napped on it’s surface. Lay your issue on that table, with the smell of your favorite bread, gluten-free or regular, drifting in from the next quiet room, a soft carpet under your feet, a clear view of Orion’s glittering stars from the window, and let’s take a look.
In Shambhala Buddhism, there is a saying “Not too tight, not too loose.” This is pertinent here. When you look at your problem, your recurring issue or fear, you do not want to grab onto it with a bull fighter’s grip. You also do not want to watch it from a distance like you would watch the whisper of a boat in the distance while you enjoyed the sand between your toes. No, you want to touch it just enough to know its contours, but not enough to scare it away. This is your precious issue, after all. It is your teacher, for the time being.
There are many ways to get the information you need here. You want to trace that flower of your problem down to the kernel, the root, the thing that is fueling it time and again even though you cut off the top. Ever dealt with Comfrey? It’s an incredibly healing plant; it can heal broken bones! And yet, if you want to get it out of your yard, you have to get every last toenail-sized piece of root out of your soil. You need to find those roots, but only by gently following the stems of the flowers; not by digging mindlessly at your whole yard.
We will attempt to uproot our frustrations, our nagging suspicious, or plaguing jealousies. But we can’t do it through blind brutal force. We have to treat our issue like a story, get to the feelings that fuel it.
Ask questions to yourself. Maybe you are a painter, a writer, an artist. Whatever you are, be as curious about your recurring problems and frustrations are you are about a new love, a new pet, a new city. Get down to what is going on. Ask the questions that lead to a thing that you can do.Are you mad because your job gets in the way of spending time on your novel? Spend an hour tonight writing it. Are you mad because you think your partner is cheating on you?
That is going to require some further questions. Why do you think they are cheating on you? Have you always thought this? What would it be like if you didn’t think this? Do you have evidence or any reason to believe it, or are you scared? If you are scared, why are you scared? What would make you feel better? Would that be external validation, because that is rather temporary. These questions will lead you somewhere…either towards a conversation, towards a new song, towards something to write, towards something to draw or talk about. They will lead you away from mindlessly having the same problem over and over, with no proof, no relief, and no growth.
There are some common denominators in these queries. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, a few of them include:
- I’m afraid I’m not worthy of romantic love.
- I’m afraid I’m not as good as most people at ______(fill in the blank)
- I’m afraid I’m not really a good partner.
- I’m afraid I’m not capable of being an adult in this way.
- I’m afraid I’m not a good artist, writer, creator.
- I’m afraid that nothing I say is worth anything to anyone, ever.
- Okay, the list goes on.
My point is that we can often times have the same problem with the world over and over with no real thinking, no real curiosity. We are the person that is jealous, the person that is angry, the person that hates their coworker. There is no longer a need to think about it; we just behave in the same ways, like chopping down the top of the Comfrey and leaving the root to sprout more leaves, more flowers, more issues.
But somewhere down there, there is something true. There is something that the subconscious is still chewing on, is still figuring out how to swallow. There is something that can work magic in your life, but you have to get to it with gentle questions and active curiosity.
Now, we get to the last part of the quote. Everything that you have ever experienced or learned is there in your subconscious. All the silly things that you have dared to love- they are there, waiting to inform you on your latest move, when you care to make one.
In terms of resources, Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, can help with identifying needs. For example, “I am frustrated with my boss because I have a need for validation of my artistic nature,” is identifying a need. Then, I could move towards “Wow, sometimes, I really like the stuff I do artistically. That meets my need for validation of my artistic nature.” What I gain from NVC, which has only been from a brief affair with it, is that you can always meet your own needs once, and only once, you know what they are.
Then there is Motivational Interviewing. This is basically a technique that works through using questions instead of directive action prescriptions. I think we can use it on ourselves to an extent to get ourselves to truly see what it is we need to do. It’s a cool thing to look into for those so inclined.
For anyone that just wants to leave it at this, well, the answer is questions. All of the silly things you have loved and the wonderful things you have learned are there waiting to help you solve those problems that do not go away. They are “put aside,” for better or for worse. All you have to do is put your repetitive problems in the right setting, have some curiosity, and figure out whether or not they are simply based on something that is no longer true or never was to begin with. Then they can become what they always wanted to be: a story, a painting, a vibrant song, or simply nothing at all and spaciousness itself. Give them that freedom.