(This is the first of 50 essays I’ve resolved to write in 2015. To follow my progress, sign up here for the Inbox Essay newsletter.)
I remember when writing felt easy, when I could effortlessly fill page after page. Spiral notebooks. Legal pads. Plush leather journals. Moleskines. There’s half a bookcase in my office packed with 20 years of this rambling writing. Twenty years of uninhibited discovery through ink.
My journaling habit is more sporadic now. I still write daily, on Facebook, on Twitter and on my blog. These online communities are exhilarating and have introduced me to people and ideas I’d never encounter in the physical world. But so many constant, jumbled connections have also made me blurry, impatient, unable to see bigger themes.
That’s why, six months ago, I went away to a seminar on writing, yoga and meditation. The name – Writing Through the Chakras – sounded over-the-top new age, but the subject matter was practical and profound. I’ve been pondering and applying it ever since.
I’ve been writing for as long I can remember; it’s how I understand the world. Yoga became a part of my life more recently. Seven years ago, a colleague’s wife started teaching vinyasa classes in a conference room at the newspaper where I worked. I loved them. Soon after, I wandered into the studio where I’ve practiced a sweaty, playful, spiritual brand of yoga ever since.
Reconciling these two parts of my life hasn’t been easy. As a reporter, I wrote about people who wanted to be president, local zoning squabbles and kids coming home in coffins from Fallujah and Helmand Province. At the studio, we chanted the names of obscure deities and learned how to stand on our heads. The breathing felt a little like those effortless journaling sessions, but I didn’t have time to think about why, to consider the interplay of my practice as writer and my practice as yogi. I was in a performance state – getting into grad school, quitting my newspaper job, churning out enough freelance assignments each month to pay the bills. Accuracy and clarity, of course and always, but not process. Who can think about process when there are so many deadlines to meet? When the Internet wants a perfect, share-worthy statement from me right now?
As my first semester teaching college journalism finished last spring, I decided to figure out how to live a sustainable, creative life in a digital world. The stakes were high. I can’t imagine not writing, but the process was so fraught that it made my days difficult. I was cranky. Distraught. Not much fun to live with. Yoga helped but also created more questions than it answered about how the writing actually works. So I signed up for the seminar and hoped for the best. The workshop was held at Kripalu, a brick and cinderblock compound in the Berkshires built for Jesuit monks and later converted into a yoga retreat. The place oozed serene joy. There was a lot of hugging and smiling and organic food. Even the rabbits on the lawn looked enlightened.
Our instructors were Dani Shapiro and Stephen Cope. Shapiro is an author whose recent work explores the intersection of writing and yoga. Cope is a therapist and yoga teacher who has written several books informed by his spiritual inquiries. We practiced some yoga, we breathed, we chanted, we scribbled. It was nice, almost fun. Both Cope and Shapiro shared their experiences with the creative process, how they work through their own anxiety and frustration. Cope also talked about his research into the science of meditation. People who meditate, he said, have more organized minds – minds that are more capable of identifying complex and subtle patterns in the world around them.
Complex and subtle patterns. New patterns. Things that hide in plain sight.
Journalism, at least the kind I practice, is a way of seeing, a way of thinking that reveals the relationships, themes, issues, patterns that draw communities together and threaten to tear them apart.
I tell my students that the first step in becoming a journalist is to open their eyes. My yoga teacher tells us that the only prerequisite to the practice is that you are awake.
Neither Cope nor Shapiro are renunciates. They are committed professionals, devoted to their personal quests, but they also exist – and write – in modern times. It’s not realistic to hide forever in some perfect little cabin devoid of technology. I can’t (and don’t really want to) abandon Twitter or Facebook or my iPhone. I’m curious about things like Big Data and Yik Yak and Bitcoin. I like kitten GIFs.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes something that translates loosely to “when negative thoughts arise, think the opposite.” It’s not an excuse to lie to yourself, but rather an invitation to reframe. And that’s what I’ve done these last six months. Technology is a tool of my practice, part of what it means to be a writer in the here and now, something else to make sense of word by word and breath by breath.