This is the final extract from Free Your Pen: Mind Training for Writers. In the last post we looked at how to practice with the slogans in general. Here we look at one slogan in depth – first by exploring the original teachings and then applying the slogan to writing.
Slogan 1: First, remember the basics
This slogan is about beginnings and the initial intention behind the act of starting something new. The original slogan is: “First, train in the preliminaries,” which refers to the basic facts of life, the things you can’t avoid and which form the basis of all your actions. The four preliminaries are:
These four are the foundation for the rest of this practice. Everything you do in your life falls within the bounds of these basic principles, and your attitude to each will determine how you live and the choices you make. Your feelings about life, death, karma, and suffering will influence all your actions, whether you are aware of it or not.
The first is your attitude to life itself. Life is precious and human life is incredibly rare, especially when you realise that there are billions more bacteria than there are human beings. The odds of you being born are vanishingly small. There are fewer atoms in the entire universe than there are chances of you coming into existence at all. So the fact that you exist is extraordinary. You are truly exceptional. Nobody like you has ever existed before and will never exist again.
In Buddhism, they talk of the preciousness of human life and how hard it is to attain. The odds of you being born is compared to the likelihood of a blind sea turtle coming to the surface of the ocean once every 100 years and managing to stick its head into a yoke that just happens to be floating there.
Second is your attitude towards death. This is the one thing that most people would rather not think about, but you know that death is certain. No matter what you do, you’re never going to become immortal. You might not like the idea of death, but it is essential to life. Death is part of the great cycle of change, and without it, nothing could live.
Coming to terms with your mortality is an important part of growing up and yet many people never really deal with the idea of death until it’s staring them in the face. If you spend your life trying to avoid something that is unavoidable, this will have a profound effect on the choices you make. Death can happen at any moment and you have no idea when that might be. When you accept this truth, it provides the focus you need to make better choices.
Third are your feelings about karma. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation to understand this; it is simply the chain of cause and effect that drives the cycle of change. Every action has a consequence and that means every moment in your life counts. Every thought you have and every action you take is meaningful because together they create an interconnected web that shapes your life.
However this also means you can’t escape the consequences of your actions and your choices. There may be times when you would prefer to look the other way, but whether you try to do good or not, the laws of cause and effect will play themselves out in your life.
Finally, how you deal with suffering will shape your life and drive your choices. Buddhism describes suffering (dukkha) as a feeling of incompleteness or dissatisfaction, which is caused by the contraction against reality that creates the ego, as we saw in Chapter One. The ego retreats behind its defensive walls because the impermanence of life makes you feel insecure, but this also gives rise to suffering because you feel cut off from the flow of life.
You don’t like the fact that everything changes. You don’t like the fact that you will die and so will everybody you love. You don’t like it when things go wrong, when you get ill, or old, or lose your job, or run out of ketchup and have to eat your burger dry. But that’s life.
This slogan asks you to face up to reality and the basic facts of life. When you remember the basics it means taking responsibility for the fact that you are alive and being willing to deal with whatever comes your way. The quality of your life and happiness depend on how you approach these basic truths. You can’t avoid your problems or wallow in your suffering.
The foundation for your life, and the rest of this practice, is to stand on your own two feet and say yes to embracing the life you have. This slogan encourages you to begin this practice with the intention to improve your life by taking responsibility for how you use your mind and the choices you make.
There are various ways to apply this slogan to your writing. The basics could be the craft of writing, for example. Craft is an important foundation for your writing practice. The rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, are essential, and it never hurts to learn more about story structure and how to write prose, dialogue, and so on.
You could also think about how you begin writing, the process of sitting down and gathering your thoughts. How you begin any task, the state of mind you’re in and how you feel about what you’re doing, will lay the foundation for the work you do and inform how it turns out in the end.
But more basic than either of these is the intention behind your desire to write, and this is closest to the meaning of the original slogan. Intention is the foundation – it comes before you begin to write and before craft. You must have the intention to begin and the intention to improve your writing before you do anything else.
So this slogan reminds you to examine your intention: Why do you write?
The answer may be obvious or you may need to spend some time exploring your motivations. You may have many reasons for writing: to express yourself, to entertain others, to make money, explore ideas, impress somebody, or as personal therapy, and so on. Your reasons don’t have to make sense to anybody else, they don’t even have to make sense to you, and they can even be contradictory. Whatever your reasons, you need to understand and accept them.
For your writing to have the best possible foundation, it needs to be built on your most authentic truths. Your true voice can only come from the deepest part of yourself. This slogan is a reminder to come back to basics and remember why you’re writing in the first place.
For example, if you keep worrying what others will think and it’s blocking your writing, reconnecting with your original intention can help to reignite your self-belief and get your pen moving again. Or if you’re struggling to motivate yourself and getting side-tracked by procrastination, or other responsibilities keep eating into your writing time, this slogan can give you a much needed kick.
To connect with your deepest intentions it can help to remember the four preliminaries – the basic facts of life – and apply them in your writing. This slogan reminds you to recognise the exceptional nature of your life. Your voice is unique and only you can find it and express it. Don’t waste your time on activities that have no value to you. Your life is a one-off opportunity to be the best you that you can be. Nobody else can do it for you.
Begin well and the rest will fall into place.
Begin a journal to track your progress through the slogans.
In your slogan journal, write about your intentions: Why do you write?
Based on your intentions, make a commitment to your writing and acknowledge its importance in your life. You might like to write your commitment as a promise to yourself and place it somewhere you can see it everyday.
- What is precious in your life?
- How do you feel about dying?
- Are you a force for good in your life?
- What causes you the most suffering?
Tell your unique story. Write about the key events, inner and outer, that have made you who you are, and make a commitment to move forward from now in a way that opens your life to more freedom and authenticity.
More slogans in the book…
Extracted from: Free Your Pen: Mind Training for Writers (59 Slogans to Cure Writer’s Block & Free Your Voice). Available now!
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