Non-Duality (For Writers)

 

On my flight back from Boston a few weeks back, I was reading my copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression. A man across the aisle from me asked if he could talk to me about my book, and I did something I rarely do on a flight: I struck up a conversation.

It turned out that he was also a survivor of depression, but he said he could never read a book like that in public. “I’d have to be in my bedroom with the door locked.”

For the next 45 minutes in the air, and then for a few more minutes around baggage claim, we talked about depression, our families, finding community in new places (he had recently retired to Israel after living in Canada for most of his adult life).

And there were definitely times when I could tell we could have had a contentious turn in the conversation. Flash points where it would’ve been easy to veer into an argument. But the sparks never landed on kindling.

We found we had something in common that was worth exploring.

A little over a week later, I found myself in the hospital. Long story short: I was losing blood faster than my body could replace it. Doctors needed to find the leak and plug it.

In-between procedures and transfusions, I spent time in a room separated by a curtain from an older man with breathing and mobility issues. My roommate and I had little in common. This could best be summarized by the time he woke me up at 4 AM, watching a televangelist encourage people to “send a donation; plant a seed of $58 to become one of the eleven-hundred and twenty-eight miracles,” or something similar.

I could have dwelled on our differences, or my annoyance with being woken up at such a weird time. I’d had no real food for almost two days, been poked, prodded, and had cameras peering into every corner of my digestive system. I had plenty of reasons to react with anger.

But I thought about the why. I thought about the times he’d spoken to his visitors about how he wished he could get out of the hospital and get home for some real healing. Some “soul healing.”

He was looking for comfort. He wasn’t writing a check. He just wanted something to take his mind off being in that bed, being woken up for his breathing treatments, and not knowing when the Doctors would finally say he was well enough to go home.

And I could relate to the idea that real healing doesn’t necessarily take place in the hospital, where your sleep is interrupted by new tests, new hypotheses for your care, or just the sounds and smells of illness.

There’s a Buddhist concept of non-duality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

As best I can explain it, it’s the idea that labelling the differences between yourself and others reinforces false notions of the self.

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gumarantana describes it this way:

“The ego sense itself is essentially a feeling of separation — a perception of distance between that which we call me and that which we call other. This perception is held in place only if it is constantly exercised…”

With these encounters, I could have focused on the differences between myself and each of these men. Differences of age, religion, attitude, political views, and so on. I could have drawn up many lines between us and left it at that.

But both of those times, the value of engaging with the moment came from recognizing that for all the things that separated us, we were all in need of healing. We were all connected to a desire to live and be well.

If I build a wall between you and me, I’m not only establishing a false idea of who you are based on my limited perception, I’m clinging to a potentially false notion of who I am.

This is one of the reasons I stress thinking about empathy with my writing students.

Screen shot from one of my powerpoint slide decks titled All Writing Must Begin With Empathy

When writing, I want my students to remember that every character should be a specific individual, and to remember that not everyone thinks and behaves exactly as they would. In this way, I am teaching them about separating themselves from others.

But at the same time, there is a need to ground your writing with the perspective of that other fictional person in order to make an honest attempt at depicting their actions and reactions.

Part of that process needs to be seeing the center of the Venn Diagram:

How are you not so different from this other person?

Austin Powers 'We're not so different, you and I.'

If you base their uniqueness only on a representation of their difference, you miss the connections they could have with other characters in the story, or potential points of connection with the audience.

A villain is more engaging if we can see something of ourselves in them. The relationships between characters becomes more complicated if they see there isn’t just difference between them, but common bonds.

The X-Men stories wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the central friction between Charles Xavier and Magneto: two mutants who both want to protect those like them and help them see their potential, but whose difference emerges from how they view The Other (humans).

Or see the potential for comedy in this play between difference and commonality, like in Home Alone where Kevin’s mom, Kate, rides back to Chicago in a truck with Gus Polinski and his polka band. These characters couldn’t seem more different, until Gus talks about how the whole band needs to spend the holidays away from their families, too. But Gus’s attempt at finding common ground also sparks his story of trying to relate to Kate by telling about the time he left his son behind on accident, just like her… Except that Gus left his kid in a funeral home. For hours. Alone.

All of these things combined take a seemingly one-note polka band gag and use that common ground to give it dimension and resonance with the rest of the story.

But non-dualistic thinking can also help with another bad habit of writers: envy

In Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:

We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state—estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.

The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.

A writer looks at someone whose work they appreciate, and get disheartened at their own lack of skill or achievement.

A writer looks at people they consider their peers, and seeing their accomplishments, feels frustration that they don’t see themselves matching up.

A writer looks at their own work in comparison with what they’ve done in the past and sees a failure to recapture who they once were, or a failure to progress beyond who they think they once were.

All of these envious moments focus on difference: There is you and there is me. There is me then and me now.

But what if it were possible to focus on something other than those differences? To find those pedal points in both of your songs that resonate deep within the both of you?

Because if we only focus on the success of others, we erase their struggles, which could show us how alike we may be.

If we only focus on part of our past experience, or on part of our desired future, we skip over any number of valuable moments that inform us, shape us, and give us something worth saying.

When you encounter envy, ask yourself what you have in common with this person. What do you share?

Try not to use this as a springboard for the thought of “If we’re so similar, why are they so better off?” That’s falling back on reinforcing difference.

But seeing what you have in common can remind you of the positive things you see in yourself. If you can focus there, you can turn envy into admiration, and share some of that admiration with yourself.

And, especially when dealing with your peers, envy is the enemy of community.

Anything that can highlight the difference between yourself and others that you wish to work with or share something with will start building that wall between you.

That dualistic thinking and envy can spill out in the workshop session, on social media, in your work with others. And these spills aren’t often easily wiped away.

But your actions and your effort to see what unites you with others can also spread. And if you practice that, you may encourage others around you to practice that same kind of radical empathy.

It’s not my favorite

My students ask for my opinion on things, especially when I’m covering film and television in class.

Sometimes it’s a litmus test to get to know me. Sometimes they want to hear if I’ve got an opinion so they feel free to share theirs. And sometimes it’s just pre-class chatting about whatever’s trending.

There was a time when I was in their shoes, where I would have lots of insufferably demanding opinions about the things I watched. Since then, I’ve become a little more generous.

Mostly because I just don’t feel like spending energy on being negative.

It’s easier to point to reasons why something works well than to explain exactly what’s wrong with it

You can feel fairly confident in pointing out something that’s working in a narrative and why it works. But if there’s something in a film or show that you bump on; that doesn’t work for you, it’s not always easy to tell what caused that disconnect.

For one thing, pointing out what doesn’t work involves making suggestions for what could have worked better. You can offer opinions, but that’s a conversation about some imagined version that isn’t constrained by whatever realities of production shaped the actual finished product.

Without being there in the midst of the process of making a thing, it’s easy to cast blame, but hard to be correct in your accusations.

It doesn’t do my students, or me, any favors to offer half-assed opinions on what went wrong with something.

One thing I’ve gotten more confident with as I’ve gotten older (and as I’ve gotten more experience with teaching) is not having an opinion on everything.

My daughter has the right idea

It was a vocal quirk that she developed early on, but she’s stuck with it as she’s gotten older. When Sprout didn’t like something, she was likely to say:

“It’s not my favorite.”

What better way to put it when something doesn’t bowl you over? When you can see the flaws, but don’t feel a need to engage in a lengthy post-mortem examination. You can just move on.

Because I’d rather talk about exciting things I think we should aspire to instead of wasting time in discussions that say more about the people in the conversation than the thing they’re supposedly talking about.

What good does it do for me to add my voice to a chorus excoriating something for failing to satisfy its audience?

If I’m going to ask students to write with respect and empathy, then I should extend that same kindness to people who made a good faith effort to make something.

There’s no required response to artistic entertainment.

I’m not required to like it. I can’t be forced to list my disagreements with it. And I shouldn’t point fingers without accurate knowledge of the inner workings of the project.

If given the choice between trying to feel smugly superior to others who have taken on a difficult task, or to admire the work of giants, I know where I stand. I’d rather live in the shadow of the greats, aspiring toward something higher, than spending my time pretending I can trample others under my own feet.

You’d listen to yourself if you were somebody else

Early on in the semester for my Introductory writing class, I like to bring in motivational and inspirational quotes from other disciplines. I’m looking for examples of strong writing that also offer an opportunity to segue into discussing the work of writing.

For example, when I talk about the process of revision with students, I bring in Max Weber:

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

Writing can feel that slow. It’s hard, focused work, and I tell my students that they need to respect the process and prepare themselves for the slowness of it.

But it’s not always easy to take your own advice

I recently chucked out about 40 pages of a script draft. I was treating a character as a throwaway gag, but I realized there was more dramatic and comedic value in bringing them into the story properly.

Normally it feels a little easier to toss pages aside after an exciting discovery like that. If I kept going without making the changes, I’d only wind up doubling back and starting over again as soon as I typed FADE OUT.

So why not save myself some effort and get going with that new version now?

But I’ve recently started a new semester of teaching. I have a new baby in the house. I have a child starting kindergarten. I’m starting to give some of my bandwidth to the promotional side of the writing project I worked on for the past year. I’m learning to re-wire my brain so I spend less time fighting against it. And so on.

There’s momentum for my writing, but less of it. I have less energy, and I need to spend time learning new ways to adapt.

Take the new baby (Button). Before, I started pushing myself to get up earlier to try and carve out an hour to an hour and a half of solitude for coffee and work before the rest of the house would wake up. Now, Button usually starts stirring mid-way through that time.

At that point, I bring him downstairs so Dena can get some more sleep. Sometimes Button will fall back asleep quickly, but sometimes he just wants to wiggle. Other times he demands to be held.

Austin Kleon offers artists with newborns the advice to “find a one-armed miniature version of what you do.” Not everything I have to do is easily accomplished (or workable) while holding a baby, but most of the time I can shift gears. Re-prioritize, or break something into smaller tasks.

Totally sensible, but my brain says “Nope.”

I fight, resisting the need to change. I deny that I should lower my expectations for myself. I tell myself I need to hustle harder, sleep less, and juggle faster.

In an episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast, she talks about the very kind of impulse I’m fighting against and gives it a name:

When you commit to a schedule or a workload that you intuitively know at the outset is unrealistic and is destined to result in overwhelm. And then later on, you beat yourself up when you are unable to meet that schedule. That’s productivity shame.

When you set an incredibly challenging goal for yourself without creating any structure for emotional support or accountability, and then you blame your failure to meet those goals on a lack of personal willpower. That’s productivity shame.

I’ve been trying to introduce some other ideas into my head to populate my brain with counter-arguments against that inner Productivity Monster.

Image of Sam the Eagle with the caption 'The Productivity Monster is a lot less intimidating if you imagine them as a Muppet.'

For example, I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, where he uses a great example to demonstrate the idea that small changes and tiny, consistent actions can still lead to big results:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

Small actions can lead to big results if you add enough of them up. It sounds logical enough. So lately, my Write Sprints have gotten shorter, but they’re more consistent than they have been in a while. I’m not having any days where I can knock out 5+ pages, but I’m having more days where I wind up with 1 or 2 new pages of material.

Close up, that effort doesn’t feel like much motion at all. And it can be frustrating to feel like those little drips of writing aren’t connecting into a larger, coherent whole.

But there’s no point in measuring just one day

You can’t write a screenplay or a book in a single day. Anything you can completely finish in a single hour (or less) probably won’t be the thing you hold up as an example of what you’re capable of.

Reading and listening to the work of others reminds me of the idea that you need to take the long view with finishing a larger project or building up a habit.

There’s one quote about writing (and geology) gets used in the second day of the semester. It’s one I like to refer back to throughout the semester as a thematic pedal point for the class:

“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”

-John McPhee (from Annals of the Former World)

It’s a reminder to students that great things can come from humble beginnings: That which was once deep in the lowest part of the surface world, through time, pressure, and imperceptible movement, rose high above all else.

That the only constant on this planet is the act of change, and that how any situation looks at the moment is only temporary.

It’s something I use to remind them that no matter where they come from, or how they feel about their ability as a writer, given time and effort, they too can rise up.

Right now, it feels like it would benefit me to look at my work and my efforts as if I were one of my own students.

When the best words aren’t the right words

Dena and I have been having a lot of conversations with our daughter about Thankfulness because of the napkins on our kitchen table.

Every napkin has a discussion prompt for people at the table, and this one is Sprout’s favorite:

IMG_0268
It’s her favorite because of the cat, not because of the question.

The other night, we wanted to know what she would say, but she stonewalled us when asked to answer the question about what she was thankful for that day.

Part of it was just being an overtired kiddo having a late dinner. Part of it was probably the fact that she’s facing all the sea changes that come with a new baby brother, starting kindergarten, and missing her friends from day care. But there’s also the part of it where she just didn’t seem to understand the question.

So we worked to define thankfulness for her, and how it wasn’t just about saying thank you when somebody gives you something. You aren’t only thankful for presents, or for somebody bringing you the ranch dressing when you want some for your broccoli. It’s about appreciating what other people do for you that they choose to do for you. It’s about appreciating what makes you feel fortunate.

It wasn’t clicking. She got frustrated with us. We set the topic aside and gave her an opportunity to think about the question some more until dinner the next night.

And that night I asked something different: “What are your three big thank yous for today?”

I took a phrase she was already familiar with, I narrowed it down to a set number of things, and kept the question short without a lot of additional explanation to process.

It took her all of 30 seconds, and she felt good about her answers.

Yes, it’s more precise to ask her what she’s thankful for. But for our intended audience, there was this extra layer of unpacking the words themselves that kept her from joining the conversation.

When I was younger, I always associated having a larger vocabulary or being able to deploy more complicated words and ideas as a sign of intellect. I blame all the Frasier I watched.

It’s one thing to be precise, and always use exactly the word you want. It’s another thing entirely to be clear, and try to always use the words that will be understood.

Using words you think your audience will readily understand isn’t inherently condescending. It’s a way of talking to people that shows you’re listening to them.

You show that you pay attention, and your attention is a sign of respect.

It’s also about identifying what your purpose is. If we wanted this to be a lesson in the definition of thankfulness, we may or may not have succeeded. But our goal was to encourage our daughter to express gratitude. That purpose was more important than precision.


I do an exercise with students where we talk about the way Mister Rogers wrote his tv show. In an interview with two of the writers, they discuss a variation on the process that’s a joke that tells the truth:

Fred Rogers was always laser-focused on making sure each word was appropriate to his audience.

He spoke to children on their own terms because he knew that the audience was what mattered. He wasn’t concerned with only appearing kind on camera, or looking like he had all the answers, because he left ego out of the equation.

His focus on his audience, in listening to how they interpreted the world (and their concerns about it) was practicing kindness.

Because speaking to others or writing for others can, and should, involve thinking about how you can treat your audience with kindness.


When I was interviewing for my current teaching job, they asked me to give a sample lecture to a media criticism class on any topic I saw fit.

I went with applying the Buddhist concept of Right Speech to how we evaluate media.

To summarize the concepts, Right Speech is about making sure that our communication with other people is coherent, wholesome, wise, and skillful. There are four principles that help judge if speech clears this bar.

Do we avoid lies or deceptions?

Do we avoid divisive statements?

Do we avoid abusive statements?

Do we avoid idle chatter?

Avoiding lies and deceptions is not just about speaking the truth in any given moment, but reliably acting as a truthful voice.

Avoiding divisive statements is about abstaining from slander, and trying to use speech to bring people together instead of isolating them.

Avoiding abusive statements is about showing compassion and respect for the audience, and using language that they will appreciate and take to heart.

Avoiding idle chatter isn’t just about speaking with purpose, but framing your speech so that you address topics at the proper time with words intended to remain valuable beyond that moment.

As an individual, these goals can act as a good baseline for being seen as a respectful, and respectable, person.

When thinking as a writer or person who communicates through different media platforms, it can act as a good metric for if what you’re sharing with the world feels more like useful signal or distracting noise.

If you sit down to write for others, only focused on what they will think of you, you’ll never be happy with the result. If your only metrics for success are Likes, page views, or how much you got paid for your work, you’ll wind up in an endless loop where the next project will always have to seem bigger and better.

If you’re only writing with the hope that you’ll be recognized as a great writer, no praise will ever feel like enough.

There’s satisfaction to be found in the attempt to make today’s work an act of kindness. To make today’s words something that your audience will find useful whether they encounter it now or ten years from now.

There’s satisfaction to be found this way even if your audience is ten people instead of 10,000.

And there’s satisfaction to be found in seeing how much gratitude you can express for the opportunity to help others. To speak to them directly, honestly, and thoughtfully.

Current Mental Conditions vs. The Mental Forecast

It was a Saturday morning, and my daughter had been awake for forty-five minutes. By that point she had already peppered me with questions about what family birthdays are in which month, fourteen pieces of Star Wars minutiae, and three requests to look at her baby pictures. That’s when Dena texted from upstairs that our son was awake and needed his diaper changed.

Somewhere between closing the snaps on his pajamas and heading back downstairs to start toasting bagels, I looked over my to-do list. That’s when I had The Thought:

“It’s 8 a.m., and the productive part of my day was over an hour ago.”

A few months ago, this thought would’ve locked me in for (to paraphrase the words of The West Wing’s Charlie Young) a “low self-image day.” That to-do list would’ve been set aside, and lethargy would have taken over.

But not this day. This day I thought about the difference between the current mental conditions and the mental forecast.

Even if you hyper-schedule your day, you still don’t know exactly how you’re going to feel a few hours from now, or if the reality of your day is going to match your plan. Unless, that is, you decide that your interpretation of your current mental state and the outside forces acting on it are a prediction of what’s to come, and you live out your self-fulfilling prophecy.

At any given point, our mood is a snapshot of the current conditions. It’s useless, at best, to assume that how you feel now is how you will feel in the future.

Like any good forecast, you need to look at other conditions that hold influence over you.

Because unlike the weather, you have options to head off a storm front moving in inside your head. You need to be able to take that moment to step back and clearly see what you’re looking at when you look at your mental state.

This isn’t just for people with depression. Every person makes predictions about what might happen in the future, but the only information we have is what we can see and hear in the present. Any person might make a bad prediction. While my depression doesn’t create a unique problem in that sense, it does make it harder to differentiate between the current conditions and the forecast.

But I’m learning.

I ate my bagel. Had some coffee. Washed some dishes. Gave my son a bath. Wrote the first draft of this post, and got a lot of other boxes checked off in my to-do list.

And a big part of why the day didn’t stop at 8 a.m. was because I’m learning to be a better emotional meteorologist.

How am I not myself?

Ever since I started using streaming music services, I’ve wondered about how much of my listening choices have been shaped by the service. Am I really listening to what I want to, or have I been going with the algorithm’s flow, listening to minor variations on what it knows of my past preferences?

Then again, I was never really picking songs out of nowhere.

There was my father’s record collection in the basement, where his taste shaped mine. There were recommendations from friends. There were the songs on the radio, selected by tastemakers and marketers. There was what was available to me in local stores, or who I might see perform on the tv shows I watched (which were determined by the people who booked talent for those shows, and the network executives that decided what shows to produce).

Other people already shaped my taste, but I could exert control by saying yes or no to their suggestions.

The same goes for films that I watch and re-watch. Sure, Netflix may try to suggest what it thinks I would like to see next, but I have final say. Like with music, when it comes to film, I never made choices in a complete void. I was influenced by everything from professors in school, my friends, the “Best Of” list books I pored over, the programmers at Turner Classic Movies… And so on.

What I was exposed to created a rubric for me to interpret my reactions and opinions, but in the end I would get to say yes or no.

And I’m thinking about this more when I question why it took me so long to make the leap and try antidepressants.

While growing up, people would talk to me about the way my brain seemed to operate differently than other people’s. That it was unique in a positive way.

During one long night in high school, working on a homecoming float, a friend took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t ever take drugs, because “They’ll just make you like everyone else.” It was a pretty odd PSA moment, but it stuck with me.

For a long time, I consciously connected the idea of drugs that alter your mood or perceptions as changing something essential about you. Maybe it had to do with the way I identified as a creative person, and there were so many creative people who were heralded for making beautiful art out of their pain. Creative people who talked openly about their disdain for the idea of doing anything to alter their relationship between their mind and their work.

And there were direct testimonials from people whose work I respected, like when reading David Lynch’s comments on drugs (in general) from Catching the Big Fish:

We all want expanded consciousness and bliss. It’s a natural, human desire. And a lot of people look for it in drugs. But the problem is that the body, the physiology, takes a hard hit on drugs. Drugs injure the nervous system, so that they just make it harder to get those experiences on your own.

The messages about how drugs (of all types) work sunk in. That altering your chemistry altered something essential about you. I had a fear of becoming somebody else. Dulled. Losing my edge.

And I lied to myself that it was worth all the suffering so long as I could hold on to those occasional moments and fight through it to think up something beautiful or original.

But at some point I had to ask the question out of I Heart Huckabees: How am I not myself?

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If other people, other stories, other choices, other influences touch my life every day, but I’m still somehow essentially me, why should medication be any different?

It was a risk I was finally willing to take, because of two things:

  1. Acknowledging that the version of myself that I became without some kind of intervention had become someone incapable of properly doing the things I care about, or being helpful to the people I care about.
  2. Acknowledging that nothing is permanent, and that if one intervention doesn’t work or has negative side effects, there are other methods to try.

And I feel different. I feel more resilient. More able to grasp moments of happiness.

But am I myself?

When am I not?

To say that medication makes me no longer myself is to suggest that a person has little to no free will, that we’re just chemical processes dancing with our reactions to our environment. If changing the internal chemistry of my body makes me a fundamentally different individual, then so would taking a vitamin C supplement or an aspirin.

A person has to be more than their chemistry, their DNA, their “programming.” Otherwise, there would be little difference at all between a human and an algorithm.

There’s no difference between what’s inside a bedroom with the lights on or off. It’s just that when you turn the lights on, the shadows stop looking like monsters.

 

Other uses for seeds that don’t sprout

This morning, I watched a squirrel eating helicopter seeds off the ground.

Look, when your mind latches on to an analogy, and the world around you seems to be prompting you, just run with it.

The tree made the seeds to try and grow more trees. Instead, that tree was feeding a squirrel, so that squirrel had the energy to keep running around, being a squirrel.

When the helicopter seeds come raining down heavy, on a windy day, or in a storm, sometimes they can clog the gutter on a house. Maybe that causes the owner of the house to climb up on a ladder to clear the gutter, changing the shape of their day. Maybe they go to a home improvement store to buy some gutter guards, creating another project that takes some of their time (and moving money around in the economy).

The seeds aren’t fulfilling their intended purpose, but they’re not without purpose.

Pages might not make the finished draft of a story. Your script might not make the cut for the next round of the competition. Your tweet might get a lackluster number of Likes.

Only attaching value to an action if it gets the desired result diminishes your ability to see inherent value in the action itself. It diminishes your ability to see value in yourself.

Don’t get discouraged. Do the work. Clog the gutters.