I began keeping
a journal when I was
traveling in India. Those
first journals were composition books used by Indian schoolchildren, wide-lined
coarse paper with flimsy covers. Later I used businesslike black bound
journals, with good-quality narrow-lined paper. I was convinced that I couldn’t
write without lines.
I quit keeping a journal about ten years
later. I assumed I quit because I had begun writing a book, which
was to some
extent based on the journals. Writing the book seemed to absorb the energy that
previously had gone into journal writing, and it provided the same pleasures.
The sensuous pleasure of pencil lead or black ink flowing onto paper, forming
curly-spiky alphabetic forms that are instantly decoded by the eye. The pleasure
of play—making a pattern and trying it various ways; discovering a better word,
a better place for a word or line or paragraph; the delight of making meaning,
for no other reason than the joy in it.
was surprised when my best friend—a person
of considerable reserve with no apparent drive toward self-expression—told me
she had begun to keep a journal. But her journal had a specific purpose. She
described her interactions with people and what resulted from those
interactions, and she reread the journals to see what she could learn about how
people worked. Her descriptions and analysis were plain, almost technical: “I
said [A], then he told me [B] and walked off. So saying [A] may have been
perceived as harsh. Or maybe he was just in a funk. How to know? Need to try
again and observe more carefully.” Strictly utilitarian.
I never went back and read my journals, except
to plunder them for the book. Aside from that, most of what I
useless as information: what I ate that day, how the sky looked at that moment
through my window, that sort of thing. The point was to capture in words
moments that moved me.
The books I used for journals exhibited a
steady trend toward the ever more handsome. The last one was made for me by an artist: large unlined pages
of heavy cream paper exquisitely bound and covered in raw silk. He had written
the first entry himself, an invitation to record my experience on the inward
path of meditation. With no lines to restrain it, my handwriting became larger
and looser, with fewer and fewer words on each page—like molecules of a rapidly
expanding gas that’s been released into space.
I reached the end of that journal, I
was also at the end of my desire to record my experience. I wondered if that was partly because the material
magnificence of the journal, the journal as an object, was so expressive that
words were beside the point. In any case, in the pages of that journal I had
moved from writing down observations of my mental activity—making those black
marks on white paper to convey meaning—to simply observing the inner process.
And then I saw the journal as existing in silence, just itself.
So many things I think I know then find out I
don’t. Like having to have lined paper—look what happened when I let go that
belief: free expansion into space.
What might follow if I gave up the assumption, entrenched to some degree in
most of us, that a good part of my activity should be useful?
On Zen retreats we refrain from writing
well as from speaking, as part of the silence we observe. Silent retreats are
heavenly: you’re just here,
with whatever is going on. In that context, writing in a journal would be
effortful, pushing the rock of experience up a mountain, as opposed to simply
being still with the experience. Here’s a moment, in all its fullness, and now
another, and another . . . and I’m going to stop and write something about it, “capture”
it? Feels like going against gravity.
Another activity that, like keeping a
seemed to drop away on its own was self-entertainment, by which
I mean my
deliberately choosing to run an imaginary story in my mind (most often
undertaken during meditation retreats and other occasions of extreme tedium). I
envisioned those stories as a collection of videotapes, from which I would select
a new one or an old favorite, according to my mood.
first glance, those two activities would
seem to be polar opposites. The journals preserved recorded facts and reactions
to those facts, and once I’d done the recording, I was through with it. My
self-entertainment library, on the other hand, was pure fantasy and available
for replaying ad infinitum. From the perspective of meditation practice,
however, those two activities aren’t that different. For me to write in a
journal now would be in some ways the equivalent of selecting a fantasy to run
through in my mind: both activities draw me away from what is happening in the
present. Not to mention how the light of meditation reveals fact and fantasy to
be not all that different.
reconsideration: Keeping a journal was “useful”
in that it was so engaging, so much fun. I just loved it! Self-entertainment
was the same, plus it served the important purpose of getting me through Zen
retreats at a point when, without something to occupy my mind, I might have
writing books as opposed to keeping a
journal, it would seem that the greater degree of focus and intent implies a
greater degree of usefulness. But usefulness doesn’t come into it for me; I
really don’t know why I write, not beyond “I want to” and “it’s fun.” Isn’t
this true of all the arts?
Seeing how useful can evolve into useless over time, I wonder what else might fall
away from the Sisyphean effort I call my life.
how a shift in perspective can reveal
usefulness in what previously appeared useless, and vice versa, I imagine a moebius strip of useful and useless morphing into each other and back again,
subject to a myriad endlessly changing conditions. Without knowing the full
trajectory of my life, how could I know what ultimately will prove useful or
Sitting in meditation is as useless as
making art. As my Zen teacher says, there’s nothing to do, nothing to get,
nowhere to go.
What could be
more useless than art and Zen? (Or—dare I say it?—more fun.)
Or—if construed as useless, against the
assumption that activity should be useful—more Sisyphean?
useless? How could I know, except as it applies to this particular moment?