This blog was featured on 09/30/2019
Zen Mind, Writer’s Mind: Letting Go
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
September 2019
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
September 2019

The Zen Buddhist monk, Shunryu Suzuki, once said that all great art was like a beginner’s mind (sho shin).  Or, to paraphrase: to overthink is to destroy. Trust what intuitively, almost seamlessly and organically,  comes through you.  And then let it go and move on.

My debut novel, Things Unsaid, dissects family and generational relationships, portraying a family in all its emotional complexity, three generations rooted in guilt, karma, obligation, duty and broken promises.   I wanted to step out of the boundaries of traditional storytelling. By utilizing the wellspring of the philosophical beliefs of Buddhist karma and Catholic guilt, and by comparing and contrasting them in my characters, I was able to overlay a different paradigm.  Think Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant meets "August: Osage County" with the subtle theme of Buddhism thrown in.

What I see when I look back at the completed novel  is that not only the story is infused with Buddhist values, but also my writing process itself.  Zen Buddhism, which I practice and once taught, speaks to the truth of self-expression as identical with creativity.  But I had to give myself permission to speak that truth, to let go of the editor, critic, and censor within.

Like Zen meditation, writing is a form of meditation for me.  It is a window  into myself, into my own mind and heart.  Writing gives me an intimacy with unexpected thoughts, feelings, and images comparable to when I sit in meditation.  Just as the family in Things Unsaid doesn’t talk about anything real and self-revealing,  the writing process, when  unlocked, reveals what is real in my emotional life, my memory, my images. 

Meditation does the same thing. The object of meditation is to be aware of one focal point (breath) and then to let go of whatever thoughts (often surprising and unconscious) arise.  Through letting go, an awareness of who you are becomes possible.

Writing was that letting go for me. As Zen practitioners experience the losing “self” in meditation, I also felt the losing of self in writing.  For many, this is flowing into the “zone”.  For me, it was a Zen type of experience.  As authors have commonly discussed the fact that the book writes itself, in a similar fashion I forgot the writer in writing.  There was no supervision of the mind, no control over it.  The writing—the story—just went where it wanted to go, like random thoughts arising in sitting meditation, coming through me.  The story is fiction, but the characters took on a life of their own, arising in scene after scene.

A lot of authors do not have formal meditation practice,  of course, but  the immediacy and spontaneity of  writing what comes to mind in the present moment is certainly a type of Zen practice.  The inner critic’s voice cannot be allowed to arise.  The writer has to let attention to detail arise of its own accord, pictures in the mind. Like focusing on one’s breath in sitting meditation,  the writer lets thoughts arise, one at a time, and then lets go (by writing them down). 

Can we allow ourselves to be who we are? To see our darkness as well as our light? The ability to expose our vulnerability and fear—and share it—is the story.  In Things Unsaid, the protagonist’s redemption  comes with accepting her life the way it is.   In my debut novel I hope I have delivered a portrait of familial obligations and just how far we will go to try to do it all – and the risks that we take in doing so.  Until we let go.


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