On Rules and Breaking Them

In writing and in life, there are rules. The words “creative” and “writing” don’t always coexist, even for fiction writers. Yes, it’s creative to come up with a great plot full of surprises and twists and insights, but in setting that plot down on the page, there are constant rules. Sentences! Spelling! Grammar! And so on.

Genre writers have even more rules. Happy Ever After for romance writers. The criminal will be captured and made to pay in mystery. Those are the biggest rules and there are so many more that, should you be lucky enough to find an editor or agent to read your manuscript, you’ll hear them all. There are also books and workshops and classes and blog posts that will give you the rules as they understand them. Many writers will attempt to abide by these rules because they want to be published.

Yet something strange happens if you adhere too closely to these rules as a writer. You lose the creative impulse that spurred you on to write in the first place. You paint by number. You give your publisher and your readers more of the same, book after book. Readers expect it. Publishers demand it.

The art of creating something new is the thrill and now it’s gone. But if you persist in your specific vision, if your work is both original and compelling, it might win you acclaim, prizes and money. Or not. So following the rules as a creative writer brings risk, just as, recently, gathering in public is a risk. Certainly if you are not wearing a mask, you pose a risk to others.

I hate the mask, but I wear it because I try to live by the rule of “First, do no harm.” If you are out in public in a crowd without a mask, you may be doing many people harm. I used to suffer with my mask and become annoyed, even angered, by those who went without. Why were they being so selfish? Didn’t they understand that the mask is not only to protect themselves, but to protect others?

There are several answers to this question of why people do not obey the health guidelines to wear a mask in pubic. There’s not a thing I can do to change a single one of these folks’ minds. I wouldn’t even try. So I simmer in anger and bitterness, which I dislike almost as much as the mask.

The Buddhists have a solution, of sorts, to my anger at people who refuse to wear masks in public. It’s not easy, but it works. Anger and other negative emotions are the perfect opportunity to practice compassion. The practice goes like this: you find yourself angry because the person is not following a rule, you recognize you are angry, you turn your anger into prayer for this person, and for all persons like them.

It’s akin to the Christian rule to love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus on the cross. “May all humans be free from suffering,” loosely translates the practice of turning your own anger into compassion. For a person not wearing a mask in a crowded public space, the prayer might be “May this person (or these people) awaken to the need to protect their brothers and sisters from this virus.”

On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all the women and men who have lost their lives fighting wars for our country. And I honor all of those who have lost the fight against this virus. Namaste.

Help!

As a lover of self-help, I’ve been on a lifetime improvement course. Body, mind and spirit have all been quieted, redirected and made new. Over and over again. And yet…I can’t give up my self-help habits. I don’t even want to, although I know that some efforts, especially those in the “body” have been fantastic fails. Like when I read Geneen Roth’s first book about stopping diets forever and just letting yourself eat what you want.

I gained thirty pounds on that one. This was many years ago but as I recall, her plan was that you had to ask yourself before you ate the ice cream “Do I really want this?” and as I shoveled cookies and chips into my mouth and poured wine down my throat, I was always sure I really, really wanted it.

I stopped going to Geneen for diet advice, but I kept reading her books because she was so engaging. She didn’t just write about food, but about her obese cat Blanche, and her husband, who she could not get in touch with when an earthquake (a very big one) hit San Francisco. I was riveted by her willingness to show herself in all her anxious glory, especially when she wrote about losing all her money to Bernie Madoff.

I expected more of the same from “This Messy Magnificant Life.” Another disaster story that ends when Geneen finally defeats that book’s particular demons. But she surprised me. Her latest is full of hope. It reminded me more of the Buddhist texts I like to read for spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is a tidy phrase. It doesn’t scare people as much as saying something like “Don’t believe your thoughts. The mind is crazy.”

I’ve been reading about and trying to grasp the idea that my monkey mind is not me. All those self-doubts, recriminations for past misdeeds, fears about the future. Who wouldn’t want a free pass to tell themselves “Hey these thoughts have nothing to do with me. Pay no attention. Don’t buy into them. You don’t need to feel guilty and sad.”

The first time I seriously tried to grasp this idea that we are not our thoughts, and that our thoughts often lead us down the path to suffering, was when Mark Epstein wrote “Thoughts Without a Thinker” in 1996. I remember how the title itself puzzled me and in fact was a little frightening. Who would I be without my thoughts? I needed them to get myself through life.

Right? Wrong. Most of our thoughts are better let go. I only finally really got this about twenty years after I read Epstein’s book. Buddhists have no time for ego. They don’t spend days and weeks in self-loathing mode. They start where they are and every day the mistakes of yesterday, or five minutes ago, get a clean slate.

This is not to say all thought should be ruthlessly abandoned. How would I write this post if I did that? What the Buddhists say, and what Geneen finally understands, is that most thoughts are unrelated to our present reality and many of our recursive thoughts will slow our progress toward understanding that, as the Dalai Lama says, our religion is love.

Love your thoughts, if you must, but in the end, you’ll be happier if you let most of them go. Try this. Try seeing how you feel when you give up the persistence idea that you should have protected your child more (I’ve been having that thought for 40 years) or you should never have tried cocaine (30 years) or that secretly you’re a failure because your career was a joke (20 years) or that your marriage just does not somehow make everything okay (10 years) or that your family members do not love you as much as they love other members (yesterday).

Yes, so I had that thought yesterday, and I had it every day for the past week or so and I’ve had it often in the past. I’ve had that thought longer than any other one. What’s great about having a thought like that now is it glides from my mind like a passing cloud in the sky. Silly thought, I think. Knowing 100% that it has nothing to do with me, with my family, with love, or with anything important at all.