A week or two ago, I felt I'd really lost my way when it came to writing.Then I read a post on my friend Dave Klaus’s blog called ‘Breaking the Spell of Separation’.
How I met Dave Klaus
Two years ago I went to Burning Man for the first time. As anyone who’s been will tell you, the group of people you camp with has a lot to do with how much you, ahem, enjoy the experience. I was incredibly fortunate to find myself in the middle of the Bees – the only group of people I’ve ever actually wanted to be 100% part of. Dave is King Bee, a title both serious and ironic. He wears the crown, or cowboy hat, well.
I went to Burning Man to break out of a mental and emotional straightjacket I’d strapped myself into. I was going to write about the experience. Two years down the line I’m still digesting what happened to me and coming to terms with the beautiful changes Burning Man and being with the Bees set in motion.
On a dusty sofa in the desert
One twilight, in the lull before the whole crazy carnie flickered into life around us, Dave and I sat on that dusty sofa and talked about writing. He wore a yellow and black tutu and bright yellow fur coat. My fur coat was a little too small but my new black DJ gloves trimmed with yellow fun fur that Tessa, a splendidly eccentric artist Bee had made for me, were the business. I was so blown away by Dave and the Bees – in a quiet, English, stiff upper lip way – that I offered to help Dave with his writing. It’s all I had to give.
As we talked in the months that followed, I helped Dave acknowledge what he knew already. He is a writer and he has as much right to write as anyone. Now, the thing I admire most – and envy a little – about Dave’s writing is his ability to be absolutely honest. In a way which is forceful but always gentle.
After I read Dave’s ‘Breaking the Spell of Separation’ post I had to write and tell him how much I loved it. A few days later we caught up and talked about what life writing means to Dave.
Dave, the thing that really got to me about the post was you worked through all your negative feelings to arrive at such a positive state. How do you find your way back to optimism?
The biggest gift to me in the past two years has been learning I have a degenerative lung condition, and coming to terms with the reality that in the not-so distant future I’ll likely need supplemental oxygen from a tank to breathe. It’s devastating but the gift has been to truly appreciate each breath as I’m taking it. Within each breath is untold opportunity.
When I’m doing my practice, which includes meditation, embodiment work (yoga and qi gung and biking), and appreciation of the dharma, I find I’m able to wake up in this moment and grin. I’m optimistic because I’m alive and have been so for 47 years. And I keep being able to breathe without effort. It turns out that breathing is the best drug of all.
What does the moment mean to you?
I’ve been struggling a lot recently and I started thinking about the poignancy of each moment. Which way do I want to go with what the moment contains?
The question I ask myself is ‘Am I going to fall into safety or scarcity?’. But when I do my practice and get into the Buddha groove there’s a sensation of possibility and optimism. And being connected to an amazing community means that if I do fall into scarcity I don’t languish there too long. I hear the pinging call of groundedness: a homing beacon to the present moment.
In my professional work, I’m defending a man who killed others, who now wants to die . I have to have faith that I can keep going in a certain direction. As Kierkegaard said, I’m ‘treading water over 70,000 fathoms’ so what do I do? I just keep moving my arms and legs and breathing. There’s obviously a certain gravity to that metaphor, so I try to balance it with remembering the cosmic joke: how funny this life can be!
In what way?
My client is charged with murdering seven people. He’s a sad and broken man with desperate mental illness. Serious stuff. One day, I’m sitting with him in court, and I smell something. I’m thinking he doesn’t smell so good. That’s not uncommon for people living in jail, and especially for those who are ill like he is, so I let it go and forgive him. After the hearing’s over, I go back to my office. I sit down at my desk and I can still smell it. In an instant, I realise it was me not him! I’d forgotten to put on my deodorant that morning. I burst out laughing. All my projections onto him, my clients and the situation dissolved. It broke the spell, and brought lightness to the moment. I’ve learned that when I want to defy gravity, and not be Grave Dave, I think of something funny. I watch comedy like Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, or listen to some standup by Louis CK or Aziz Ansari.
Do you get depressed?
Not so much now. I certainly still experience depressive phases but it’s much more of a rollercoaster, whereas in the old days I could sink into darkness for months. Now, I have a laugh, get a hug, go dancing. The real reason it’s changed is that I have a solid spiritual practice and I take much better care of myself.
How is the way you feel connected to your writing?
I would say that my writing tends to come fairly effortlessly when it’s happening. But I go in bursts. I’m not consistent. I’d like to become more regular, make it more of a practice. It’s built now on years of work in men’s circles, therapy, journaling, and practicing noticing what I’m feeling and then putting words to it. I've learned to identify the feelings that are arising, and to recognize the stories that I can then spin out of them. When I write about embarrassing stuff like shame, I find that the feeling settles down and dissipates.
Shame is a monster.
Sure. But I remember one of the stories about the Buddha. There’s the belief that once he reached enlightenment he became superior, untouched by feelings and emotions. Not true. Even late in his life, if Mara, the demon who tried to tempt the Buddha with visions of beautiful women and distraction, showed up at the back of the room when the Buddha was talking, he’d say ‘Mara, I see you there’. That’s it. He’d acknowledge the presence of these distractions and then move on. I take this to mean that honouring and crediting shame is all part of integrating into being a whole person.
Back to writing…
When I’m writing down the process of what I’m feeling I actually start to feel different - lighter, more present and grounded. Then there’s the scary moment of deciding to publish the writing. Fortunately, pretty much every time I post something personal I always get at least one person who says ‘Thank you for posting, I thought I was the only one, I though I was all alone.’ Hearing that, I don’t feel so alone. I just have this belief now that when people express what’s happening to them the more empowered they feel and the safer it becomes. At least that’s how it works for me.
What do you think is the difference between writing as a practice and as a kind of art form with pretensions?
I now call myself a writer. I say that to people. It was an important step for me and it came directly out of working with you, David. Claiming that title was a powerful transition for me, and it’s now one of the hats I wear. I carry my notebook and pencil with me at all times and I’m always looking for fodder to use in my writing. Observing and noticing as witness also gives me a little bit of a buffer. When the poignant prick of reality arises, I have a bit more distance to ask myself: which way am I going to fall, sweet or sour? Having that space, that distance, which is strengthened and enhanced by meditation, gives me choice. That’s where the writing is a practice. It gives me a little bit of a distance from the intensity of what’s happening, and then it gives me the space to realise how alive I really am.
Thanks for reminding me this space exists, Dave.
Talk to me about life writing
Life writing covers everything from blogging to autobiography. If you’d like to excercise your right to write and develop a life writing practice, and you could use some guidance, please get in touch.