“If you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, you’re pissing on the present.” ~ Malachy McCourt.
From Malachy McCourt’s quote above, I learned that spending too much time writing about the past and worrying about how my writing will play out in the future, caused me to miss the most important lesson of all: to be fully present and to work in the moment—right now.
At the beginning of my research into the relationship between the practice of maitri and how it relates to the writing experience, I found that the definition of maitri defied a concrete simple description or explanation. Instead, it was similar to someone trying to describe music in words as opposed to actual sounds. I clearly could relate to this since I have spent my entire life on the planet playing and composing music. When someone would ask me what kind of music I write, I felt like I was a square peg being forced into a round hole. How could I put my work in a box and label it something else entirely? Assigning labels did not do the music justice. The music I write is unique, just like me. The words I write are also unique, just like me. Picasso did not paint like Rembrandt nor did he try to imitate him. Both Picasso and Rembrandt’s works were a unique expression of themselves and their work.
When practicing maitri, we take on the responsibility to look inward to ourselves and how we express ourselves in day to day life. We learn to accept the goodness and the faults in ourselves. In the maitri practice, we accept who we are in this moment, flaws and all, with loving-kindness and compassion. When we are able to sit in the muck and take care of ourselves in this way, then we are more able to extend that loving-kindness and compassion outward so that it hopefully may benefit others.
Writing about maitri was not easy for me, as I knew nothing about it at first. I panicked. And at each attempt to write about it, I still did not make the connection. Maitri is more than a single definition; it is a practice. Every new rabbit hole I went down, all 17 of them, I saw a side of myself I never saw before. Over time, I was sitting in the muck of myself, writing about the past, and worrying about the future. I couldn’t get from point A to point B without tears, fears, anxiety, break downs, distractions, and interruptions. I wore a path between the refrigerator and my desk, and the 30-day challenge, which was to commit to doing “no multitasking” in addition to the writing class experience, fell apart in the first week. I was ready to quit entirely. Finally, I had to let go for a while out of sheer exhaustion and lack of sleep. It wasn’t long before I came back to try again.
I once studied tai chi, the practice of moving meditation. To benefit from this practice, it was important to take the feeling of a calm, relaxed, mindful awareness that we attained through meditation and apply that same mindfulness to not only the movements of the forms practiced in tai chi, but also outward to the activities of our daily lives.
In practicing maitri, we similarly take the loving-kindness and compassion of caring for ourselves and move that expression outward toward others to hopefully be of benefit. In both tai chi and maitri, we open up. The practice of writing is cathartically forcing us to open up and look deep within ourselves as well, authentically opening up without fear. Through practicing maitri, we can focus on our authenticity; we open up and allow ourselves to be of benefit.
My best ideas for writing came when I wasn’t near the computer or near a pen and paper at all, so, capturing the words before I forgot them was challenging. There were times I rushed downstairs to capture those thoughts on the computer, only to forget most ideas by the time I got there. When that peaceful meditative state was gone, the ego gingerly rushed in to steal the show.
It was usually during peaceful times that produced the most innovative thoughts; waking up in the morning, taking a shower, drying my hair, or executing any other repetitive mundane activity, like cleaning, gardening, or doing the dishes were opportune times for an idea to be born. But not all ideas led me down the right path—grappling to learn, I still fell down the rabbit hole some 17 times. They were authentic and raw, but it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. There was still much to learn about the writing process, and about myself.
I was thinking and writing constantly, even on small scraps of paper that I shoved in my pockets while on the run doing other things. Some of them were lucky enough to make it back to the computer. Others, well, they suffered an early death, shredded to bits in the bottom of the washing machine.
The feeling of “being in the zone” as experienced by athletes, as well as artists and musicians, happens in writing, too. It is a feeling I experience in the music studio; it feels like meditation. Having spent a lifetime at the piano, it is natural for me to initiate new ideas by simply starting to play anywhere on the keyboard, but if I do not purposely push the record button, the ideas will be lost. The only way to repeat the experience is to play the passage until it is memorized or painstakingly written down, note by note. Unless written down or recorded, the notes are never played the same way twice. When we’re improvising and experimenting, the notes played come and go, and like in jazz and blues, they are never played the same way twice. And in writing, unless you capture it quickly in print, ideas are usually lost that way, too.
No two definitions were the same about maitri. Like the descriptions defining music, this only heightened my frustrations. Weeks went by and I still slid into ruminating excessively on how I would write anything and catch up to the class.
With one foot set squarely in the future, worrying about the outcome, and the other in the past worrying about revealing more of my life than I was comfortable with and who that writing would affect, I pulled back. The assignment in my writing class to come up with just a five-word sentence, my choice of “Don’t’ piss away the present!” surely applied to my predicament.
So, I started writing with a clean slate from scratch, on the seventeenth rabbit hole. The last 16 holes were definitely a cathartic endeavor, as I poured my heart out. It was an education using the writing experience to help explain what makes me who I am. And it was the process of writing and learning about maitri that was the important lesson. It wasn’t just the process of understanding the definitions of maitri, and there were many that helped define it, it was the process of writing about it that taught me more.
We have to get to know our inner selves. We have to dig down deep to find out who we are, which is inherent goodness in our uniqueness. When I went back and read my statements at the beginning of each new rabbit hole, I realized I had started each experience with an excuse for not completing the assignment in one form or another. I whined about procrastinating, excuses, complaints, fears of being judged.
I broke down in tears. And finally, I just sat in the muck; I sat in my own mess. I stopped banging my head against the wall and just owned it. I had to quiet the negative voices in my head and just go with it. Deal with it or quit and move on. This is the beginning of my journey into writing as I come to understand maitri.
And when I take care of myself, get adequate sleep, and eat nourishing foods, that is when my brain works best. Being “in the zone”—that’s where I’ll find the best words, notes, and ideas to put into writing. Through introspection and authenticity with loving-kindness and compassion, hopefully, the best parts of me will come shining through with words that will be of service and benefit to others. May the journey continue.