Like Carolyn, I was excited from the moment we planned the first Mandala Writer’s Circle retreat. Three days in the Vermont mountains with nothing to do except write sounded like heaven. I was surprised then that I was feeling so down during the week leading up to our getaway. As it got closer and closer my internal voice was doing a number on me, sending me a stream of harsh messages like “you can’t write, don’t even bother with this” and “no one wants to hear what you have to say”.
It sounds sort of funny now, as I write it, but it was serious at the time. I was being attacked from all sides and to my core by my own saboteur, my ego.
During that pre-week, the still functioning portion of my brain delivered the insight that my book of essays needed a villain. That is, to be authentic I needed to name the thing that has held me back or kept me in my box. Because the framework for the essays is metaphorical, I chose the cobra as my villain. I told Carolyn I just needed to figure out what the cobra was in my own life. I went off to mull it over, all the while swatting at the nasty self-critiques that would not cease.
I didn’t realize then that my intuition was speaking to me in metaphors, a language that I find arresting and beautiful and different from my own. The idea of a cobra was worthy of reflection and a distraction from the negative internal chatter. In digging into the subject I freed my rational mind to identify the traits of a cobra – poisonous, frightening, and unpredictable, as well as protective of its young – and to see them in my own struggles. My cobra is self-doubt; my ego was trying to protect me from changing the status quo.
Fascinating! This is the good stuff. Growing as a person is the most frightening and exhilarating thing we do as humans. When we get close to awareness we feel the pain most keenly. We want to walk away from it, and very often we do. I know I have in the past. It kept me from writing for 30 years.
Carolyn and I decided to take a walk in the midst of our respective thrashing (see her “Trust Your Gut” post), and we found a portentous friend basking in the sunshine outside our front door:
While Carolyn meditated to a place of calm, I hacked away at my cobra piece. I had fun describing its venomous attacks and getting clear on where in my life it has shown its hood and fangs. I felt enormous relief in recognizing its existence. I also felt joy. There is a kind of freedom that comes from acknowledging not only your own particular saboteur but seeing the way the viper attacks each of us differently, right where we live, whether heart or mind or body. It loses much of its power when it’s brought out into the light.
On the drive back through the mountains, I was reminded of the Zen koan, how do you go further than the top of a 100 foot pole?, and I had one answer: we leap into doubt. We leap into it when we create anything. We leap into it when we let the characters or the ideas lead us and we let go of the need to perfect the writing. We leap into it when we change the view and force a new way of seeing.
Leah and Carolyn
Writing Exercise: Before you plunge into your work, warm up by changing your perspective. Be your main character’s mother (or arch enemy or best friend), and describe him or her from this vantage point. Or, re-write a personal essay with a new voice or tone, like a mimic. Go outside your head. See what you discover.