Suffering optional. Pass the chocolate.




As I sail through one green light after another on my way to an appointment, I think of that magical day last summer, out on the lake by myself in a dark green canoe.


I’m sitting in the bow, facing backwards so my weight is centred. The paddling has been a bit challenging, a stiff wind blowing one way, the current flowing the other way. It’s hard to make much headway, but I’ve persisted around the perimeter of the lake.


As I turn towards home, a straight run across the width of the lake, the wind shifts so it’s behind me, with the current running the same way. Paddling takes hardly any effort at all now, the canoe leaping forward with each dip and pull of the paddle, responsive to the slightest twist of the paddle to stay on course.


The best part is when I nail the landing. It’s perfect this time. The final pull of the paddle creates exactly enough momentum to propel the canoe all the way to shore, cleanly and silently until we slide to a halt in the sand, with a small crunch and an even smaller bump, precisely where I’ve aimed it, far enough up the beach that the water barely even covers my feet when I get out.


As I step onto dry land, I hear the distinctive screech of an osprey overhead. I look up and marvel at how she rides the thermals, wings fully outspread to pick up the slightest movement of air and heat. She makes it look easy, effortless. I don’t know how effortless it actually is, but I do see how little movement it takes to bank into the curve of the circle she’s making over the lake.


Osprey, canoe, the green lights. These are the things that come to mind as I settle myself with notebook and pen for a few minutes of writing practice.


What do they have in common? How are they related to writing?


It occurs to me that writing feels smooth and easy most days, sometimes landing perfectly, coming to a satisfying ending; sometimes soaring like an osprey, coming up with a fish flopping in my talons; sometimes sailing through green lights, not fast, but just in time, steady and easy. There’s no friction, just one thought flowing into the next, triggering another and another and another. My inner critic snoozes in the back seat as I write them all down indiscriminately, in a state of “flow” that makes me lose track of time, space and who I am; and the writing writes itself without much interference from me.


It was not always so.


Writing used to be frustrating, difficult, and to be avoided until the very last minute. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’d convinced myself I hated the process. Focusing only on the product and on having that product ready by the deadline, I couldn’t allow myself to slow down enough to actually experience the process fully. I often felt like I was running flat out and smacking into a brick wall, over and over again, unable to stop and unable to break through.





These days, the frustration and difficulty are manageable. They haven’t disappeared. I’m not always in a state of flow when I’m writing.


Sometimes, writing is the last thing I want to do; I’d rather poke myself in the eye with that pen than use it for writing. Sometimes, writing is jagged and bumpy; every light turns red just as I approach, and I’m stuck behind a car that drives at the speed limit. Sometimes, writing is just downright unpleasant and frankly terrifying; I’m paddling madly down a fast, narrow river with hidden rocks, with no place to land and no choice but to navigate to where the river opens up, be that opening to a calm pond or a swamp full of alligators.


And yet, I continue to show up. Why?

The writing process itself is healing. Even when it dumps me in the swamp full of alligators, I know I can manage.


Much like the meditation practices at its roots, contemplative writing asks us to face and accept everything.


All feelings are welcome on the page. All thoughts are welcome, no matter how trite or silly, sad or painful. I find that when I fully turn my attention to a difficult emotion, it begins to subside by itself, both in meditation practice and in writing practice. (Unless I’m turning my attention to the emotion because I want it to subside, in which case there’s more letting go to be done.)


It’s also easier to write about difficult things because I use a prompt and then allow my mind to go where it will. Often, my mind ends up at the difficult place anyway, but it gets there under my radar.


Before I know it, that prompt about mashed potatoes brings me to the poignancy and pain of the last time I saw my dad; the prompt about fishing for compliments takes me back to literal fishing, at the trout farm with my dad, which takes me into a memory of him in his final days.


If I sat down to write about the topic, “My Father’s Last Days,” my mind would balk, leaving me stuck forever. I’d either give up or write and write and write, running at that brick wall again, without ever getting to the poignancy and the pain, the slow aching melancholy that sometimes visits me even 30 years after his death.


Once they’re on the page, those difficult thoughts and feelings lose some of their charge and so become more manageable.


Even when it’s difficult, the process itself can flow. Emotion can flow through instead of getting stuck. Thoughts can find a place on the page instead of swimming around and around in circles in my mind, trying to escape a closed loop but finding no outlet.


Practising in community is even better, because I can read out loud to other humans who will hold a container of compassion for me, as I do for them. We don’t comment or comfort, but simply listen, deeply, not only to the words but to the feelings. The group creates a safe space of witnessing. Often, all I need is to say the words out loud and be heard.


Self-compassion becomes easier as I notice that others have compassion for me, and I for them. Compassion for others seems easier, but as I write, I notice I can find compassion for my younger self. From there, I see that maybe I could also have compassion for my present self.


I also see that suffering doesn’t actually need to be part of the writing process at all. There’s no need to run headlong into brick walls until I end up in a bruised, exhausted heap.





The writing process can be gentler, much gentler. Instead of running into the wall, I might just work around the wall, maybe tapping at the chinks in the mortar here and there, loosening things up until it’s not so solid anymore.


Or I might just break out the chocolate--the secret writing tool that’s just as important as pen and paper--and let the difficult thing rest for a while, knowing the page will be there when I’m ready to explore further, when the lights are green, the river calm, and the osprey once again soars high in the sky, catching the uprushing of warm air in her outspread wings.