|Spiritual awakening has to do with transcending this sense of separation and difference and waking up to the vitality and brilliance of the universe. --Albert Flynn DeSilver|
Awakening Through Writing--by Tami Simon, syndicated from soundstrue.com, Sep 20, 2018
You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Albert Flynn DeSilver. Albert is an internationally published poet, memoirist, novelist, speaker, and workshop leader. He served as Marin County's first Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010. His work has appeared in more than a hundred literary journals worldwide. He's the author of the books Beamish Boy: A Memoir, Letters to Early Street, and Walking Tooth and Cloud.
With Sounds True, Albert Flynn DeSilver has written a new book called Writing as a Path to Awakening: A Year to Becoming an Excellent Writer and Living an Awakened Life, where he invites the reader on a year-long journey of growth and discovery to enhance writing through the practice of meditation while using the creative process to accelerate spiritual evolution.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Albert and I spoke about the difference between the creative pursuit of writing and writing as a path to awakening. We also talked about how the best writing comes from our body, how discipline is what Albert calls "an inside job," and Albert's discovery that time is something you create.
We also talked about exploring our own death through writing exercises, allowing failure to be our handmaiden. And finally, how showing up for this moment is an audacious act. Here's my conversation on Writing as a Path to Awakening with Albert Flynn DeSilver.
Albert, in your new book, Writing as a Path to Awakening, you talk about two huge themes that I think are quite important to listeners of Insights as the Edge. One is this idea of spiritual awakening, and the other is bringing our voice forward, our gifts forward, in service to other people. Let's just jump right in and begin with this idea of spiritual awakening.
I hosted at one point a series called Waking Up: What Does it Really Mean? And one of the things I realized is that different spiritual teachers meet a lot of different things when they use this term, "spiritual awakening." Let's start right there. What does spiritual awakening mean to you?
Albert DeSilver:Yes, it's sort of like defining God, isn't it? How do you do that? I think for me, spiritual awakening has to do with transcending this sense of separation and difference. It means waking up to the vitality and brilliance of the universe that is our true nature.
For so much of my life, I went through kind of trapped in the mind—trapped in the thinking mind, in the perceiving and believing mind. Then for me the awakening experience was this blending in with the world. This melting away of all these separations that I made between myself and other people, myself and my emotions, myself and the sensations of the body, myself and my creativity —everybody else had it, I did not—and ultimately myself and the universe.
For me, it's that wakening up to that realization of complete and utter merging with the universe. Like Walt Whitman said, "Don't be afraid of the merge." And that just resonated so deeply for me as I began to wake up. As I began to become more integrated and connected to the world.
TS: Now, some people when they talk about spiritual awakening will describe a moment in time. Something that happened to them that left them forever changed. And other people will say no, it was more like a gradual dawning, and it's a process I'm still in. How would you respond to that?
AD: Yes, for me it's both/and. It's been a slow evolution of transcending a very difficult childhood, and transcending abuse and addiction, suicidality, and finding my place in the world, my voice in the world. But I did have a series of what you might call an awakening experiences. When I finally connected with the practice of meditation and mindfulness, and embodied silence.
The most famous one in my mind, in my bodily recollection, is being on retreat. On an eight-day retreat with the Thai meditation master Ajahn Jumnian. I had been sitting and walking for several days, just completely obsessed with the chatter in my head, the grief states and the sensations, and the discomfort, and the frustrations.
Finally, just went out for a walk up in the canyon. This was at Spirit Rock. I walked into this creek bed and laid down. I was just sort of going to take a nap. I was so conditioned at that point to reflecting inward and practicing Ajahn 's body scans, that I just sort of went into this lying down meditation. There was this extreme release after a point, of just—all I can describe it is just energy, just lifting out of my body. Something very dark and sticky was just removed. And all kinds of horrific images came with that, as if in a sort of a waking dream.
I describe a lot of this in my memoir. And actually, some of it in the new book. And then I just found myself experiencing this incredible lightness and relief, and wound up just weeping. Weeping into the stones and the rocks at this riverbed. There was something that had shifted there. Something had been given away and surrendered to the Earth, and to the universe at large. I felt a lightness and a beauty that I had never felt before.
That was a moment in time, and yet I had to come back after the retreat and clean the house, integrate back into my relationships, and neighbors, and friendships, and all that. You know, all of it sort of goes [slurp]. You get sucked back into physical reality. It took me a few years to realize it's not about the experience however spiritual and magical it might be. It's more about integrating that into the physical plane of reality.
TS: I think a lot of people have experiences like that, that then fade and become memories. What in that left you changed, if you will?
AD: Wow, that's a great question. It's sort of that thing where—I forget who it was—maybe it was Nisargadatta Maharaj who says that once you give yourself fully, once you surrender fully, once you let go completely and absolutely, then you're just never the same person again. You just always know that there's this within you, there's this spaciousness, this sense of presence, this sense of possibility and surrender. That's always there. It sort of never leaves you, and you can always return to it, no matter how re-entwined you get with the physical world. As long as you come back to the practices, as long as you return to the practices.
And that's what I love about doing this book. It's that it's all about that. It's all about coming back over, and over, and over, and over again. Because we forget and we get distracted.
TS: Coming back over and over again to the practice of meditation, and also the practice of writing.
AD: Yes. Yes.
TS: Which leads me to where I want to go here, which is writing as a path to awakening versus all the other kinds of writing that people are interested in. "I want to write a novel, I want to write this or that." What orientation, if you will, makes writing a path to awakening versus just a creative pursuit?
AD: I think it's the orientation of openness of possibility. We tend to want to categorize, and make little separate compartments for all these genres of writing, and all these types of writing—spiritual writing, or journal writing, or novel writing. To me, it's all just writing. It's always been parallel and complimentary to my spiritual work, and the spiritual path for me.
And whether I've been writing poems, which I did for 13 years almost exclusively, and which no one read. I didn't really have much of an audience for. I mean, I published a little bit and I had a small community in San Francisco and New York. It wasn't about that. It was just about this experiment of a larger communication, and a larger relationship through language. And finding one's voice.
Then that shifted into writing memoir, writing my story. Like, "What is my story?" I somehow felt obligated—not obligated, that's not the right word—inspired, moved to write my story. To get it—what happened in my life, my young life, that took me near death so many times? What was that story? The only way I could let go of it was through the process of writing about it.
And now it's non-fiction, in this book. And now it's also novels. I've been writing novels the last three or four years, and having a lot of fun with that. Writing is a path to awakening is not necessarily spiritual writing per se. I mean, all writing is spiritual writing. That's my experience.
TS: Well, I think there are certain interesting ... Maybe they're paradoxes, we'll see as we talk here. But we can start with something like storytelling. What I mean, is paradoxes where the path of awakening and the path of the writer could be in conflict, but you seem to experience it as whole and congruent.
When it comes to something like storytelling, you know there'll be many spiritual teachers who will say, "Drop below the story, just drop the story. Don't be interested in the story. The story's not going to get you anyplace. Pay attention to physical sensations, just come back again and again. Drop the storyteller." And yet, you're helping people drop below and tell their stories. Talk about that paradoxical, if you will, approach that's part of writing as a path to awakening.
AD: Yes, so I think it's actually the opposite in a certain way. Embrace the storyteller fully. Accept the storyteller. Go into the storyteller. With complete abandon. Leave nothing unexposed, nothing unexpressed. Then go to the other side, that which makes the storyteller possible. That which makes the story possible. And if you keep going, you wind up back at that vast, mysterious empty space of possibility.
I think where people get hung up is that they stop at the story. They become entranced with the story. And they're like, "Oh, this is so interesting, or it's so brilliantly written, or like the characters are so luscious, and delicious, and yummy." Instead of seeing the story for what it is, as a transformational catalyst.
TS: How would somebody not fall into that trap of not staying on the surface of the story? I love the story. There you go.
AD: Yes. Well, I think that's where the practice of mindfulness and meditation comes in, and the practice of an embodied meditation. Not just sitting in silence, although that's part of it, but really delving into the full experience of an embodied writing. The writing isn't coming from the mind and the ideas. Which is what I thought forever. It's like, "I just have to come up with some new, original ideas."
But no, the best writing comes from the body. The best writing comes from spirit. And it's almost like it channels through the bones, through the viscera of our stories. Then we corral that onto the page to share it with the world.
TS: OK, this is very beautiful. The best writing comes from our body. Comes from something as deep as spirit. Let's say someone's listening and they're like, "That's the kind of writing I want to be doing. And I'm trying to come up with ideas. And I want to make that shift." How would you coach them?
AD: I would coach them inward. I would coach them first into the body, in through these practices, like the body scans. I have for example, a standing meditation. I call it "the skeletal scan." It's all about the elemental self, and really looking inward, inward, inward. Over and over again, and looking for the words there. Not looking for the words in Mary Karr, or Walt Whitman, or Emily Dickinson, or wherever.
But looking inward to your own body, and finding language there. Which takes a tremendous, tremendous amount of courage. Not that you won't also go to Emily Dickinson, and Mary Karr, and Walt Whitman, and whoever else gets you to the page, as Ted Berrigan used to say. Read those writers that get you to the page.
It's both things. And I think for a lot of people it's one or the other. I know for me, I was so seduced intellectually by my favorite writers. But then I was also at the same time, I was reading ... At a certain point I got turned on to these conversations with Nisargadatta Maharaj and these various stories of Buddha, and Siddhartha, and Hermann Hesse. Then I started to see it's both/and. It's not either/or.
TS: OK, well let's go into another both/and, I think, area, which is right at the very beginning of your book Writing as a Path to Awakening. You talk about inquiring into this question, who am I? And that we can practice neti neti. Not this, not this. That anything we could name isn't really who we are. Neti neti.
As I was reading that, I thought doesn't that take people into a kind of wordless state, and yet, here Albert is helping us develop as writers. Help me, Albert.
AD: Right. My favorite quote, which is also in there somewhere, that comes from Nisargadatta Maharaj, which was not written, it was overheard and translated. He says, "I can not tell what I am because words can describe only what I'm not." Which gets at the essence of the paradox that you're talking about.
And so we, again, it's this idea of letting go of the words. Writing the words, writing the story, let go of the story. Words can point. Words are very powerful in that way. If we get the words good enough, they can point towards a sense of possibility. A sense of our own creative geniusness. Our sense of spiritual evolution, and where that can take us.
It's that the words are pointing. But, you know, what's that thing about pointing at the moon? And everyone's looking at the finger? I forget how that whole quote is. People, again, are obsessing on the words, but it's not about the words. It's about the space between the words. Like John Cage used to talk about the space between the notes, and the silence. And of course, John Cage was a great practitioner of Zen.
I love that whole idea of space, of redirecting your attention. It's so obvious, and yet it's so not obvious. Just because of our cultural conditioning. We love flashy, shiny, beeping things.
TS: OK, I want to ask about one more paradox. Which is, you devote an entire chapter of the book to the imagination. And the great joy that's possible in using our imagination. And you help people activate, if you will, their imagination in all these different kinds of ways. I thought, wait a second. This is a book about awakening. Aren't I trying to connect with something that's real, not going off on fantasy trips in my imagination? But, Albert, you're going to help me understand this.
AD: That's right. The imagination—the brain, the mind—is a great tool. And it's a place to explore and to delve into and to swim around in. But we can get stuck. We can get caught in all those beauties, and those mysteries. The imagination is just a reflection of the mind. And the mind is very useful. But we get caught when we become too obsessed with the objects of the mind, and the objects of our imagination. We want to celebrate it, but also have a little bit of distance from it.
Also, I hope I'm not explaining away too much of the paradoxes. Because I think paradox is good, right? There's certain points where we just let the mystery be, as that great song goes. Whose name, the author of it, I can't think of. But she is married to Greg Brown [Iris DeMent]. Anyway, that's probably not the best answer. Because I don't want people to think I'm not a fan of the imagination. But that we want to be delighted, and even seduced by the imagination, and cultivate the imagination. Then at some point, let go of the imagination.
TS: One of the things I appreciate, Albert, is I'm asking you some pretty tough questions, and you seem to be right there with me, and enjoying yourself. At least I hope so. Thank you for that.
TS: It's great.
AD: Yes. This is fun.
TS: Now, both meditation practice and the act of writing on a regular basis, require a lot of discipline. You talk about this in the book, and you talk about your own epiphany, if you will, related to discipline being an inside job. I'd love to hear more about that, as somebody who doesn't respond very well to the word discipline.
AD: Yes, well, discipline—it's a very charged, triggery word for me, too. Having grown up with a Swiss German nanny, who was not only a fierce disciplinarian, but also violent. And it has a control-y sense to it. One thing that I had to figure out and to learn was that there is some good to discipline. I rejected discipline for a long time, because I was terrified by it. I just associated it in my mind with control—and terror, honestly.
But then eventually I realized all the most successful people in the world that I notice—and by successful, I mean people who are really living, like really having an impact, a positive, radiant impact on the world—were disciplined. They had a regiment. They committed.
I wanted to figure out, "How do I get disciplined. Can I get that from somebody? Can somebody teach that to me, can they give it to me?" I didn't have it. My parents were not disciplined at all. They were very scattered, they were very lost. They just did not have a sense of their own confidence, and their own commitment, or belief that they could change the world or have an impact on the world.
I did, I kept looking inward. It's not different that I noticed that the people who meditated consistently actually woke up on some level. They transformed. They changed their lives. And the people who kept writing, they got books done. And there was something about this act of completion that triggers greater self-confidence. And so I just set to completing a few things. Whether that was actually completing reading an entire book, even a short book. Or completing an entire poem. Writing a whole poem out. Finishing it.
What was that like? How was that different than abandoning a poem, or abandoning a book halfway through? And it started feeling better incrementally over time. And the more I did it, and the more I generated, the more integrated and the more connected I got. And so then the association shifted, from control and terror to insight and possibility.
TS: You write in the book that you found it's important not to just write or meditate when you're in the mood to do it.
AD: Oh yes. Who's ever in the mood? Although, a lot of times we're not. The older I get, and the more I do it, that's the curious thing. You get more in the mood. And it just feeds on itself. But for a long time, no. It feels like an arduous thing, like another thing to check off the list. "I've got to meditate. For Christ’ sakes, I've got a lot of stuff to do. I got to feed the kids, I got to clean the house, I got to get to work, got to ..." We just, it becomes another thing, rather than the air, or food, you know, great nourishment. The more we do it, the more it becomes the necessity of being.
TS: In your life now, do you have a disciplined structured regiment related to both meditation and writing?
AD: Yes, I would say so, 90% of the time. There's that 10% when just things, life, happens and you have to shift. But when I'm working on a writing project, I'm writing every day. Usually between 5:30 and 11:00 in the morning, and if I'm not working on a writing project, then I'm working on an editing project. I'm in these different modes of creation.
It's a daily practice for sure. Then the meditation comes in, too, daily over, and over, and over again. Usually in the morning, that's my sweet spot. Although, sometimes when I'm really cranking on a novel project, and really generating a lot of imaginative ideas, the mind is busy in the morning. I surrender to that and I meditate in the evening. And I let everything drain out, back into the Earth.
I sort of go with what's needed in the body. And everyone has to discover that process for themselves I think. A lot of times we want to look to people who have written books, or have meditated for a long time. Like, "What's your practice? Maybe I can do that, too." And maybe you can. But also, I think it's important to look within and say, "What are the rhythms of my body? What are the rhythms of my life? How can I make this work for me?"
TS: Albert, I want to read a quote from the book—and have you comment on it—that I think is pertinent to our discussion. The quote is, "I recently surveyed thousands of writers, and would-be writers, who are on my mailing list. And the number one thing they reported struggling with the most, was time." And then you continue, "Remember, time is not something that you have or don't have, time is something you create."
Let's talk to that person who says, "Look, excuse me, Albert, kindly, I don't have time. And you're telling me time is something you create?"
AD: Yes. I mean, anytime you use that word "I don't have," or that phrase "I don't have," you're creating that limitation. The reality is that time is, it's a concept. It's a construct. Something that we invent. We just happen to be so used to it in our cultural conditioning, that we sort of forget. We say, "9:00 is a fixed thing, it's a fixed concept." But it's not. It's an invention. Somebody invented it, a long time ago. And people have been using it repeatedly, and everyone agrees to it, so it becomes a fixed thing in the culture.
And it's very useful. It keeps us organized, keeps us on task, keeps the whole world running as it does. But ultimately, it's an invention. And within the context of our lives, we can see into that invention. You know those pressures, those external pressures, are self-created. All it takes is getting up 15 minutes earlier. That's all it takes. And then suddenly, you have more time.
You can squeeze in 15 minutes to write every morning, or 15 minutes to meditate, or five minutes to meditate and ten minutes to write. However you want to break it up. However much time you're willing to allow yourself. I know one of my favorite writers in the world, Cheryl Strayed, she has a very busy family life. And she'll go to a hotel in her city for the weekend, for a long weekend, and she'll just go to the hotel and write. Knock out 20,000, 30, 40,000 words in a weekend. She refers to herself as a "binge writer". She makes that time, she creates that time.
She very kindly, but firmly, communicates with her family. And says, "Listen, I love you all very dearly. And this is nourishment for me. This is what I have to do. I'm going to go away for the weekend, just down the road here to the hotel. I'm going to write." That's the way she does it, that's the way she creates it. Time it's a total perceptual, invented thing.
TS: You've made a good case. Now let's talk directly to that person who's listening, who has the sense, "You know, there's a book inside me. There might even be books inside me. Yes, I don't have the time, but I know it's a little fishy. I know I could make the time. But I'm not making the time. And there's something else that's keeping me, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe I'm not ready."
And I know you work with people on this precipice of them coming forward and saying "OK, I'm really going to do this." I wonder if you can talk some about what are the greatest obstacles people face right on this precipice, and how you coach them to move through?
AD: I think in some sense we are our greatest burden, you know, our conception of ourselves. That's why I like to begin all my workshops—and the book itself, actually—with the premise that we are a creative genius. We are living in a field of possibility. We just have to keep realigning ourselves, and reminding ourselves of that everyday.
When people get caught up in the "I don't have time," or something, you can't think about it. There's a certain point you just have to stop thinking about it. And if it's something that you want to do, you do it. You take action. You get physically embodied, and you pick up a pen, and you wrap your fingers around that pen. You attach it to the paper, and you start moving your hand, and your arm across that piece of paper. And you write what you need to write, the story that you need to tell.
You stop with the excuses, you stop with the reasons. And this isn't something that you can necessarily maybe just read in a book, and all of a sudden, "Oh, cool. OK. I'm going to really do it." I mean, if I look at my own personal evolution, it's been so many different things. It's been the meditation practice. It's been the writing practice. It's been going to readings and getting inspired regularly. It's been connecting with creative community where I live. It's been reading, reading, reading. It's been going to therapy. It's been doing energy work. It's been getting massages. It's been listening to spiritual tapes, and spiritual books. It's been going to workshops, and actually being led through very powerful writing exercises. Freewriting exercises, where I don't think, I just write. And I don't judge, I just write. And I don't self criticize, I just write.
And, you know, I've just teaching a workshop this past weekend. It was a yoga and writing intensive down at Asilomar. People who've been writing for years were like, "Oh my God." Published authors who were writing poems because they weren't thinking about it. They weren't telling themselves over and over again, "Oh, I'm definitely not a poet." And people tell themselves these things constantly. And it's just nonsense.
TS: I mean, Albert, I noticed when you said I start all my workshops, and you also did start the book Writing is a Path to Awakeningwith this audacious statement "You are a creative genius." We're all creative geniuses. Everyone is a creative genius.
Part of me said, "Yes, Albert. That's correct. We all have this potential." And another part of me—I'm just being honest here—kind of rolled my eyes, and said, "Really? A creative genius, really? All of us? Come on." That's a pretty bright picture of the world. But you really believe it.
AD: No, it's not that I believe it, it's that I know it from direct experience. I've been teaching writing first with kids for, oh my god, almost 15 years. And with adults, the last eight years exclusively. This is what I know, this is what I see. It's not a question of brilliant and genius. I know these are very loaded terms. But by that, I mean that the full potentiality is there. It's not that all of a sudden you're like Faulkner, or Emily Dickinson right out of the gate, and that you're going to get published tomorrow. That's not what I mean.
What I mean is that there is the potential for you to have a great impact on the world with your writing and your ideas, if you are fully committed to engaging that and practicing that. And in getting beyond your mind, and getting beyond your self-doubt, and your self-criticism, and just meeting the page, meeting it where you are.
And I see this over, and over, and over, and over again. I see it in kids, I see it in adults. I see it in every cultural background. You know, Elizabeth Gilbert was once a completely terrible flailing writer, as was I, as was Faulkner, as was Emily Dickinson, as was all of them. The only difference between them and us is that they kept at it. They kept doing it. They kept reading, they kept writing. They kept meeting the mystery of the universe with an open heart. And that made all the difference.
TS: Now, it's interesting that you mention reading. You also talk about this in the book, that reading can actually be an important part of our writing process. I thought to myself, "Shouldn't I stop reading, and get that pen moving on the page? Why is he telling me reading's a good thing?"
AD: I think I do tell people to stop reading at some point in that chapter. I mean, I should have called this Reading as a Path to Awakening. That might even be the subheading. But reading is writing, writing is reading. You can't have one without the other. All the best, most interesting, dynamic, effective writers in the world are great readers. And sometimes you'll get this from people who say, " I'm not really that into reading. I don't like to read that much."
And I say, "You're probably not going to have much success with your writing." That's just sort of the way it is. Because you'll never learn the different cadences, the musicality, the syntax, the possibility of how language can be used to convey an idea, to convey an experience. The reading is absolutely essential.
TS: I love it. You're a fun person to talk to.
AD: Good. So are you. You're asking these terrific questions.
TS: OK, you write in a different section of the book, and I quite like this, so I underlined it, "Writing and meditation are acts of courage, showing up for this moment is an audacious act." And I wanted you to unpack a little bit this idea of "showing up for this moment is an audacious act."
AD: Yes, in my experience, it really is. Being fully present, being open to the world is terrifying on a certain level. And especially if you're someone who has experienced trauma in your life. But even if you haven't, as someone put it this past weekend, just living in America is traumatic in this day and age. Just like with all the information overload. Not even to get into the politics and all that nonsense. Nonsense is very important to deal with. But it's hard.
Life and showing up for life is hard. It takes a tremendous amount of courage just to be open and to be vulnerable to the world. Things are coming at you. And emotions are welling up inside of you. It's—the sensations can be really dramatic, and really intense.
I think for people to look inside, and to pause, and to really show up and be present in the world takes a tremendous amount of courage. And it seems to be more rare than ever, which is alarming. That's why I'm so devoted to this work. Because I want to keep reminding people this is the most important thing we can do as human beings. Without changing consciousness and awareness, and having that positive influence, we're really going to be kind of screwed as a species.
TS: Now in talking about showing up for this moment as an audacious act, you referenced how for many of us we've had trauma in our life, or just being alive today is quite traumatic for many of us. And I know your own life story—you talk about it in a TED Talk— had quite a bit of early trauma. I wonder if you can talk and share a little bit about that. And also, how writing has helped you find your way through your own life trauma.
AD: Yes, so I grew up in this household that was to distant and alcoholic parents who weren't really up for parenting. They hired this governess who was violent—extremely controlling, and eventually violent—towards my sisters and myself. By age 12, I started drinking. And that was my out. And by 19, I was a committed binge drinker.
There were numerous ... I won't go into all the details. People can read about them a little bit in this book, but also in my memoir Beamish Boy, where there's all kinds of stories of getting into an awful lot of trouble and getting run over by a car, waking up handcuffed to a hospital bed with no idea how I got there, and under arrest.
The shame, and the guilt, and the terror. Trying to transcend that was a huge, huge thing. At some point, I'd always felt drawn to art. Thank God for my parents, and their obsession with reading, and with books, and with music, and with architecture. That's one of the most beautiful things about my parents. Though they were neglectful and alcoholic and all that stuff, they were also incredibly smart, and cultured, for lack of a better term. And so I was surrounded by books.
I grew up not far from New York City. As a young child, I was taken into Lincoln Center, went to the theater, and to the ballet, and to films. For the longest time I thought that was all just kind of dopey and not that interesting. But at some point when I was lost and flailing, I found myself applying to art school because I didn't know what else to do with myself.
I thought I'm not that great at reading and writing, and all that stuff. But I can take some pictures. That seems pretty reasonable. And I took pictures in high school, they weren't terrible. When I got to college, they said, "What do you want to major in?" And I thought that was kind of a curious question. But, I thought, "Can I major in taking pictures?" They said yes. I did that. Then I transferred to the University of Colorado, and entered their Bachelor of Fine Arts program, and met Alex Sweetman, who's a photo historian. And he liked some of my pictures. And he said they were good. And nobody had ever said that to me. Nobody had ever said that anything I did on this planet was good or interesting.
And so, then I just kept doing that. I just kept going towards that creativity. It was soothing, because I could reflect on my world. And I think that's when the healing began. I knew that art was about, on some level, it was about healing. Whether I was looking outward, there was an inevitable inward pull to that. And I knew I loved photographs. I knew I loved looking at photographs, I loved seeing other artists create things and succeed in that. It just made my heart shine. However dimly, at first.
TS: Now, Albert, let's say someone's listening, and they also have a traumatic history of some kind. And they're thinking, "I know I need to write about it and find the healing in it." What would be your recommendations?
AD: Well first of all, I would encourage them to work with a professional. You know, work with a professional therapist to work through that trauma and get proper support for that, and not just talk therapy support, but also energy healing support. In my experience, trauma is very much of a bodily—it stays trapped in our bones. That's the key, is to release it energetically through the body with proper professional support.
And then I would encourage them to write, and to journal, and to reflect. And also to read. And read, read, read, read. Read the books that move them, that inspire them. That lift them up, and give them the sense that, "Wow, that person transcended their trauma by doing X, Y, and Z. And maybe I too can do that."
But I just need to start tracking it. Start seeing what I'm thinking about, and what I'm feeling. And the best way to do that is to write it down. And to keep writing. That's the short answer.
TS: Very good, thank you. The final section of Writing as a Path to Awakening helps us explore our own death through both meditation and through writing practices. It's a very beautiful section of the book. And in looking at writing exercises that we could do to explore our own death, you suggest things like writing your own obituary. And you also ask people to reflect on a series of questions. And I thought I might ask you a couple of those questions, if that's OK. Because they're good ones, I thought they were good ones. And there are also good ones that our listeners can ask themselves, but I'm going to ask you.
Albert, how do you want to be remembered?
AD: Oh geez, I want to be remembered, I think, as a person who showed up. And hopefully, had something kind of fun, and wacky and curious to share with the world. I want to be remembered for that sense of creative adventure and possibility.
TS: Beautiful. Now there's five questions you asked, but I'm only going to ask you the first one and the fifth one. And I'll leave it for our listeners to go digging into Writing as a Path to Awakening to discover the other three questions.
But here's the last question that you throw out that could be a good writing exercise for people who are contemplating their own death. What held the most meaning for you, at least so far, in your days on this earth? What has held the most meaning for you?
AD: For me I think it's probably family, direct family time. You know, those just quite, connective, intimate moments with my niece, with my sisters, with my wife, with the dog. Those little connective moments in nature. I went just recently, there was a family thing with my... How do you say that? My step-grandmother? My grandmother-in-law? Who was just moved to a facility out in the Central Valley, California’s Central Valley. In some ways, if I had to use judgmental mind, I would say it’s kind of a dreadful place. That's like me projecting and making some terrible, misguided judgment.
And so, there I go with my baggage, sort of not really wanting to go, and thinking, "Well, what's this gathering going to be like. I haven't really met many of these people. Although, it would be sweet to see Lanita, and I get to see the nieces.
And it just turned into the most beautiful weekend of my life. And just because of simple connections. There was nothing profound about it. You know, we sat around, and played pool, and said hello, and ate food. Which is very simple. But that's the stuff that resonates so beautifully. The love, and the connection, and the emotional challenge of being with family. That for me is the most resonate.
TS: OK, Albert, just one final question. In the afterward to the book, one sentence I pulled out says, "Allow failure to be your handmaiden." And I was wondering if you could talk about that in terms of your own writing life, and how you have allowed failure to be your handmaiden?
AD: So difficult, so difficult is failure. And all I ever wanted in life was to be seen, to exist. Because I was largely ignored as a kid, when I wasn't, like, getting my ass kicked, I was alone, and just feeling like a shitty, nonexistent thing. So when I first came to writing, a big inclination, quite honestly, was to be seen, to be included. And that meant being published.
I kept sending work out, and I just kept getting rejected. It was devastating. But because I had started in on the meditation practice, I had to sit with that devastation and that sense of nonexistence, and that feeling of not being included. And it was very difficult. And yet, I'm like, "Why is it that they get to participate, and I don't? Are they really saying something that much more interesting, that much more important?"
And the answer I came to was, "No, they're not. So I need to keep at it." I love doing this, and I love the whole process of writing and creating. I can't not do it anymore. And so I just kept submitting, and kept participating, and kept reading. Eventually, things shifted. A poem got published in ZYZZYVA magazine after 50 submissions. And in some ways, if you want to participate on a certain level, you have to be committed that way. You have to be a little bit obsessive. And that goes for self-care, too. Be obsessive about your self-care, as obsessive as you are with your desire to participate and to be published.
And be willing to fail. Allow the failure as this is it. If you're not failing, there's something awry. Something wrong.
TS: And I was going to ask you a bit about self-care. That's a word that, and not to be too gender-oriented here, but often you hear women talking about self-care. It's unusual to hear a man say, "Be rigorous with your self-care." Tell me what you mean by that.
AD: Yes, I mean, literally taking good care of yourself. Exercising, eating right, making sure you get enough sleep, taking baths. Doing that sort of feminine nurturing stuff on yourself, and get over your little menschy male "I don't need any care" kind of attitude. And surrender to that part of yourself.
You know, I'm still baffled. Well, I'm not really, I kind of understand it. In all my workshops, it's usually 90% women, and 10% or less men. I hope that this book reaches more men. I really do. I think our culture would benefit greatly from men who took more self-care, and engaged in more self-reflection. And were more vulnerable, and more willing to expose that side of themselves that is wounded, that is hurt. That's a big part of the commitment to this book, that it reaches more men.
TS: I've been speaking with Albert Flynn DeSilver. And I have to say, I will remember you, and remember this conversation that I had with someone who really showed up. You really showed up, Albert Flynn DeSilver! Thank you so much.
AD: What an honor and delight, Tami. Thank you so much for everything.
TS: And Albert's the author of a new book called Writing as a Path to Awakening: A Year to Becoming an Excellent Writer and Living an Awakened Life. Thanks everyone for listening, and good luck with whatever creative project is truly in your heart. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.
Reprinted here with permission. Sounds True is an independent multimedia publishing company that embraces the world’s major spiritual traditions, as well as the arts and humanities, embodied by the leading authors, teachers, and visionary artists of our time. It offers more than 500 audio, video and music titles about spiritual traditions, meditation, psychology, creativity, health and healing, self-discovery, and more.
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