In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating the space into which the writing subject constantly disappears. – Michel Foucault, What is an Author? (102)
The first thing to note is that while it seems completely obvious that there is such a thing as the self, when we try to pin down what that self is, the whole thing becomes completely elusive. – Andy Karr, Contemplating Reality (32)
Part I: The self. “I am my experience.”
In 2000, I was 22 years old: a year out of undergraduate studies, jaded by my brief entrance into the workforce, and in search of escape. As a result, I applied to study toward an MFA in Creative Writing at Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in Boulder, C.O. Seduced by the name of the department (“The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics”) and the affiliated writers (poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman) it seemed like a refuge in which I could cultivate some form of voice through which I could articulate my identity against a world that was disorienting to me in its apparent newness, speed, and materialism.
When asked what I discovered in that program, I usually respond that I went in to become a writer and came out a meditator. I emerged with what I viewed as a few hundred pages of trash writing; trash because I had discovered the inadequacy of writing to express my experience. Set in relief by meditation, documentation and fabrication of narrative seemed frivolous at worst and inaccurate at best. What was truly more substantive, text or experience? I didn’t learn how to write; I learned through writing that, for me at that point in time, language was an insufficient expression of being – it was for me, at the time, a vehicle of approximation.
This and other experiences led me to take temporary ordination as a monastic in the Shambhala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, in the summer of 2004. Over the course of my practice at Gampo Abbey, the relationship of text to experience resolved somewhat in the space of silent practice. Each morning and evening as I wrote, subtle aspects of my experience began to distill into language – observations I felt language incapable of accommodating only two years before.
Text began to feel weighty and vital again, a terrain over which I could map and make meaning of my daily experience – returning later to observe how thoughts and perceptions changed day by day.
Yet as real as the text had become, experience itself began to fall apart. Detached from many of the things I had thought to be integral to my identity – my home, job, daily habits, clothing, and relationships – in the monastic environment I found it more difficult to pin down exactly who “I” was.
A primary teaching in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition states that while each of us acts as if we were singular individuals in possession of a permanent identity that persists over time regardless of interactions, if one examines this imputed definition of a “self” we may find it to be inaccurate. If one looks long enough at what one considers to be oneself, one may actually find this thing called “I” is not as solid as one thinks. It is this solid self-conception that we attempt to bolster and protect over the course of our lives – and it is actually what disrupts our ability to engage in a wholehearted, direct relationship with the world and the individuals in it.
From this base assumption, I begin to think writing once again. How is the self created continually through the practice of writing? What is the nature of a “finished” text if everything, writers and readers first and foremost, is impermanent, constantly changing? And how is it then that the identity of writer, text, and reader, comes to seem so solid? This piece includes journal entries from my stay at Gampo Abbey during the summer of 2004, and is punctuated by my reflection on them today, four years distant. In it, I explore how my preconceptions about text and self obstructed my ability to let go and connect directly with my world and experience – and understand exactly how my conceptions about each solidity began to fall apart.