A dull pencil is greater than the sharpest memory. - an English proverb
- A DullPencil volunteer Editor blog post.
One of the wonderful benefits of living so close to a world renowned university like Yale is the abundance of opportunities to learn cool things about almost limitless numbers of subjects. On any given day, you can find lectures delivered by leading experts on topics ranging from black hole radiation to the social conventions of the Suruwaha. And when I saw a flyer posted on a lamppost on Elm Street, on my long walk home from my high school, advertising a workshop on using transcendental meditation to come up with story ideas, I knew I had to attend.
The small classroom in Green Hall where the workshop was being held was packed with aspiring writers representing the diverse age, gender, and race of Yale’s community. The instructor, who was Indian, and whose name started with “Rama” (I’m ashamed to say I cannot remember the rest of his very long name), said he had worked with over a hundred writers, some quite famous, to help them overcome writer’s block. And when he asked if there were any in the audience regularly suffering from this ailment, every single hand shot up. After a round of laughter to acknowledge the shared misery, Rama launched into his premise regarding the condition.
He believed that writers came up with stories based on his/her life experiences. Not much controversy there. But he went on to propose that these stories not only came from the writer’s current life, but also from the many lives that he/she had lived before.
“Great storytellers are great yogis, whether they know it or not,” Rama said, “Because they are able to subconsciously access the great wealth of experiences from their past lives.” He went on to explain that those less spiritually gifted could still retrieve these long dead memories for inspiration and use in our stories by practicing transcendental meditation.
“I’ve met so many young writers like yourselves, who write so well and so beautifully, but have nothing interesting to write about because they have had no interesting experiences to leverage from.” His thesis was that this lack of accessible experiences was the root cause of writer’s block and that meditation was the key to solving this problem by enabling access to a trove of almost unlimited experiences.
To say that I was skeptical would be an understatement. I’ve read about reincarnation and past life regression hypnosis and other such ideas, but had always thought them to be a bunch of mumbo jumbo nonsense. This was the 21st century for Pete’s sake! But I caught myself, realizing that it was my mathematician-father’s side of my nature trying to overpower my poet-mother’s side. So, I tried to keep an open mind, to give Rama’s ideas an opportunity to stew a bit between my neurons.
During the last half hour of the workshop, Rama asked all of us to close our eyes and say a one syllable word that had “meaning” for us, silently in our minds. This would be our mantra, he explained. I chose “home” simply because I couldn’t think of anything profound, and because I’ve always felt most at peace when I’m relaxing at home. "Allow the word to fill you, to get louder and louder in your mind until it pushes out your other thoughts,” he instructed. Easier said than done. I kept thinking about my cat, Emily, and hoping she didn’t deposit another half eaten mouse on my pillow, a frequent souvenir from her predatory jaunts in the woods behind our house. I also kept thinking about the PB&J that I would fix for myself when I got home, having missed my customary after school snack because of the seminar.
After what seemed like only a few minutes (but turned out to be fifteen minutes), Rama asked us to open our eyes and write down whatever random thoughts came to us. I felt disoriented for awhile and, for the first time in my life, it seemed like my mind was completely empty. But a minute later, my head was bursting with thoughts that were running over each other for my attention. Among these, I wrote down the following:
It was hard playing dead, buried beneath my best friend and whose head is missing. I was so scared they’ll find out I’m still alive.
The lions won’t come here because they’re afraid of this tree.
The ice is going to break.
That is the fire that gods use to keep warm. They twinkle because gods blow on them to keep the fire alive.
I looked at these seemingly random and nonsensical sentences and didn’t know what to think of them. As far as I could tell, they weren’t related to anything that I might have read or thought about. Where did they come from?
Rama asked for a few volunteers to read what they had written. I was too shy to share, afraid people would think that I was a nutcase. However, others didn’t seem to have such reservations and freely shared theirs:
My father will disown me if he found out I was a biker chic. That will cost me a million dollars.
I don’t know why, but the last person I killed really made me think about what I was doing.
I’m going to burn down this church if it’s the last thing I do.
These people were crazier than I was!
At the end of the seminar, Rama encouraged us to continue our practice, promising that fifteen minutes of meditation every day would yield us a lifetime of great stories to write about. To be honest, I’m a bit scared. If what Rama said was true, and these thoughts that come to us after meditating were past life experiences, I’m afraid that I might find out something very unpleasant about myself (my past selves, anyways). But I suppose it’s a writers’ responsibility to explore and write about all aspects of the human condition. Pleasant or not. So, I'm going to give it a try. Wish me luck.