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December 11, 2013

Practice is Life: A Conversation with Natalie Goldberg.

Natalie Goldberg is most famous for her first book: Writing Down the Bones (Freeing the Writer Within).

When I mention her name to people, if they know who she is, they often say, “Yeah, I read her book,” as if she has only written one. However, since that 1986 breakthrough, Natalie has been consistently teaching and writing, and as of 2013 has 13 books published and still in print, as well as a film about her search for Bob Dylan.

Natalie’s latest book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, is a powerhouse. In it she combines her trademark memoir and writing practice instruction, giving away a lot of her own secrets of living and practice from all these decades of commitment.

I sat down with her over the phone late this fall to plunge deeper into some of the topics in True Secret.

Because I teach my own form of writing practice (I call it Contemplative Writing), and am a long-term student of Natalie’s, what started out as an interview became more of a conversation. Amongst other things, we discuss teacher indiscretions, structure and support, why we don’t do the things we love, having something outside of our main practice(s) to keep everything fresh, and Natalie’s deep love of yoga.

Miriam: So the title of (your latest) book really struck me (The True Secret of Writing), because it’s been kind of an ongoing joke and also a serious thing for many years at your retreats. This quick comment you would make when people would be late coming in and say “Well, you missed the True Secret of Writing, I just told it and I am never going to repeat it again.”

What struck me in the introduction is that you basically say (if I can pare it down this quickly) that the true secret is practice.

Natalie: The true secret is practice, but also what you get from practice: not paying attention so much to all your thoughts. Also, seeing the source of your thoughts, the different kinds of thoughts, having a relationship with them, so they don’t run your life.

There are some thoughts that say “I have to make a pie, so I can’t write,” and there are some thoughts that say “No, it’s really necessary that I work on my house,” so we need to see the nature of them all and then cut through. They are very tricky. So, finally, why it’s so great to have one thing—which really I learned, actually, in Zen—is that we just shut up and do it.

Wake up in the morning and don’t want to go to zazen at 4:30 a.m. when it’s 60 below outside (you know, in Minnesota)—you just go! You don’t think about it.

Even a better example is: I’m not teaching much this year, and I suddenly had the brilliant idea: “Why don’t I write in cafés again like I used to?” So I was very excited yesterday, and I knew the café I was going to go to today. I woke up this morning: “Oh, why should I go? Nobody else does this. I’m so lonely.” And it almost, almost caught me, I almost didn’t go. So finally I said “Go Nat. Just go. If you hate it, you’ll feel it.” And of course, it was wonderful.

So I guess it is practice—but eternal practice. You never get it. Here I am knowing all those voices, and there they were! It almost caught me again.

Miriam: Obviously your relationship to the voices has changed over time, because that’s what you are describing. And you describe them in a lot of your books, too, especially the books explicitly about writing, especially Writing Down the Bones, and Thunder and Lightning and True Secret of Writing and Old Friend from Far Away. It’s almost like you’re writing about your relationship with it as well, so it’s kind of like you are writing memoir and teaching us at the same time.

Natalie: Exactly. What I did was break the form. You know, there are instruction books or text books, and I have broken the form by allowing myself to give you instruction and at the same time, seamlessly, saying memoir and encouraging and teaching myself. And I think it’s a very female way of doing things.

I stepped out of the blocks: this is instruction, this is great writing, I mixed it all together. I’m hoping people still see that I’m a good writer! You know what I am saying? It’s not in the old form of good writing.

Miriam: It’s a different form of good writing.

Natalie: Exactly.

Miriam: It strikes me that a lot of time in the books and in many conversations I’ve had with you and just now, in your description of this morning, that teaching itself is a way of shoring up your own practice.

Natalie: Exactly. You know, my first teacher was Baba Hari Dass, who was a Hindu teacher. I studied with him for two years. One of his sayings was “Teach in order to learn.” So I was building the structure in me at the same time as I was doing it for everyone else. It’s a very communal way of doing things. Now, today, I went by myself and wrote by myself. I built the structure powerfully in myself, but I’m human like anyone else. We all need support.

Miriam: The structure of the practice itself is part of that support, right?

Natalie: Yes! Exactly. Structure has tremendous support.

Miriam: You really handed over the structure of these True Secret retreats in the second part of the book. Yet, as you say in the book, it didn’t come from Natalie, it came from thousands of years of practice, and you transmuted it into this form where it could be used to support writing. A different form of good writing, and a different form of mindfulness practice.

Natalie: Yes, and it’s a structure that can carry anything. You know, even carry your human life, moment by moment.

Miriam: I am curious about when that explicitness of dharma teaching started to come more into your teaching. I met people in France last year, on retreat there, who I had never met before, who have been students of yours for a long time, who said for instance that the retreats weren’t always in silence.

Or, there wasn’t always walking meditation. And then, in the last few years, just as a more recent student of yours—I’ve been studying with you for about ten years now in person—I’ve noticed you put chants into the book that are slightly altered traditional Zen chants, made for writing practice.

Clearly it’s a progression, but I am curious about how that evolved for you.

Natalie: I always knew, with Bones, what was backing this. I gave everyone a hint in Long Quiet Highway, because I wrote about my Zen teacher. But when Bones came out in 1986, America was not ready, believe it or not, to hear about silence and where I was coming from.

So it was slow, and I worked with the students who came to me, who were in front of me. Slowly, slowly, I turned. Now, it’s completely transparent: I’m teaching practice. In fact, at the last year-long intensive, after everyone had signed up, the first evening of the whole deal they signed up for, I said “You realize, I don’t really teach writing.” They all kind of “Ah huh huh,” and an hour later someone raises her hand and says, “Well, what do you mean you don’t teach writing?” I said “I teach you how to have an awake mind, and you can apply it to writing.”

I’m out there now. Yet, I adore literature, and I’m a writer, and I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

Miriam: That brings to mind this Katagiri Roshi quote from the book, where he said “Literature can tell you the truth about life, but it can’t tell you what to do about it.” So there’s this necessity of both parts—of more than both parts—of the sitting practice, the walking practice and the writing practice.

Natalie: Exactly.

Miriam: Was there a moment around when you took your vows in Katagiri Roshi’s lineage, or somewhere in there, where you felt it was more okay, either internally or externally, to explicitly be a dharma teacher? You talked about the social circumstances, in terms of adjusting to where your students were, but was there some kind of feeling from that source?

Natalie: That was a really long journey. I think when I wrote The Great Failure, about my own beloved teacher’s indiscretions, I really examined it and explored, and walked the whole institutional Zen world, I think that’s when I really grew up. So it wasn’t within the community, but when I had to stand up on my own. I became my own authority.

Miriam: I can really see that. The whole process: writing it, getting it out into the world, how people received it. Especially with that book, and how you speak to teaching to learn and writing both instruction and memoir at the same time, it feels like the veil between personal and professional is different—not lesser or anything, I know you definitely have your private life—but there’s some kind of quality like the practice is your life, and your life is practice.

Natalie: Yes, and, one has to be professional. You know what I mean? I have a very clear boundary between my students and myself, as far as not expecting from my students things that are inappropriate.

Also, being very careful to take care of them well and to respect and honor them, by setting boundaries. In myself, I am practicing all the time. But it is important to become professional, and I think that’s one of the problems we’ve had in the dharma community. There hasn’t been a professionalism and a lot of teachers have been sleeping with their students. Stepping over the line.

Miriam: Including other indiscretions that might be more subtle, but don’t respect a boundary between student and teacher or that relationship. Because I can think of plenty of examples that don’t involve sex and are still inappropriate.

Natalie: Exactly.

Miriam: Is that something you’ve noticed change over time?

Natalie: It seems like people are going through a process now. I think it is partially because it is more dangerous. There’s more involved, at stake. There’s a lot of material now in the world with dharma: buildings that could be sued, you know what I mean? So they’ve had to learn boundaries. Before in some ways they had nothing to lose. We didn’t have institutional buildings. So I think people have to be more careful now. That’s not to say that’s what made them start working at it, but that’s some of it.

Miriam: Sure. At the same time, there appears to be kind of a cottage industry of sometimes it’s called coaching or spiritual teachers who aren’t particularly in a lineage, they aren’t associated with an institution. So there isn’t as much check and balance on those folks, and they are often much more informal.

Natalie: Exactly. That’s what I mean by needing to be more professional. They’ve sprouted up from no place, and you don’t know where they came from.

Miriam: It makes me very nervous, personally.

Natalie: It would make me nervous, too, but you know what? It was happening when we knew where people came from, too. Do you know what I mean? I used to think: “Oh, they are safe, they came from Zen, etc. They have this practice behind them.”

But some people, like poets, leap from ignorance to knowledge. The problem is they need to build up a foundation so they don’t fall down again, and not just in the Eastern world.

Miriam: Absolutely. It brings to mind this paradox from True Perception by Chogyam Trungpa (used to be his blue Dharma Art book) where he says (paraphrasing) On the one hand, you really do need to practice, you need to sit, you need to stabilize, you need to connect with reality completely—those are all part of your practice, and you need to build up your skills if you are a painter, etc. At the same time there’s a spontaneous cutting through that is absolutely important.

Natalie: Yes. Yeah. He is someone who was very smart, but I would say he was not professional. And it’s okay! You know, everybody messes up! It’s fascinating that what I’ve gotten from Shambhala is that it’s not really looked at, there’s excuses: “It was up front.” So what. It was up front and nobody stood up against it?

Miriam: It’s interesting you know, I wrote an odd love story for elephant journal about this. I never met him, I never interacted with him, I actually don’t accept what he did behavior-wise – I accept that it happened, I’m aware, I am not going to ignore it. But I don’t accept it. I don’t want to use the word “approve” – that’s not the relevant word…

Natalie: You know what? It’s okay. You don’t approve of it. You have certain standards, you can stand up and say, “Hey. This was really inappropriate.” You know? It really messed up some women.

Miriam: At the same time I can accept his teachings, and work with the teachings.

Natalie: Yes. He was brilliant. Just like an artist can be brilliant and be a mess all of his life.

Miriam: This is a totally different direction. I have a question about an interview you did with Susan Piver awhile back that I listen to every once and awhile, mainly because I love the build of the interview. It was for the Interdependence Project. In the interview, Susan asks you again and again and again, in many different ways, why we resist doing the things that we love.

She starts with, What is writer’s block? And she moves on to, Why would we not do the creative things we want to do? You don’t answer the question until finally you say, Listen, we just do. We just resist things. We can’t get fixated on why, we just recognize that that is something we do, and we need to work with that. It reminds me of you saying, earlier in the interview, You just gotta wake up in the morning and, even if you say I don’t feel like going to Zen, I don’t feel like doing anything, I am going to do them. We need to be that committed to doing them.

Natalie: Yeah. Not the why but the what is important.

Miriam: Can you say more about the what versus the why?

Natalie: Why? Sometimes you don’t know! What happens is what matters, and how you deal with it. That’s concrete.

Not why I don’t want to go to the café—I could give you a thousand reasons: I don’t want to, I have a stomach ache, I’m tired, It’s a little chilly out. But what is just get your keys and go!

Miriam: I’ve been thinking a lot about the word why lately, and how much of a trap the word why can be, to me, especially inside of my own mind: Why did this happen? Why did this happen? Instead of just acknowledging that it happens.

Natalie: It’s tricky. There’s no prescription. It’s very good to look deeply, to understand what is driving me underneath. To be aware of it so it doesn’t run my life unconsciously. So I don’t mean to be glib about why. Why can be very helpful. Don’t use it as an excuse not to do things, but also, look deeply sometimes at what’s motivating you.

Miriam: It sounds like the difference is between when you are dealing with your own resistance and it’s 5:30 in the morning and have to go run zazen versus I am going to be writing for a little while, let’s explore this.

Natalie: Yes, good girl. Yeah, those are different. Also, I think the why comes more when I don’t want to do something but I kind of want to do it—then why just tangles me up. Don’t let why stop you for those. For the things you are doing already, that are getting messed up, for those it’s really important to look at the why. Be conscious of them, because you are doing them already.

Miriam: All this makes me think about the section on cynicism in True Secret, where you wrote, “(We are) developing a sitting practice (because it) also helps, creating space, a connection to the heart, a grounding in the wisdom of impermanence, egolessness, coming back to zero. Otherwise the world’s troubles are hard to bear.”

Our troubles are also hard to bear. That asking why can come out of a really good curious place, and a sense of justice and needing to understand what’s going wrong in our own lives or in the world.

Natalie: Yes. And then, can we bear it? Can we get larger to hold it? Not turn away. It’s excruciating.

Miriam: Yes, it is. I have a memoir critique group with my (contemplative writing) students, critiquing each others’ writing. I’ve started saying to them, “Let’s just assume this is going to be the hardest thing in your life. Let’s assume it’s going to take a lot of energy and be difficult.” I mean that not in a cynical way, but in a sense of “Let’s not be surprised—or as surprised—when it’s painful.”

Let’s just assume we need to be really gentle with ourselves, and at the same time, make structure to hold this, to hold how difficult and also how joyful it can be.

Natalie: Yeah. That sounds wonderful. I really honor your teaching—when I was there, seeing the community you’ve been creating, with your students. I just honor it.

Miriam: It’s really, really good. Of course, I asked that question about professional/personal because it’s also a personal question for me. I know I have to be clear about professional things and also the work I am doing is such heart work.

Natalie: Yes, but keep being clear. That’s where you keep asking yourself why. What your motivation is, so you become conscious. Yes, of course, you are creating community, it helps your writing, da da, da da. Then we have all this unconscious stuff that plays out. Really, it’s important for you to keep looking so you protect that community, and you protect yourself. In a good way. Honoring.

Miriam: In all the same ways we are talking about being professional and indiscretions—I think when I said more subtle indiscretions, that’s part of what I meant by the more subtle things—for instance, when teachers don’t take care of themselves. When that shows, when we aren’t taking care of ourselves so we can be of better benefit. You remarked on that here in the Midwest—how my students gave so much when you were here, sometimes too much.

Natalie: Yet there’s such a sweetness to the Midwestern willingness to step in and help! It’s a wonderful quality.

Miriam: In the first section of True Secret, you are writing explicitly about practice. I love this line: “Here’s where you have an opportunity to meet your own mind, to examine what it does, its ploys and shenanigans.” That’s such wonderful language. Playful, not critical about how our minds are. And then this line, that relates back to continual practice: “This continual practice expresses your true determination, signals to your unconscious, to your deep resistance that you mean business. (And then your resistance roars loader and you roar back).”

There’s this playfulness in getting to know your mind and in writing practice that feels really nurturing to me. I’m curious about that, because from an outside view, your relationship to Zen seemed very, very structured, almost strict. At the same time, obviously there’s humor.

Natalie: I’ve also softened over the years. The more you practice, the more you see you will never be victorious over that monkey mind. How outrageous it is! So you may as well play with it and enjoy it. Not take it too seriously.

Miriam: What helps that to happen?

Natalie: If you practice over and over, you see it. Finally you get broken by it: Oh My God I am never going to be victorious! Fuck, I’ve got to play with it—it’s never going to stop! I think I’ve written some place that I’m afraid the only thing that will be left after I die is my monkey mind! It’s so busy, it will never even notice I died! I will be buried with it, and it will just go on and on.

Miriam: I get an image in my head of one of those monkey dolls crashing cymbals, going on and on and on.

Natalie: Yes!

Miriam: So there’s that kind of humor and ploy and shenanigans and then you also say: “In order to write, you have to be willing to be disturbed,” and, “A regular practice is radical…it regularly challenges you, cuts through.” I was struck in particular by the description of Sharyn, who didn’t take writing or sitting as a (special, short term focused) practice, since those are things she just knows she is going to do.

To her, they are like brushing her teeth. So she picked up this joyful practice of swimming, a heart practice from way back in her childhood. In that example, there’s some balance between the play and the challenge.

Natalie: We keep having to extend ourselves. I am pretty good with writing, that’s a pretty clear relationship. But I have a relationship with a lot of things: my lover, my house, my doctor, my friends. So it’s endless how we have to keep extending ourselves.

Miriam: So part of what you are saying is it’s good to take on a practice, especially one we wouldn’t normally think of as a practice…

Natalie: Yes! Because practice is everything. It’s life. It’s not just in the zendo. It’s taken me a long time to understand that and honor that and say it. Not just believe some orthodoxy.

Miriam: One of the things you talk about in the book is having a third thing. We talked a lot about it during the intensive I was part of (a five-week program spread out over a year with Natalie in Taos). You give this great description, super powerful description of your process trying to figure out your relationship with Taos, versus your relationship with Minneapolis, and figuring out Santa Fe and finding your house.

With this language of third thing, I have always wondered about painting for you, that you have writing and sitting, and I wonder if painting is something that is a step outside of that?

Natalie: Oh wow. I never thought about that. The triumvirate! Painting, writing and sitting. Yeah. Writing and sitting are so intimate for me, together. Painting, you’re right, would be the third thing, except the third thing is usually the result, and I don’t know if painting has that much mojo. But! Now, this is very interesting that you bring it up, because Living Color (A Writer Paints Her World) is coming out again, with Abrams, the art publisher. It’s a completely different book. All the paintings are different, I’ve written a lot more, and they asked me if I would write some painting exercises.

What that did was really sprung the book alive! As though it had been secretly waiting for me to notice it. It’s very alive and active, and it just broke the book open. It’ll be out in March, and the subtitle is: Painting, Writing and the Bones of Being.

This is very interesting, I think I am in the process, and you are ahead of me, Miriam, of discovering that painting might be a third thing. Thank you for that.

Miriam: You’re welcome. I’ve always been fascinated with your paintings, and also your process, because I have often found—in terms of artistic pursuits—I do writing and I do photography, and I’ve done both those things since I was 12. I often find I have to have, what I can now call, a third thing about which I have no pressure. There’s a lot of internal pressure about writing and photography, and also, an intimacy, as you said with writing and sitting.

So, for a while I might quilt. And I don’t teach myself anything about it, I don’t take classes, I just do it, play with it. It’s a way out that’s also a way in. It’s neither writing nor photography but because it’s an expression it helps support those expressions.

Natalie: Sounds like it is more porous. Ultimately, that’s what we need, that porousness. Maybe I am afraid to recognize painting because it might get less porous.

Miriam: So I am really curious then, you said it made the book really alive but how was it for you to write these painting exercises?

Natalie: It was so much fun, I can’t even tell you. I just made it up, I just made it up on the spot I didn’t care if it referred to the chapter, I didn’t care! I just had fun. It was really fun. When I was done, though, I realized it really illuminated the book. It gave the book the third thing it needed, to bring it alive.

Miriam: The other practice I’ve always been curious about, that I know you do but you don’t talk about much, is yoga. Your relationship to yoga also appears to be one of pure joy. At some point I asked you if you would ever want to become a yoga teacher, because you gave us some yoga tips at a (writing and sitting) retreat. You looked at me with this great expression of horror and you were like NO! I love yoga, I just want to do it!

Natalie: You know what the problem is, Miriam? You know me too well! (both laugh) I’m enjoying hearing this because I do go to a class three times a week. I am quite dedicated to it. But at this point, I just want to leave it there, you know what I mean? That’s why I didn’t want to push painting. I didn’t want everything that’s my darling pleasure to become something I have to teach.

I am certainly not at a level where I could teach yoga. It is really important to me, and I have been thinking of writing an essay about it. I’m glad you brought it up.

Miriam: What would the essay be about?

Natalie: I don’t know yet, except how I found it when I was 23, at the Ann Arbor YMCA.

Miriam: Your relationship with yoga has always struck me as being somewhat similar to your relationship with painting. Which is to say, something that you just enjoy the fuck out of—you just really, really enjoy it and it is challenging and powerful to you.

Natalie: Except, I abandoned yoga for years and years, where I never abandoned painting for quite that long.

I didn’t abandon yoga, I couldn’t find a yoga teacher in Taos. I’d find a good yoga teacher and she’d decide not to teach anymore or move away and it would break my heart. I’d long for it.

Miriam: You didn’t want to practice on your own? You wanted a teacher?

Natalie: Yeah. Cuz I’m lazy. No, I want to go and have a teacher. I don’t want to do everything alone. I like being the student. I wanted to have a teacher. Like, when we hang up, a woman is coming over who I studied Faulkner with last year. I want to talk her into doing Saul Bellow, and she said, “Great, why don’t we teach it together?” and I said, “No! I want you to be the teacher, and me to be the student.”

I sometimes just want to be the student.

Miriam: There’s something really poignant in there for me. The more I teach, the more I have a better and better sense of a good environment for study, especially dharma, but even – anything, literature. There’s a bike repair class with really great female teachers just for women in Madison, and when I want to take that, I feel like I am so lucky because I can take it with them, not just any class where some guy is going to mansplain me. I’m particular about my learning environments.

If I find a good teacher, like you were describing about the yoga teacher, I want to study with them, because there’s great joy in being a student.

Natalie: It’s just delightful. I don’t want to get stuck there in the teacher position all the time.

Miriam: Right! And the more I teach the more I want to be a student. Even when I am a teacher, I am a student, but I mean the formal relationship. Like you just said and in the book, too: You be the teacher, I’ll be the student. It’s very clear boundaries.

Natalie: Yes. Also, there’s the place where we step out of teacher and student, and have to have relationships as human beings. That’s important to remember. Sometimes we get so busy teaching, it’s hard to get out of the roles.

Miriam: Can you say more about that?

Natalie: When I have to come to a place where I am just with other human beings. At zero. No one’s the teacher, no one’s the student.

Miriam: Is that ever tricky for you because you are somewhat of a celebrity?

Natalie: Yes. Sometimes I don’t meet people at zero because they’ve read my books. Sometimes actually it’s bad for me (expecting that people will think they know who I am).

For instance, I just went to a new doctor, and he said, “Well, how do I know you are not a heroin addict?” and I said, “What do you mean? Don’t you know who I am?” and he replied, “No, I have no idea who you are!” I realized he hadn’t read my books. We have a mutual friend that brought me to him, and I realized she hadn’t told him anything about me, and I’ve gotten lazy, like, “Well, read my books, I’m not going to talk about myself, read my book!” I realized I needed to present myself to this doctor and let him know I wasn’t a heroin addict.

Miriam: I love that that is where he went: questioning whether you are a heroin addict?!

Natalie: Yes. A seemingly otherwise okay and ordinary person.

Miriam: Earlier we talked about monkey mind and all the stuff that’s going on in there. One of the things I experience as a teacher, both of meditation and also of writing, and all the contemplative arts things I do, is that people go through different stages of relationships to their minds.

Often, right away in the beginning, people are like, “Holy shit. I am thinking a lot.” People have almost a fascination with the thoughts themselves, then a state, which can come back again and again of, “Why am I thinking these things?” and then into a state of curiosity, more open fascination, more child-like fascination.

I wonder if that sounds natural to you and what to do if people are in that initial state of fascination? Sometimes I find students get hung up in that, and can’t go any further, because they are so overly horrified or fascinated with their stories.

Natalie: Eventually they will come to cool boredom, like, “Oy yoy yoy, here we go again.” You just drop it, like a hot tomato, because you’re bored. At this point, I am more interested in the breath than in my thoughts. The thoughts can interrupt the breath, but I’d rather be with the breath than with my thoughts.

It doesn’t mean the thoughts don’t come, they just don’t have the kind of power they used to. Unless I am really upset or aggravated or something, then they can always take over again.

Miriam: And there we go, right back to the beginning: the true secret is endless practice.

Natalie: Yes. It’s an endless practice. Just shut up and do it. That’s the real secret.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Wall Stonburner/Flickr, Lucy Fisher/Flickr, minka6/Flickr, Aurélien Calonne/Flickr

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