Writing, Zen Koans, and Just Sitting

The great modern American Zen master and photographer John Daido Loori once said, “Shut up and sit!” Of course, the late Daido was referring to Zazen, the Zen practice of seated meditation. I was reminded of Daido’s words as I read a recent post in The New Republic, “Screw Your Standing Desk! A Sitter’s Manifesto.”

To the Zen Buddhist, the act of sitting is an essential practice. Much like the Taoist concept of Wu-Wei, the action of non-action, the simple act of sitting can be the most active thing one does. Daido makes this point in a Dharma talk on the Koan “Dongshan’s Essential Path,” saying, in essence, that when we allow for things to happen, happen they do, and often times the outcomes are fantastic. In sitting, in moments of reverie, things open up, they emerge and move in “unanticipated directions,” to quote Donald Barthelme. This is where writing begins.

Similarly, in The New Republic piece, the author quotes Jonathan Franzen who once told the Guardian that “you see more sitting still than chasing after.”

But, what about not sitting, or—gasp!—writing while standing up? Philip Roth does it. So did Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll. In fact, more and more people, in more and more offices, all around the country, are doing it, too. Welcome to the era of the standing desk. As we work more and spend more time at our desks, someone took a stand, literally, against sitting.

Yet for Ben Crair, the writer of the New Republic piece, “sitting is one of the true rewards of writing.” And I agree. But the kind of sitting a writer does is more than sitting, right? It’s not the same as couch potato sitting or channel surfing sitting, or all-you-can-eat buffet sitting. Our sitting is intentional and bears fruits. It’s where we become architects of the fictive dream, John Gardner’s induced state of oneness between reader and story.

Can we, however, be good catalysts for this dream while standing around? Well, Roth, Woolf, and Carroll clearly could. But, for what it’s worth, Rodin’s “The Thinker” is doing his thinking while seated.

I like doing my sitting and writing in coffeehouses, soaking up the collective energy and taking in the lively hum, which has been linked to increased levels of creativity.

While Crair is clearly in the sitting camp as well, and makes a compelling case for it, there is still Truman Capote to consider. Capote was, after all, a brilliant writer, and he neither sat nor stood, but instead, considered himself “a completely horizontal writer.”

Now it’s your turn. Pick a posture—sitting, standing, walking on a treadmill, laying down, even—then get comfortable, and write. There are stories to be told.




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