Pen resting on open, blank notebook.

Pen, Paper, Cushion, Meditate!

As a child, I liked to play chess. I even went to a summer camp for chess (my parents were awesome). There, I learned that good chess players play through the games of other players — even memorize them.

This happens in sports, too. Competitive athletes and their coaches often prepare to face rival athletes or teams by watching recordings of their opponents’ games. The same is true in business: businesses use market research, business strategy, and other methods to closely observe and analyze their competitors’ behaviors. Whether you’re in a championship soccer match or a competitive industry, if you can understand your opponent, you may be able to create an advantage.

Meditation isn’t competitive, but there’s something analogous that happens in meditation. One of the best ways to learn from an expert meditation teacher is to watch them in daily life. How do they move? How do they adjust their posture   in and out of meditation? How do they act in challenging circumstances ? How has the practice of meditation affected their behavior?

For example, there’s a video of my teacher’s instructor, Shodo Harada Roshi, raking in the sand garden at Sogen-Ji, the Rinzai Zen monastery he teaches at in Japan. Despite being in his seventies at the time of the recording, he moves in a youthful and energetic way.

I watched my teacher at the Monastic Academy, Soryu Forall, very closely and, through this practice, learned new ways to meditate. This is how I learned one of my favorite meditation tips, which I’m not sure I would otherwise have come across otherwise. Implementing it not only helped my meditation practice, but it also increased my effectiveness in daily life.

One of the things that I noticed that Soryu would do was to carry a small piece of paper and pen with him. During a seated meditation period, he would occasionally take out the piece of paper and pen — very quietly — and write something brief down, before returning to his practice. When I asked him about it, I discovered that he was writing during meditation and recording his thoughts: the tasks or ideas that came to him in meditation.

Woman writes in blank notebook

Even though a monastery might seem like a relaxing place, there are all kinds of things to do, and I had many responsibilities. I decided to follow Soryu’s lead and keep a piece of paper and pen in my pocket during sitting meditation. This made me notice that my mind would often wander to all of the things that I had to do, and how I would do them. In fact, it seemed that many of the most powerful distractions that I experienced were to-do items. So when those tasks came up, I wrote them down, and I found that after writing, meditation was much easier to get back to. I also noticed that I was more effective at my work. Not only was I learning how to meditate effectively but I was completing routine tasks done more consistently because I had remembered them and written them down. Sometimes I even wrote down ideas that were unusual, creative, and very effective!

Woman meditates on a rocky ledge during sunset

Some people might think keeping a pen and paper by your side when you meditate is a bad way to meditate. It can be distracting in a group setting; but regardless of whether you’re on a retreat or practicing alone, it can also happen that you get more interested and excited in the ideas that you’re having than in the meditation practice. I remember that at my first meditation retreat, a ten-day Vipassana retreat offered through S. N. Goenka’s organization, writing during meditation was not permitted by the retreat. Even though many people wanted to record their experiences or the brilliant ideas that came to them during the retreat, the retreat managers didn’t want you to get distracted from the primary purpose of the retreat: meditation. For them, writing during meditation was not effective meditation.

Meditation is also highly important at the Monastic Academy. That’s why monastics who train a the Academy practice meditation daily and do a week-long silent retreat each month. But meditation is considered to be a means to a different end. The point is to see how meditation affects our actions in daily life — what they call “responsibility” — and how our actions in daily life affect our meditation practice.

Consider giving this way to meditate a try. The next time you sit down to practice, keep a piece of pen and paper — or a notebook or to-do list app — open next to the Brightmind app. If you think of an idea or a thought, write it down!

Of course, this trick isn’t for everyone. Finding how you meditate most effectively is a deeply personal experience that changes for every person. If you find writing during meditation too distracting or exciting, then it could be a good idea to put the notebook away, at least for a while. But you might also find that it improves your effectiveness at work, your home life, and your hobbies — and your meditation practice, too!