Zen and Crime Fiction

Daniel Giloth is an Advanced Member at the Zen Life & Meditation Center of Chicago. Dan has spent much of his life as a community organizer and social activist. He recently finished writing his first novel. We have invited him to join a growing list of members who contribute their writing to our blog site. We recently wrote a piece on Dan that you can find by clicking here. This past Sunday morning, while the sky spit a little rain, I took the Blue Line down to the Loop for the Printers Row Lit Fest. A few years ago, combating burn-out in my labor organizing work, I'd started writing fiction sporadically. Since then, I've workshop-ed stories in local writers groups and attended lit events.

This year's trip to Printers Row was a bit different. First, I'd just finished revising a first novel, about two kids in the civil rights movement. Second, my mother, Mary Lou, passed away of Alzheimer's on Palm Sunday. Throughout my life, it was my mother who encouraged the creative disposition I'd shown as a child and youth, especially in writing stories. As an adult, despite my mom's persistent prodding, I'd neglected my muse. Still, nothing seems to bring self-reckoning like a parent's death. So upon my mother's passing, I pledged to give primacy to my fiction writing. It was a way I could honor her, I reminded myself, as the El shimmied Loop-ward.

Since 1999 I've been meditating daily and studying Buddhism. On most Sunday mornings, I go to the Zen Life and Meditation Center to do shamatha (sitting meditation) for an hour and then hear a talk. Combined with my daily practice, meditating in community changes my sensibility, slowing down my 'monkey-mind', and dimming the busy noise of the world. I've done meditation until it's habit. I find it cultivates openness, clarity, and empathy.

The Lit Fest, I expected, would be a diversion from that, especially the workshop I attended on “Fiction Mirroring Truth”. The workshop was hosted by high-octane crime fiction writers Michael Harvey (The Chicago Way) and Laura Caldwell (Question of Trust). Harvey and Caldwell, both trained as lawyers, met at Northwestern journalism school, working on the wrongful convictions project, a cause for which both still advocated. If anybody could justify giving time to making up stories nobody seemed to need, I guessed, it had to be these guys. I expected little Buddhism, though.

But Harvey—dark-haired, surly-shouldered, wearing jeans and an untucked shirt—shot right out of the box channeling a Zen master. “Writing is all about being present,” he said, “opening your eyes. See what's there.” He pointed out of the event tent toward people milling at the Lit Fest book stalls set up on Dearborn Street. “See those folks over there. Can you see them? That's where writing begins—seeing everything. Getting the 'atmospherics', at a minimum.”

Harvey gathered steam.“The process is not contemplative. It's sudden, ugly, immediate,” Wow, I thought. This guy could do koans—the Zen riddles that cultivate direct perception. Harvey added, “When you write well, there's no separation between mind and character.” How about daily goals? someone asked. “Forget the Big Plan,” Harvey replied. “You've got one job: to write one authentic sentence. Then another one. Then go where your characters take you.”

I was intrigued. Nothing Harvey said was brand-new. The 'just-one-sentence' trick was Hemingway's mantra, I remembered from A Moveable Feast, the author's Paris memoir. But the way Harvey instructed was insistent, incisive—like an old school Zen master.

Now Harvey was on a Zen roll. “So what if you get stuck? Think you need an inspiring view?” He jabbed a finger at his chest. “Me, I like a dark room, nothing on the wall. Hey, it's just you and your mind, right? Forget the scenery. Just put your ass in the chair.” Until it has callouses, I expected him to say, recalling the old story of the Buddhist master. In it, a student asks for the key to enlightenment. In answer, the master exposes his butt, worn to leather by decades of sitting meditation.

“One more thing,” said Harvey. “Good vs. Evil—that's immature. Forget all that. In reality, it's all mixed up. You have to practice non-judgment.” Listening, I imagined Pema Chodron, the brilliant Shambhala Buddhist teacher, running up to high-five Harvey. Chodron often writes about the hazards of  judgment and opinions. Harvey elaborated: “Ultimately, there are no all-bad, all-good guys. Can you tolerate that non-judgment? And can you hold it? If you can see that in reality, then you can evoke it on the page.”

After the workshop, I browsed the book stalls set up in the white tents of Printers Row. I mulled Michael Harvey's comments. Harvey wasn't claiming nothing was bad. As a journalist, after all, he helped expose Illinois' horrendous record of wrongful convictions. He knew firsthand that evil existed. But he was insisting that good and evil were relative. As any Buddhist teacher would suggest.

Understanding that reality is indivisible, penetrating the illusions of our dualistic minds, is a prerequisite to truly transforming suffering, ours and the whole world. If we want to stop wrongful convictions, we must punish the obvious perpetrators, like Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who tortured black men to coerce false confessions. We must hold their enablers to account. But we must also see and act to change all the pieces, the racism in our whole society, and within all of us. And we must use the 'good', wherever we find it.

At one Printers Row display was a weathered copy of The Gulag Archipelago. I'd read it two years ago, and thumbed through it. Its author, the famous Soviet dissident and writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, suffered for eight years in a Soviet labor camp. Solzhenitsyn lamented that it would simple if evil was 'out there.' Instead, he observed that they operate “at the crossroads of the human heart.” Solzhenitsyn grasped that his 'enemies' were inseparable from himself. This is not a naïve view of evil, but a clear one, based on true human-ness. If we can 'see' in this holistic way, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King did, we have a true chance to transmute suffering.

And how does that suffering—both social and individual—arise in the first place? At the Revolution Books stall, I chatted with the woman behind the table. Her group, the Revolutionary Communist Party, believes suffering derives from an exploitive class system, from capitalism—a view for which there seems ample evidence these days. Christianity and Buddhism have theories, too, both based on estrangement. In the Christian view, we suffer because we sin—and thereby alienate ourselves from God. Forgiveness through confession and penance (Catholic) or grace (Protestant), redeems us, re-unites us with God.

The Buddhist view is psychological—that suffering begins and arises from the delusion that “I” am an ego, an independent, disconnected self.  Ego delusion is a natural by-product of our brilliant but dualistic conceptual minds. If we look closely at the assumptions that guide our daily activity, we find that our deepest (mostly unconscious) belief is that we exist in this way, that the ego is real. Of course, particular individual and social manifestations of ego-delusion (injustice) are profoundly shaped by history and culture.

But there's a problem. Deep down, we know that the ego is delusive. So we frantically pursue strategies to make our “egos” more real. Politicians chase power, divas chase publicity, capitalists chase money. All of us, conscious of it or not, are seduced by the story of The Happy Ego. We determined to get our act together. But it's a rigged game. And trying to win leaves us more, not less, desperate. Ego distorts us and others.

At the same time, our truest heart knows that we are inseparable and therefore complete, abundant, even. We suspect we are bigger. With this consciousness, we still feel pain, but we don't complicate that pain, by adding the illusion of a besieged, high-maintenance self. When we grasp and feel and live this connected-ness, this inseparability—from the potato chip we ate for lunch, the earth that supports our bodies, the child we carry in our arms—we are living the wisdom the Buddha pointed to, the love that Jesus taught. This joy is the most natural, most authentic way we can be and live.

But how can we penetrate our ego-delusion and loosen our attachment to all our failed ego strategies? If our conceptual minds, incredible tools in their own right, can give rise to the delusion that drives suffering, it follows that we can't think our way out. Luckily, Buddhism gives us a method.

One pathway is to practice awareness of the present moment. Behind our monkey-minds—the engines of ego, our minds maintain a present-moment awareness. Even as we chatter on our 'smart' phones, this mind is taking in all that we 'ignore': the gentle conversations of the book browsers, the sprinkle of raindrops on our cheek, the clatter of the El train going by blocks away. Big-mind awareness takes it all in—unlike intellect, which helps us get things done by dividing and abstracting. Both thinking and awareness are natural; the trick is not to subordinate our awareness and reduce our identity to only our thoughts.

Okay—but how can we cultivate such awareness? We can start with mindfulness.  When we sit in meditation—following our breath, being distracted, coming back, the noisy production of our thought-factories starts to slow. It's like turning down the volume on a radio. And without the traction of anxious thoughts, ego starts to recede back into its proper function as the interactive mask we wear in the social roles we play. We feel inseparable from the every 'thing' around us. And when we have a thought, it is not reality, but just another natural, passing manifestation of our incessantly changing, 'wonder-full' world. On the train ride home from Printers Row, I read through the scribbled notes I'd made in my little blue notebook at the fiction workshop. Musing on author Michael Harvey's advice brought to mind John Gardner's classic, The Art of Fiction. In the book's last sentences, Gardner concludes: “Novel writing is not so much a profession as a yoga,or 'way', an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world...Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart...”

For me, these observations ring true; my meditation and creative writing practices—and the awareness both generate—nourish a sensibility of the indivisible whole. Of course, sitting meditation is not available or suitable for everyone. And creative writing is just one of many arts. This year at the Zen Life and Meditation Center we are exploring the link between creativity and authenticity—through classes and in workshops like ones on the art of clowning and photography.

The grounding truth is that all of us, when we simply practice being present in the moment and in our bodies, when we tap our creativity, we cannot help but cultivate the sweet state of children at play, of artists at work. We become our true selves—the selves we are and are meant to be.

It's possible; the mind is workable, as the great Tibetan Shambhala teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche observed. With meditation, mindfulness, and art, we re-discover our inseparability and our compassionate generosity to the world—for our benefit and the benefit of all beings.

by Daniel Giloth