Writing in the present moment.

Handwritten entry in my notebook from January 5, 2002.

“We invest each other with selves. But how can we know what we call a self really is a self.” Chuang-Tzu, The Inner Chapters.

I am writing with a dip pen to be in the present moment of writing. A fountain pen also helps me to pay attention to the act of writing. “Writing” on the computer may be more efficient, when efficiency is quantified/measured by the number of words per unit of time. Yet, when I’m working (?) on the computer I am least (likely to be) in the present moment, more likely to be doing two or more other things at the same time—listening to music, talking on the phone, clicking in/out of email or the news update.

I’m supposed to be more in the present moment, but I don’t pay attention to the level of the ink and dip too deeply, soaking the pen and covering my fingers with ink before I notice what I’m doing.

Does being in the present moment mean that one is attentive to every aspect of what one is doing? Or, does it mean that one is oblivious to everything except the most critical, central, core activity of what one is doing at this time?

That raises the question of what one is really doing—writing or thinking or writing as a mode of thinking. If the last, and I think it is, then we are not necessarily talking about being more or less in the present moment of writing-as-thinking when discussing the use of different writing instruments. We are talking about different modes of writing-as-thinking—some modes faster than others, some modes more distracted multi-tasking than others. Even in this mode with the dip pen, I have been changing and testing different nibs, and just now staring at the books in the book case just across from me. The former was part of this exercise; the latter was an example of leaving the present moment. Or was it? Isn’t staring out the window part of writing-as-thinking? Or staring at objects in the room. As much as are mechanical rituals such as sharpening a pencil.

I would have said before writing the last paragraph that writing (typing) on the computer had the virtue of being better able to keep up with the pace of the mind. Even now I had to make a note to myself to remember what I would have written before the last paragraph lest I forget it while writing the last paragraph. I do the same thing (write side-notes about points to be made), however, while composing on the computer. So no matter how fast the mechanics of writing-as-thinking, the thinking will always outpace the mechanics—when it’s flowing. (Interesting scene in the movie “Finding Forrester” about using the mechanical act of transcribing someone else’s writing to prime the mind’s pump. That’s very much the process involved in these notebooks.)

Then, there’s the distraction of hunger and having to get something to eat when the stomach wins the debate over staying on task. (I did win the struggle not to eat potato chips.)

After that, or really through all of the above, there is fighting the urge to reread my diary from this time eight years ago.

More thoughts caught on scribbled notes while cooking soup and while rereading what’s been written so far as I drink soup.

(Enough dip pen pretensions. Back to my favorite writing instrument—the Namiki Falcon. I take that back. My favorite pen to write is still this Shaeffer Targa, even though it has a medium nib, which I do not like.)

To the thoughts:

—My desire to reread my diary is connected to this spate of introspection-retrospection-reflection over the last week. First, recapitulating/re-understanding my Sophie’s Choice project and its stages. Then, these thoughts about writing. The thread is my recent 58th birthday, only two more years to 60. The struggle not to stay with that thought, but to stay in the present moment. Another Council re-organization meeting on January 1 to start another work year that will flash by as I rush from Tuesday to Tuesday Council meeting, with the off-Tuesday consumed by three meetings I have to attend.

—Chuang Tzu on self at the beginning of today’s entry. I am not the same self I was on January 5, 1994.

—This spate of intro/retro-spection began with resistance to Chuang Tzu on New Year’s Day, but the Inner Chapters are helping me to get in the present moment and understand (?) Tao.

—I am in the mode of preparing for my death, but I am focusing on the timelessness of the present moment and the joy of playing with Anne Mei, not on how many years may be left.

—Rereading what one has just written is part of writing-as-thinking.

—One other aspect of the thought I tried to capture when comparing the paces of handwriting, composing on the computer, and thinking. It’s not that the mind works at one pace and we write at another. As seen in how the act of writing those notes changed/added to that original notion, how writing those pages changed what I previously thought, the act of writing at the pace of the dip pen facilitated, or better, was part of my thought process. Just as now I am engaged in a different thought process as I use my Falcon fountain pen to record/expand upon jotted notes. I am thinking/writing when I compose on the computer. I can be just as distracted and not in the moment when using a dip pen as when composing on the computer. It’s not simply that the mechanics of writing affect the pace of thought, even though they can and do. Again, it’s not that the mind is faster than the hand. Sometimes the hand is faster, as often is the tongue in my line of work.

—I’ve signed up for yoga classes starting next Saturday. It will be interesting to see how well I will be able to use bodily mechanics to engage in meditation (as non-thought) as compared to using pens and computers to meditate/cogitate.

—On my reflection concerning the evolution of my project, wherever I go (I won’t say “end”), I want to remain where I have been this afternoon—thinking in practice. I may be more open to the Tao and Te, but I still agree with Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, particularly:

(8) All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and the comprehension of this practice.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is, to change it. (original emphases)


  1. You’re on target about the connection between humility and wú wéi. We’re still talking past each other about the relations between practice and inquiry. We’ll just have to sit down some time for a longer discussion. In the meantime I remembered a recent, non-marxist book that conveys what the Theses on Feuerbach are trying to get at. In Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli writes “When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah–scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears, but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking.”

  2. I have been thinking about this for a bit. The two admonitions are not as similar as I first thought. I suppose “beliefs” in Marx’s care are closer to values whereas the LessWrong article talks more about how we believe the world or nature works (the most concrete beliefs in this case being irrefutable constants like acceleration due to gravity). Marx supposes we can construct a philosophical value system that is intrinsically correct but fail to be the change in the world that enacts the values. I think the rationalist ideas would be involved at the earlier stage of constructing the value system. It must be rooted in empirical observations of nature (human and Gaia).

    As for Wu Wei and humility: I guess part of the philosophy of inaction is humbly accepting that even what we term empirical observations can never be direct understanding of the true essences. But we must be un-humble enough to at least believe that by letting go we will change the world.

  3. Aidan, Thanks for the link to the article. I understand why the Marx quote might remind you of “making beliefs pay rent.” Perhaps other articles in the series expand on how beliefs emerge from the dynamic of human activity, but by itself the article makes beliefs sound too much like the ideas of an onlooker instead of the judgments of someone involved in doing or making something. I understand how wu wei is a paradox, i.e., doing without doing, but where does humility come into the discussion? Thanks again.

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