Discovering the freedom of writing

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Earlier this year, a dear friend pointed me to a beautifully written article sharing Thich Nhat Hanh’s insights on the art of letting go. Little did I know the power of this gift he had just given me and the transforming journey I was about to start. I had no idea this gesture was about to change not only the way I write, but also the way I live - that it would set me free. But I guess, that’s the power of words - and friendship.

I live to write and I write to live. It’s that simple. Writing and life: these two things are inseparable. No arguments. So, I shouldn’t really be surprised that finding freedom in my writing would transform the way I see the world and how I live. Finding the ‘art of letting go’ when I write has changed me for the better in a noticeable way, and as such my husband, work colleagues and close friends are actually commenting on the difference. And I am feeling that difference, big time.

When I first read Christina Sarich’s article The Art of Letting Go, I really struggled with the concept of detachment but really connected with three of the four forms of detachment described: joy, compassion and gratitude. It has taken me some time to understand the power of the fourth: equanimity.

Joy, compassion and gratitude were easy, they were part of my vocabulary already, they were important to me and part of me. I hold these virtues in my heart, they lead me through life. Equanimity, however, was not as familiar to me. The elements of ‘nondiscrimination’ and ‘even mindedness’ I connected with, but I very much struggled with understanding the concept of ‘detachment’ associated with being equanimous. I am so grateful that this is no longer the case as understanding equanimity has been a critical piece in learning the ‘art of letting go’ and finding freedom in my writing.

I laugh at the irony, that I got so stuck on the very term Sarich’s entire article is about: detachment. And that I struggled because I was finding it difficult to ‘let go’ of my long term understanding of this word. I was finding it hard to move past the fact that what I understood ‘detachment’ to be, was exactly what the article described it wasn’t: ‘a form of aloofness, or emotional disconnect from others’. I was so confused. How could ‘letting go’ mean ‘diving in’? Aren’t they opposites? But more on that later, because I want to point out that working through the things I struggled with in this article, served as a good reminder to me that when making a formative shift in life, the initial struggle we face is a critical part of the journey. Without the struggle, we don’t change. And although those words weren’t written in Sarich’s article, this was its first gift to me, and the first step in changing the way I write.

Embrace the struggle

So, if you are looking to write more freely, my first bit of advice to you would be to make peace with the struggle associated with the story you are working on.

When I write, it starts in my head - long before pen hits paper or my fingers hit the keyboard. Sometimes, like today, I wake up with the words forming in my mind and I have to get up and let them pour out. Other times, I walk around for days, with the story slowly building. Accompanying the ‘slow burn’ internal writing process there used to be a certain level of crankiness. Something my family got used to. They knew to get out of my way because ‘mum was writing in her head again’. And they probably couldn’t wait for it to come out; for the relief and calmness that followed. I also looked forward to the respite. I can’t explain why it was so uncomfortable. Perhaps, it was the fear that the words wouldn’t come out right. Perhaps I was just being impatient. I am not sure, but I do know that once I made peace with the struggle of this internal process, the negative emotions surrounding it disappeared (well, so far in most cases it did - for change takes time and practice).

I found this inner peace by letting go and accepting the struggle as part of the writing process. By finding joy in the struggle, being kind to myself during this process and being grateful for the struggle, trusting it would deliver what it needed, in time. I worked on being equanimous during the struggle: finding calmness and composure even if this part of my writing process felt difficult or uncomfortable. What worked for me was learning to detach myself from the struggle, stop trying to own it, or control it, and just letting it take me where it needed. Trusting the struggle to land where ever it needed to. Seems like Sarich’s article was starting to sink in after all.

Remember the joy

As a young kid, I never placed expectations on my writing. I just wrote with great joy and playfulness. Anything was possible. Rediscovering this joy and playfulness in my writing, has been a big part of learning to write with a free spirit again.

In Sarich’s article she explores the concept of letting go through learning to ‘love more completely’ and explains Master Hanh’s four elements of detachment as the pathway to achieve this. Giving joy and happiness to others is the first. So for me, it was about learning to love my writing more completely, loving it for its imperfections, loving it for what it is. And the first step in achieving this complete love for my writing, was remembering the joy it gives me and noticing how happy it makes me, and through this giving it the freedom to give joy to others too.

So, the second gift from Sarich’s article was Master Hanh’s quote:

‘The first aspect of true love is maitri (metta, in Pali), the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness.’

I always used to say I wrote for me, no one else. I would explain that my writing ‘falls out of my head’, it just needed to come out and that it ‘wasn’t about others’. But what is a piece of writing without a reader? What is a piece of writing that does not think about its audience? As a Communications Manager in a business setting, I always think about the audience. Why wasn’t I doing this with my personal writing? When I used to say, ‘Sure, I write a blog and I write poetry, but it doesn’t matter who reads it, because it isn’t about that.’ I was missing the point. The fact is, people will read it, and regardless of how many people read it, or what people think of it, someone will read it. I realised that even if it is only one person, it is a valid audience. Even if this person is the writer herself, it is a valid audience - when rereading your work, you shift from being the writer and you become the audience.

So from now on, I always start my writing with the intention to offer joy and happiness. Joy and happiness to myself and to others. I embrace my inner child, and remember the joy of writing and allow myself to be playful when I write. That doesn’t mean I can’t write about serious topics or write in a serious way, it means to enjoy what I write, enjoy the process of writing and, just like free-play, to be flexible when I write, embrace change and let go of any rules and expectations.

It is through this that I have become a better friend with my writing and learnt to truly love my writing. Inspired by a poignant quote of Master Hanh’s from Sarich’s article:

‘We have to use language more carefully. ‘Love’ is a beautiful word, we have to restore its meaning. The word ‘maitri’ has roots in the word mitra, which means friend. In Buddhism, the primary meaning of love is friendship.’

So, be a friend to your writing. Truly love your writing. Write with the intent to bring happiness and joy to others, including yourself. Find the ‘maitri’ in your writing.

Show compassion

During this journey of self discovery, I realised how nasty I was being to myself about my writing. How I would put it down and make excuses for it. I would write a piece, share it on my blog and when someone said to me what a great piece it was, I would sometimes say how much I hated that particular piece of writing, or how it was OK but it didn’t say what I really wanted to say. And I would say these things because I believed them to be true. I felt the disappointment, for the writing I had produced, deep in my heart. Ridiculously, I would apologise in advance for my writing before others even had a chance to read them.

My previous blog post was introduced in this way, in my Twitter post: ‘This doesn’t even touch the surface of what I want to say but here it is, a mere wondering about Nietzsche and Eastern thought.’

‘Doesn’t even touch the surface of what I want to say’. Why did I introduce my piece of writing this way? Why did I put it down in the same moment I was sharing it with others? Because it was true, it didn’t touch the surface of what I wanted to say and I was focused on the outcome. I was also frightened people wouldn’t understand it, and that they would see it as a poor piece of writing. Judging my writing is judging me. If my writing is no good, I am no good. I write to live, I live to write. They are inseparable.

Letting go of this fear, showing compassion for yourself as a writer, and showing compassion to your pieces of writing is so important. Learning Master Hanh’s art of letting go, is understanding that after ‘maitri’ comes ‘karuna’ (compassion), which Sarich describes as the ‘next form of detachment’ and beautifully brings to life in the words:

‘The Buddha smiles because he understands why pain and suffering exist, and because he also knows how to transform it.’

I write more freely when I smile with the Buddha.

Be grateful

Sometimes my writing makes me laugh. Sometimes it gives me peace. Sometimes it makes me cry and other times my writing surprises me. I am really grateful for how my writing makes me feel. Whatever the emotion may be. I have also learnt to be grateful for each piece of writing, no matter what it turns out to be. Helping me understand gratefulness in relation to my writing is the third gift from Sarich’s article and came from her words where she explained:

‘In truly letting go you practice gratitude. Mudita, or joy arises when we are overcome with gratitude for all that we have, such that we no longer cling to some other longed-for result.’

I didn’t realise how much I was clinging to a different outcome for pieces of my writing. I wasn’t aware how attached I was to my own definition of what it is to be a writer, until I read these words and let them sink in a little.

As well as finding happiness in whatever I have written, and for the writer I am today, I am also grateful for how my writing makes others feel and for the joy it gives to me and others. I am grateful for the conversations my writing starts and the connections it has given me. I am especially grateful when my writing inspires others to find their inner writer and when they share their stories with me. Stories which then give me great happiness and joy leading to a cycle of sharing and enjoying each other’s creations. It is a delight.

I get the same sense of happiness when reading the pieces of writing my friends write, which are completely independent of me. It is lovely to be part of a community of writers.

Sarich describes the Bhudda’s definition of ‘mudita’, the practice of gratitude, as ‘unselfish joy’ where ‘we don’t only find happiness when something good happens to us, but when others find happiness’.

‘Joy arises when you find happiness even when others find joy–and it has little or nothing to do with you.’

Set your writing free

A conversation some six months ago (although not word for word):

Friend: “I read your latest blog post, I loved it. There was so much in it, I actually printed it out to read it.”

Me: “Really? Oh, I so hate that piece. It just….I don’t know (big sigh). I don’t like it, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. It doesn’t say what I wanted to say.”

Friend: “Well, it’s not yours anymore…”

Wise words. Letting go means it is not yours anymore.

It took me some time to get there. I felt something the moment I heard those words, but didn’t truly understand their sentiment, but thankfully those four words ‘it’s not yours anymore’ kept running over and over in my head after this conversation until they landed and I got it.

Driving to work one day, the things percolating in my head collided. Ideas I had read, Sarich’s article and all its gifts, memories from my life, stories and poems I had written, the recent conversation about my writing and other conversations I had shared all fell into place as I discovered the meaning of the fourth element of letting go: upeksha (equanimity). I was standing on the metaphorical mountain top, the fourth gift from Sarich’s article:

‘Upa means ‘over,’ and iksha means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.’

From this psychological vantage point - standing under blue skies in the bright sunshine on top of the metaphorical mountain - I had an epiphany. The words I would use to describe the emotions I felt in that exact moment are, ironically, the four elements of letting go. I felt great happiness and joy, I was full of kindness, I was bubbling over with gratefulness and was suspended all of the sudden in a deep sense of calmness.

I felt maitri, karuna, muditi and upeksha as I realised it was these very four elements I needed to apply to my writing, and as I realised equanimity was to become the fourth pillar to guide me in life - alongside the intent to bring joy and happiness to myself and others, to be compassionate and kind to myself and others and to be grateful in the moment.

Writing more freely is about detaching from your writing. That does not mean being cold and distant from it, but truly loving it. Diving in. Letting it go to be whatever it will be to you and to others, in whatever form it is in. Knowing, it is not yours anymore. Not owning it. Not attaching your ego to it.

My writing is not mine to own, any more than my children are. I have birthed them from my body, I have loved and cherished them, I have guided them, but they are their independent selves, they are their own beings. They may have my genes, but they are unique, we do not share the same fingerprints.

Detach from your writing, let it have its own life and purpose. Accept it is what it is, and had to be written. Don’t put your beloved writing in your pocket.

‘We try to put our beloved in our pocket and carry them with us, when they are more like the wind, or a butterfly, or a stream, needing to move and flow, or risk dying. This is not love, this is destruction.’ Christina Sarich, The Art of Letting Go, May 2018.

My favourite piece of writing, which I have loved since I was 19, captures the very essence of not owning the things we love. Sylvia Plath’s beautiful poem, Morning Song, which she wrote after the birth of her first child Freida, expresses it beautifully in the third stanza.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

Rain from inside a cloud form a puddle. The puddle is not the cloud. It exists in its own right for children to playfully dance in, with their gumboots on.

Words from inside my mind form a story. Get your gumboots on!

The philosophical muse: Nietzsche and his relevance today

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Inspired by someone I know who has discovered the beauty of philosophy I started to read Birth of Tragedy again to see if after 27 years Nietzsche would still sing to me, and he did. What a serenade!

A great thinker of all times, Nietzsche starts Birth of Tragedy by introducing the Apollinian and the Dionysian forces as the parents of art. Two polar opposites born from Greek deities procreating to create a medium for humans to understand their suffering.

'We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up in the Apollinian and Dionysian duality - just as procreation depends on the duality of sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliation.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1.)

He describes these two opposite deities as duality, likened to the opposition of gender. Contrasts borrowed from the Gods of man, recreated by man through art, mirroring life as sculpture and music.

'The terms Dionysian and Apollinian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mind the profound mysteries of their view of art, not, to be sure, in concepts, but in the intensely clear figures of their gods. Through Apollo and Dionysus, the two art deities of the Greeks, we come to recognize that in the Greek world their existed a tremendous opposition in origin and aims, between the Apollonian art of sculpture and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

Apollo, the mythical Greek god of light and dreams. The god of form, tangible aesthetics and control. The god of refined beauty and balance. The veil. The complete opposite of Dionysus the great Greek god of intoxication. The god of passion and chaos. The organic and fluid beauty of monsters.

Contrasts, yes, but opposites which are part of a whole. Dichotomy not duality. Like Yin and Yang. Where they are separate but one. Each with a part of the other - defining the union. 

'These two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term "art"; till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic "will" they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate equally Dionysian and Apollinian form of art - Attic tragedy.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

And there you have, in this unison, the Birth of Tragedy.  One paragraph in, Nietzsche delivers on his title. Succinctly. Leaving the remaining text to unpack this premise.

In this first 200 words Nietzsche reveals the birth of Attic Tragedy (another term for 5th Century BC Greek Tragedy). Why is this important? Because Greek Tragedy is born from the ancient rituals celebrating Dionysus combined with the worship of the God of Light, Apollo (not to be confused with the 'God of Light' from the Game of Thrones). And Greek Tragedy is important because as an art form it influenced the theatre of Ancient Rome and everything beyond. It is art mirroring life, which has evolved (or perhaps dissolved) into the movies and Netflix series we watch today. Art forms which remain a way for us to understand the human condition.

The Apollinian and Dionysian remain powerful dichotomous forces which can help us unpack and understand our world today beyond art. The Apollinian (form and structure) of science has recently come together with the Dionysian (and organic nature) of Buddhism. This gentle coupling, equally Apollinian and Dionysian, is unlocking our understanding of neuroplasticity.

Science and Buddishm (like their Apollinian and Dionysian counterparts) are dichotomy over duality. That is, they are two equal parts of a whole rather than just being opposite forces at continual odds with each other.  Their commonality described eloquently by the Dalai Lama in Sharon Begley's 2007 book 'The Plastic Mind':

'Although modern science and the Buddhist contemplative tradition arose out of quite different historical, cultural, and intellectual circumstances, I have found that they have a great deal in common. By some accounts, both traditions are motivated by an urge to relive the hardships of life. Both are suspicious of the notions of absolutes, whether these imply the existence of a transcendent creator or an unchanging entity such as a soul, preferring to account for the emergence of life in the world in terms of the natural laws of cause and effect. Both traditions take an empirical approach to knowledge.'

And also by Begley herself:

'Although science and religion are often portrayed as chronic opponents and even enemies, that misses the mark for science and Buddhism. There is no historic antagonism between the two...Instead, Buddhism and science share the goal of seeking the truth...For science, truth is always tentative, always subject to refutation by the next experiment; for Buddhism - at least, as the Dalai Lama sees it - even core teachings can and must be overturned if science proves them wrong. Perhaps the most important, Buddhist training emphasized the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one's minds.' (The Plastic Mind, Sharon Begley, p11.)

Science and Buddhism are working together to unlock the power of our mind. The transformative nature of Buddhism (reflecting the intoxication effects of Dionysian forces) is being analysed and researched within the rigour (form and structure of Apollinian forces) of science.

'It is a fundamental Buddhist principle that the human mind has tremendous potential for transformation. Science, on the other hand, has until recently, held to the convention not only that the brain is the seat and source of the mind, but also that the brain and its structures are formed during infancy and change little thereafter. Buddhist practitioners familiar with the workings of the mind have long been aware that it can be transformed through training. What is exciting and new is that scientist have shown that such mental training can also change the brain.' (Dalai Lama, Forward, The Plastic Mind, Sharon Begley.)

This has far reaching implications.

The repercussions of this will not be confined merely to our knowledge of the mind: They have the potential to be of practical importance in our understanding of education, mental health, and the significance of ethics in our lives.' (Dalai Lama, Forward, The Plastic Mind, Sharon Begley.)

Recently I stumbled on an echo of this sentiment, by modern day philosopher (who I swear is Nietzsche reincarnated) Jason Silva in his slam-like stream of consciousness provocation Dissolving the ego: How psychedelic treatment could revolutionalize mental health. Silva speaks with great passion and conviction of the possibilities of the Dionysian intoxication (psychedelic treatment) unlocking us from the veil of Apollinan conciousness (the ego) which has held mankind with such a firm grip hiding the 'Dionysian world from his vision' (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, p41). 

We have been blinded by the God of Light, our ego, what Nietzsche references through Schopenhaur as the 'principium indiviudationis' and the Apollinian power of illusion. The ego has become, as Silva says, a tyrant. With an ego in overdrive we lose our agency, our free will. To overcome this, we need to add to this, what Neitzsche describes, and Silva calls for:

'...blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1, p36. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

This intoxication, is Silva's psychedelic treatment deployed responsibly, the effects expressed by Nietzsche:

'Either under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which the songs of all primitive men and people speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness'. (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1, p36. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

Where the Apollinian forces override the Dionysian, and there is too much 'ego' man is slave to himself.  When the veil is lifted by Dionysian forces of intoxication the slave is a free man. Man is free from self. Free from suffering and if you believe Silva, a way to reduce the mental health issues faced by many today.

This is not a call for everyone to get drunk or take psychedelic drugs recreationally. As Silva mentions, studies are happening through the Psychedelic Research Group and other major medical institutions like John Hopkins for psychedelic treatment for depression and anxiety.

Dionysian transformation can also be achieved through 'the very element which forms the essence of Dionysian music' (Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche, p40). Yes music, and also it can be achieved through what Silva references as occasions of mystical experience where you 'become the music'. The Dionysian state is achieved through the other examples Silva mentions: flow state, travelling somewhere new, diving into a new relationship. It is also achieved through the Dionysian rituals of transformation, which  - circling straight back to Buddhism - can happen through meditation. Something science has confirmed has the power to change the mind, and in turn, the brain.

'One of the questions raised by the Dalai Lama was particularly provocative: can the mind change the brain? He had raised this point many times with scientists over the years, usually receiving a dismissive answer. After all, one of the cardinal assumptions of neuroscience is that our mental processes stem from brain activity: the brain creates and shapes the mind, not the other way around. But the data reported here now suggests there may be a two-way street of causality, with systematic mental activity resulting in changes in the very structure of the brain.' (Preface, Daniel Goleman, The Plastic Brain, Sharon Begley.)

Silva echoes this in his example of what neuroscience has discovered when we are in a state of flow, in the zone or the pocket. In the 'state of rhapsody, wonderment and awe our dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex goes off line', the 'default mode network is shut off' the 'ego's throne' is cut off.

So in short, the Greeks of 5th Century BC knew; the Buddhists have known since at least the 6th Century BC; Nietzsche knew in 1872 and Jason Silva knows in 2018. They all know that to transcend into the chaos of the Dionysian, keeping the Apollinian ego in check, is the answer to human suffering.

Now you know too.