January 20, 2012

Letting Go

One of the most difficult things for most of us to do is to allow the details of life to be what they are, rather than what we want or expect them to be. At one level, this is what makes us human. It's what makes progress possible. The reason we have airplanes, and hot and cold running water, and smart phones and solar panels and bicycles, and smart phone apps is because humans tend not to leave well enough alone. We tinker. We constantly look for ways to make things better. It's a big part of our creativity. On the other hand, our best friends, the dogs, are perfectly content to let their world be what it is. Dogs have never built anything, invented anything, or tweaked anything to make it better. However things are, is good enough for dogs, and they don't even seem to be aware that things could be different than they are. Dogs are what I would describe as pre-conscious. If their food is cooked, great, but the idea of cooking food has never occurred to any dog as far as we know. The idea of making or improving anything at all has simply never occurred to a dog. This striving and obsession with how things are, or how we think they could or should be is uniquely human. And at the creative level, we wouldn't trade it for anything.

But as humans, we tend to overproduce this trait. We find ourselves dissatisfied and restless over things we cannot, and sometimes should not change. We worry, and we waste time struggling and fretting over some pretty fruitless obsessions. We are not so good at turning off the problem solver brain, even when it's not the best tool for the job at hand. And we tend to miss a lot of possibilities because we assume that certain tools in our mental toolbox are better than others, and should be used for everything. But there are some remarkable tools in the conscious mind that tend to be under-utilized or ignored entirely.

Last week, I wrote about oneness, as described by Martha Beck in her book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want. In that book she talks about bending spoons and calling wild animals and communing with plants. These are things that don't come out of exercising the analytical problem solver brain. They are things that scientists and engineers would consider impossible. But in my explorations of my own creativity, I have committed to not being closed minded about such things. There are interesting theories, experimental results, and anecdotes in quantum physics, biology, and botany relating to such things. There is, in fact, a lot of very real fuzziness around the boundaries of possibility.

I've mentioned before that I have a lot of experience bending, cutting, and manipulating metal with heat and mechanical force. The operative word in the previous sentence is "manipulating." My experience with metal, as a welder, fitter, and artist, has been focused on what I could make the metal do. All that work involves forcing uncompliant metal to do what I want it to do by force. The spoon bending that Martha Beck talks about is very different from what I have done. There are no tools, no heat, and no coercion of any kind in the spoon bending phenomenon that she describes. It's a process of letting go of control, allowing the steel to have it's own place, and "feeling into the metal" as she puts it. It's a process of letting go of your need for understanding and control of what is possible. I have not succeeded in bending a spoon in this fashion. But as I understand it, in order to do so, one must let go of expectations about bending spoons entirely. That means not believing that you can or that you cannot do it.

Another concept that's crucial to Beck's notion of oneness is the ability to embrace paradox. All the world religions hold paradox at the center of their teachings. Here is an example from the Tao Te Ching, 73.

The Tao is always at ease.
It overcomes without competing,
answers without speaking a word,
arrives without being summoned,
accomplishes without a plan.

Its net covers the whole universe.
And though its meshes are wide,
it doesn't let a thing slip through.

I will not wax theological here, but suffice it to say that much of what skeptics point to in the Bible as invalidating contradiction is seen by true believers as deep paradox, sometimes with profound spiritual significance. The fundamentalists of various religions seem to miss the deeper significance of paradox, and tend to be threatened by it. My personal definition of religious fundamentalism is that it's any belief system that cannot entertain paradox. (You might notice that much of what passes for science fits within my definition.)

But paradox is crucial to understanding oneness. In fact, oneness is a profound paradox in itself. It is the notion that everything in the universe is one single thing; that the appearance of separate, discreet entities is an illusion. To grasp it, one must develop the craft of holding contradiction unresolved. Martha suggests that we entertain irreconcilable conundrums, or what in Buddhist practice are called kōans, in our mind as a matter of spiritual practice on the path to deeper understanding of oneness. So for example, consider the age old question, "If God is all powerful, and can create anything he sets his mind to, can he create a rock so heavy that he cannot pick it up?" To answer yes or no to this question is impossible. Both answers contradict the premises of the question. We tend to think about such questions briefly, then dismiss them as unanswerable and forget about it. Martha suggests that we spend quality time not dismissing such questions, but rather holding the conundrum in our minds.

This practice is very important as we navigate the breakneck pace and infinite complexity of our modern world. We cannot rely on our understanding of how things are to get us through anymore. Assumptions about what is real, and what is possible, are no longer able to keep pace. The technologies of magic that Martha Beck writes about are not merely techniques to do things like bending metal and calling animals and such, but rather, they are techniques for staying balanced, staying agile, staying alert, in a world that is expressing itself increasingly beyond our wildest imaginations.

Not sure it's a real paradox, but...

Holding paradox, leaving space in your mind for the impossible, letting your mind sit in stillness, all these are exercises in letting go. Letting go does not mean living your life with doglike passive acceptance of what is. Rather, it is bringing your full consciousness to living, to dreaming dreams, to making plans, to setting goals, and then finding the space where you can hold those things clearly and yet at the same time let them go completely. Some traditions call this detatchment. But it is not detatchment in the sense of disconnection. It is in fact very intensely connected. Detatchment is a kōan in itself. Detatchment cannot be resolved. It cannot be explained and dismissed. It must be held onto, however awkwardly.

Whether or not we think about it in these terms, artists and creative geniuses in all fields of endeavor practice letting go as a matter of course. For many of us it is imperative to hold a creative concept very loosely as we create. To develop the design too far in the idea stage tends to make a work of art rigid and sterile. It's the openness to allow it a life of its own as it is being created that keeps art fresh. Holding an idea too rigidly blocks that living creative process. So it might just be that this idea of allowing things to be what they are, of allowing creativity to grow one step at a time rather than following a fixed blueprint, is the very best way for us as artists and creative trailblazers to think about letting go. We do it already. The challenge is to take that practice that we do in our studios, and consider how it would work on the broader stage of our lives. Can you create your business decisions, your household processes, and your relationships with others the same way you build your creative work?

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