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.
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.
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!