Some ideas on letting go by Linda Chase
If there is a key, it is to sit with the student until they let themselves go into the sea of language, really learn to trust all the varieties of English we have and push out beyond the fears they have learned earlier on. Once the student is out in the sea, they begin to catch their fish.
Julia Casterton in the Poetry Paper 2, from Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, in answer to the question, ‘Can writing be taught?’
Reading the above quote made think of the most important lesson I learned from my 30 years of Tai Chi practice. I used to say to my students, ‘Listen up! I am about to tell you the only thing I have learned in all these years of practice. If you miss it, well, tough!’
It goes like this. Yes, Tai Chi does have a mystery ingredient, which all other martial arts would like to have too. When people say ‘it gives you energy’ what they really mean is, you don’t waste energy doing something that would occur naturally without effort if it were allowed to proceed unhampered. Now, this little trick is achieved through the separation of yin and yang. If you can allow yourself to empty fully while changing your weight, then the next move will arise without effort. A good way to visualize this if you are not a Tai Chi player, is to think of walking; an activity which requires one leg to fill up with your weight before you lift the other.
This concept can be understood in the mind as well as in the body. The yin yang symbol depicts it. The black and the white represent two aspects of the same thing that is always in the process of becoming its opposite aspect through change. To our western minds, this may seem to be a rather unstable state of affairs, but to the eastern mind it allows for the idea of constant tuning and readjusting and never looking for a final stable state of being. I guess you could look at our obsession with aging and trying to hide its ravishes—as if there could be a way of stopping the process! Also, imagine standing on a bus and trying to keep your balance. You need to keep changing how you put your weight into your two legs. To keep upright, you need to respond and adjust constantly.
Now—back to the process of allowing the fullness to occur completely. The yin yang symbol even gives us another clue which is the dot of the opposite imbedded in the fattest part of each black and white fish shape. In our nature, there is a natural inclination toward stasis. The body and also the mind have homing devices which head back toward (and beyond) the even point of the process. So, if our bodies are relaxed enough not to get in the way of this natural changing mechanism, everything that happens will become part of this inbuilt shifting back and forth. Perhaps this is one of the attractions to swinging on a swing. We are reminded of our own bodies’ inner process. (The breath is, of course, another example of a yin/yang microcosm resident in our own bodies, but much too complex to bring in here!)
So, back to the ‘one thing I learned.’ Letting go is what all the years of practice add up to. Each time the student attempts to let the weight drop through her body into one foot, and then into the floor (stay with me here!)—she could be letting go even a little bit more. Eventually, there is a feeling of swelling and pressure that begins to release and then finally relax. At that moment, the weight begins to rise again, without effort. The student becomes a witness, not an actor. The next move then appears to be doing itself.
This feeling of being totally absorbed in process is one we all have known at times in our lives. I think we look for it in sexual union, through drugs and alcohol and, of course, through meditation and religious ceremonies. It is something humans yearn for. Fast driving, skiing, mountaineering, music. Jazz improvisation is a good example, as listening skills are as important as playing skills. Yeats wrote about not being able to tell the dancer from the dance. This longing to return to the one, the whole—to lose the sense of being separate, fragmented—to become a vehicle for process.
As with anything universal, this idea also becomes a cliché. We have New Age sayings like ‘be one with the universe’ or the hippy salutation ‘let it all hang out’ or ‘go with the flow.’ In these phrases there is the hope that the person is not only in harmony with herself, but also with the world. In fact, without finding the harmony (defined in Taoist terms as the successful separation of yin and yang to the point where they can freely swing from state to state unhindered) within oneself, it is impossible to sense the changes of the outer world and make adjustments accordingly.
This simple explanation is getting to be a bit bigger than I had hoped! But, in order to be able to be in harmony with the processes of the outer world, the inner processes need to be felt, identified and then rehearsed so that the possibility of feeling the outer processes becomes possible. These activities are the components of a whole life. They are practised all day every day, consciously or unconsciously. Those of us who are dedicated to regular practice hope that consciousness helps the process along!
Let me go back to Tai Chi where I can give you some physical examples. As you probably know, all the techniques and movements are designed to comprise an effective martial art training—or, to use the extreme scenario, a training for death. Put another way, one trains to neutralise fear. All the bad things that could happen, happen in training and the eventual realisation of loss or surrender is the one which, in the end, will overcome the most powerful adversities. So—again, there is the idea of allowing all to happen. One must not interfere with the ‘way of things’, or, in terms of technique, do not create resistance. This is the magic ingredient of Tai Chi. If you are punched, you must yield in the direction the punch pushes you. In the face of fullness (or power) you create emptiness (or yielding). Become one with the action. Don’t block it. Then, when the fullness of the punch has passed, it is possible to redirect it. Again, waiting for the fullness, the total separation of yin and yang. When the energies change, everything changes.
The training helps the student trust that change will occur eventually and to just stick until that happens. This is why Tai Chi fighting is done with the two opponents touching one another all the time, usually keeping contact with the hands along the arms. The hands need to feel the filling and emptying of the other person. When the fullness of an attack has passed, the defendant then acts against the weakening of the other, not the strength of the other. (This is easier to understand by doing it than by reading this explanation.)
Let’s go back to Julia Casterton’s quote. The creative writing teacher needs to help the students go out into the sea, out beyond the fears they have learned earlier on. And then let go, she says. So, can our workshops be like other forms of practice that also have the end goal ‘letting go?’ I think so. We can use disciplined practice as a method leading to freedom. We can hone our attention and our abilities to respond so that we can recognise our fears, neutralise and surrender.
In poetry we have the handy tools of form, structure and study. We read other poets and learn about the craft. We write as much and as often as we can. We assess and revise. But what are the measures we are using when we edit? Are we trying to be like another poet? Are we trying to make sense? Are we trying to be clever? Probably yes to all these, in the beginning. We need to learn techniques and the discipline of our craft. But the real writing, the genuine stuff of an original poet comes from a place closer to the core. It comes from those inner turning points, those filling and emptying processes of the mind, or maybe of the heart. One definition of meditation is: ‘a process for becoming familiar with the nature of one’s own mind’. A definition of creative writing workshops might be: ‘a forum using language to ride the inner cycles of change so that the words are as close to one’s own essential perceptions as possible.’ We are attempting to transpose experience and perception into our poems by loosening up the process and being ready to change and respond.
There is a lot of plodding involved. Lots of words to be written that don’t really come from anywhere unique or genuine. This is the way forward, though. This is the way out to that place in the middle of the sea. This is the way to the point of letting go. What we do in the workshops is mostly the plodding. It is the training ground which begins to reveal the risks and get us trained up for the possibility of deeper letting go.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
From ‘Among School Children’ by W.B. Yeats