Thursday, September 10, 2009

Letting Go

In many disciplines, both spiritual and artistic, a concept arises that is paradoxical within the very meaning of the term "discipline", and which more often than not causes my brows to furrow and my blood pressure to rise a notch - that is, the concept of "letting go". In Zen Buddhism one sits for endless hours taming the wild ego in meditation, holding deep and intense focus without distraction, just to be told that ultimately one must let go of that control and hard won discipline if enlightenment is even to be glimpsed. Dancers and athletes practice moves over and over and over again, battling monotony and fatigue so that in the moment of performance they can simply "let go", simply play. From many Christian pulpits one hears the admonishment to control one's desires, act morally and righteously, study the bible rigorously, but then "let go, let God". Are these just diverse definitions of an over-used cliche, or is there a common thread here, a simple, even elegant key to something larger?

I'm curious about this because I have my own discipline, my own artistic practice that I find to be the foundation for all of my creative work, and in fact the very bedrock for my sanity, without which I would most certainly spin out of control in the blink of an eye. It's sometimes boring, repetitious and mundane. At times when I'm creatively blocked, or anxious at the day to day madness all around me, or simply frustrated by my inadequacies, I can view it as a crutch, a lazy habit, simply something to keep me busy and distracted. But deep down I always know that it is absolutely necessary, and so I cling to it....and then I realize I'm clinging, and a tiny voice whispers in my ear "let go", and my brows furrow, my blood pressure rises a notch, because I'm caught in yet another paradox - how does one will oneself to let go, control oneself to be out of control?

Of course, that's my head talking, and if I let my head run things I would have to be on prozac, or perhaps something more powerful. Luckily, these head games tend to make me laugh, and laughter originates in the heart, or sometimes the belly, parts of the body that seem oblivious to paradoxes. And discipline. And rules. In fact, they seem much more interested in playing, or to use the cliche, in "letting go". Oh my, did I say that?

Ok, so the head is not yet ready to capitulate, though it will do its best to avoid paradoxes (it hates being laughed at) while exploring this curious and intriguing idea of letting go. Heart and belly will of course be dutiful companions, just in case there is a relapse. So let's, with grace and good humour, look at some different ways the concept of letting go pops up, meandering around in a wide circle, or perhaps a spiral that gradually guides us to the center in ever-tightening coils.

I've always been struck by the last phrase in that famous prayer attributed to St. Francis, the 13th Century monk, which in my favorite translation goes like this: "It is in dying to self, that we are born to eternal life." "Dying to self" sounds to me a lot like "letting go of self", but how can we just let go of our...self? Most modern psychology stresses a strengthening of the self to overcome neurosis or psychosis, so what was that ancient Italian Saint talking about? Surely he wasn't suggesting we plunge into selflessness, lack of identity, nothingness? (uh oh, I can feel a laugh building in my belly, better resolve this quickly). No no, existentialism - the ultimate head trip - hadn't been invented yet, so he must have had something else in mind. Buddhism, however, had been invented, and perhaps by "self" he meant all of those identities, costumes and masks we wear to present to the world, and indeed to ourselves, to convince the world and ourselves that we actually exist. You know what I'm talking about - doctor, lawyer, indian chief, saint, whore, bad boy, good girl, punk, gay, straight, conservative, liberal, hero, villian, genius, rascal, artist, captain of industry - all of those endlessly changeable and ephemeral trappings that we weren't born with and which, when we physically die, will evaporate. In short, our ego. Could it be that dying to our ego allows us to be born to...eternal life? Now that rather Buddhist notion came straight from the mouth of a European Christian.....who knew? Perhaps there is a web of meaning around this term "letting go" after all. But what does St. Francis have to do with a great performance of Beethoven's last piano sonata, or for that matter the composition of Beethoven's last piano sonata?

To be continued.....