The Imprinting of the Work on Your Soul
If you're a writer, or a creative person, there will be times when you feel it would be wiser to stop, to give up on making poems, or photos, or clay pots, or paintings. Things start to build up. Manuscripts, pots, photo files, stretchers. Maybe no one wants them, or you've hit a wall, or you've been badly reviewed or rejected. (I just might be speaking from experience). But I'm here to tell you, you should continue.
In a book of conversations with the poet Li-Young Lee, called Breaking the Alabaster Jar, he talks at one point about the mandalas that are made by Tibetan monks from coloured sand. How when the mandala is done and after it’s looked at for a day or two, the monks dump the sand into a river. This act isn't accompanied by any feelings of loss or sadness.
Because: it’s the making of the thing that matters. How that changes you.
Lee says, “...we don't trust the possibility that after having written the poem you’re changed on a cellular level, and I think repeatedly doing that with your mind it really changes you physically.”
He also believes that reading literature changes a person at the cellular level. I agree completely with this, for I have been changed completely by reading, by writing, especially writing poetry. I have been changed by the constant attempt to put my mind in the way of poetry. I’m exactly who I ever was, but there is this thread that has long been woven into my being, and which becomes more tangled, more difficult to trace, to explain.
There was a turning point for me where instead of worrying about rejection and my reception in the literary world, I began to think about the work, the importance of the work, not in terms of my stature in the Canadian writing scene, but in terms of how it was affecting me at the cellular level.
In For the Time Being, Annie Dillard shared this quotation from the Chan Buddhist master Hongren, 7th century, and I’ve been sharing it ever since I read it: “Work, work!...Work! Don’t waste a moment…Calm yourself, quiet yourself, master your senses. Work, work! Just dress in old clothes, eat simple food…feign ignorance, appear inarticulate. This is most economical with energy, yet effective.” There’s excitement in these words, there’s emphatic urging, but also calm. And reading them over and over helped me focus, helped me master my senses, and also say to the world, fine, it doesn’t really matter what I appear to be, so long as I can get down to what I need to do and I’m more or less left alone.
When I finally came back to re-read J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, I wish I had read it while I was going through my period of angst. In it, one of the characters collects quotations, and this, from the Bhagavad Gita is one of them:
“You have the right to work, but for the work's sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even tempered in success and failure; for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.
Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahman. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.”
You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. And I think this is what I had come to on my own, but to find it set down so long ago, in such a revered text, was somehow heartening, somehow wholly reassuring. The thought I keep coming back to as well, is that: it’s the work, the practice, the imprinting of the work on your soul and on your cells that matters. You become utterly absorbed by the work, and there is no extricating yourself. It is too late to turn back – you have been changed. You must continue.
As for results. Well, when you give in to the work, for the sake of the work, the results will more likely be forthcoming, though they might not be what you would have hoped for had you been focused on results primarily. Thomas Merton has said, “Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
And maybe this is true for work of any kind, whether it’s studying for a test in chemistry, or the work of meditation and prayer, or the work of writing poetry. In the book of conversations with Li-Young Lee, who meditates everyday, he says, “I think writing poetry is the highest form of meditation.” When we meditate, we don’t expect to receive accolades or awards for it, but the practice is reward enough. So why do we hope to be rewarded for writing poetry?
What is useful though, is to develop a practice, to submit to that. No matter what doubts and fears creep in, and they will creep in, keep circling back to your practice, to the work. In the work there is the potential for joy, but only if you persist. As Rumi says:
“Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who's there.”
It’s a morning at the beginning of November when I write this and I’m sitting in front of the window at my desk, which is piled up with books, pens, and post-it notes, and a cool glass of water. (The coffee pot, long since drained). The heat kicks on rather constantly and it’s been snowing out with a calm intensity. The snow is doing its work, coming down like powdered sugar – all of the drab brown of yesterday is being covered, thickened, whitened. The snow is indeed thorough, and certainly, as Wendell Berry says in the brief poem which can be found in his wonderful New Collected Poems from 2012, and with which I would like to end this piece with, quiet.
by Wendell Berry
Suppose we did our work
like the snow, quietly, quietly,
leaving nothing out.