By far the biggest challenge for me in life and in creativity, has been that of learning to let go – to let go with my mind, to let go with my body, and simply be. I think it’s a challenge that we all share. We are programmed for control – and when I say this I am talking about self-control, the attempt to exert an influence over our own thoughts, emotions and experiences whether in the mind or the body. And whilst some of this control is necessary, much of it isn’t. What’s more, it’s often not even particularly effective.
In fact, when we sit in mindfulness for any length of time, we start to get the distinct impression that much of what we thought we had firmly under control, is actually wildly and unpredictably doing its own thing. That flash of irritation at a work colleague that we thought we’d managed to bury. That reoccurring worry that keeps us awake at 3am, even though we’ve told ourselves everything’s fine. The tense shoulders that even that deep tissue massage didn’t shift. The tight feeling in our chest that weighs heavy on us.
Realising that many of our mental, emotional and felt or somatic experiences appear to be beyond our control can be a rather humbling, even frightening experience. And for those of us who like to have life running smoothly, that like to feel they’ve got a handle on it – i.e. all of us – it can be frustrating. We may also find the idea of letting go unappealing, or at the very least an extremely uncomfortable one. What if I fall apart? What if I become out of control? What if I can’t cope? What if I become lazy and unfocused? What if? What if?
Mindfulness offers us ways through focus on the breath or on the somatic sensations in our bodies, to explore this process of letting go in a safe way. Through the focus and concentration of these techniques, we can encourage our minds to let go a little more. And they do. For a little while. There may be some corresponding relaxation in the body too. And then they start up with their thinking and managing and controlling and tensing and contracting again. And then we go back to the breath – phew. And this goes on for a long time. For the 20 minutes of our meditation. For weeks, and months and years. Quieting the mind and the body, learning to relax into our experience and let go is a life long lesson, but I know from my own 20 years of mindfulness practice that we gain deep insights into the nature of own being along the way.
One of my own insights into these subtle and sometimes not so subtle processes of letting go came on a Simply Being retreat, whilst sitting in a deeply relaxed and receptive state. For years I’d been telling myself I needed to let go. I’d willed my mind to release its hold. I’d commanded my body. I tried very hard at it. I’m sure you can probably see the problem with this already! But on that morning in a meditation room in North Wales, I had this very simple insight – for years I had been trying to let-go with my mind, in a very effortful way and I suddenly remembered this Albert Einstein quote:
“You cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”
And I realised – one of those light bulb moments – that I’d been trying to solve the problem of letting go with my mind, which was the source of all my controlling! Of course it hadn’t worked. With that I just dropped into my body, into my felt experience, relaxing into sitting, not even meditating, not doing, not thinking, not trying, not controlling, simply being. I think it was the most profound letting go I’ve ever experienced. And it took me 20 years to discover this because all that time I was trying to solve the problem of letting go with my mind and my mind couldn’t solve it because in doing so it just perpetuated the cycle of holding on and controlling. I’m telling you this, so you don’t have to take 20 years to work it out like I did.
Which brings me, finally, to creativity and to creative mindfulness. This letting-go, this not controlling, is of fundamental importance in all creative practice. If we hold on too tight to something as it takes shape; if – as we create – we try and force it too soon, rather than giving it a little space, then we put our creations in cages and never give them the space to reveal the life that is in them. Or, indeed, the creative life that is in us, that is us.
Holding on in creativity can take many shapes and forms. Criticism, judgement and perfectionism are types of holding on that say, “This, this mark, these words, they’re not good enough. Even as I’m writing or drawing I’m going to censor myself, hold on with my mind rather than letting go into the process of creating.” Doubt and fear are types of holding on that say, “It’s not good enough, I’m useless, I’m going to fail,” and stop us from letting go into the process of creating.
Holding on is a form of censorship. Censorship annihilates creativity and artists, it doesn’t allow them room to feel, and see, and think, and make, and grow. Letting go is play. It makes space, it relaxes, it opens, it enlivens, it allows creativity and artists to thrive.
In my next blog I’m going to write about some of the ways we can mindfully notice when we’re holding on, and offer some suggestions for working with this so that we can relax, let go and simply be as we create. In the meantime, you might like to reflect on your own relationship to letting go. Can you mindfully notice when you seem to be holding on? What are you experiencing in these moments? How does it feel? And how is this different from those moments when you are happily and effortlessly in the creative flow? Happy to hear your observations in the comments below.