A writing professor of mine once opened class with this statement: “You don’t try to write a good poem. You try to write a bad poem, and you succeed.” It took me most of the term to realize what exactly he was talking about. When I did, the knowledge came like a bowling ball to the face.
His message was a message about trying. Good poetry (and good writing of any kind, for that matter) is spontaneous and irrational. When you apply the blueprints of logic to something like writing a poem, you guarantee that it comes out wrong. The thoughts are clouded by worry over their legitimacy. The writer questions his inner voice, and the message is distorted. The writer’s challenge, therefore, is not to try to write something good. The true challenge is to let the writing flow out.
It took me a long time to come to terms with this idea. If the quality of my writing at the time was any indication, trying less seemed to be about the last thing I needed. I never considered that what separated me from the bestsellers of the world wasn’t a lot of sweat and elbow grease, but a generally cooler vibe.
Trying, I realize now, is an inborn instinct: a muscle that is always flexed. Learning to relax that muscle is extremely difficult; it’s like learning not to flinch when someone swings a hammer at your head. The brain is always eager to apply itself, because applying the brain is exactly how we survived and evolved as a species for thousands of years.
We might think this leaves us in a hopeless situation, at the total mercy of our ego. But if the problem comes in “tensing up” – if the act of trying is simply tripping over its own hurried footsteps – there is a solution so obvious it never occurs to us to use it:
We tend to think of “trying” as a vehicle that will lead us to our goals. Trying is a process one must go through, a road one must travel, to arrive at a desired destination. But “trying” is by definition a state of unresolved transition. “Trying” is the journey, not the destination – so you will always be on the journey as long as you are trying, and never at the destination.
That’s not to say you should stumble through life totally jaded and carefree. There is value in caring – it’s the glue that holds the fabric of our society together. All I mean to suggest is that life is not a choice between total apathy and total self-interest. Life is a river with a current of its own, and if we spend all our energy swimming in the opposite direction, it won’t be long before we drown.
Nor would it be advisable to surrender to the current entirely. Real control is a balance between these things. In Zen Buddhism, this concept is known as the principle of “no duality.” According to this philosophy, the enlightened person sees no “us or them,” no “here or there;” the boundaries we perceive between conflicting ideas and beliefs simply melt away. This is a particularly difficult concept to grasp, especially when you consider that no duality is, in and of itself, a way of thinking about the world and how to behave in it. By embracing this particular way of thinking we are rejecting other ways of thinking, and the ideal of no duality fails.
This is exactly the paradox we face when it comes to trying. How else can we go about trying less than by trying to try less?
I don’t pretend to know the answer. If I did, I would be shouting it from the nearest mountaintop, rather than sitting in my kitchen hunched over a keyboard, churning out tired metaphors about life and rivers. My best guess is that “enlightenment” is a pleasant kind of nearsightedness – an amnesia that allows us to let go of our worries about the past and future. Regrets are only human, and fear of the unknown is a natural fear – but they serve no useful purpose, and bring us no closer to achieving our goals. They are merely nagging voices that distract us from what’s really important: the present, the here and now, and what we make of it.