“I think it’s Yeats who said, I’m paraphrasing but, the idea is you see a tree and you observe a truth about the tree and you’re hit with it, the magic of the tree. It’s a spiritual thing, beyond the physical life form of the tree. So then you write and write and write about the form of the tree and the life of the tree and the spirit of it, until your own personality is gone from the words. When you’re gone from the poem, then it’s a poem. Part of you disappears so that you can dance with the spirit of something else.”
It has become increasingly apparent to me that there is a relationship between my writing practice and my spiritual practice.
I wrote this essay a few months ago about how my writing is disruptive to my spiritual practice. I wrote:
“First, I perceive a sensory object. Next, I become consciously aware that I’ve perceived it, i.e., I form the thought of it in my head. Then, I begin to translate the thought into words. Once I have the words in my head, I ignore my sensory surroundings and enter into ‘editing’ mode.”
I also more recently wrote this other essay about how I use the word “I” frequently in my writing. I wrote:
“Everything I write starts as a thought in my head. So if my thoughts are about myself, then it makes sense that the singular first-person pronoun would be appearing often in my writing.”
I believe Yeats is on to something with regard to a writer removing their own personality from their writing, but I’d like to suggest that his idea can be taken one step further.
Removing the words from writing.
At first, the personality of the writer is present in the writing. Then, the personality of the writer is removed. Finally, and this is the step further, what if the words were also removed?
This is preposterous. How can one write without words? It is possible if we agree that the writing has already begun even before words have started to form. Before the words become words, they are thoughts. And before they are thoughts? They are emotions, sensations, or any other kind of human experience that exists on its own before we translate it to words.
Yeats says that a poem becomes a poem when the writer’s personality is gone. Then the writer can “dance with the spirit something else.”
I say that there is still something in the way. The words are in the way. The pre-word thoughts might even be in the way.
So we go back and back until we get to the “truth about the tree.” Even further back than “truth,” we can go. And that is when we get to something like “the magic of the tree.” Only it’s not magic at all. It’s not as complicated as we have made it. The “magic” is really just what is.
When you see a tree and are “hit with it,” that is it right there. That is the truth, the magic, the art, the writing—in its purest form.
I seem to believe this, yet I still write. Why? Perhaps because understanding something and truly believing it are two different things. Or, because I have not done the work on myself to get to a point where I can constantly observe the truth of the world around me.
I am still on my journey and, even though I believe I can see the end in the distance, I cannot simply leap there. I must walk, maybe run at times, rest, and then get up to walk again. And the end that I see might not even be the end.
For the remainder of this essay, I will reflect on where I believe I am at currently on my spiritual journey and the role that writing has to play in it.
My personality is still present in my words.
I am trapped in my self. When I experience the world, I am still doing so as the version of me that Eckhart Tolle would say is my ego, which really isn’t me at all. My true being is a non-separate drop in the larger flowing river of life.
But I only have an awareness of this. I have not actually begun to consistently live my life in a way that is reflective of this reality of who I am.
As a writer, I still write about myself often. I would not be surprised if I use the word “I” more than any other word. And even when I am not writing about myself explicitly, I write what I see with the tint that comes from looking through the windows of my own eyes.
When reading the above quote from Yeats (paraphrased by Kilmer), I want to dissolve my ego in order to become a better poet. But I think this would be doing something right for the wrong reason.
Really, I think I should want to dissolve my ego in order to become a better human (not just a better writer). Notice, I don’t actually want it yet. Rather, I just think I should want it. What I really want is what everyone else around me seems to want. I want money, fame, respect, admiration.
Granted, I should give myself some credit because I want these things less than I did when I was younger. Now, I have had some brief glimpses behind the veil. I have met some exorbitantly wealthy people. I have achieved some things that I once dreamed of achieving.
And I have realized these common pursuits do not taste as sweet as they look when they are hanging from the branch above you, just out of reach. Perhaps the first bite is as sweet, but the second and third are not, and then you must once again raise your eyes and look higher, always straining for more.
I’ve gone through phases in my life.
When I was young, I was desperate for the respect of my peers and elders, so I worked hard at school and sports. At one point, I became a religious fanatic, as church camp and youth group imbued me with faith that everything about Catholicism might be true.
Then, once my theology teacher could no longer answer my questions, I turned to philosophy. I was a rationalist at the same time as I was focused on entering the business world and making money. Rationalism led me to nihilism, nihilism to absurdism, and absurdism to art.
Art made sense to me because I thought: even if the world is meaningless, it’s still beautiful; and even if there is no life after death, we can at least enjoy our lives now. I had given up on there being a grand philosophy that explained everything, but I was still glad to be alive.
Then my best friend in college taught me to meditate. At first, it was a practical technique to slow down the incessant flow of thoughts in my head. Then, I began to study Eastern texts and found a metaphysical worldview that I believed in: that we all come from and return to the same source of life. The idea that we are separate as individuals is an illusion.
Stuck in the middle.
Now, I am caught somewhere in the middle between money, art, and spirituality. I am pulled in each of their directions by different parts of me that have not yet aligned.
I still must work to make money to keep my body alive. Because of this, I have limited time to devote to art and spirituality. But this is a lie for two reasons. One, I could get a job that is more focused on art or spirituality. Instead, I am pursuing jobs that make more money. Two, I have been taking a sabbatical from work for the past year and I know that, when I have free time, I don’t devote it all to my art and my spirituality. Instead, I find ways to work, i.e., ways to make money.
My art is my writing, and its position in the mix is interesting because it seems to be between money and spirituality. My writing tends toward work and money-making insofar as I write in pursuit of my worldly needs (money, fame) and my basic human needs (love, admiration, respect). It tends toward spirituality insofar as I am able to write in the way that Yeats describes: I am able to write about something until my own personality is gone and I am able to dance with the spirit of something else.
Writing as a spiritual practice.
I believe that my writing practice and my spiritual practice will converge. It feels like each practice is a deer, each coming to the river from the opposite bank. They have both dipped their snouts in to drink. They will fall into the water and melt into the same base element as the water and flow together as one with all the other ways in which I would have come to the water.
It feels like my spiritual practice should lead, while my writing practice follows. Is the writing even necessary? Maybe not. But perhaps it can serve as a crutch, to keep my Western always-producing mind engaged as I continue on my spiritual journey in the meantime, while my spiritual life still hasn’t grown to the point that it’s engaging all my waking energy.
Writing also seems to help me to remember new spiritual realizations. When I write something, it feels like I’m a mountain climber and I’ve just drilled a new hole and fixed a bolt into the cliff face so, if I fall, I will only fall as far as my most recent bolt.
On the other hand, maybe my writing is a hindrance. Maybe I should set it aside and then come back to it if it still makes sense after I’ve traveled further on my spiritual journey.
Then again, it doesn’t feel right to resist it. I was taught to write as part of my upbringing. I am writing now. This is how I process my thoughts and feelings. So I’ll continue to write until it becomes clear to me that I should not.