Waking up to Wisdom
In Stillness and Community

Shaped by a Silky Attention

--by Jane Hirshfield (Jan 09, 2017)

A request for concentration isn't always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in. Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.

However it is brought into being, true concentration appears -- paradoxically -- at the moment willed effort drops away. It is then that a person enters what scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as "flow" and Zen calls "effortless effort". At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present -- a feeling of joy, or even grief -- but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

This may explain why the the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something "breathed in." We [poets] refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery as revelation. And however much we may come to believe that "the real" is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if "truth" is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.

Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration -- expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering's only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: "For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river. Unbearable pain becomes its own cure."

Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius "not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances." Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment to limestone, the pressure of an artist's concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance -- a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue's draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.

Jane Hirshfield is the author of eight much-honored books of poems, most recently The Beauty, and of two essay collections, Ten WindowsHow Great Poems Transform the World and Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (from which this selection is taken), and four books collecting and co-translating the work of world poets of the past. She has a special interest in the intersection of poetry and the sciences, the environment, and the recognition of the inseparability of the sacred and the daily.

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On Jan 6, 2017 Rajesh wrote:

 This is a beautiful passage. I especially resonate with the statement ""Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance -- a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue's draped cloth. ". In my experience, this is what one would call "Art of Living", in the context of living our lives. Life seems to be continuously demanding that artistry from us. I notice there is a tendency of the mind to not want resistance. But life persists. And we learn! -:)

On Jan 7, 2017 david doane wrote:

Great art comes out of passion -- passion that includes love of and commitment to an endeavor.  Passion that overrides tiredness, pain, and hunger.  Passion that dominates and carries one.  Passion that focuses attention and energy.  Passion that becomes timeless and effortless.  Passion that is beyond the self.  Passion that is a labor of love.  To be taken over by such passion is ecstasy and can be also agony.  It's the best and fullest of living.  As for a personal story, in my early twenties I was unhappy, felt lost, and lacked direction.  I went to a psychotherapist and learned about me and life.  I decided I wanted to become a psychotherapist, threw myself into it and spent the next 40 years in psychotherapy, receiving and providing, learning about people dynamics and growth, learning the craft.  My early unhappiness and confusion became a path toward concentration culminating in my labor of love, psychotherapy.  I got into it big time, am still in it and still excited with it.  Finding my passion, or my bliss as Joseph Campbell would say, turning on to what was alive and fulfilling for me, helped me develop my "true concentration."  

On Jan 7, 2017 Kristin Pedemonti wrote:

 Great art takes great suffering or great joy & both take the depth of silky attention to achieve the outcome. As a Cause Focused Storyteller who seeks to build bridges between people and connect people who feel they may have differences and serve people to see that the stories they tell and attune to become themselves, I resonated with the notion of silky attention. Oh that depth of attention which is elusive and yet which comes when we are as said, "in flow." I've experienced this throughout the last decade plus when diving into a project: for example: I was in Belize traveling village to village donating storytelling workshops for teachers/librarians and programs for students. it was hard work, yet it was so fulfilling connecting on a heart and human level through first printed works then oral folktales. There was one officer in Ministry of Education who sought to stop my work as he could see the impact (at that time the government in Belize was quite corrupt and had an agenda of not addressing the rampant illiteracy, that's another story for another time) This officer tried to sabotage my project by ruining my reputation through scheduling school visits but then never giving me the schedule: 20 visits were scheduled but I was never told where/when. Every week I would call/email asking for the schedule to be told it was still being finalized when in actuality the visit dates had already passed by. Thus 20 school admins believed I had simply not shown up. Karma, I learned of this 6 months after when I surprised one of the schools with a visit and the Vice Principal greeted me with hugs and confusion stating, 'we thought something awful happened to you, you never showed up!' I told her from what I knew the 20 visits had never been scheduled and she relayed to me how they had that past March. I connected the dots and realized I had been duped, but it only strengthened my resolve. that afternoon she invited me for lunch at her home and who walked in the door but the man who had made the schedule and never gave it to me. He happened to be her husband! Poetic justice served as I informed him I had just set up visits with 10 more schools. I continued scheduling schools on my own and offering training, within 6 years I had donated programs for 33,000 students and trained 800 teachers because I felt so passionate about the project of using indigenous stories to teach creative writing and the students immersing themselves in the story through 1st person narrative.
It was a great example of persevering and how something of that challenge and difficulty is often worth pushing through. Hugs from my heart to yours. I realize this is not a "great art" example, however it is a labor of love as the book has just been published about the journey creating the project and the detailed lesson plan is also included along with stories written by students and teachers who attended the workshops.

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