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Everything That Is Not Elephant
On self-doubt and the dignified practice of chiseling.
Studies of the upper body of a man and separate studies of an arm, a hand, and an ear; sketch of a tree, 1511–1512, Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Journalling was my first formal practice. At the age of seven, I opened a spiral notebook with a sunflower painted on the cover (I adored that notebook) and thereafter wrote into the headwinds of my growing years with inexplicable regularity. I smudged the creases along the pinkie line of my left hand through dozens of notebooks. Many of my most formative experiences spilled out over the page, and those that didn’t felt passed by like landscapes framed through the window of a moving train.
In retrospect, I see how writing was a kind of communion for me — a small clearing in the thicket of daily life where I could tend to my heart in private while cultivating the beginnings of the spiritual practice of paying attention. It taught me about ritual and rhythm, and also about vulnerability and meeting our creative edges with fortitude.
My writing practice went dormant at the threshold of adulthood. At the time, if you’d asked, I would have pointed to a kind of transmigration from the written word to yoga and meditation as primary vehicles for inner inquiry. I still believe to every practice there is a season (…turn, turn, turn), but over the years I’ve also questioned if, subconsciously, I put my pencil down to distance myself from the unabashed loops and sweeps of my puerile penmanship.
Elif Batuman recently published an essay entitled “I’m Done Worrying About Self-Plagiarism” in which she explores the concept of diachronic writing (as in, writing wherein the growth that is intrinsic to the process is actually reflected in the form rather than edited out): “what if we don’t try to erase, from a given text, the fact that a writer was changed by/during the act of writing?”
By understanding former iterations of our practice, our work, ourselves, as layers over time, we can recognize the presence of a trajectory, an evolution — and we can also study how those layers relate to each other (hello Internal Family Systems). Which is all to say: where are all your journals tucked away?
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Michelangelo was once asked how he would carve an elephant: “I would take a large piece of stone and take away everything that was not the elephant.” Perhaps this is the work of any practice (or sadhana, from the Sanskrit root meaning “to sit with truth”). We stay with our subject. We commit our attention and learn the craft of our practice — and, in time, a natural chiseling away of what isn’t essential begins to occur as well as the emergence of what is.
[For your consideration: Michelangelo began apprenticing at the age of 13. He carved David out of a piece of discarded marble. He was known to work tirelessly, often for 18 hours a day. He also said “faith in oneself is the best and safest course.” These details seem not insignificant.]
Keeping company with a large stone is daunting, no doubt. Barack Obama said “nothing is more terrifying than the blank page” (likely a hyperbolic statement given his access to the nuclear codes, but nevertheless…). If we are choosing to expand as humans, our return to any creative edge will almost certainly stir the classical hindrances of insecurity, self-criticism, and doubt. I am not Michelangelo, we may state the obvious. What if I can’t find my elephant?
We are not the only ones. Here’s Errol Morris, a 58-year-old giant of contemporary documentary filmmaking, as recently quoted by David Marchese in the New York Times:
“I think my whole life has been dominated by feeling like I’m a fraud of some kind… How is my work different than painting by numbers? Is it that different? Thinking you’re a fraud may be similar to thinking that you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know, really, what I’m doing.”
Working with self-doubt demands sincere courage. First, we have to grow very tired of avoidance as an alternative. We have to remember that the source of our perceived inadequacy is not our ostensible failures, nor is the solution in striving for perfection. Fear doesn’t necessarily dissolve with time, but it can be recast. It can sharpen our sense of focus as we lean into and develop trust in our practice over time.
Anne C. Klein, a professor and lama in the Nyingma tradition, frames the invitation like this: “To recognize all practices and experiences as backlit by the sun of their own great completeness is to find a horizon that never narrows.”
I found myself not long ago unpacking a box of old journals on the floor of a new house. Holding them in my hands again, I was reminded of the significance of my earliest practice — the dignified instinct to create a clearing in the dense forest of my growing years. Blushing and messy as they were, and are, those entries contain small moments of coherence, of song, of light.
Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself to this world
so worthy of rescue.
- Martha Postlethwaite, “The Clearing”
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