In the Gītā’s sixth chapter, Arjuna seems to want to persuade Krishna that it is pointless to try to control the unwieldy mind. And when Krishna initially responds to Arjuna’s complaint, he appears to concede the point: ‘O great-armed one, no doubt the mind is difficult to curb, being unsteady.’ But this cozy reassurance extends for only half a verse. Krishna then makes his main point with an equally brief but pithy formula for curbing the mind: ‘But by practice and detachment (the mind) can be subdued’ (6.35). This news might have disappointed Arjuna, but heroic bhakta that he is, he’s ready to take the lesson and apply it in his embattled life.
For us lesser mortals situated on the battlefield of the computer screen, these two principles – practice and detachment — can be usefully applied to the process of writing; moreover, we can appreciate the process of writing as an excellent means of disciplining the mind so that it becomes more the friend we would all prefer it to be, the fine instrument that it is meant to be for clarifying our thoughts and expressing ourselves effectively. And while we are at it (that is, while we are looking for ways to be inspired to put the best of ourselves forward into the writing task) we might very well identify this process of writing as itself a type of yoga. I call it ‘Likhana Yoga,’ the discipline of writing (one meaning of the word ‘yoga’ is ‘discipline’). Perhaps we could display a slogan over the entrance to our Likhana Yoga ‘studio’ (the BC library?): ‘We Practice Writing With Detachment!’ Let’s reflect briefly on these two principles of disciplining the mind, considering how they can apply to writing.
Practice (abhyāsa) makes it so much better . . .
Becoming skilled in anything requires practice, whether the skill is walking (as a toddler), mṛdaṅga playing (as a gurukuli), or writing (as a BC student). Good writing, like good mṛdaṅga playing, is worlds above the writing or playing of beginners: rather than being muddled, painful to read, and pointless, good writing is clear, engaging to readers, and conclusive.
In his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett notes that to become a virtuoso in any craft or art — whether it be violin building, ballet dancing, or prize-winning novel writing — requires an average of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. I suspect that as a Bhaktivedanta College student you might not feel ready to put quite so much of your time – your life – into writing practice. Still, you should be ready to put plenty of time – again and again – into your essay writing. Think of your writing as yoga practice, and you’re bound to find yourself learning to think and express yourself more clearly. And you’ll surely find that you have good ideas to express in writing, ideas important enough to express well!
To me, ‘practice’ suggests, first, doing something rather than just thinking about doing it. To think about writing may be a first step, but sooner, rather than later, one has to ‘put words to paper’ (or words in a computer file). Sooner is of course better than later, but now is best for entering into the act of writing.
Second, practice means repetition – writing a sentence, paragraph, or whole essay, and then doing it again, improving after recognizing weaknesses or faults. An important form of repetition in the process of writing is revision. Writing, rewriting, and rewriting again – and probably yet again – is a standard procedure in the craft of writing. Even the pros do this; in fact, it’s quite rare that a good writer does not subject his or her writing to self-critique and revision.
Repetition also means writing again on topics you have already written about in an earlier essay, this time building on new information and understanding, from a new angle, with clearer sense of what you really want to say, or for a different audience. Or, repetition can mean writing something entirely new, but with added substance based on your previous writing experience. In any case, repetition in writing enables us to reinforce improved work and to get over the haunting disappointments and fearsome nightmares of mediocre or bad work. It strengthens the writing mind.
Effective practice in writing also opens us to correction – learning to recognize the difference between effective and ineffective written expression. And essential to this kind of learning is the second principle for taming the mind of which Krishna speaks.
Detachment (vairāgya) from our ‘babies’
Several years ago, as I was hesitantly dipping my writing-toes into the chilly waters of academe, a devotee-scholar (in English literature) advised me, ‘You have to learn to “kill those babies”.’ ‘Babies’, he explained, are the well-intended words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or whole sections of an essay-under-construction that an aspiring author becomes charmed by and attached to, thinking they express brilliant insights when actually they hinder, rather than help, the writer’s purpose. To ‘kill those babies’ – cruel as it sounds — means to be ready to decisively remove anything that doesn’t serve your present writing task (hint: if you are like me – too attached to delete forever those brilliant-but-useless brain-children – you can instead banish them to a ‘dump file’ from which you can always recall them for duty in other contexts).
I have found that detachment with respect to writing is best applied with a simple, cheeky, and challenging question: ‘So what?’ Every sentence, every paragraph, every section, and indeed whole essays, should be able to stand up to this nasty question. Detachment means being your own best critic. Leave the reassuring words to your friends and family. When writing, we need to be our own ‘devil’s advocate’ who constantly nags us with awkward questions, doubts, and challenges.
Finally, we might recall from Bhagavad-gītā that yogīs can be recognized (among other symptoms) by their detachment from success and failure. In writing, as with other skills, failure can lead us to success; to be shown why something we write is sub-standard or how it could be improved is, for the yogī-writer, seen as just that – an opportunity to make something mediocre into something meaningful. But one needs to then go forward and make improvement – if not in the same essay, in the next one. Success is sure to come with persistence, a higher level of success – that of the practitioner of likhana-yoga. Such a yogī, undaunted by the winds of uncertainty, inexperience, and distraction, engages the mind in word-crafting through practice and detachment that leads to wonderful things – valuable thoughts clearly and persuasively expressed in essays one can always be justifiably satisfied to have written. Best of all, one can see that Krishna is right: The mind is difficult to curb, but by practice and detachment it is possible to do so, not least by engaging the mind seriously in ‘likhana-yoga’.