Writing Craft

Practicing lila: the dance of play in writing

The dance of play: what does practicing lila mean for writing?

Dear Franz,

at yoga last night we had a stand-in teacher for our usual leader, C. At first I was very resistant to her (she wanted us to write our names on labels and stick them on the front of our mats; but I enjoy the anonymity!). Even after a day of fasting, I did not have the calmness to accept her focus on the breath. And yet then I did get into the practice, and especially near the end when she added more focus, this time on the fact that we had set aside this time of “practising lila” — which, for me at least, is nothing without the grounded spirituality of breath, of acceptance, of “Namaste” (that in me which is good recognising that in you which is also good, authentic).

She reminded me too, coming only an hour or two after my writing yesterday, that I perhaps need to remind myself more often (more than I think I need to) of the “practicing” of writing — in fact of all life, no? Did not my physio appointment, sandwiched in between the writing and yoga, also emphasise that my running is a practice and to practice (verb) the practice (noun) well, I need to do other things too, to be clear about the elements of the practice to make it work well, to progress?

practicing lilaThis is all true, isn’t it? For yoga, for writing, for running. They are all practises. Some of which lead to outputs. That is, it is not all process, yet the process is the thing to focus on each day, rather than the outcome, the output. It is in the practice that we can find our “utopia of ordinary habits” as Ann Cvetkovich puts it, those everyday bodily acts that make for ourselves a healthy, creative, spiritual life.

The idea of this Morning Writing to you, as I’ve said before, Franz, is play — that is, to be playful with words and free, writing again in a way that breaks through Goldberg’s first thoughts, to not worry about others or the idea of self-concept: that is, if  am living up to my self-concept as a writer.

So then, Lila. This “lila” is the divine play of energy and consciousness, it is the dance between these two forces that, as Stephen Cope notes in his wonderful books Yoga and The Quest for The True Self, is the purpose of yoga poses. And this divine play of energy and consciousness provides for us a route into (or back to) “the locus of the sense of self as a visceral, grounded, kinaesthetic base.”

Most of us, Cope continues,

“have only an abstracted and idealised base, lost from the body, created only in the mind”

It is a false self created as a transitional structure that is the evidence of the ego, and an ego that at one stage we needed to help us shape who we are in relation to others. And yet this false self can become “a learning disability” says Cope. For Ryan Holliday, in his new book, “the ego is the enemy”. As Cope puts it:

for those of us tyrannised by the false self, there is no true pleasure or satisfaction of accomplishment, only a desperate confirmation or non-confirmation of our very existence.

Undoing this false self takes practice and acceptance.

To see things for what they are, not what they should be. It is only when the false self has been exposed are we ready for the pilgrimage to the centre.

What is this pilgrimage? That perhaps is for another letter, Franz. But I don’t think it is a coincidence that yesterday I read Dag Tessore’s little book Fasting, about the practice in the Christian tradition, and kept underlining the word: pilgrim. Am I, do I want to be, a pilgrim? Is my book tour a little of this, spreading the word and helping people see the truths of how we treat other species? Yes, perhaps, a little, although humble, I hope. My mind is, I know, turning to ideas of adventure, of travel — but not mindless, not for pleasure alone. Rather, I want to visit those places, as Margaret Mead puts it, of great magic.

There are certain places on the face of the Earth where, for no apparent reason, very special things happen, over and over again.

For no reason, or because people make them happen? Perhaps both. I am thinking, for example, of the wonderful farmed animal sanctuaries where wonderful things do happen. A mixture of the place and the people, the nonhumans and the humans, the different rules to live by in those places. I wish to go there, again.


 But let me come back to writing, to writing as practice. Or as Glenn Kurtz puts it in his wonderful book, we are always just “practicing”. It is all practicing. With a nod to Stephen Cope, again, I had originally conceived of this project, Franz, our work (or in fact not originally conceived, I had originally conceived of this project in your name, as it is named), well, okay, put it this way, another name for this project was going to be Writing and the Quest for the True Self. That is, writing is both a central part of my own “identity project” as Washburn calls it, and a major tool in the dismantling of the false identity that I have created for myself through that identity project, over many many years, as a way to try and establish who I was. Am. Writes Cope:

The identity project becomes the vehicle for our adult self-concept. It functions as a “carrot” to organise our movement toward our aspirations … In adulthood, most of us organise our attempts at happiness around fulfilling our self-image, in spite of the fact that, at times, this internal picture is significantly at odds with reality.

We can “seem” to have matured into “effective personhood” says Washburn, but the individualist self-identities of Western cultures have wrecked our environmental, social and biological world systems, and this would suggest, would it not, that those forms of personhood are at least in some way ineffective? Yoga practitioners would mostly agree that these forms of “effective personhood” are very, very far away from the visceral, grounded, kinaesthetic practice of being authentically connected to the world, the planet, others. I think writing, as a bodily act, brings one closer to this authentically better way of being. As does running, and being vegan. And many other practices that remind us of our body, our fragility and vulnerability. We need to keep dancing, to keep moving towards lila, this divine play of energy and consciousness.

And so what of my writing? My writing — all writing — is a corporeal act. It is, when properly practiced, a chance to experience who we are, rather than remaining “bound to an image of what we are not” as Cope puts it.

Practicing properly. For me, what does this mean? What does it look like? Well… what are the forms (the writerly postures!) that I want to practice? Books. Books.

This morning practice is my warm up. It may lead somewhere, Franz, I have long imagined a book coming out of this work–perhaps many books. But this is my practice ground. The driving range. The yoga mat. The running track. This is where I both practice and produce.

But it is not the only place. This is the place where I warm up, burn through thoughts about my own life, my practice, the world around me, make sense, synthesise, put into order, organise, like dreams, my mental states. And then I must go to the books. I must go and write the books, and do so by practicing every day the elements of a book. The sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters, the sections, the first drafts, the rewrites. In the tone and form I wish. Not marketing, not press releases, not those materials. Not even dry academic articles. Only the forms that I enjoy, that I love, and that I feel are creative. Books. Essays. Stories. Hybrid pieces for academic tangibility.

The question is, I suppose, Franz, this: What practice of writing binds me to who I am not? And which, then, gives me the chance to experience and create my own divine playful reality?  

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