Difficulty as a Path Toward Concentration

gnarled Utah juniper, via pixabay

“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 of 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 life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.”

— Jane Hirschfield from “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration” in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

I decided that maybe I’d find encouragement for my poetry project if I got some lovely books about prosody and poetic form. Find myself some poets I admire to act as my poetry writing tutors. I found some suggestions while googling about, an article by a teacher of poetry. I liked her style and the books she suggested sounded interesting.

This one, Nine Gates by Jane Hirshfield, is really a collection of essays. I’m only a few pages into the first essay, but already I’m in love. I don’t know if I’ll like any of the rest of the essays. Maybe I’ll hate them. But this one is luminous and such a gift.

This paragraph alone would almost be worth the cost of the book (which is a library book, but if I had bought it, I’d not feel cheated.)

I especially love the image of flowing desire and resistance: “balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance.” It’s a dance.

What I like here is that Hirschfield has been talking about concentration and flow, the moment when “effort drops away” and the writer loses consciousness of self and is lost in the work. Flow is addictive. Flow is magical. And when I’m not in a state of flow I often feel like the lack of flow means that whatever I’m writing is bound to be no good.

And yet Hirschfield says here that difficulty itself can be the path into concentration. It’s not only when everything is smooth that the mind is concentrated. Sometimes the resistance itself is necessary to the creative process. I’m too-often tempted to let resistance discourage me. To give up when the going gets tough. But maybe I need to lean in and see if the struggle itself might not have something to teach me. 

More and more as I read the lesson seems to be discipline and the willingness to make myself do the hard things, the boring things, the things that seem in the moment not to be bearing fruit. In a way it would be so much easier if I were able to take a class even if not for the feedback, at least for the accountability. Having someone else hold me to a schedule is the thing I miss most about being in school. I’m not a very good autodidact because I’m easily distracted, I’ve got too many interests, and I give up too easily when things become difficult or boring. But I’m much more motivated when I have to show up to a class and be put on the spot. External pressure is an excellent motivator.



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