The Conflict with Expression

In this introductory unit, we will talk about the connections and the apparent conflicts between creative and spiritual work. 

Sallie Tisdale

The Conflict with Expression

What does it mean to write as a spiritual practice? It means expression that is both humble and unafraid, honest and intimate; and it confronts deep questions and celebrates fragile beauties. We both write from and to a place of wonder and meaning. It means finding a place of stability and ease. From there, you can speak from deep knowledge and experience. 

The relationship between writing and spiritual practice

Now, the impulse toward expression is sometimes dampened by spiritual teachers. You may have been told at one time or another that reading and writing can interfere with your meditation practice. It is true that working with language can leave an imprint on the mind and we will talk more about that in a little while. Many of our great Buddhist teachers, as well as other teachers in other traditions, were skeptical of writing and literature—and many of the same teachers were driven to create it

What is this conflict with expression? An eighth-century Sufi saint named Rābi'a neatly captures the limits of language, even as she uses it to explore her faith. She writes

With love, there is nothing in between heart and heart.
Words are born from longing,
Truth is born from the real taste.
And one who tastes it, knows it;
One who tries to explain it, lies.

—Rābiʼa al-ʼAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya

Consider: what is the relationship between expression and explaining? How do we share the gestalt of our experience without killing the freshness of it?

Ikkyū, the 14th-century Zen monk and poet, called poetry and literature "devices of hell." He said: 

We must sigh for those taking this path of intimacy with demons. 

And then he took this path of intimacy with demons, willingly and with joy! Both Ikkyū and Rābi'a wrote many poems and are revered today for their words and their expression.

Embracing the limits of language

Creative work and spiritual practice both cultivate a relationship to the invisible. Think about the invisible. Words are all we have, most of the time, to explain ourselves and to connect with others. We pull words out of this invisible in order to manifest something in the physical world, in our lives. Writing from a spiritual perspective is one of the only ways we can share our experience. And sometimes that means sharing it only with ourselves: using language to bring order to the chaos of our life, to the confusion of what we feel. 

But words are also a crucial part of relationships: humble, ordinary, critical parts of a relationship. So we can grant that writing and expression and language is limited in its ability to express awakening— to wholly express any human experience—and at the same time, we can grant that it is all we have to work with

Exercise 1: walking Ikkyu's path

Let's do an exercise. Take Ikkyū's comment as a first line: "We must sigh for those taking this path of intimacy with demons." If you think of this as a poem, you can even see breaks.

We must sigh
For those taking this path of intimacy
with demons.


Write this as your opening line and then pause for a few moments. Center yourself and answer these questions:

  • What are your demons? 
  • What is a path of intimacy? 
  • Can you express your own unique sigh?

Complete and Continue