This post is adapted from ‘Mastery’, by Robert Greene.
When you let go of tension, you make way for insight. But how does that work exactly?
Say you’ve begun a project that you are passionate about. At the beginning, you were truly excited about its potential success. But as you continued to work hard, things started to lose steam. The idea that once seemed so alive starts to feel dead or stale. You work harder, trying to find a solution. The harder you try, the more inner tension and frustration you create. Your mind, once teeming with rich associations, now seems condemned to a narrow line of thought.
At this point, the trick may be to let go for a moment. You may find that after temporarily working on something else, or going to bed, the perfect idea for finishing the work suddenly pops into your head.
“If we remained as excited as we were in the beginning of our project, maintaining that intuitive feel that sparked it all, we would never be able to take the necessary distance to look at our work objectively and improve upon it. Losing that initial verve causes us to work and rework the idea. It forces us to not settle too early on an easy solution.
The mounting frustration and tightness that comes from single-minded devotion to one problem or idea will naturally lead to a breaking point. We realise we are getting nowhere. Such moments are signals from the brain to let go, for however long a period necessary, and most creative people consciously or unconsciously accept this.”
Great minds like Albert Einstein can certainly attest to the power of this logic. After ten years of studying the problem of general relativity, he simply gave up and went to bed early. When he awoke, the solution came to him. In a similar vein, the composer Richard Wagner was feeling blocked after working hard on his opera Das Rheingold. He took a long walk in the woods, lay down, and fell asleep.
“In a sort of half dream, he felt himself sinking in swiftly flowing water. The rushing sounds formed into musical chords. He awoke, terrified by a feeling of drowning. He hurried home and noted down the chords of his dream, which seemed to perfectly conjure up the sound of rushing water. These chords became the prelude of the opera, a leitmotif that runs throughout it, and one of the most astonishing pieces he had ever written.”
Has anything like this happened to you before? The simplest example that most of us would have experienced is getting ideas in the shower, or just before we fall asleep. The brain works in strange but wonderful ways sometimes. We shouldn’t feel guilty about taking a break – it’s a necessary part of the process.
“When we let go, we are not aware that below the surface of consciousness the ideas and the associations we had built up continue to bubble and incubate. With the feeling of tightness gone, the brain can momentarily return to that initial feeling of excitement and aliveness, which by now has been greatly enhanced by all of our hard work. The brain can now find the proper synthesis to the work, the one that was eluding us because we had become too tight in our approach.”