Mystics and Membranes

Words are strange sound symbols we can’t live with and can’t live without. They are and they aren’t. They bridge us over to one another and they block our way. We forever hazard mistaking the word for the thing, solidifying a word or idea into a specific form or image, making us forget the mutability of all things—that the universe is forever changing and words today don’t mean what they meant yesterday or what they’ll mean tomorrow—let alone in a thousand years. Words are life rings to which we cling; attire with which we clothe our psychic bodies; lances, shields, and armor with which we go into daily battle.

Rumi ( Persian, 1207-1273)

Rumi ( Persian, 1207-1273)

When language falls away, like a veil or mist, we’re faced with the sheer fact of the universe, the naked world around us, harsh and beautiful. To arrive at pure presence in pure reality, bursting through the membranes of our delusions (to suggest Zen satori here), if such an achievement is possible, is to have undertaken the longest, most difficult journey to a place that, ironically, is all around and within us. This view presumes that the universe exists exclusive of our awareness of it, exclusive of the language we use to describe, even supersede, it.

William Blake (English, 1757-1827)

William Blake (English, 1757-1827)

Language may be the most troublesome membrane we grapple with in an effort to break through to reality. The word “delusion” itself, in referring to the perceptibility of one’s mind, may get the reader or listener pointed in the right direction, but that one word alone may not suffice to describe the specific nature of a delusion, which might be a function of mental instability, stubborn belief, psychedelic drugs, or of misconstruing of words for reality itself.

Emily Dickinson (American, 1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (American, 1830-1886)

Thus mystics, poets, and metaphors are born. The mystic poet who merges with or intuits the deep nature of reality and who returns to tell about it may return with little more than words to describe or allude to the experience. These words may do little more than hint at reality while creating a new reality, thus pointing more to the mind of the mystic than to ultimate reality. The mystic may have been in touch with reality, may still be tainted or inspired by it, but once the mystic poet begins to place words one after the other, during later moments of inspiration, new experiences occur and new realities are born.

Rainer Maria Rilke (German, 1875-1926)

Rainer Maria Rilke (German, 1875-1926)

Language is perhaps our most dangerous friend, since new collections of words may subvert our experience of reality. Still, such language, regardless of its failure to take us to the heart of an exclusive reality, may seduce the reader into strange, beautiful, soul-altering experience and enliven the mind in a potentially mind-deadening world. As long as words—tough, inspiriting, slippery words—keep us on our toes and take us to new and challenging places, our picture of reality deepens and expands. Reality depends on us for that—to make sound symbol journeys into the intimate body of the unknown.

Theodore Roethke (American, 1908-1963)

Theodore Roethke (American, 1908-1963)

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6 thoughts on “Mystics and Membranes

  1. Rick, Thanks for this.. and That!

    nengemishō (拈花微笑, literally “pick up flower, subtle smile”).

    “What I should have said was no thing.” Mike Birbiglia: What I Should Have Said Was Nothing: Tales From My Secret Public Journal. 2008. Film.

    Later, Butch

    PS: I think you and Fran would enjoy this jester’s (Birbiglia) standup. You can find him on Netflix.

    • So good to receive a comment from you, Ingrid. As an artist yourself, you well know what I speak of. Actually, I wrote that piece several years ago after I attended (covered) a psychoanalytic conference and experience a writer I would have to call a mystic presenting there.

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