Stuck in the Moment!

Ever since the early seventies, folks have spoken dreamily of being in the moment, aka living in the moment, being in the here and now, going with the flow, etc. Since then, they’ve returned to nature, tried transcendental meditation, and practiced yoga, and they’ve heard and repeated the lofty aspiration to live in the moment as if it occupies their every thought, as if they’ve mastered the here and now and dwell here interminably—as if they reside forever in some eternal Nirvana. But I was always a little suspicious of their aspirations, since, speaking for myself, I’ve found it almost impossible to escape the moment.

Just us turtles here!

Just us turtles here!

When I was a child, I couldn’t help but live in the moment, as I was so completely mesmerized by the present world shimmering, dripping, whirling, singing, fluttering, crawling, and leaping through space, along the surface of Earth, the ground, or emerging from water then diving back down into its depths, or soaring to heights near invisible. This being-in-the-moment skill was innate, or compulsive, as far as I could tell.

What is this big pink creature I've landed on?

What is this big pink creature I’ve landed on?

And childhood wasn’t the end of it, either. I continued to be as attentive in my twenties. Not only was I still wholly fascinated by nature, all the vibrancy of life shimmering about me, but now I was also as attentive to women, how they looked, how they moved, how they responded to me or not, how they felt when they held me—all the physical pleasure I experienced (now only my wife gets my attention). I was so there! I was so inescapably trapped in the moment by my fascination with all that moved and glowed around me that I had no thought for the past or the future. Nor was I plagued by actual thoughts made of words that I could remember and recite or write down, for that matter, actual syllables pitter-pattering inside my skull to distract me from nature, art, and women.

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Fact is, I didn’t manage to make any headway out of the moment and into some other place called “not living in the moment” in my thirties, either. Only, by this time, I was living in the moment of my travels, hooked on the ephemera and colors of exotic culture and other-worldly fish and birds, and, yes, women with new and intriguing appearances, movements, and scents. Where else was I to go besides where I was? How could I think about those people and places where I wasn’t, about my old home, my friends and family, far away on another continent, when I was confronted with so much eye-riveting, sense-engaging life and energy around me exactly where I was?

Early morning reverie...

Early morning reverie…

Might I add that in my forties I was little better about owning up to my responsibilities to step out of the moment and into that place where my thoughts, memories, worries, and expectations might take me to someplace other than where I was. I was a complete failure in my forties at escaping the present moment, at living elsewhere than where I was. Thus I give myself a D- for effort!

Are we like an unborn bird in a shell?

Are we like an unborn bird still in its shell?

I was so addicted to the present that I took up reading Zen poetry, mostly translations by ancient Chinese and Japanese hermit monk poets who lived in caves or stone or wooden huts with thatched roofs—who were the masters of living in the moment, who made an art of being here and now. I read and reread them living in their moments, because their moments were just like my moments. For this failure, I kicked myself altogether out of the school of “not living in the moment”!

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

Even in my fifties, even after I’d gotten married, gotten a masters, built a house, taught college English for many years, I still slipped back into the moment for hours, days, and weeks on end, hardly coming up for air in that other world of elsewhere and otherwise, where I could wring my hands, or pat myself on the back, or gloat till I was bloated, or worse, lose my bearings or forget what my hands are doing—which I have to say is what’s happening to me now as I seem finally to be breaking my inexhaustible ties with the present, slipping away a foot or two or even a psychic mile on occasion, wondering what it was I came upstairs to get, etc. I’ve become so absorbed with my own thoughts that I’m missing the whole world around me.

Do our bodies leave our minds behind?

Do our bodies leave our minds behind? Or the other way around?

Mostly, ironically, I’ve been working—and working more, at this and on that, so that I might have my old moment back, so that I might slip back into that saddle and ride like a wild-man upon the horse of my body, feeling every atom brush against my skin, hearing every warble inside the thrush’s song, smelling the earthworm crossing the rainy road and the slowly rotting camellias lying crumpled and bruised on the deck, tasting the dried-hard currant in the Irish scone, sensing my muscles rippling and sliding over my bones, feeling more alive than I’m likely ever to feel again. If only I can slow down once more and forget the past and the future (they’re still there, but only in the mind and in the changes we’ve made to the world around us—hopefully for the good) without succumbing to dementia or mindless lassitude.

No thought but what she's doing!

No thought but what she’s doing!

Still, now and then I dabble my little toe in the chilly moment. I watch an ant tussle with a fly’s wing or memorize the shape of a newborn purple plum where once a blossom blew, and I’m delirious to have returned. The moment welcomes me back—I’m so here again!

Like the sign says...

Like the sign says…

Writer’s Envy

How many there are of us who want to write! Ah, to become a writer, to finally write that book we’ve always wanted to write! It’s almost a cliché. Yet many of us don’t bother because we can’t imagine that we can actually write clear, compelling prose or that we can write like the greats or the pros. Or we don’t feel we have the follow-through to finish a full-length book.

It seems that successful writers are to be envied for being able to sit at their desks and, with a few keystrokes, command the attention of a vast, paying readership.

Theodore Roethke, my personal "father of poetry" (American, 1908-1963)

Theodore Roethke, my personal “father of poetry” (American, 1908-1963)

Writer’s envy is as natural as the very desire to write. It’s what we do with these feelings of envy that either make us or break us as writers. If we feel we can’t write as well as the writers we admire and therefore don’t try, then we’re conquered by our own desire. If, on the other hand, we set out to try to write as well as the they do—that is, to imitate them—then we risk not writing our own story or not writing in our own voice.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Charles Simic opened the door to great international poets for me.

Yet this second choice is, nevertheless, the right choice; it’s just that we have to keep in the back of our minds that, once we learn how our admired writer conjures his or her verbal magic, then we have to move beyond to write our own authentic selves. As they say in Zen, kill the Buddha when you meet him on the road.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for a two years straight.

I read Czeslav Milosz, a great Polish poet, for two years straight.

I’ve known poets who say they won’t read other poets because they don’t want to be influenced. They forget that the genre of poetry, specific forms of poetry—the language itself—evolved long before the poet was ever born and “influences” him at every turn of phrase. One could argue that we even inherit our thoughts, the very desire to write poetry. Thus, the aspiring poet or writer is obliged to read as much as possible, to see what possibilities exist for writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, to see what’s already been “done,” and to see where his or her work fits in the stream of literature.

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me...

W.S. Merwin: His odes and nature poems still influencing me…

When I was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program at UW, poet-professor Rick Kenney taught a poetry writing workshop called Imitations, in which we set out to imitate various established closed forms, occasional poems, cultural permutations, and individual poets and their poems. I remember writing in a letter to Rick that I was sure I wouldn’t lose my identity to these other poets because I was so anxious to explore and establish my own voice as a poet.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Mary Oliver has made great nature poetry popular, a near impossible feat.

Yet some poets do lose themselves, for years on end, emulating a certain poet. Linda Bierds, who also teaches poetry writing in the MFA program at UW, told us once that, early in her career, readers compared her work to that of Norman Dubie so often that she realized she needed to establish her own voice and style—a break with the “other,” of course, that she succeeded beautifully in making.

I have emulated many poets without guilt or shame and, I like to think, without crippling envy. I’ve tried to write like Theodore Roethke, Charles Simic, Czeslaw Milosz, Mary Oliver, and other poets of stature. I discovered that one can strive to write like another without experiencing envy and instead feel sheer admiration—a desire, via the work to learn everything possible about the poet’s craft and relationship to subject, much in the way an art student strives to replicate a famous painting while sitting in an art museum, down to the finest stroke—in order to learn what happened personally, technically, and historically in the creation of the artist’s work.

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Japanese Zen monk hermit poet (1758-1831), lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

And the development of an artist’s skill, vision, and voice, I might suggest, more often than not follows the development of the art form in history. Each artist gropes through a medieval period, blossoms during a little Renaissance, tries on the finery of the Baroque, casts off every stitch of excess clothing in the name of minimalism, flourishes during an abrupt midlife Romantic period, dabbles in pointillism, screams leaping off the bridge of reason into a modern period, then collapses in a paroxysm of Post-Modernism.

Perhaps it’s natural to feel a little envious of the magic that great writers conjure. If, as a reader, we feel mesmerized by the beauty of a novel, short story, or poem, then why wouldn’t we want to conjure such magic? It’s only natural to want to wield the very power that mesmerizes us to conjure it in others—other readers.

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures

Issa (Kobayashi), 18th century Japanese haiku poet, had great compassion for small creatures (I’m writing bird and bug haiku).

It may be that by trying on the clothes of the writers we admire—the greats, the masters, the pros—those who command great audiences—we come to realize how we are not meant to be the very writer we admire or emulate, that we’re not at all like the master whose footprints we’ve been dogging. In other words, we come to realize who we are, how we’re distinct, how we have our own story to tell or body of words and images to share. Yet we may never have found ourselves in our totality if we hadn’t tried on the master’s silky, piney, or smoky robes.

Why Poetry Matters

Poetry and writing poetry is only as difficult as we make it. There are so many myths and stereotypes associated with poetry that we can hardly see it for what it is. Poetry is little more than the singing of a story, moment, or subject. Poetry has been around for as long as there have been people sitting around fires singing, chanting, and telling stories of heroism, loss, and love. Poetry matters and is alive and well in our contemporary lives, even more than we may realize.

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.—Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poetry’s close cousin is music. In fact, many song lyrics fall under the category of poetry. Poetry and song have much in common: rhythm, elevated or condensed speech, images and metaphors, and often stories. There are ballads in both poetry and folk music alike, and now rap is a clear crossover between the two arts. Rap music and poetry slams have helped bring poetry further into the mainstream.

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.—Edgar Allan Poe

Yet many if not most Americans say they don’t get poetry—what it is, what it does, why people read and write it, and what function it serves in society. A huge reason they don’t get it is because there are so many other means and modes of entertainment and self-fulfillment out there. Another big reason is that we’ve inherited myths and stereotypes that we cling to about poetry and poetry writing. Schools have perpetuated the idea that poetry contains a meaning that needs to be extracted, so it becomes a substitute for the poem itself, as if it were merely a matter of solving a problem and, now that the problem has been solved, we can forget about it. Another issue is that analyzing poetic elements becomes more important than experiencing the poem itself. Other views include the idea that reading and writing poetry is a waste of time, doesn’t make money, is self-indulgent, or is a flowery feminine art.

If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it’s to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel.—Jim Morrison

Poetry, first and foremost, is meant to be experienced. How does it make us feel? What images does it evoke? How are we swept up by the language, sounds, and rhythms? How do our own lives relate to a poem or poet? In what way does a poem stir us to express ourselves? Poetry is a more bodily experienced art than we know. Not only does it make our imaginations flare, it makes our senses jump, the way music does.

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.—Emily Dickinson

What we also forget is that almost all religious and spiritual scriptures were composed as poems, as verse. Advertising and speechwriters use many of the same techniques that poets use. Snippets of poetry accidentally tumble out of our mouths. We can’t help it. There are countless words and expressions that poets have created. Shakespeare gave us hundreds of new expressions that we still use today and generally don’t know it.

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.—Audre Lorde

Poetry writing is, at best, a spiritual act, one in which the poet seeks to discover and express meaning using our richest, most beautiful, most universal medium: language. Poets strive to explore the possibilities of language just as painters explore line, shape, and color and just as architects explore utility, grace, and strength in building. The added beauty is that reading and writing poetry is virtually free. We can check out poetry from the library and scratch poems on recycled napkins and, in so doing, make profound discoveries about our selves, life, love, the world, language, relationships, or nature.

To read a poem is to hear it with our eyes; to hear it is to see it with our ears.—Octavio Paz

Without the art known as poetry, our world would be infinitely poorer, just as it would be if we didn’t have painting or music. Poetry and writing poetry matters because it involves our finest breaths of language—phrases, lines, images, rhythms, and subjects by which we can sing the truths of our heart.

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion collected in tranquility.—William Wordsworth

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.—T. S. Eliot

Poetry: the best words in the best order.—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.—Allen Ginsberg

Wrenzai Attends the Great Haiku Getaway

When my old friend the barred owl hooted her message to me from the crabapple tree, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I’d been invited to attend the Great Haiku Getaway in the woods beside the Great Water. I hadn’t ventured out to such an event for years and in fact had begun to grow moss between my toes. I tossed and turned that night over the decision, but as morning grew blue, as the sun rolled up into the sky and the robin chirruped pure as cherries, I donned my bamboo hat, coat, and sandals and set out East.

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

The journey was long. I wandered cross-country around the south end of the Great Mountains and then beyond, up the east side of the Great Water to a tiny hamlet in the woods known as Seabeck, in ancient times an elven timber station. The Main Hall stood wide and welcoming on the side of a hill beyond a silvery lagoon. The journey had taken me days and left me both exhausted and invigorated. I remembered how good it is to get out of my myrtle hut now and then. My fall crop of mushrooms could wait this time. As I crossed the lagoon these words came to me:

the old car bridge

Seabeck Conference Center

Seabeck Conference Center

What magic I sensed in the air as I arrived! I found many other hermits, mountain poets, and hut-dwellers in the Great Wooden Dining Hall at the midday meal, chattering about the tantalizing words and incantations known as haiku that the Great Party was to celebrate. Ah to mingle with others like me again! For so long it was just me and the chickadees, me and the old antlered bucks who stared up at me through the windows, me and the crows consoling each other as the world heats up near to burning—only the rare human visitor—for years.

Old Buddy Buck

My old buddy Buck

My counterparts wore rice-planting or wizards’ hats, had companions of ravens or crows, even a starling, perching upon their shoulders. Some wore coats of moss or woven cedar bark. Others smoked long thin pipes of incense or gesticulated in meaningful runes, reciting ancient haiku—or fresh ones, composed on the tongue, winging their way out of their mouths like hummingbirds or dragonflies. They’d arrived from all over the world. I was overwhelmed!

introductions

Soon we were off to what for me was my first haiku gathering, held in a Hall whose walls resounded with the profound but simple verses of the great and ancient haiku poets, of masters and disciples both. The chatter and gesticulations were hard to follow, so much was happening at once. Then four Masters gathered before us to discuss “haiku as poetry.” What delight I took in how seriously these great minds considered such tiny poems in the context of poetry and culture at large. I was mesmerized!

After a short break, I joined a large and enthusiastic group in the lower quarters to construct a book—to actually make a book in an hour! What fun it was to create a quality piece of workmanship in a matter of minutes wherein we were encouraged to inscribe our haiku. What fun measuring, cutting, and gluing as if we were Gutenberg’s apprentices—or the Beowulf monk himself! What pretty, useful, tiny tomes we conjured for later inspiration!

Then there were haiku quilts, thinking like an editor, a history of our venerable venue, each presentation more interesting, informative, and mind-dazzling than the last—which is to say a lot, because the first presentation was so intriguing and inspiring!

What energy and thoughts we took to dinner. Our haiku diners were a veritable galaxy of stars glinting with glee and reminiscences. And the food was delectable, not to mention endless, for those of us who’d worked up bottomless pits of haiku hunger.

Back in the hall, we celebrated a wonderful poet who’d recently left our world of haiku-ing (unless there’s a world where everything is haiku). Sad but all the more beautiful were her haiku in the aftermath of her existence. To be touched like that is to be touched deeply. Everyone sat up straight, with respect, interest riveted.

Soon we were deeply immersed in Chiyo-ni—of ancient times in a strange and wonderful country—and given a lesson in greeting with haiku in the ancient way. My lovely partner wrote this in greeting me (thank you, Ruth):

rainy night haiku

I was moved—to say the least. Then up we stood to receive Japanese candle lanterns so as to set out on a night ginko. We walked silently through the night and rain, listening to sounds we might ordinarily miss. With what strange, beautiful, and solemn attention we stepped through the pristine water, grass, and forest, bearing our long line of blue glowing lanterns, like fireflies in search of deeper experience. We were stilled to silence by the plash of rain and clothing rustling. I wrote

forest patter

Mushroom umbrella

Mushroom umbrella

I was so at home in the dark dripping forest, standing at length in silence, it was as if I’d brought a little of this from home, from the Myrtle Forest at the Edge of the Universe—though the singing of rain there differs.

Soon a few of us returned to workshop haiku. What gentle souls we were, making suggestions anonymously with a sincere desire to improve the magic of each others’ verse, then revealing ourselves as the conjurer of the workshopped haiku out of immediately-felt trust. The Haiku Poet is a sensitive creature, indeed.

Then off to bed this tired old hermit wandered through the cozy dark, to sleep without stirring through the night, till the next morning when we would re-enter the transcendent world of haiku—haiku-ists haiku-ing haiku (achoo)!

late night rain walk

And though some stayed up to the wee hours the night before, no one looked the worse for wear the following morning as we gathered in the Great Haiku Hall. There we played a Haiku Game, getting to know each other—or better. The Grand Haiku Poobah led us though his Haiku on Steroids, sharing his thousand years of albeit humble haiku experience—a generous soul that man! Then for one of the Featured Events of the Getaway: Ancient Masters (though they look so young) guided us on an extensive journey through the Cyber World of the Haiku Chronicles—its history, distribution, technology, and the teamwork involved in this enormous venue for the Ever Evolving World of Haiku. I was dazzled—speechless—swept away by the great symphony of this enthusiastic and dedicated duet. I saw what is possible. Paths broke open before me. Ideas bounced around like hacky sacks in my usually meditative mind. Great thanks to these Giants of Haiku for wandering much further, much farther, than I, to bring us this explosion of information and inspiration!

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Then contest winners announced, a group photograph, a nature walk, sound in haiku—an endless stream of haiku delicacies to enrich and mull over. The day was ceaseless—seemed to stretch to eternity to accommodate an impossible lineup of ten-course haiku meals. I experienced my first kukai, a contest (or ranking) of haiku. That was nerve-racking, but fun. So good to see how it all works, in spirit so unlike the poetry slam. I began to feel dizzy for all the wonder I felt at what so many poets had to offer in readings before and after dinner. And if all the haiku were too much to appreciate, there was a talent show that evening, mostly for comic relief (or so I hoped). Afterward, I could take no more (had groomed a meaningful headache) and excused myself to bed as the party raged into the night.

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

distantly creaking

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) with weightier subject matter

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) present a weightier subject

And still, the following day, there was another full morning of festivities, entertainment, and haiku evolution. First, Haiku Comics: Master Frog and Disciple Frog, like Basho and Sora. Then, believe it or not, Monkeys Invaded My Sacred Palace and Chased Out My Tiger! If ever I was confused by the difference between haiku and senryu, or ignorantly conflated them, the difference was untwisted and unscrewed by our Grand Wizard of Haiku.

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace and Chasing Out the Tiger

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace Chasing Out the Tiger

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

Michael Dylan Welch presenting the book haiku from all of us at the Getaway

Michael Dylan Welch presenting a book of haiku from all of us to Al

By this time, I knew I’d had enough inspiration, information, insight, and ever-increasing interest to hold me till the next Great Haiku Party in the Woods by the Great Water, scheduled for next fall. I set out for my hut so nourished by the Getaway that I hardly noticed the week-long trek back to my little Myrtle Woods by the Edge of the Universe. Haiku fluttered about my head like butterflies around honeysuckle as I skirted the toes of the mountains on my return. I came away with enough gifts to hold me for many months till I grow antsy for the next Great Round of Haiku. I was relieved to find that my secret chanterelles, under the nurturing arms of their spruces, were just popping open their ocher umbrellas.

Golden chanterelles!

Golden chanterelles!

Note: Please visit these links and sources:

https://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest/seabeck-haiku-getaway-2014

http://www.seabeck.org/

http://www.haikuchronicles.com/

Tiny American Bird Wins Japanese Haiku Contest

Wrenzai is proud to announce that he’s won Grand Prize in the Non-Japanese (International) Division of the 6th Annual Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum Haiku Contest in Japan. He is stunned and elated by the news. When a package arrived from Japan, he and Ms. Wrenzai were delighted to find in it not only several copies of the book published with the winning poems and an over-sized framed award certificate but also a “small prize.”

Wrenzai with the goods

Wrenzai with the goods

Here is the winning haiku:

the one-legged sparrow—
still embraced by the clan
on the power line

The prize brought tears to the recipient’s eyes. It’s a miniature folding standing screen of the original much larger 18th century screen of Buson’s (second of the great male haiku poets in Japan) calligraphic version of Basho’s 17th century “haibun” (prose with haiku) entitled Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) including “haiga” (ink paintings accompanying haiku). The book traces Basho’s journey around northern Japan, visiting significant historical and natural sites and guiding writing circles in towns and villages along the way. Wrenzai has read five different translations of this most famous work in Japan, several more than once, and has written a haibun with haiga (photos converted to drawings in this case) entitled Rowing Smitty: Travel Sketches and Haibun, emulating and learning from this great work. The book is to be published in the near future.

First three panels of screen

First three panels of screen

The coincidence is beyond meaningful for Wrenzai. It’s as if a distinct path has opened up before Wrenzai down which he must wander for the rest of his time on the planet. Life sometimes rings with truth!

Wrenzai wrote the winning haiku while (with his ever-vigilant eyes) watching sparrows through his sister Karen’s upstairs apartment window. He selected the haiku for the contest because, when he lived in Japan between 1988 and 1991, the country only then was beginning to provide infrastructure for handicapped people in public places. One rarely saw handicapped people in public. He’s not sure that the reason the poem was selected for the award has anything to do with why he wrote or chose it for the contest, but these are the thoughts he’s had on the matter. One way or the other, the sparrow event occurred and the poem came into existence before any thoughts about it took place.

Here is the other poem Wrenzai submitted to the contest:

the two grasshoppers
parted by my leg—
will they ever meet again?

This haiku is more blatantly traditional in form in that it makes more direct reference to the season, resides more in the natural world, and appeals to a simpler sentiment. But it happened and the words occurred to me….

May your observations and creations burst with passion!

Mystics and Membrane II

I have been troubled by the definitions of mysticism, mystical, and mystic. I have looked up these words many times and read and studied so-called mystical poems and mystic writers and poets and, as a secular observer and thinker, walked away from the problem dissatisfied. So, given all these premises, humbly (with a humble attempt), I sketch my own collective definition and present a poem from each of the poets I included in my earlier post “Mystics and Membrane.”

Mystical

As one who does not believe in the supernatural, I wonder what then might remain once scientists and deep observers and thinkers finish with the Universe? Well, it’s my belief that no matter how deep scientists and “penetrators” penetrate the nature of the universe (or the nature of the Mind that seeks to penetrate the Universe), they will never get to the bottom of the unknown. Beyond the latest, newly discovered, tested, and verified phenomenon or relationship, there will remain a vast unknown to perplex the great knower, we human beings who think we have to get to he bottom of the Universe, to know the All.

Thus, that which will and must remain forever unknown, ever out of reach of the curious mind, is mystical, the ever-approached but never fully-known unknown—which implies we should relax a little and bask a bit in what we do know and even in what we don’t, like the man bathing in riches who finally says, “I have enough. I can sleep deeply now and if a few gold coins tumble out of my great boat not jostled by storms, let them be gathered up by some needy soul or be lost forever.”

Mysticism

Mysticism is the practice of seeking the unknown while knowing the unknown is not altogether knowable and perhaps sharing the experience with others (or not). Seeking to know all and, worse, striving to control all, is vanity and, I have to judge, not spiritual, but to live close to the unknown and then find beauty and ease in it is, indeed, a healthy spirituality.

Mystic

A mystic is one who practices mysticism, who lives in or close to the unknown and is more or less conscious of it, who makes a spiritual practice of it. I might also suggest that a mystic is a teacher, one who doesn’t merely gather followers about him like a false guru but who shines in such a way as to cause the open-minded to question his or her own “perceptions” or assumptions about knowing, about what is knowable, and about why we insist on knowing to the point of self-destruction (nuclear combustion being the great example).

Mystic Poet

A mystic poet is one who finds beauty and meaning in practicing mysticism and shares that beauty in ecstatic or contemplative language or poetry. The five poets whose pictures I included in the earlier post “Mystics and Membrane” are Rumi, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Theodore Roethke. Here’re some short poems I feel to be mysterious, if not mystical, by each of these poets, along with a comment or two:

Rumi's Emptiness

Note: Rumi’s idea of nothingness resembles that of the Zennists. In the face of nothing everything has meaning.

Blake's Tree

Note: Blake’s poem underscores the admonition that we love our enemy rather than hate him. Sound familiar?

Dickinson's Fly

Note: Dickinson’s poem is tough to penetrate. I’d suggest that something as seemingly trivial as a fly is what’s real in the end. The biggest event in our lives may end with nothing more than a buzz and not golden trumpets blaring.

Rilke's Apollo

Note: I’ve spent a lot of time with this poem as a college English instructor. The last two clauses are stunning surprises to the open spirit. Great art is here to make a difference. We can work our lives away, but some acts and artifacts carry tremendous meaning in the seeming meaninglessness of our existence.

Roethke's Moment

Note: if the past is gone and the present not arrived, then the moment, in a sense, is all there is. But how great does the moment feel as we are carried along in and by it? And yet because it’s always flowing, we’re hard put to grasp it, to dwell deeply in it. Perhaps the deepest of our paradoxes.

Roethke's Crow

Note: Since the world without is experienced within, then what we experience is merely a mirror of the universe. But how is our mirror smudged? That is the universe in there, after all, isn’t it?

Here are two more by Rumi, for those of you who’re into this:

Rumi's Three

Note: Rumi’s poem here suggests that not until we can acknowledge the great nothingness can we become truly spiritual beings. Religion often gives us an easy way out, as if by simply joining a church all our spiritual concerns will be taken care of. I’m reminded of a Woody Allen character by this poem.

Rumi's Divan-e

Note: Rumi’s poem here really gets at the problem with our trying to control Nature or the Universe

 

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)