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.”


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 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.


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



Meditation on Meditation: A Rhapsody

Always I long for something other than here and now, yet such a longing according to traditional and contemporary spiritual trends is a kind of illness. Be here now and all that spume. Lovely but impossible ideal, I’m afraid. Even prepping a class, I cannot help but picture those student faces, swallowing my program, my ideas even, lifting their eyes to lines of prose or pen to paper…

Drake Snoozing (Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, Portland, Oregon, March 2014)

Drake Snoozing (Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, Portland, Oregon, March 2014)

Now is as empty as a pocket I futilely strain to fill with the coins of my eyes and ears, with my whole being…

There is meditation formalized and meditation that serves the purpose at hand—one way or the other an altered, relaxed state of mind that allows the other, the here and now, to intercede on the past-and-future-occupied mind….

I have watched—I have become—waves crashing, one upon the other, spilling up the beach toward my feet, felt the disorienting grate of upward rush and backward wash, been nearly thrown to the sand at the height of this conflictive coming and going merely abandoning my eyes to this other world, this other possibility (for all possibilities exist in reality, if only for a moment in the mind)….

Vast Sea and Rocks (Cannon Beach, Oregon, March 2014)

Vast Sea and Rocks (Cannon Beach, Oregon, March 2014)

One might say total abandonment to reality may bring the caesura of reality, certainly caesura of consciousness of reality. Total abandonment to sight and sound bring the unknown, the frightening, as for the cat for the first time thrown into an alien world, for the first time set down on the beach beside the thundering waves, all bent-eared and wide-eyed, tensed to avoid a sensed end of his life.

Red Sea Contemplation (Cannon Beach)

Red Sea Contemplation (Cannon Beach)

And I have lost myself in the flight of a seagull in my reverie, lost myself in casting off my own contrived reality that I superimpose on the true underlying reality that exists independent of me, independent of all “conscious” creatures. Lost myself in the seagull’s wings, in wind-veer and gust-loft, become those yellow eyes scanning the broken carapace of a crab, the starfish rotting on the beach below. Been to the center, the beginning, of the universe, a cerebral cosmologist, to the Big Bang on the verge of Banging Big, the Big Bang Banged and blasting outward, been to cell and molecule, to atom and electron, to quark and back. Infinity is no stranger to the childlike mind.

Raindrop Circles (Seattle, May 2104)

Raindrop Circles (Seattle, May 2104)

And I have held your heart beating in my hand. But unintentionally, for how can I sort through what occurs intentionally, and what unintentionally, in or to my mind? Who can say I thought this or that thought on purpose and know for sure it didn’t merely happen of its own accord, that my every thought is not merely the cresting of the wave of all thoughts that have risen and rushed forward in and with and all around me and the whole of thinking, of mutating humanity. Or finally to finally conclude and forever as long as I can hold the conclusion that I know I will a thought independent and exclusive of all other thoughts—a unique thought! That reality is not merely my greatest, most complex meditation on nothingness, that all I sense and feel and think, I only think I sense and feel and think! I only think I think!

Waves of Clouds (Washington Coast,  April, 2014)

Waves of Clouds (Washington Coast,
April, 2014)

Still, how can I question all I am and do and know and have? Ah, the QUESTION is all! Knowing, as big, as small, as sure, as flimsy, as up for amendment or as momentarily stable as it is, is vanity. To know, to think one knows, is to lack humility while to question is to lie steadfast beneath the exploding stars and widen the eyes. And to name is a feeble attempt to get on top of, to get under our feet, that which crushes us beautifully. No matter how critical I become of the world, of others, of myself, I must make way for the blossom to bloom, the colors to mix and re-emerge, to reinvent themselves, wherever they are, within or without.

Twig Entangled Night City (Seattle, February, 2014)

Twig Entangled Night City (Seattle, February, 2014)

A marquee to the south ripples light in a window to the north. What need have I of a first order of reality? The speakers have lips, the lips another’s song, the song itself a tiny echo of yet another reality. What a surprising luxury, flesh! Still, the sun becomes a thought, the moon a peaceful dream.

Moonlit House (Washington Coast, March 2104)

Moonlit House (Washington Coast, March 2104)