Mystic and Membrane: Vicissitudes of Language

Words are strange sound symbols we can’t live with and can’t live without. They are and aren’t. They bridge us over to one another and block our way. We forever hazard mistaking word for object, solidifying a word or idea into a specific form or image, making us forget 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; weapons, shields, and armor with which we go into daily battle.

Sicilian Water Skippers

When language falls away, like a veil or mist, we’re faced with 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.

Language may be the most troublesome membrane we grapple with in an effort to break through to reality. Thus mystics, poets, and metaphors are born. The mystic-poet who merges with or intuits the deep nature of reality then returns to tell about it, may return with words that merely allude to the experience, thus pointing more to the mind of the mystic than to ultimate reality. The mystic 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.

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 us into strange, beautiful, soul-altering experience and enliven us in a potentially mind-deadening world. As long as words—tough, inspiriting, slippery words—take us to new and challenging places, our picture of reality deepens and expands. Reality depends on us to make sound symbol journeys into the intimate body of the unknown.

Copyright 2018 by Rick Clark (previously published in CORRelations: Newsletter of Center for Object Relations)

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Wrenzai’s Philosophical Spiritual Journey (in short)

I had my first “realization” when I was eight, as I was lying on my back out in a wheat field near our rented farmhouse in Aloha, Oregon. I sensed, I decided, that there was no god in the sky and no god perched over in the walnut tree and that the people, my parents and all the other people in the world, had made up all the stories about God, Soul, Heaven and Hell, etc., and that to believe as others do would be to become a blind follower of arbitrary human constructs. I didn’t have this realization in exactly these words, but the sense or sensation was there, sharp and clear.

Crows Walking on Water

This was a life-altering, perspective-founding experience for me, because in that moment I consciously penetrated the nature of human civilization and psychology. I knew I was alone in the Universe, and I knew I would always rely on my own view of “the nature of things.” I would never take anything at face value and always remain skeptical of the claims of humans. Seeing is believing. I would have made a great scientist. I settled for poetry.

Living in a Tree

From there I drifted along as a social agnostic till I was 27. It never seemed important or useful to me to argue about beliefs with others. And in those days, the mid to late 70s, people weren’t discussing such matters much anyway. One evening I was soaking in the tub when I had my second realization. I called my girlfriend to come into the bathroom and told her I just realized I had no real, conscious philosophy and that it was time for me to “get one.” As I was attending classes part-time at Portland State University, I began taking philosophy classes. When I took the class entitled “Existential Literature,” I knew I’d found my major affirmation. Perhaps my interest in Existentialism derived from a kind of nihilistic tendency to undermine all the structures, rules, and delusions of religion and even of some Western philosophies, but the real reason is my love of the potential in my fellow humans. I read Camus, Sartre, Gide, and de Beauvoir, mainly, which helped clear the psychic air for me. But I was irritated by the fact that humankind—thinking, reading, critical-minded humankind—found the conclusions of godlessness, soullessness, and afterlifelessness to be so unbearably negative. They couldn’t live with it; it was too bleak.

Nature

That’s when I began to meditate, reflect, think logically, and write in order to find the positive in Existentialism. Thus I coined the expression “Positive Existentialism.” In other words, I realized that only when the whole of humankind can come to realize that we’re “grounded in Earth” can we work together to create a better world. Sartre’s final words really helped here, that “with freedom comes responsibility.” Since we can’t depend on supernatural beliefs, beings, or practices to help us, then it’s up to us to take action to create a better world, here and now. My idea of Positive Existentialism has come in handy with students and others who come to me saying, “Why do anything? I’m just going to die anyway.” I’d reply, “Why not set out to do everything you dream of doing? Why not fulfill your potential, be the best you can be? You’re alive here and now, and this, for all you know, is your one and only opportunity. Besides, would living forever be reason for you to do everything you otherwise can’t bother to do because you’re going to die anyway? Sounds like a cop-out to me.”

Nurturing

A couple problems came up. One was morality and the other was free will. Larry Bowlden, who was the PSU Philosophy Department head and who was teaching the Existential Literature class in 1977, said that maybe morality is based on intuition, that we know intrinsically that’s it’s bad to kill one another. Ah, survival of the species, of course! Later, I found a page, which I used as a handout in some of my college intercultural communications classes to build unity, that translated and quoted fourteen versions of the Golden Rule, each from a different religion. The Golden Rule, religiously and secularly, is a universal. It was then that I realized that universals, principles, and ideals that no one can argue with and that can be found in all religions and practical philosophies is the answer that the Existentialists did not deliver.

Search for Universals

As for free will, I came to realize that even the humanist, secularist, iconoclast, and/or atheist must accept certain unknowns. Do we have free will? Or is it just an illusion? I choose to believe we do have free will and are not simply driven by fate or providence or mechanical chains of events in nature. Otherwise, the world wouldn’t be changing so quickly. Many strong free wills are in conflict. So I came to accept, as bottom-line in my thinking, that morality is inherent, that free will exists in humans, and that humans must inevitably make choices. And if we must choose between dying (or killing others) and living a productive life (and not killing others), we must choose the latter. Many years later I found affirmation for this idea in Plato’s concept that the Form (or Idea) of the Good is the ultimate object of knowledge. The human mind cannot compare seeking good and seeking bad without ultimately choosing to seek good. Good is shinier. Not that we don’t backslide now and then.

Most of these thoughts began to emerge in my 40s, as I was building a cabin in the woods.

Beauty Not to Be Accounted For

Zen Buddhism came to me first from my Grandma Glenda, who was into the esoteric (Rosicrucians, for one). There was an atmosphere of peace amidst exotica in her home. There were Buddhas and books on the Far East, incense and Chinese checkers. But it was reading and writing poetry, years later, that led me to ancient Chinese and Japanese Zen (Buddhist) literature. That was in the 90s. I was 45 or so. And it was Zen poetry that led me haiku. (Note: I should mention that I “killed the Buddha,” which is an expression referring to a famous Zen koan, some years ago, so now I simply refer to Zen.) Positive Existentialism was the perfect secularization to set me up for Zen. Once I had the philosophical reality in place (nature only), how could I find peace and purpose in that reality?

Play

Zen is psychology, all about the mind. Thus the emphasis on meditation. Some would call it self-psychology. And it is. It’s just not overly analytical. A good way to think about it is to focus on the idea of “universal mind.” This is why I like Buddha, because it wasn’t supernatural beings (who in his dream were merely tests of his enlightenment) by which he became enlightened; it was by transcending them and achieving a sense of universality in the face of the particulars of earthly existence, including the fact that we must die but just don’t know when. He realized that our fears and desires were our burden and that we need only to rid our fears and desires to be free. In Universal Mind, one can imagine one’s death, one’s not existing, and feel equanimous at the thought, even breathe a sigh of relief. This goes for all fears, desires, and other forms of monkeymindedness. One can let go of all these vanities.

Lifeguard on Duty

So there are different kinds of meditation, each of which may be related to different brain wave states. One says, Clear the mind; seek emptiness. Another says, Attune your five senses to your body or to the outside world. The last says, Observe your thoughts; notice them, but don’t argue with, chastise, or dwell on them. Simply let the mind observe the thoughts as they pass (the mind is not the thinker but the observer of thoughts). Without being analytical, the mind will note the trouble spots. Adjusting the mind will come naturally this way.

If only haters could observe and note their hateful thoughts they’d slowly fade away (the thoughts, I mean)!

Universal (meditate on this)

Two other problems came up: One is existence itself and the other is the human need to believe (in something or someone). I know Zen talks about nothingness, but I’ve come to think that this nothingness does not imply that matter, energy, space, and, by extension, life don’t exist. Nothingness can be conceived of, only by something, someone, a mind, and in relation to somethingness (think yin and yang here). So I choose to believe that, bottom line, we exist, we have free will and must choose good, ultimately, we are inherently moral, and we need to believe in something. These are my points of faith (but I eschew the word “faith” because the Evangelicals have monopolized and narrowed it). I was helped with the latter problem by Jung and Campbell. Jung said humans need to have a mythology to believe in. Campbell showed us that different tribes, cultures, religions, and stories contain many of the same elements, or archetypes. He posited the idea that these myths, symbols, patterns, and archetypes reflect the presence of psychic organs. While this idea may be helpful to account for common beliefs among diverse cultures, I’m not sure that this knowledge makes overcoming our worst inner selves any easier. If we have an incorrigible psychic organ called Trickster that regularly gets others into trouble, should we, or can we, overcome him?

Just because one doesn’t believe in the supernatural doesn’t mean one can’t have beliefs, healthy beliefs.

The Knave, the Foolish King, the Human Imagination?

As for the inherent need to believe in something or someone, I believe that beliefs themselves are completely negotiable. Thus my final thesis: I believe that the highest faith we can have is in our selves and one another, to become better human beings and create a better world. This is my belief that supersedes all others in my world. It’s a lot to believe in, and, considering the mess that is this dangerous world, a long ways off. Believing in a supernatural being about whom we actually know nothing is infinitely easier and may be a way of shirking our responsibilities on Earth.

Etna (volcano)

Did I mention “absurdity,” the “absurd hero”? Thurber’s moth, Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Chance the Gardener in Kosinski’s Being There? There’s a lot of cowardice in believing in the given paradigm; it’s much bolder and deeper to believe in the nearly impossible.

One With

Copyright 2017, by Rick Clark

Eagles and Angels (Americana poem)

The Eagles come goose-stepping
around the corner of Second and Main,
drilling the wet-eyed perspectives
of moms and dads with near military
machine work, hardly rippling a shirt
or smudging a collar as a band of Angels,
leaning in on tattooed shoulders,
rumble through in hairy procession
around the corner opposite, at First

and Main, their scars and eye patches
stating there’s nothing left to lose. The Eagles
come to a simultaneous heel-digging halt
in front of Marvin’s Drug and Fountain
as the Angels clutch and brake,
squeaking rubber and leather, to stop
face to face with the scouts and kill
their engines in leering disarray.

Grandmas and grandpas
hold their cherry soda breath.
The mouths of boys and girls
hang open. One last baby gurgles
before all fall hushed. Eagles
waver in their stations, the sky
weighs a ton on every shoulder.
A gas cap glints in the heat.

Legless veteran town drunk Jake
arm-hops through stock-still legs,
passing a dog with one eye raised,
stops before the cracked black jacket
and python beard of the hog boss, calls out,
“Are you the one they call The Snake?”
The hog boss chaws and spits,
fires a look down his dreadlocked beard.
“Mary over at Morgansville says Hi.”

Snake motions with his one good eye.
The Angels kick-start their Harleys,
drop them into gear, then roll
unwavering through the Eagle ranks,
never once brushing sleeve with handlebar
as the scouts resume their march down Main.
The thunder rises in pitch as the Angels
stretch their arms and hair out of town.

All heads turn in search of Jake
who’s returned to hold up the bar.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

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…

The Nearly Sunken Pram: An Orca Story (for Geoff)

Killer Whales (Orcas) Up Close

Killer Whales (Orcas) Up Close

My brother and I
set out in our pram
to catch a salmon,
a pram no more
than eight feet long
and three across.

But as we trolled along
through the deep green water,
an enormous killer whale pod
snorted up beside us,
jerking our heads around
and startling our hearts to pound.

Transfixed, we watched them
roll up out of the water,
great great granddaddies
with dorsal fins eight feet tall
glistening wet in the sun
and wobbling stiffly.

Big snorts or air.
Sucking in of water.
Gurgling and spraying.
An eye staring out at us….
We knew they knew
we were there,

so without a word
we steered our pram in
closer to shore, rowing briskly,
but smoothly and evenly
so as not to draw
attention to ourselves,

and once we got in
to four feet of water,
we reeled in our lines,
dropped an anchor,
boated our oars,
and watched in awe

this magnificent family,
these mothers and infants,
these gallant fathers and sons,
the aunts and uncles and cousins,
grandmothers and grandfathers too,
cruising around these inland waters
that their ancestors cruised around
countless generations before—

herding the little ones
around the Sound,
around these hundred islands,
eating clean fish freely
and making friends
with whale people along the way.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark

Leave Enough Deadwood

View of Seattle's Green Lake

View of Seattle’s Green Lake

with respect to Seattle’s Green Lake
Habitat Restoration

Leave enough deadwood
to feed the bugs,
enough bugs
to feed the birds,
enough small birds
to feed the big.

Leave snags and stumps
to rot and die, to silhouette
the Northwest sky
before the ants and termites
carry it all away
in the beak of a wren.

Lay in a few old logs.
Plant cottonwood, willow,
aspen, and birch. Spread ferns,
salal, and huckleberry.
Lay moss on soggy wood.
Skirt the lake with yellow irises.

Don’t rake up the leaves
in these hidden paradises.
Add the leaves from the lawn.
Let the cedars, redwoods,
pines, and cypresses slough
their glistening duff!

Hire a poet or two
to write what they see
in prose or straight haiku
to publish on a public site—
What old species return,
what new ones arrive?

What eagle, egret, or heron,
what wood duck, night hawk,
junco, sparrow, or vireo appear?
What red-winged blackbird,
what darting hummingbird,
what kestrel, owl, or jay?

Make the crazy world
a masterpiece, if possible.
Make way for all of life to live.
Leave us all the ground
upon which to sleep,
to eat, to play.

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