Category Archives: harmony

Leap of Faith

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 28

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 1: Why Meditate?

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

fire_rainbowIt is a major premise of this book that writing poetry can be a form of meditation and can confer many of the same benefits, and that these benefits are essential to a life that is lived poetically.
Meditation is – can be – so many things. There are meditations to relax you or to energize you; meditations for visualization and manifestation; meditations to empty your mind or to focus it. The more entrepreneurial among us have made meditation a commodity designed to cure the ills of a selected audience, which is a nice way of saying that some “meditation resources” are sham.

Meditation, at its most basic, is surrendering control, transcending the ceaseless whirring of our minds and resting in the assurance that all is, in some mysterious way, exactly as it ought to be. Most of us garden-variety meditators can’t rest the mind completely, but we can, at least for a few minutes, give it a respite.

Everybody has problems. The mind is usually engaged in solving those problems, and the problem-solving process often entails stress, anxiety, regret, maybe some guilt — maybe even depression and hopelessness, if we lack the resources we believe will solve the problems: health, energy, money, ideas, courage, influence, whatever.

Stress, anxiety, regret, guilt, and depression weigh on us. They sap our energy and cloud our thinking, becoming fuel for more stress, anxiety, regret, and so forth. They are colloquially and aptly called “baggage.”

Nebraska Sunset; Geese flying north over Lake McConaughy

Meditation sets the baggage aside

In 1976, my daughter, Marian, and I were rushing through Washington’s Union Station, hurrying to catch the Broadway Limited, which was departing early. We were loaded down with suitcases and Christmas presents for our visit to our family in Omaha.

broadway_limitedMarian was eight years old and was carrying everything she could manage, but I had the heavy stuff, both arms straining until I had to stop and give my muscles a break. After thirty seconds or so, I could pick the bags and packages up again and forge ahead, and then my arms would insist on being rested again. My arms were very vocal about it, and they refused to accommodate me until I let them have their little reprieve.

Our psyches don’t complain as clearly as our muscles. Headaches, backaches, stomach aches we can ignore or medicate. But if we keep going on overload, mentally or emotionally, something’s gotta give.

Meditation, like restful sleep, is a way of setting the baggage aside and giving our psyches a break. During the time we’re meditating, there’s no past to regret; there’s no future to worry about; there’s only now, and right now, everything is all right.

There’s no such thing as meditating badly

The only “bad meditation” is one that carries unrealistic expectations, so don’t go out and buy a “meditation kit,” CD, or book that promises wealth, romance, or power. Meditation is good for you—for body, mind, and spirit; for relationships and work and problem-solving and achieving your goals. But your life won’t change overnight, and anyway, expectations are about the future, and meditation is about this moment.

If you’re new to meditation, you may find it difficult at first to interrupt your churning thoughts, but there are some excellent and simple techniques to deal with them. For now, I’ll just give you three axioms to hold on to:

  1. The intention to meditate is a giant step in the right direction.
  2. Thirty seconds of meditation is better than no meditation at all.
  3. Don’t fret if your mind wanders during meditation. What’s important is returning to the meditation, compassionately and gently and without beating yourself up. It is, as Jack Kornfield says, like training a puppy. You don’t yell or scold; you just keep at it, firm but patient.

Just do it

When I worked at the University of Arizona, our department invited one of the trainers from the wellness center to give a presentation on “becoming fit.” The presentation was excellent and inspiring. It was especially motivational for me because the presenter emphasized “starting where you are.” If you want to walk or run on a treadmill, she said, and you can only manage two minutes, do the two minutes.

I had recently had a baby, and I wanted to start riding my bicycle to work—a five-mile journey that sloped gently uphill most of the way. So for a few days I rode my bike around our neighborhood, which was very flat. One morning I decided that I’d start for work on my bicycle, ride as far as I could manage, then lock the bike to a lamppost or something and take the bus the rest of the way. To my surprise, the five-mile trip was relatively easy and I locked my bike to the bike rack outside the Administration Building. My legs were spaghetti, but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, coupled with the knowledge that the trip home would be all downhill.

So just start. Begin with thirty seconds. Try to add a little time each day. Be patient. Don’t scold yourself if you miss a day, or a week. One of the purposes of meditation is to learn compassion for yourself and, by extension, for others.

The benefits of meditation

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, mystic, author — 1915-1968

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, mystic, author — 1915-1968

The potential benefits are almost too numerous to mention, and to some extent they depend on what form of meditation you adopt. But – again, we’re talking about very basic meditation here – a regular meditation practice can significantly reduce the negative effects of stress, including heart rate and blood pressure. It can be a vacation from emotional turmoil, and you can learn to extend that “vacation” into a way of life, making the attitudes you cultivate during meditation into a habitual way of being.

Meditation cultivates compassion, the ability to love, and acceptance: of yourself, of other people, of your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to change your circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over. But through meditation you can learn to be at peace wherever you are, even when you’d rather be somewhere else.

It might seem paradoxical, but through meditation you can become both (a) your best self, genuine, unique, distinctive, and (b) in harmony with your environment, however you define it: your family, your friends, your colleagues, your home, your neighborhood, trees, buildings, stars, the universe. You can, at the same time, know your limitations and continually test them.

There are “nonreligious” forms of meditation, but I believe that meditation is intrinsically spiritual. It requires a leap of faith to part with your ego, and that is exactly what meditation requires. Whether you’re practicing Christian meditation, Jewish meditation (Kabbalah, perhaps), Sufi meditation, Buddhist meditation, Transcendental Meditation, or the Meditation of Not Being in a Plummeting Aircraft, the movement is always out of Matter into Spirit. For me, in any case, meditation is communion with the Divine.

Assignment 28.1

Begin a meditation ritual and journal. Start with Jack Kornfield’s “Meditation for Beginners.” Try to meditate for at least fifteen minutes every day. Send your first week’s journal entries via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

You’ll also find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net.

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What Are You Waiting For?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 24

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 3: Advent

 

Don’t concentrate on the things you want. Concentrate on the feelings you want to experience.— Heard on Hay House Radio, December 2008

Advent (n.): arrival that has been awaited (especially of something momentous); “the advent of the computer”; the season including the four Sundays preceding Christmas
wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn, accessed December 17, 2008

A contemporary Advent wreath (photo by Andrea Schaufler)

A contemporary Advent wreath (photo by Andrea Schaufler)

For Christians, the season of Advent is a time of waiting — a less somber sort of waiting than the Lenten season, because the climax of Advent is a royal birth amid humble surroundings — heralded, nonetheless, by angels and celebrated by kings and shepherds alike.

Advent, like most Christian observances, has prechristian origins:

Ancient Germanic peoples gathered evergreen branches, wove them into wreaths, and decorated them with lighted fires as signs of hope during the cold of winter… [for the coming of spring]. Christians adopted this tradition. By the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany used these symbols as part of their Advent celebration. For them Christ was the symbol of hope, and was known as the everlasting Light, [before which the darkness of winter would vanish]. Therefore,… Advent, like… Christmas and Easter,… was a “Christianized pagan… [experience].” —http://clergyresources.net/Advent/origins_of_advent.htm, accessed December 17, 2008

Toward Contentment

Advent is, among other things, a metaphor for the human condition, which is one of chronic anticipation. Even if I am working on a task that interests and absorbs me, my work is motivated by the anticipation of finishing it. Yet completing the task brings only short-lived satisfaction; often there is more joy in the anticipation than in the completion, just as traveling can be much more fun than arriving. You are perhaps familiar with this quotation about Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE): “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer” (Plutarch’s [C.E. 46-126] Life of Alexander).

A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

Utter contentment is impossible for us mortals because it would mean resistance to change, and things are always changing. Only in deep meditation do we (temporarily) gather the loose threads of our lives and allow them to remain unwoven. In meditation there is no striving, there is only gentle acceptance. Jack Kornfield teaches that if, during your time of meditation, you are hungry, you can decide to embrace the hunger within your meditation or to stop meditating and get something to eat. Either is fine. You are not to judge yourself. Whatever meditation is about, it is NOT about beating yourself up — ever.

There are, of course, degrees of “chronic anticipation.” There is perennial discontent. There are fears (rational and irrational) and anxieties. There are sadnesses, which I classify as “full” and “empty.” When my mother died, I was “full” of sadness. It was a kind of wealth of feeling, enriched by the knowledge that if I hadn’t loved her so much I wouldn’t be feeling so bad, and also by a sense that, though I would always feel the loss, it wouldn’t always be so sharp and painful. But, in the year after her death, there was also depression — an emptiness of feeling, a refusal to accept the pain — and there was anxiety, because her death had been unexpected and so it seemed as if something horrible could happen at any time, and I feared to relax, to let down my guard against the possibility of disaster. This is, I’m told, normal.

‘Mom!’ no more

There was a different kind of emptiness when my youngest child left home in 1998. He had joined the army, so his leaving was sudden and dramatic, not the gradual kind of going-away-to-college leaving, which can be equally devastating but which at least allows a mother to cling to the illusion that her child still needs her.

Shingles, yuck

Shingles, yuck

I was so ill equipped to deal with the loss of my identity as “Mom!” that I became physically ill. After all, I had been “Mom!” for over thirty years. Being sick was, I think, my body’s way of reminding me that I was still alive. First I came down with the shingles (Herpes zoster) virus on my face and scalp. Shingles, as you probably know, is the inflammation of a nerve, and it can be excruciating. In my case, the weight of air was painful. Fortunately, my optic nerve was not involved; if it had been, I could have gone blind in the affected eye.

But the worst was yet to come. In the wake of shingles can follow any number of disorders, including postherpetic neuralgia and autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and so forth). Whatever the cause (no one is quite sure), my joints swelled and reddened and I was in constant pain for which the only sure remedy was prednisone, and you just can’t take handfuls of prednisone if you want to safeguard vital internal organs such as your liver.

My house

My house

By the end of 2002 I had lost my job, my fiancé, my house, my beautiful pickup truck, my savings, and my precious Labradors. I went limping to the refuge of my daughter’s home, more than a thousand miles from where I had lived for most of my adult life, and found solace among longtime friends and extended family and in the church where I now live as caretaker. I struggled for two years to succeed at an eight-to-five job in marketing, but it was beyond my physical strength.

The storm before the calm

My identity as “capable, reliable employee” had been second only to my identity as “Mom!” in propping up my ego, and now that, too, was gone. Other calamities, too sordid or too complicated to describe, came and went. At times I was literally penniless. And I couldn’t say, with any conviction, “Well, at least I have my health.”

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Plutarch served as one of the priests responsible for interpreting the predictions of the oracle. (Photo by Davis Monniaux)

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Plutarch served as one of the priests responsible for interpreting the predictions of the oracle. (Photo by David Monniaux)

And what I discovered, in circumstances that would have seemed unimaginably bleak only a few years earlier, was joy.

In 2000, when I first became unemployed, I began meditating and writing poems and songs — mostly gospel music and hymns — sometimes dozens in the space of a week. While the elements of life as I had known it slipped away, I turned to prayer, meditation, and poetry-writing, finding not only moments of peace but also objects of curiosity, and so I engaged in a serious study of those practices, gleefully aware that I would never run out of material. My goals, unlike Alexander’s, would never be fulfilled.

I had formally studied music, poetry, and religion in college, and had continued to indulge my interest in those subjects throughout my life. They had always been sources of pleasure; now they were resources for survival.

Bloom where you’re planted

Oregon Trail ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming (photo by Chris Light)

Oregon Trail ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming (photo by Chris Light)

So much of life is ballast — stuff that seems necessary for balance when you have it but that you are perfectly willing to throw overboard when your ship is going down. You have probably read about pianos and bedsteads found alongside the Santa Fe or the Oregon Trail, each discarded treasure giving the oxen one less thing to haul westward, and, as a bonus, giving the owners one less possession to dust.

The first thing to go is guilt. As observed in Lesson 13, “the only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab.”

Next is anxiety, which is a little harder to shed than guilt is because we know a lot more about the past than we do about the future.

‘I don’t mind what happens’

In the bestselling book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle distinguishes between the CONtent and the essence of the human spirit. He tells this story about

J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, [who] spoke and traveled almost continuously all over the world for more than fifty years attempting to convey through words — which are content — that which is beyond words, beyond content. At one of his talks in the later part of his life, he surprised his audience by asking, “Do you want to know my secret?” Everyone became very alert. Many people in the audience had been coming to listen to him for twenty or thirty years and still failed to grasp the essence of his teaching. Finally, after all these years, the master would give them the key to understanding. “This is my secret,” he said. “I don’t mind what happens.”

This kind of serenity is not emotional numbness. In fact, freedom from fear brings freedom to love fully; to be gently compassionate with yourself and with others; to experience the full range of human emotions, in fact, because you know that you are not your emotions and that they can’t destroy you, even the really messy ones. Through meditation the indestructible Self and the connectedness with all things are revealed.

My 2008 Christmas letter begins,

If I ever write a book about this period of my life (and I will), it will be titled Adventures in Poverty. It will extol the people who have encouraged and supported me since I quit my vile but well-paying job 2-1/2 years ago to start writing my own stuff instead of other people’s bloated ads and vapid news releases. It will be chock full of Household Hints (“Spray your shower walls with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and tea-tree oil and some other liquids, I forget what, then get out of the bathroom, fast”; “How to make laundry detergent out of soap slivers and other stuff you have lying around the house”; “How to make a hearty soup out of black beans, stale doughnuts, and other stuff you have lying around the house”)… and so forth. It will convince you that you don’t need a car, you just need friends who have cars. You will discover that Wal-Mart is the Antichrist, and how I know that, and much better ways to save $$$. You will learn how to sweet-talk “Ginger” at Qwest so that she won’t disconnect your phone. And you will understand how little you need, really, to be happy.

I still want a bathtub

I still want a bathtub

Not that I have become a willing ascetic. I still want things, in particular an antique bathtub, because when the church refurbished my bathroom after the Great Rat Exodus of 2005, the contractors installed a shower — a very fine shower, to be sure, but there are times when a girl just wants, you know, a bubble bath to ease the ache in her limbs and the tightness in her neck.

In meditation, and in writing poetry meditatively, however, I am waiting for nothing, not even a bathtub. In meditation, at least, “whatever is, is right” (Alexander Pope).

ME INPERTURBE

ME imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all, or mistress of all — aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
Imbued as they — passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than I thought;
Me private, or public, or menial, or solitary—all these subordinate, (I am eternally equal with the best — I am not subordinate;)
Me toward the Mexican Sea, or in the Mannahatta, or the Tennessee, or far north, or inland,
A river man, or a man of the woods, or of any farm-life in These States, or of the coast, or the lakes, or Kanada,
Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies!
O to confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.

Walt Whitman, 1819-1892

Walt Whitman in 1887

Walt Whitman in 1887

What was Walt Whitman waiting for? To be serene, “self-balanced,” in every circumstance. Aren’t we all? Wouldn’t that make everything else unnecessary? Wouldn’t the cup always be overflowing (or at least half-full instead of half-empty, or, as the late George Carlin used to say, twice as big as it needs to be)?

Whitman, by the way, wrote in free verse, “a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter, rhythm, or rhyme (Ex: end rhyme), but still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole.” —Wikipedia, referencing G. Burns Cooper, Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, Stanford University Press, 1998

Assignment 24.1

  1. Write a poem (30 lines maximum) in free verse (unrhyming, without strict meter, but still using other rhetorical devices common in poetry) about “what you are waiting for” — the one thing needed for contentment.
  2. Write another poem (30 lines maximum) about what it would feel like to finally possess the “one thing needed.”
  3. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.

 

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Where God Resides

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 21

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 2: Connecting with God

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

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The most ordinary of prospects caused her to stop and stare. The last of the leaves dropped from the trees, and the bare branches made lace against pale skies. Sun after rain turned cobbled streets blue as fish scales, dazzling to the eye. Autumn winds, whipping the bay to a scud of white-caps, brought with them, not cold, but a surging sense of vitality.  — Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers

Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

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Living poetically begins with a sense of connectedness — with God, with the soul-candles of other creatures, with the earth. The poetic life is not lived in isolation.

I have heard equally intelligent and thoughtful people say contradictory things about God — that there is nothing that is not God, or that God is very “Other.” It doesn’t seem to make much difference, though I used to fret about such things quite a lot. Now I simply try to keep it in mind to honor the sacred, wherever I encounter it, or it encounters me, as the case may be. Though I am absent-minded and daydreamy, I try to remember to notice things, to be alert for any messages the Universe is trying to send me.

The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

Rituals are important because they remind you to remember and to notice what you might otherwise take for granted, the way Mother’s Day prompts you to feel and to show gratitude to your mom. There is a calming, reassuring meditation on the site MyInnerWorld.com  that calls to your attention the ways in which you are not self-sufficient but that in which, rather, you and your needs are supported — by the earth, by the air that you need to breathe, by food and water when you are thirsty and hungry…. More on rituals in another lesson.

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Where the self leaves off and God begins is the subject of a great deal of poetry. Here are three such poems (the third poem appears in two translations):

 

ARE YOU LOOKING FOR ME

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals;
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

—Kabir, translated by American author and poet Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

Kabir was “a mystic poet and saint of India” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 21, 2008) whose life spanned the first half of the fifteenth century. Born into a Muslim family, Kabir became a student of Ramananda, a Hindu. But Kabir’s views defied sectarianism, and his appeal has remained universal.

According to Kabir, all life is an interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir’s view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles. — Wikipedia

Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

Of Kabir, Bly writes, “His metaphors act like a loose electric wire, or a two-by-four to the head. His contempt for those wishing to be saved by being good is endless…. In the shortest of his poems, he models the high-spiritedness that he thought is essential for the life we live on this earth.

“‘The buds are shouting:
”The Gardener is coming.
Today he picks the blossoms,
Tomorrow, us!’

“If we cannot recite that last line with joy, then we are probably too gloomy to take Kabir in. He wants us not to worry whether we live or die.”

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Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

The brain is wider than the sky,
  For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
  With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
  For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
  As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
  For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
  As syllable from sound.

— Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson — though not as solitary and reclusive as she has often been described — lived nearly all her life in her parents’ home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is deceptively simple, rigorously disciplined into conventional forms packed with paradox and insight. The poem above is in common meter, with the rhyming pattern ABCB arranged into alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

According to one analyst,

her subjects are often parts of the topography of her own psyche; she explores her own feelings with painstaking and often painful honesty but never loses sight of their universal poetic application; one of her greatest techniques is to write about the particulars of her own emotions in a kind of universal homiletic or adage-like tone (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”) that seems to describe the reader’s mind as well as it does the poet’s.  —Sparknotes.com, accessed November 21, 2008

The Wikipedia article on Dickinson observes that the poet considered her own mind to be “‘an undiscovered continent’…. Academic Suzanne Juhasz considers that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places and that for much of her life she lived within them.”

Both of these analyses are fine, as far as they go, though the words topography and continent suggest a surface exploration. In my view, Dickinson was not so superficial; she mined her own psyche for jewels that shine in all human consciousness. 

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BUDDHA INSIDE THE LIGHT

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

The core of every core, the kernel of every kernel
an almond! held in itself, deepening in sweetness:
all of this, everything, right up to the stars,
is the meat around your stone. Accept my bow.

Oh, yes, you feel it, how the weights on you are gone!
Your husk has reached into what has no end,
and that is where the great saps are brewing now.
On the outside a warmth is helping,

for, high, high above, your own suns are growing
immense and they glow as they wheel around.
Yet something has already started to live
in you that will live longer than the sun.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

BUDDHA IN GLORY

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

—Rainer Marie Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who wrote in both German and French. Among the great twentieth-century poets, he is unusual in that his work is both accessible and hopeful, often joyous.

In his introduction to the Rilke translations in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, Bly writes, “Rilke has for hundreds of readers been their first introduction to poetry that goes steeply and unapologetically up with the spirit…. Poetry doesn’t mean talking well, but being truly alive. Poetry is ‘a god breathing.’”

I have included the Mitchell translation because, unlike Bly, Mitchell tries to reproduce the original poem’s meter and rhyme as well as its meaning. Every poem is diluted somewhat in translation, of course, because meter, rhyme, rhetoric, and vocabulary are never independent of one another.

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Assignment 21.1 Where Is God?

  1. In each of these poems, the Divine is “placed” somewhere relative to the individual. Write a brief essay (a few hundred words) on the “location” of God as depicted in these works of Kabir, Dickinson, and Rilke.
  2. Write a twelve-line poem in common meter on the “location” of God relative to you. If you are uncomfortable with the name God, substitute Spirit or love or inspiration, or one of the other names of God.

Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

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To the Core

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 20

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 1: Cleaning the Oven

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

   

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Authentic art is not done for an audience. It is the Self communicating with the self (although, to be truly “finished,” art must be shared — not necessarily with the hoi polloi, but with somebody).

Does that mean that commissioned visual art, poetry, or music isn’t authentic? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel something less than genuine art?

I believe that most true artists, when they accept commissions, find a way to separate their art from — or to integrate it with — the expectations of their patrons. In some cases, commissioned works are rejected or, if accepted, despised. Usually, however, those who commission statues or symphonies are familiar with the artists’ previous work, and so they are not caught off guard when the sculptor they’ve engaged, who has produced dozens of mammoth sculptures that resemble the claws of vultures, gives them a clawlike monument for their money.

Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker
Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker

The Self communicating with the self

 

Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, talking with host Krista Tippett on National Public Radio’s weekly program Speaking of Faith (August 14, 2008), said,    

I was in the depth of depression and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, “I can’t live with myself any longer. I can’t live with myself any longer.” And that phrase went around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” And I thought, “Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct.”

Most of us suffer, at one time or another, from “imposter syndrome.” We are afraid to let too much of ourselves show. We have public selves who are smiling and agreeable, and we have private selves who kick puppies — or who are afraid we might. When people seem to like us, we think, “Oh, if they knew what I really am deep down….”

Poets can be a broody lot…

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

…who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table,
  resting briefly in catatonia,
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and
  fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns
  of the East,
Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the
  echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench
  dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to
  stone as heavy as the moon….
 Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” Part I

Hot springs 

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

If writing poetry helps you peel away the superficial layers of the self toward a deeper consciousness, you might find some darkness before you reach the inner light — just as, if you could drill a hole through the earth, you would (depending on where you started) encounter a lot of muck and mire and stubborn stone before you came to the fiery magma. Some people begin their digging where the crust is thick, and they encounter dirt and rock and more rock until they give up, concluding that cold, hard rock is all that’s there.

But we are going to be intelligent and commence where the crust is thin and the magma is nearer the surface — someplace where there are geysers or hot springs, for example. If our goal is to penetrate to the core, why not do so where there is evidence that the core is, indeed, warm and bright.

It will not do to carry this metaphor too far. Our planet’s very center is actually extremely hot solid iron. It is in the outer core and surrounding mantle where magma is found; and where magma comes close to the earth’s surface, it makes its presence known through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena. 

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

So let’s abandon our earth-crust metaphor and use a very different simile instead: Reaching the shining inner self is a bit like cleaning an oven. You can scrape and scrub and bang your head several times on the oven’s rim; or you can — more easily and perhaps more poetically — pour a half-cup or so of household ammonia into a bowl, leave the ammonia-filled bowl in the closed oven overnight, let the ammonia fumes loosen the grime, and in the morning sponge away the mess with comparative ease.  

(I don’t have to tell you not to mix the ammonia with other cleaners or chemicals, right?) 

However you go about it, if you really want your oven to be clean, you persist, because you know that the baked-on grease is not the oven. It is simply among the contents of the oven. Eckhart Tolle writes, in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,

You may not want to know yourself because you are afraid of what you may find out. Many people have a secret fear that they are bad. But nothing you can find out about yourself is you.

Nothing you can know about you is you.

Most people define themselves through the content of their lives…. When you think or say, “my life,” you are not referring to the life that you are but the life that you have, or seem to have. You are referring to content — your age, health, relationships, finances, work and living situation, as well as your mental-emotional state. The inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future, all belong to the realm of content — as do events, that is to say, anything that happens.

What is there other than content? That which enables the content to be — the inner space of consciousness.

Whenever I write a poem that arises from a dark place, I begin where my emotions are closest to the surface and I persist until the light appears. Here are three examples from my book Unfamiliar Territory:

THE OTHER SIDE

"The Other Side"Over on the other side, there is a quiet
cottage on a grassy slope, where trees
protect and decorate and cast their pleasing
shadows on the water; and where children,
hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing
in the breeze. Inside, bread rises in the
oven, herbs depend from oaken beams, and
last night’s chicken in its steaming broth becomes
this evening’s stew, tomorrow’s casserole. An
old man and a young man and a boy are sharing
rituals and mending fences, while a woman,
unaccountably serene, sips coffee, shuts her
eyes, and says a prayer of thanks for all that
providence provides.

But on this side are broken shutters, dusty
shelves, unanswered letters, leaves in piles, and
moldy flower beds; and seams half-sewn on
half-done dresses; half-forgotten words in
half-read books; and pressing obligations
half-remembered, half despaired of. Morning
struggles through the cloudy panes of windows —
gray and half-neglected or, perhaps, defied. A
pallid beam succeeds at last and penetrates the
barrier. It comes to rest upon the drooping
pothos, which persists in barely living, never
mind the diffidence its garden is.

The ray of sullen light turns motes of dust to
fireflies. At first they float at random; then they
glide; then, whimsical, they dance as if to
challenge gravity or chance; as if they
will their time aloft, to have an audience, to
shine like stars.
 

They catch the sun and flicker. They have won a
moment’s glory. Soon it ends, but they have shone.
 

On the other side are peace and order; on this
side is eagerness to cross the wide,
intimidating border, to be purposeful and
more, to yet achieve, to meet and to exceed an
expectation, even one—to finish what’s begun;
half-perfection wishing to be whole, to be
forgiven for attaining less than paradise. But for
all that, this side is painted with the brush that,
dipped in heaven’s glory, must in time adorn
the swale with yellow clover and, today, in dust
makes manifest the morning stars.
 

THE SUMMER OF GOING BAREFOOT  

"The Summer of Going Barefoot"When I was very small,
and I was very small indeed, and light on tiny
feet, I found some great, thick, heavy leather
boots, with soles like Frisbees, and I put them
on. I often had to carry heavy things, you
see, or so they seemed to me. I didn’t like to
feel that I was sinking down into the ground,
or wet sand at the waterside, or sliding on the
ice or falling through the snow.
  

A summer breeze would blow and tousle
leaves on maple trees, then make its way to
me, not stopping to say “By your leave,” but arcing
almost imperceptibly to lift and sweep away the
heavy things. Then I’d sit down, right where I was,
unlace the heavy boots, take off my socks, and
chase the wind. The load was my responsibility, you
see, or so it seemed to me. But who can catch the
wind? Not I. There was no cause for worry, I soon
realized, and I stopped hurrying and felt how
free I was and loved the feeling of the sand, like gentle
hands massaging me. I lay down in a grassy place and
felt the ground resist and then embrace me, or, maybe,
the other way around.

I could have stayed for hours and
watched as clouds like giant puffballs skidded through
the sky and seabirds rose and watched, then dove into
the ocean. Slowly, steadily, the gentle sun caressed
me on its progress to the far side of the earth. I might
have slept awhile, for all too soon the sun was
low, the grass was cold.

The years flew by. I hadn’t worn my boots or even
thought about them till the day I felt the weight again. It
only ached a bit at first, but It grew heavy with alarming
speed. I needed boots without delay, so I gave everything
I had away to buy a pair and slip them on. The load became
so big I couldn’t see where it began or ended. Winters chilled
my bones without relief, and summer heat bore down, and I
was sure it was the earth itself that I was carrying. My soles
were almost bare by now, and I had lost myself.
 

One summer day a little bright-eyed bird was perched upon
the sand, and she, and she alone, seemed sympathetic, so
together we trudged on a bit, until I almost tripped upon a
man; he sat so still, and he was so serene, it seemed to me
that he might give me some advice, so tired was I and so
dispirited. He smiled and stretched his hands to me; I
thought that he would take the weight away, but he just tipped
it till it fell and rolled into the bay and out to sea and disappeared.

“Now give your boots to me,” he said, but they’d become a part of
me—so I believed. “Just try,” he said, and I untied them easily and
peeled them off my feet. “Now fly,” he said. My little bird and I ran
barefoot down the beach, and laughed to feel the sand and
see the daylight once again. We turned and waved to
him, and then we flew away.
 

ANNA SIGHS   

All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and
restive, Night still heaves against the pane and
probes the porous mortar, thus to gain a
continent, and breathe again, but holding breath
within, as if release would leave it spent of form and
substance, vanished in a photon storm.
 

No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry
sea assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
shore—except that Night can but devour and look for
more, can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to
moderate its gluttony, nor would it,
if it could.

Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it
inwardly, and moans, the speech of wan resistance,
drained of will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring,
“I am.” Something in her knows the enemy and would
arrest it, summoning a name, essaying ownership.
It rises out of bounds before the net is thrown.
 

Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.
 

One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not even
Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at midnight one
unreasoning expends what has been grown and gathered
season after season, sacrifices every treasure, throws
into the flame a hundred fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s
clarity. At midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now thickened by the
certainty that Anna will comply and abdicate her shape, to be a
pool, a fog, and then evaporate.
 

Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her face and nobody
will notice that the Anna space, once occupied by negligible
molecules, is vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
surprise; we had forgotten that the planet turns. At sunrise,
the tenacious lamp still burns, and
Anna sighs.

 

In “The Other Side,” I began in frustration, approaching despair, over the orderliness of my sister’s and my daughter’s lives compared to my own chaotic existence. In “The Summer of Going Barefoot,” I work through a spell of depression by recalling the liberation from my first, and most debilitating, depression episode. When I wrote “Anna Sighs,” I was struggling with a demanding, draining, and unsatisfying employment experience, one in which I felt irrelevant and invisible.

When I began writing these poems, I didn’t know how they would end, except in light. I wasn’t sure how the light would appear — only that I was reaching toward it.

Assignment 20.1

Write a poem about one source of emotional turmoil in your life. Your poem should

  • work toward enlightment about, not necessarily resolution of, the tumultuous situation, your feelings about it, and your responsibility for it

  • identify the emotion or the situation metaphorically (For example, if you are stressed beyond endurance by an incorrigible son or daughter, you might be “a blade of grass in the jaws of a wildebeest.”)

  • contain a first-person perspective (that is, there must be an “I” narrator)

  • have a regular, rhythmic meter

  • consist of thirty lines or fewer

  • contain rhyme, though the rhyming need not be at the ends of the lines

Please e-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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