Tag Archives: Eckhart Tolle

On Second Thought…

A Renaissance Map of the New World, by Guillaume Le Testu, 1555

A Renaissance Map of the New World, by Guillaume Le Testu, 1555

Everything Old Is New-ish Again

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle and two million of their dearest friends met once a week for ten weeks, online, for the study of Tolle’s 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. The live interactive seminar was reportedly the first of its kind, with viewers hailing from at least six continents. The seventh, Antarctica, basically four million–plus square miles of mile-thick ice, houses numerous clumps of scientists year-round as well as penguins, seals, tardigrades, and other critters large and small. With at least a thousand humans on the continent at any given time, it seems logical to assume that a few of them, anyway, logged on to the Winfrey-Tolle program each week.

Tardigrades, also called "water bears," are small (growing to only 1.5 mm) but tough. They're known to survive extremes of cold and heat ranging from -450F to 300F. Doesn't this guy remind you of an Ewok who's maybe been gagged to keep him from spilling the beans? (Wired.com; click the photo for a fascinating feature on tardigrades in space)

In what had to be the planet’s largest-ever classroom, Tolle and Winfrey fielded comments and answered questions via Skype, E-mail, and telephone. The ten 90-minute sessions are available free on iTunes in large-screen, standard-screen, and audio-only formats.

A New Earth, Oprah CD version

A New Earth, Oprah CD version

Here’s the thing: A New Earth, stripped of its packaging, isn’t all that new. Guessing here, I’d say its message is three thousand to four thousand years old. Tolle certainly deserves credit for reviving this ancient wisdom, compiling it, and presenting it in a way that appeals to millions and keeps them off the street, at least for the length of time it takes to read 336 pages of rather dense prose. If he seems to suggest that A New Earthmight literally save the human race… well, who’s to say?

New Testament, New Thought, New Age, Old Story

In a similar (but not matching) genre, another publishing phenomenon, A Course in Miracles, appeared in 1976 but didn’t gain widespread attention until 1992 with the publication of A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, by Marianne Williamson. Tolle owes much to ACIM and Williamson and to dozens of other authors, including Wayne Dyer (whom I cautiously admire) and Deepak Chopra (who contributes a rich and ancient Hindumystical perspective), writing in the same vein but offering original approaches and ideas as well.

Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love

Williamson's book gave ACIM its legs

A small book with big letters and lots of white space, Energy Ecstasy and Your Seven Vital Chakras appeared in 1978. Anticipating Tolle by decades, the author of Energy Ecstasy, Bernard Gunther, also wrote Sense Relaxation: Below Your Mind (1969), hailed as the first book of the human potential movement.

The astonishing Louise Hay wrote You Can Heal Your Life in 1984, a full thirteen years before Eckhart Tolle’s first book came out. As Hay was entering her seventh decade, she founded Hay House, whose authors today constitute a virtual Who’s Who of self-help and New Thought luminaries, not to mention the most credible psychics and intuitives on the planet.

I strongly recommend that you tune in to Hay House Radio every Wednesday at noon for Trust Your Vibes with Sonia Choquette (that’s SO-nya, with a long O). Then subscribe to her YouTube channel and breathe in a little of the imcomparable Choquette energy, wisdom, and joy. Imbibe a bit of her spirit. You’ll be the better for it. (Here’s a sample. Much more about Hay House Radio below.)

Christian Science Lite

My daughter refers to the more recent crop of New Age spiritual guides as “Christian Science Lite.” The authors’ debt to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and her remarkable explication of Christian Science, Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures (1875), is hard to ignore. Mrs. Eddy’s writings in turn reflect New England Transcendentalism, particularly the work of Emerson, perpetuating a metaphysical tradition articulated by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, the Buddha, and the authors of the Torah and the Christian Bible.

Christian Science would have gained wider acceptance, I think, had it not been for the population’s reluctance to forgo medical treatment in favor of a strictly spiritual approach to healing, although my Christian Scientist friends tell me that they are by no means forbidden to seek medical attention. In any case, the New Thought movement emerged in the late nineteenth century making rather less noise about doctors and healing; today’s Unity Church is part of the New Thought legacy.

I have not included the much-loved classic The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, as part of this tradition because Peale emphasizes faith, hope, resilience, and the miraculous intervention of a loving and very personal God, whereas authors and philosophers from Mrs. Eddy to Eckhart Tolle employ, to varying degrees, the vocabulary of science and math, using syllogistic reasoning. (Marianne Williamson is an anomaly; she combines old and new spiritual practices in a way that is graceful and lovely to behold. I’m a big MW fan.) I have found Dr. Peale’s work comforting at times, but it doesn’t deal much with the darker emotions. For that, God, in Its wisdom, gave us Carl Jung and beautiful Debbie Ford, another Hay House author. That said, Peale’s work brought hope to millions and his legacy is huge; it includes the phenomenal Guideposts organization and its many publications and ministries.

If you haven’t yet (I take that back — even if you have) found a guru who speaks your language (you might read something out of Chopra that resonates with you in a way Tolle’s writing does not), try Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings (2005), by Rob Brezsny. I have at least $10 worth of little sticky notes marking the pages of my copy of this book. In fact, there are probably more marked than unmarked pages, which kind of defeats the purpose, but, oh, well…. What does it say about the author that the seeds for Pronoia (more than a book; it’s a movement) were sown at Burning Man and that one of the more conventional synonyms he uses for God is the Divine Wow?  I’m just grateful that he’s on our side and that we are on everyone’s side.

You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay

Christian Science ’round the clock

The numerous Christian Scientists of my acquaintance are blessed with great generosity of spirit. Even so, they tend to bristle, I’ve observed (and they have every reason to do so), when hearing Mrs. Eddy’s complex yet practical message reduced to mere “faith healing” or “positive thinking.” Visit the incredibly generous Christian Science website and sample the wealth of this woefully misunderstood body of wisdom.

People with sonorous voices and perfect pronunciation read from Science and Health 24/7 on streaming audio. If, when encountering the word unerring, the readers were to say un-AIR-ing rather than the preferred un-URR-ing, I wouldn’t be able to listen — the word comes up rather a lot. As it is, I believe I’m healthier for falling asleep to passages from Science and Health being read so expertly, and so is my computer. No joke. According to Christian Science (with apologies to realChristian Scientists where I might be getting it wrong),

  • God (“Divine Mind”), being perfect, creates only perfection
  • Human beings, as God’s divine ideas, are not susceptible to sickness, sin, or death
  • All reality reflects God’s attributes: It is loving, spiritual, eternal, intelligent, joyful, harmonious, and so forth
  • Matter is nothing but a manifestation of thought; it is insubstantial and illusory
  • It is “mortal mind” (“error”) that produces the appearance of anything other than well-being
  • Negative emotions proceed from the false beliefs of separation from God and the reality of  matter
  • Jesus had a perfect understanding of the divine nature, thus manifesting the “Christ principle”
  • You and I, attaining that level of understanding, would also manifest the Christ principle
  • Thus, poverty, cancer, and war are manifestations of the “lies” of lack, illness, and disharmony
Cover, The Secret Garden, 1911 edition

Cover, The Secret Garden, 1911 edition

Compare these tenets to the “mind-body” metaphysics of modern adherents; I think you’ll find more similarities than differences.

Recommended Reading Off the Beaten Path

Hay House Radio

Peggy Rometo

Peggy Rometo

You could think of it as thousands of dollars’ worth of therapy. Or you could get real confused. For the most part, the authors who host Hay House Radio programs sing in harmony. Then there’s the occasional discordant note. Louise Hay is the undisputed Empress of the Affirmation, but at least one host is openly skeptical of the benefits of chanting “Life Loves Me” day in and day out. There are authors who warn you away from sugar and caffeine, while others are unabashed chocolate-lovers. Some tiptoe around the word God and shun prayers of petition and intercession. Others offer spontaneous on-air prayers for callers particularly in need of miracles. Caroline Myss (pronounced CARE-oh-linn MACE) is in a category of her own. She’s probably best known for her work with archetypes, though she freely offers her opinion on everything from neighborhood gossip to the state of the planet (dire). She is controversial and at times abrasive. On her Hay House Radio program, callers love and fear her. She can be sharp-tongued one minute, gentle and comforting the next. I could be wrong, but I don’t see Caroline Myss doing a lot of mirror work, à la Louise Hay.

Peggy Rometo, on the other hand, is invariably charming but never saccharine. Her psychic skills are impressive without flash or fuss (like I’d know). She’s always well prepared with remarkably practical suggestions for listeners who want to sharpen their own intuition. With call-in visitors she is patient, perceptive, and respectful — and a better woman than I. After the fourth or fifth caller in a row complains that, despite having made superhuman efforts to move forward in the job or project or relationship at issue, he or (usually) she is “stuck” or is “being blocked,” I’m throwing paperback books at my computer monitor and yelling, “You’ve gotten to the swamp and you’re afraid of the snakes. Quit whining and soldier on. Twit!” And I’m way off the mark because I’m describing my own trepidation, but Peggy has been listening, and she gives thoughtful advice tailored to the caller, not a rehash of suggestions offered to Milksop #2 or #3. Listen to her program, Intuitive Insights, on Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. (PDT); and buy her book, The Little Book of Big Promises (2010), for a treasure chest of useful knowledge, guided meditations, and lively prose.

Hay House Radio offers the highest production values and the easiest accessibility I’ve found on the Internet, and I’m including the BBC and NPR in my comparison.  Here’s a partial list of hosts; the authors whose names appear in bold face have weekly call-in programs: Michael Bernard Beckwith Gabrielle Bernstein Joan Z. Borysenko, Ph.D. Gregg Braden Sonia Choquette, Ph.D. Alan Cohen Dr. Wayne W Dyer Debbie Ford Carmen Harra Esther and Jerry Hicks John Holland Barbara Marx Hubbard Mark Husson Deborah King Loral Langemeier Denise Linn Caroline Myss Michael Neill Dr. Christiane Northrup Robert Holden, Ph.D. Michelle Phillips Diane Ray Cheryl Richardson Peggy Rometo Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., Ph.D. Eldon Taylor Sandra Anne Taylor Iyanla Vanzant Doreen Virtue Dr. Darren R. Weissman Marianne Williamson davidji

Thinking Makes It So

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…. Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)

Everything old is New Age again

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle and two million of their closest friends met once a week for ten weeks, online, for the purpose of studying Tolle’s 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. The live interactive seminar was reportedly the first of its kind, with all seven continents represented.

In what had to be the planet’s largest-ever classroom, Tolle and Winfrey fielded comments and answered questions via Skype, E-mail, and telephone. The ten 90-minute sessions are available free on iTunes in large-screen, standard-screen, and audio-only formats.

Here’s the thing: A New Earth, stripped of its packaging, isn’t all that new. The message is three thousand to four thousand years old. Tolle certainly deserves credit for reviving this ancient wisdom, compiling it, and presenting it in a way that appeals to millions and keeps them off the street, at least for the length of time it takes to read 336 pages of rather dense prose. If he seems to suggest that A New Earth might literally save the human race… well, who’s to say?

New Testament, New Thought, New Age, Old Story

Another spiritual-genre phenomenon, A Course in Miracles, appeared in 1976 but didn’t gain widespread attention until 1992 with the publication of A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Tolle owes much to ACIM and Williamson and to dozens of other authors, including Wayne Dyer (whom I greatly admire) and Deepak Chopra (who contributes the rich and ancient Hindu mystical perspective), writing in the same vein but offering original approaches and ideas as well.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, 2004, photo by Alan Light

My daughter refers to all this as “Christian Science Lite.” The authors’ debt to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and her remarkable explication of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
(1875), is undeniable. Mrs. Eddy’s writings in turn reflect New England Transcendentalism, particularly the work of Emerson. They’re part of a metaphysical tradition articulated by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, the Buddha, the authors of the Torah and the Christian Bible, and many others..

Christian Science would have gained wider acceptance, I think, had it not been for the emphasis on forgoing medical treatment in favor of a strictly spiritual approach, although my Christian Scientist friends tell me that they are by no means forbidden to seek medical attention. In any case, the New Thought movement emerged in the late nineteenth century making rather less noise about doctors and healing; today’s Unity Church is part of the New Thought legacy. I have not included the much-loved Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, as part of this tradition because Peale emphasizes faith, hope, resilience, and the miraculous intervention of a loving and very personal God, whereas authors and philosophers from Mrs. Eddy to Eckhart Tolle use, to varying degrees, the vocabulary of science and math. One exception, however, is Marianne Williamson, who combines old and new spiritual practices in a way that is graceful and beautiful to see.

(Christian Scientists are blessed with great generosity of spirit. Even so, they tend to bristle, I’ve observed, when hearing Mrs. Eddy’s complex yet practical message described as faith healing or positive thinking.)

According to Christian Science, as I understand it

  • God (“Divine Mind”), being perfect, creates only perfection
  • Human beings, as God’s divine ideas, are not susceptible to sickness, sin, or death
  • All reality reflects God’s attributes: It is loving, spiritual, eternal, intelligent, joyful, harmonious, and so forth
  • Matter is nothing but a manifestation of thought; it is insubstantial and illusory
  • It is “mortal mind” (“error”) that produces the appearance of anything other than well-being
  • Negative emotions proceed from the false beliefs that people can be separated from God and that matter is real
  • Jesus had a perfect understanding of the divine nature, thus manifesting the “Christ principle”
  • You and I, attaining that level of understanding, would also manifest the Christ principle

Thus, poverty is the manifestation of an erroneous belief in “lack.” War and family strife are examples of the “lie” of inharmony.

Compare these tenets to the “mind-body” metaphysics of modern adherents; I think you’ll find more similarities than differences. More important, though, is that you choose the guru who speaks your language. You might read something out of Chopra that resonates with you in a way Tolle’s writing does not.

Rumi

 
 

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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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

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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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Sprinkling Happiness Dust

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 14

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 5: Beyond Self-Knowledge

Red Lady

Red Lady

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

We’ve established—or at least I have and you’ve followed along—that it’s possible for me to see parts of myself, integrate these with direct and indirect feedback from people I respect, and come up with a rough idea of “who I am” at any given moment, which is my “self-concept.” (It’s important to remember, as Eckhart Tolle points out, that one’s self-concept is largely content, not essence.)

My self-concept might be positive (I’m a beautiful spirit sprinkling happiness dust everywhere I go), negative (I’m a slimy warthog), or somewhere in between.

Liking myself is not precisely happiness, but it’s close. Again, despite the fact that my knowledge of myself is limited, despite the fact that I can’t simultaneously “see” myself and “be seen by” myself  — as much as possible, I need to live in harmony with myself.

How I Learned to Live in Harmony with My Nose

When the angels were putting me together on the Great Heavenly Assembly Line, somebody got some of the parts mixed up and I got the wrong nose. I have a very small face and a largish nose. Not only was it unsightly, it made kissing awkward and inconvenient. For a long time I didn’t like myself, nosewise.

It is not conducive to happiness to be filled with loathing and disgust every time you look in the mirror. My choices, as I saw them, were to (a) stop noticing my nose, (b) have my nose made surgically smaller or the rest of my face made larger, or (c) do things with makeup and face putty and other artificial means to achieve better balance among my facial features.

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

A Child's Nose (Not Mine)

My sister solved the problem by commenting one day that our noses (hers and mine are similar) are Scottish. Having a Scottish nose appealed to me. It was part of my distinguished heritage.

I dealt with the kissing dilemma by developing a deft nasal-dodge technique and by choosing, as kissing partners, men whose noses are as prominent as mine.

♥ 

Summing up: I want to be happy. I am happiest when I am experiencing harmony within myself and in my environment – inside and outside, in other words. The choices I make have a lot to with the harmony I experience. To make wise choices, I need to know myself as well as possible.

The Unselfish Automobile and the Good Christian

When I was a child in Presbyterian Sunday school, I was taught that being a good Christian means being unselfish. Somehow I interpreted this to mean that my wants and needs were unimportant… that I had been put on earth exclusively to Serve Others.

This was a troubling concept, but it didn’t cause much of a problem until I was out of my teens. During one’s adolescence, it’s almost impossible not to be self-centered and self-aware. I think it’s a hormonal thing.

By the time I was twenty, I was married with an infant. Total self-abnegation is a poor basis for marriage and motherhood. I was a slave to my husband and my baby. I was unhappy – but wasn’t that okay, since God wanted me to Serve Others and to be Unselfish?

At that time I owned a 1960 Mercury Comet. Like me, my Mercury had been created to serve. It was unselfish. But in order to serve, its basic needs had to be met. It needed fuel. It had a hydraulic clutch (or something) that needed to be filled from time to time. It needed regular oil changes. It required maintenance and occasional repairs.

Eventually I learned that I too required maintenance and occasional repairs. Without receiving, I became unable to give.

Over the years, I have learned that giving and receiving are inseparable. Think of a lake that has an outlet – a stream flowing out of it – but no source of fresh water. Soon the lake will dry up. It will no longer be able to sustain fish or waterfowl. It will have no beauty to be enjoyed. It will be unable to cool and entertain swimmers on hot summer days.

When I discovered that I, like the Mercury Comet and the lake, had needs that could not be ignored, I learned a great deal about myself and about how the world works. Knowing myself better, I took better care of myself. I made wiser choices. I was happier, and so were the people around me.

I now believe that people – women and men alike – should always treat themselves as if they are pregnant. Caring for oneself beautifully and wisely during pregnancy is, as it happens, the best way to care for one’s developing fetus. And I believe that there is a sense in which we are all, always, “pregnant” with our future selves. We carry inside us the seeds of what we will become.

You are who you pretend to be

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. —Mohandas Gandhi

Through self-knowledge we can achieve temporary equilibrium. Sometimes equilibrium is enough. Constant challenges become struggles. We need rest between stretches. This is why God created day and night, summer and winter, cycles of all kinds.

Ultimately, however, as living things we must grow or die. And we have some—though not absolute—freedom to choose what direction our growth will take.

The antihero of Mother Night, one of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s lesser-known novels, is Howard W. Campbell, an American expatriate living in Germany before World War II. An ultra-deep-cover American agent recruits Campbell to spy for the Allies and, posing as a Nazi propagandist, to encode his discoveries in his radio broadcasts. When Campbell agrees, he is warned never to contact the agent.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Campbell, it develops, is a very good spy and transmits a great deal of valuable information to the Allies. He is also a very good propagandist.

After the war, Campbell returns to the U.S. with a new identity but a lingering angst. Many years pass before he is “outed” and prosecuted as the notorious traitor and brilliant Nazi propagandist. Desperate, Campbell seeks out the agent who recruited him—the man who alone can vindicate him.

The agent agrees to corroborate Campbell’s story—that he was acting as a patriot, transmitting Nazi secrets for the benefit of the Allies. Campbell is off the hook, but as they part for the last time, the recruiter makes this cryptic comment: “You are who you pretend to be.”

About six months ago I began to notice that my two-year-old granddaughter repeated everything I said, posing it as a question, trying the words and the phrasing of them on for size. We were at her bedroom window, and I was holding her up so she could see her mom outside, helping load a pile of dirt into a pickup truck.

Ava: What’s Mommy doing?

Me: She’s helping those people load that dirt into their truck.

Ava: Helping dose people load dat dirt into dehr truck?

Me: Yes. It’s nice, clean dirt, good for gardens.

Ava: Nice, clean dirt, good for gardens?

I also noticed that Ava would dog her dad’s footsteps, trying to imitate his stride. And I saw her smile with one side of her mouth, the way her mother does sometimes.

I wrote the following poem for my sons as a Christmas present, framing it along with photos of their two-year-olds (one, Ava, obviously is a girl; the other, Ryder, is a boy; I changed the gender as appropriate in the versions of the poem I used for each son):

He Will Be Like You

Ryder and Dad Eli

Ryder and Dad Eli

He watches every move you make—how else
to learn but imitate?—the way you speak and
move through life, your head held high to find
your polestar in the sky and take no notice
of the grime beneath your feet. Thus will he learn
serenity and find his place above the petty and the
mean. Then from you will he learn to soar, and
know that there is more than senses can perceive,
and all is as it needs to be this moment in the
universe. He watches you embrace adversity and
knows that life is hard, but necessarily, to
grow, to shine, to gain the victory. So you pursue
your course on higher ground, and not for him
alone, but to regain your innocence; spurn guilt,
have no regret; for Jesus said: We learn and then
move on, for God accepts the consequences in
our stead—repentance, then forgiveness, then the
grace that takes away the blemish. That is, after
all, the Gospel, and its promise is: All things are
possible; all souls have
wings. 

 

To a great extent, children become who they are by imitating, which is a form of pretending. Adults do too, though not usually as dramatically. My friend Janet moved from Texas to Nebraska many years ago. Her once-thick Texas accent is faint now, except when she’s tired or excited. Another friend, Carol, is a New Hampshire native who has lived most of her adult life in Arizona, yet she sounds as if she has just arrived from New England.

I confess that, in difficult situations, I often pretend to be someone whom I admire and who I know would handle the problem skillfully. When tact and maturity are called for, I am Jessica Fletcher of the television series Murder, She Wrote. When insouciance and utter self-confidence are necessary, I am Miss Piggy. When a situation requires merciless and quick decisiveness (rather than my innate tendency to examine a problem from every possible aspect), I am Doctor Laura.

Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy

This isn’t hypocrisy, nor is it sham. Whatever it is in me that admires Miss Piggy is like her. I can practice being insouciant and sassy just as I can practice sitting up straight instead of slouching.

“Knowing our limitations” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep testing them if there is an advantage to doing so—especially when what were once our strengths no longer work for us. When I was young and cute and smart and a bit brash, I had instant credibility on the job. It came as a huge shock when, in my bejowled mid-fifties — and smarter than ever — I took a new job and found that I had to prove myself from scratch.

This is why we have to keep learning, growing, and adapting—doing what we do well to remain confident, but also stretching, “reinventing” ourselves if need be, to adjust to changes in ourselves and our environments.

Assignment 14.1: An exercise in allegory—You in a box

Imagine that you have always lived alone in a box that has no windows or doors. The box is flimsy — you could easily kick a hole in any wall — but breaking out of your box would never occur to you. As far as you know, the inside of the box is all there is.

Everyone on your planet lives in a box pretty much like yours. There are light and air in these boxes, but each of you can see, smell, touch, and taste only the objects inside your box. The only stimulus that reaches you from outside is noise. You can hear the voices of your neighbors, though of course they have little meaning for you.

So that’s the scenario. How does it feel? Fun? Boring? Restful? Safe? Scary?

Pretty dismal, I’d imagine, for those of us who don’t live exclusively in boxes (as far as we know) — but perfectly natural to the hypothetical you, the You in the Box, because it’s all you’ve ever known. You have a comfortable bed, plenty to eat, and room to move around.(1) You have several ways to occupy your time: suddoku, maybe, or houseplant gardening, crocheting, shooting baskets….

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

Your Box and Your Neighbor's

The contents of every box are similar but not identical.(2) For one thing, all the stuff in your neighbor’s box, including your neighbor, is mauve, whereas you and your possessions are sky blue. But the color of your neighbor’s environment is irrelevant: You don’t even know you have a neighbor, nor could you understand the concept of color. In your world, there’s no such thing as “not–sky blue” or “not–color.”(3) There is no context for your perception of color.

Quickie exercise: Try defining or describing something without giving it context; that is, without comparing or contrasting it to something else. (Hint: Can’t be done. The unknown can be imagined only as it relates to the known.)

What Is a ‘Julia Roberts’?

Chris and Adam

Chris and Adam

My niece’s wonderful husband, Adam, is tall. He has many other fine attributes, but tallness might be the one you’d notice first, especially if my wonderful niece Chris were beside him; there’s a difference of eighteen inches, give or take, in their height.

Now, when I say “Adam is tall,” there is no need for me to add “…compared to other people but not compared to cypress trees.” The context of Adam’s tallness (people, as opposed to giraffes) is understood.

But if Adam were several stories tall, imagine the employment possibilities! More to the point—the words “Adam is tall” would be inadequate for even the most basic physical description. To give you an idea of Adam’s appearance, I would have to provide context. Even saying “Adam is the tallest man in the world” wouldn’t suffice. You’d be thinking, maybe, nine feet, tops. I’d have to say, for example, “Adam is taller than twelve average-size men standing on each other’s shoulders” for you to even begin to get the picture.

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

My daughter, Marian (left); Julia Roberts (right)

Likewise, if I tell you that my daughter looks like Julia Roberts, and you have no idea what Julia Roberts looks like, then I have to find another way to describe her appearance, comparing her to people or things you’re familiar with.

 

 

 

You’re drinking lemonade and I’m thirsty, but I’m leery of lemonade, never having tasted it. “You’ll like it,” you say. “It’s sweet.” But “sweet,” in my limited experience, describes my Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, of which you, more’s the pity, have never known the bliss. I happen to have a piece of that fudge and I’m willing to share it with you. You say, “Ugh! It looks like mud.” I reply, “Well, your lemonade looks like pee.”

For you to know the joy of Aunt Persis’s homemade fudge, and for me to quench my thirst, we have to find ways to describe “lemonade” and “fudge” in terms we both understand. Most likely, we’ll use similes:(4) Lemonade is tart, like a persimmon. Fudge is chewy, like the meat of a ripe walnut.

The point here is that nothing is inherently manifest to the rational mind. In the realm of logic, nothing reveals itself or discloses its identity absolutely: not people, not inanimate objects, not concepts such as sweetness. We can conceive of them only in terms of their similarities to other things—in effect, as metaphors.(5)

None of us has an absolute identity that exists in a vacuum. It might be said that in all of existence God is the only nonmetaphor. Only God is simply “I am.”

You in a box (continued): Let your imagination run wild

Having spent your entire life inside this sky-blue box, your perceptions of yourself and the universe are likely to be very different from those of a person who has lived as you and I have lived — walking into and out of each other’s houses, freely conversing face to face, being aware of a great variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and phenomena. Take a minute to think about how the You of the Sky-Blue Box might be different from the “actual” you. For example,

  • If you hear voices from the mauve box next door, you might not perceive of those voices as coming from “somewhere else.” You would have no concept of “outside the box.” The box would be your entire universe.
  • You probably wouldn’t perceive the voices as coming from other beings like you. You might take the voices for granted and not wonder about them at all.
  • You might not even perceive a difference between your “self” — your identity, as distinct from your physical body — and the objects in your box.
  • As communication with other people in other boxes evolves and you develop a language, agreeing upon words for things like “bed” and “kneecap,” you discover that the voices are relating experiences different from yours. For the first time, perhaps, you have a sense of yourself as one among others.
  • Or perhaps, given what we know or suspect about collective consciousness, might you not somehow be aware of the nearness of others like yourself?

Exercise: You of the Sky-Blue Box (choose one of the following)

  • Write a scenario, similar to those in the bullet points above, that might describe how the You of the Sky-Blue Box would be different from the “actual” you.
  • Describe what it might it be like if you woke up one day and your refrigerator were yellow instead of sky blue.
  • Describe how your reaction to the change in color might be different if it were gradual rather than sudden.
  • Describe how you might feel…
    if an opening to the outside appeared one morning, and there were nothing outside but light — not unlike the light in your box — but you were able to walk around your box and see it from the outside
    and
    if the next day other windowless, doorless boxes appeared
    and
    if the day after that you saw that trees and flowers had grown among the boxes. (Do you think they would look beautiful to you? Or would they frighten you? Having led such a sheltered existence, would you want to explore them, or perhaps try to hide from them instead?)

  • Think of other possible changes in your Sky-Blue Box universe and imagine different ways in which you might react to them.
    Describe one such variation.
    How would your answer to the question “Who am I?” change?
    How would your perception of the universe change?
    What would you do differently in response to your new perceptions of yourself and the universe?

Assignment 14.2: Defining figures of speech

Define, in your own words, allegory, metaphor, and simile. Draw your definitions from at least two sources. Summarize the differences among allegories, metaphors, and similes.

Separating and reuniting

The little story “You in a box” is a very rough allegory for human personality development. When a fetus enters the world as an infant, the physical separation from the mother is the beginning of a series of physical and psychological separations.

These separations are exhilarating because they lead to freedom. They are terrifying because they lead to isolation.

I believe that

  • without God, to be completely free is to be completely alone, whereas
  • with God, freedom leads inevitably to relationships based on love rather than need and fear.

(1)      Your source of food, fresh air, and other necessities is outside the scope of this allegory. Sorry.

(2)      I know this because I am the Omniscient Narrator.

(3)      If you ever want to give yourself a really bad headache, try to invent a new color. It’s impossible. All you can do is imagine different combinations of red, yellow, and blue, plus black and white. Yet surely, somewhere “out there” in the vast unknown, there are other colors, obeying laws of physics yet to be encountered.

(4)       simile (noun): a comparison of one thing with another using the word like or as. [A particular type of software] is as ugly as a sack full of penguin guts. —Bruce Sterling

(5)      metaphor (noun): a figure of speech in which two things are compared by saying one thing is another. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very Heaven! —William Wordsworth, The Prelude

_____________

Who Are You?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 10

Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 1: Knowing Thyself in One Easy Lesson

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

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

God Creating Adam, Michelangelo, c. 1510, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!Anne Frank, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I am a divine idea of a loving God, created for a divine purpose, which finds its greatest satisfaction in expression of its uniqueness, in harmony with God’s other divine ideas, which make up the infinite universe. Perhaps the universe produces what is needed in every place, at every time.

All of the millions of tiny needles on a fir tree are necessary for the perfect functioning of the tree. You and I are like those needles — we are right here, right now, because the universe requires it. The difference between us and the fir tree’s needles is that we can choose (a) to follow our inclinations—doing what we love, fulfilling our destiny, and perfecting the universe — or (b) to deny our talents and be diverted from our purpose. —Anonymous

[Knowing who you are] does not even require your realization, since you already are who you are. But without realization, who you are does not shine forth into this world…. You are… like an apparently poor person who does not know he has a bank account with $100 million in it and so his wealth remains an unexpressed potential. —Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)

Who am I? What am I? How did I get here? Now that I am here, what should I be doing? No kidding? All that? Can I have a nap first?

These are the kinds of questions most of us ask from time to time — for example,

  • During or after a crisis
  • During or after a long summer evening at the campsite drinking beer and saying to virtual strangers, “I love ya, man.”
  • When we have way too much time on our hands (see also [b])
  • When we’re not struggling for survival; that is, when our basic physical needs have been met
  • When we’re tired of struggling for survival and we’re wondering if it’s worth it
  • When we’re living in a dorm and a lot of us are taking Philosophy 203: The Mind-Body Problem (with a focus on the nature of our mental life in relation to the brain)
  • When we’re depressed; when we doubt our value; when we discover that other people’s perceptions of us are less flattering than our own
  • When, in short, we find that we’re not who we thought we were, which is just as well, because we’re never who we think we are, and we’re just as likely to be as uncertain today as we were yesterday

As in Chapter 3, however, I’ll put forth a few operational definitions so that we’re all speaking the same language, or nearly so. These definitions will be incomplete but useful answers to the questions

What is the self?

Cells are not the building blocks of life, nor are the atoms and molecules that cells can be broken down into. The body is built on invisible abstractions called information and energy–both of which are contained in your DNA. —Deepak Chopra, The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want


In what sense can you know yourself?

Is it possible to “reinvent” yourself? (Reinvent is the buzzword du jour for “adapt” or “change.” None of these words says precisely what I mean. “Adapting” is passive and gradual. “Changing” is too general. “Reinventing” implies that you’re starting from scratch.

(“Participating in your own creation” or “co-creating yourself” are cumbersome but are more to the point—which is that, when things aren’t going well, or when what has worked for you in the past doesn’t work any more, you can either change your approach or rant about the unfairness of everything. “Participating in your own creation” conveys both intention and acceptance of an essential, divinely created self.)

There are tomes dealing with each of these concepts. Take self-knowledge, for example. Most would agree that since the self is never static, it can never be known. By the time you figure out who you are, you’re someone else. *

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

By the time you figure out who you are, you're someone else

I have only a casual observer’s understanding of Buddhist ideas about the amorphous self—personal identity without boundaries. But Buddhists don’t want everybody to walk around bumping into things all the time. The Buddha himself emerged from his transformative meditation believing in the “Middle Way” between an ascetic life and a worldly one. To learn more about what I call “practical Buddhism,” which I hope is not an oxymoron or an offense to actual Buddhists, I highly recommend the book The Joy of Living, by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (Harmony Books, 2007).  

Let’s assume for the moment that it’s possible to have a working knowledge of ourselves through information gained from three sources: (a) self-observation, (b) a more-or-less accurate understanding of others’ perceptions of us, and (c) revelation (or, if you prefer, intuition). Now consider the story of my friend Carrie, a widow, who had an electrical problem.

The Buddha

The Buddha

Who is Carrie: Tramp, chemist, pathetic widow?

Several aspects of Carrie’s surface identity are easy to describe: She is

  • a widow
  • a charming woman with a firm handshake and a good memory for names. When she says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she means it. She asks friendly questions about your family, your work, your beer-bottle-cap collection. If you rebuild transmissions for a living, Carrie can’t think of anything more fascinating. “Now, how is it that my automatic transmission knows when it’s time to shift into overdrive?” she wants to know.
  • a neatnik. Carrie is one of those people who dust beneath and behind the sofa daily. She can see bacteria and viruses with the naked eye. Hospital sterilization personnel salute her as she walks by. They name autoclaves after her.
  • not an electrician. Carrie doesn’t know an amp from an alligator. She breaks out in hives when she has to change a light bulb.

Thus, when the electrical outlet next to her bed stopped functioning, Carrie called in a professional. Al the electrician would arrive at 8 a.m. the next morning, Carrie was assured.

In the perverse way of such professionals, Al arrived at 7:15. Carrie was discomfited because, though she was dressed and halfway through her second cup of coffee, and though her little house was always spick and span, she hadn’t yet made her bed.

She greeted Al at the door, offered him coffee (which he declined), and ushered him into the bedroom. The electrical outlet was situated near the floor between Carrie’s bed and her nightstand. There were four items neatly arranged on the nightstand: an alarm clock, a lamp, a book, and a jar labeled (in letters that, to Carrie’s horrified eyes, appeared at least two feet tall) “Sexual Enhancement Cream.” As Carrie told me later that day,

Al was here for half an hour, fooling with that electrical outlet, reaching over the table checking this and that, at one point even elbowing the jar aside; and he’s talking to me, explaining electrical things, and I don’t remember a word he said because I was trying so hard to be nonchalant, while this jar, before my very eyes, is inflating to four or five times its original size and also changing from white to neon orange with flashing purple letters, and an actual human voice, like at a carnival, is shouting “Sexual Enhancement Cream! Getcher Sexual Enhancement Cream here, on Carrie’s nightstand, next to her unmade bed!”

Carrie used the word mortified several times. She could have said embarrassed or humiliated. Mortified, really, is overkill, so to speak. Mortify enters the English language from the French mortifier, which in turn comes from the Latin mortificare: “to put someone to death.”

But there is a sense — a poetic sense — in which Carrie was indeed “put to death” during that excruciating half-hour and for a while afterward. Carrie’s “death” is, of course, metaphorical.

The self she knew, the tidy widow, mortified
By nothing but a jar, was stricken, died,
And what was resurrected wasn’t she at all,
But something hard, dispassionate; so small
And wretched, so pathetic, it seemed barely worth
Its rations—water, air, a bit of earth.

During that excruciating half-hour, Carrie saw herself as she imagined Al must have seen her. Since Al had given no sign of having even noticed the jar (“but he couldn’t possibly have missed it!”), her imagination ran wild. In Al’s eyes, she was (a) an oversexed spinster, (b) a brazen hussy, or (c) a purveyor of phone pornography.

I suggested (d) a chemist, and anyway, (e) why did she care what Al thought? But for some reason, in Carrie’s mind, Al’s perception of her had become more important than her own, which, it appeared, was a little on the fuzzy side. “Widowhood” was still a strange and shadowy place for Carrie. Her identity as “Phil’s wife” had been well defined. Without Phil, she wasn’t sure who she was.

_______________ 

* My research on the physics of observing and understanding a system (in this case, the self) when you, the observer, are embedded within the system, came to an abrupt halt when I learned that it would involve “fractals,” which—being statistically self-similar to their substructures and, further, generated by an infinitely recursive process—are clearly wicked, and possibly radioactive as well, and should be avoided at all cost.

 

Lesson 10.1: Assignment
How ‘Conscious’ Are You?

Eckhart Tolle writes in A New Earth that “nothing you can know about you is you.” We are not our titles or our roles. When my children were still living at home, I was so enmeshed in the role of “motherhood” that I became very ill when my youngest left the nest.

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

Meditation is one way to encounter your “essential” self—the you that isn’t plastered over with ego: roles, ambitions, relationships, other people’s perceptions, even your own measurement of your worth. Tolle calls these things “content… the inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future [as well as] … events.” The more you identify with “the inner space of consciousness”—which, unlike content, is not transient—the less likely you are to be buffeted about by emotions and the freer you are to live poetically.

If you are young and competent, you probably have experienced little tragedy and you are confident of your ability to manage your life. I remember thinking, from time to time, that I “couldn’t bear it” if “X” happened, and I would do everything in my power to prevent it. And then “X” happened anyway (my first big “X” was the death of my mother at age 62), and I suffered, and survived, and grew in compassion. Since then, there have been lots of “X’s,” and there is little left to be afraid of, and much to celebrate.

Your assignment is to answer the following questions in a paragraph or two (about fifty words):

What makes you unhappy or afraid? What do you have or do that, if you couldn’t have it or do it, would seriously disrupt your sense of self?

It’s important to be honest here. This is the first step in “knowing thyself.” I will not ask you to send me this assignment, but it is important to write down your answers and save them for use later in this course.

Next: Chapter 4, Part 2: Your Self Is Irrepressible