How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 13
Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 4: Growth and Self-Knowledge
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One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the… mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding…. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. -Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living
What we truly are, objectively, is that unique essence that distinguishes us from one another. It equips us to reveal some special piece of cosmic truth to which the essential uniqueness of other individuals is less favorably attuned. But, in our alienation from essence, what we lack is the compellingly direct experience and cognition of the astounding fact that our body, in its entirety, is intelligence—Mind. –David S. Devor, “Intuition, Creativity, Mind & Matter,” http://www.projectmind.org/intuition.html, accessed September 3, 2008
A Work in Progress
We have already seen that it is impossible for me to know myself empirically, because
1. The self is never static (so my sense of self must be fluid).
2. I can’t be both Observer and Observee at the same time. To separate into Observer and Observee is to no longer be a unified, distinct self. (When I look into a mirror, I don’t see my self; I see a two-dimensional representation of my physical body.)
3. Since I can’t get outside myself, I must depend partially on what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me for my own self-knowledge. No two people perceive me in the same way. Obviously, I value some people’s opinions more than others’.
4. Parts of my psyche are floating around outside me, taking cover inside me, and latent, waiting to evolve when I am stretched and challenged.
Knowing oneself will always be a work in progress, but it is essential to keep at it if we are to have any peace, any joy, any sanity. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is just a tiny sample of the thousands of “know thyself” maxims that exist:
Jesus said…, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” —from the Gospel of Thomas
Through self-knowledge you begin to find out what is God, what is truth, what is that state which is timeless. Your teacher may pass on to you the knowledge which he received from his teacher, and you may do well in your examinations, get a degree and all the rest of it; but, without knowing yourself as you know your own face in the mirror, all other knowledge has very little meaning. Learned people who don’t know themselves are really unintelligent; they don’t know what thinking is, what life is. That is why it is important for the educator to be educated in the true sense of the word, which means that he must know the workings of his own mind and heart, see himself exactly as he is in the mirror of relationship. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. In self-knowledge is the whole universe; it embraces all the struggles of humanity. -J. Krishanmurti
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of Mankind is Man. -Alexander Pope
I must first know myself…. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. -Plato
The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge. -Richard of Saint-Victor (1)
If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful…. -Aldous Huxley
How little do we know that which we are! How less what we may be! -Lord Byron
It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. -Lao-Tzu
- The best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbor is to know ourselves. -Walter Lippmann
All men have the capacity of knowing themselves and acting with moderation. -Heraclitus
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. –Ursula K. Le Guin (2)
Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat. –Sun-Tzu
The most successful people are those who don’t have any illusions about who they are. They know themselves well and they can move in the direction of their best talents. -Bud Bray, quoted in Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? (3)
Meditation… is the way to know the self that resides just below the surface, a surface that is usually choppy with likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, and judgments of all sorts. This amalgam of thought and emotion is who we think we are, but we are wrong. Who we are is far more interesting, exciting, and powerful than this. Who we are is fearless, joyful, and extremely kind. -Susan Piver (4)
You are not your thoughts and feelings
A working knowledge of myself is essential for day-to-day existence. I can, without understanding every facet of myself at every moment, have a pretty good idea of my strengths and my weaknesses. I can “be in touch with my feelings.” I can know my limitations and decide whether to tackle them or navigate around them. I can develop relationships with people I trust—people who will help me determine whether my perceptions are accurate or I am living in La-La-Land. I can avoid the traps that snare me if I get too close.
I can know what is not me. Teachers of meditation say, “Observe your thoughts and feelings, but know that you are not your thoughts and feelings.” My identity or self is not simply the sum of my roles: mother, sister, friend, writer, churchgoer, meditator, teacher, Anglo American, dancer, singer, and so forth. This is good news. If I identify too closely with any role, then, on the day I’m performing well, I like myself and I feel good, and on an off day I despise myself and I am miserable.
So where to begin?
Let’s go back to a few of the principles we established earlier:
Everybody wants to be happy.
Babies are born expecting happiness. At birth, their wants and their needs are virtually identical, but they (wants and needs) soon diverge.
As we interact with more and more people who are Not Us, we learn adaptive behaviors. Some are healthy, such as compromising without giving our selves away. Some are unhealthy, such as lying and manipulating for short-term gain.
We are often mistaken about what would make us happy. Learning what makes us genuinely and lastingly happy is called “maturing,” and it usually involves balancing our immediate wants and needs with our dreams, goals, and anticipated long-term needs. It’s the same kind of balancing you do when you’re in your thirties, say, and putting aside money for retirement, enough but not too much for present needs and generosity.
Happiness ≠ cake batter
When I was, oh, maybe four years old, my mother left a bowl of cake batter unattended on the kitchen counter while she took a long-distance phone call from her dad in Des Moines. Long-distance phone calls were a big deal back then. (5)
My mother should have known better. I loved nothing more than cake batter. I wanted to be happy. Surely eating some cake batter would make me happy.
I ate every atom of that cake batter. I was very ill afterward, plus I had to endure my mother’s anger and my father’s grave disappointment, which was even worse than being yelled at by Mom.
I had been given a lesson in enlightened self-interest, which often requires delaying gratification. These lessons are learned first-hand-by suffering the painful consequences of immature, uninformed decisions—as well as by watching others (older siblings, perhaps) suffer them and, less often than we might like, by listening, reading, and observing the world at large.
Learning about ourselves is a process of testing our inclinations—which must never be discounted—against their short- and long-term consequences. Creating (or co-creating) ourselves involves growing in the directions that (a) satisfy our inclinations—wants and needs—and (b) have acceptable short-term outcomes and beneficial long-term consequences.
Employers are finding that organizational success is more a matter of building on employees’ strengths rather than trying to improve their weaknesses. It’s about time. Unaccountably, American companies throughout the twentieth century typically promoted their strongest sales personnel into management, seemingly unaware that great salespeople are cut from different cloth than great managers.
The Gallup organization administers a comprehensive test of employee strengths, which are ranked from first to thirty-second. My opinion, which the Gallup folks unwisely didn’t ask for, is that what you get with a single assessment is more of a snapshot than a portrait. Even so, the employers I’ve talked to say it’s a great help in assembling work groups so that you have at least one Organizer, one Learner, one Bulldozer, (6) and one Creative Person, and not a bunch of Peacemakers who tiptoe around trying not to hurt each other’s feelings and don’t accomplish anything.
I agree that it’s important to know your limitations and not knock yourself out trying to excel in something that (a) you don’t particularly enjoy and (b) you’re not well equipped for. This is why I’ve never tried out for the NFL.
A. Becoming a Better Teacher? Yes
I have a lot of knowledge about and experience with writing, but at one time I was uncomfortable in front of an audience and I did a poor job conveying my knowledge. I chose to improve my public-speaking skills because I sensed that it would be tremendous fun to teach and that there were specific steps I could take to become good at it.
B. Becoming a Better Salesman? No
I have an aversion to selling. I’ve never been able to get past the feeling that I’m asking my prospect for a favor. I hated selling candy when I was a Camp Fire Girl, and I hated calling on prospective underwriters when I was the promotion director for a public-radio station. Try as I might, I can’t envision myself as an effective salesperson. It seems wiser on my part to let others do whatever selling is necessary in my business endeavors.
Vulnerabilities: How well do you learn from your mistakes?
Long ago I read a wonderful little bit of prose that I can’t locate today. With apologies to the author, it went something like this:
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I don’t see it. I fall in. It is not my fault.
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I pretend not to see it. I fall in.
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I know it is there, and I try to walk around it. I fall in anyway.
I walk down a different street.
The “hole in the street” is, for example, a woman’s tendency to fall in love with men who are abusive, or needy, or dangerous. It might be a parent’s serial rescuing of an adult child who is profligate. (Dad to daughter: “Okay, I’ll lend you the money, but this is the last time.”)
Vulnerabilities are the areas in which you’re most likely to make mistakes that screw up your life; the things you do even though you know better; the way you respond when people push your hot buttons; the habit of using the same failed strategy over and over, expecting a different result.
Dr. Young, the psychiatrist who treated me so successfully in the nineteen-seventies, used to say, “Know your patterns.” My pathological “pattern,” at that time, was to “stuff” my anger and accept the blame for everything that went wrong. Many people err in the other direction: They don’t take responsibility for their mistakes and change their behavior accordingly; instead they look for someone or something else to blame. (Ideally, blame doesn’t enter the picture, and everyone focuses on what he or she can do to keep the problem from recurring.)
Vulnerabilities or patterns differ from weaknesses in that it’s not always necessary to fix your weaknesses. Having astigmatism or poor upper-body strength is a weakness. There are ways to compensate. Having asthma is a vulnerability. You can stay healthy (according to conventional western medicine) only by avoiding situations that are likely to bring on an asthma attack.
Choices create futures. Mistakes are possible only until they’re made. After that they’re the raw material of your future life. You can’t change a stupid decision, but you can use it as a basis for making smarter decisions in the future. And you can absolutely refuse to let guilt or regret drain your energy.
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. Leave the wound alone; it will heal, and the scab will fall off.
Lesson 13.1: Assignment
Exercise: Personal inventory
Without getting too technical or introspective, let’s inventory ourselves. I’ll go first.
1. Things I most enjoy: Mothering. Dancing. Writing poetry, songs, fiction, and nonfiction. Singing. Teaching. Meditating. Listening to classical music, especially the larger works of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, and Renaissance choral music. Reading in bed, with a particular fondness for female British writers, from Jane Austen to Dorothy L. Sayers to Rosamund Pilcher to Philippa Gregory, and for nonfiction about spirituality (the history of Judaism is a current passion), the English language and the development of language in general, quantum physics, and history. Going to small afternoon parties. Going to my grandchildren’s performances and sports events. Going to lunch and coffee with friends and family members. Collecting antiques. Gardening. Spending time at rural retreats.
Things you most enjoy:
2. Things I least enjoy: Shopping. Meetings. Making phone calls. Selling. Being in crowded places.
Things you least enjoy:
3. My talents, skills, strengths: Writing almost anything. Editing garbled prose for particular audiences. (I am especially good at working with inflated academic- and corporate-speak, making it clear and comprehensible yet still “dignified” in the eyes of the intended readers.) Public speaking. Teaching, when I don’t have to maintain order (I’m not scary enough).
Your talents, skills, strengths:
4. My weaknesses: I am inconsistent in following up on my great ideas. I am a mediocre manager of people (I always want to be friends). I am too sedentary and too easily distracted. I have trouble keeping my environment orderly. I am impossible at setting long-term goals.
5. My dreams and ambitions: To travel the U.S.A. in a mini-motorhome. To fly an ultralight. To live for months at a time in England, Scotland, and Wales. (William F. Buckley says he always writes his books in Switzerland. I want to always write my books in a cozy cottage in Scotland.) To write, publish, and sell lots and lots of books for children and adults about all the things I am interested in, especially if research for my books requires travel to distant places that are not cold. To live in the country.
Your dreams and ambitions:
6. My vulnerabilities: Codependency. Procrastination. A tendency to hibernate and then wonder why I’m lonely.
7. How I deal with my vulnerabilities: Codependency: I get professional help immediately when I feel myself being sucked into an unhealthy lopsided relationship. Procrastination: I’m better at keeping commitments to other people than at keeping commitments to myself, so I make myself accountable to someone else, often my sister, who I know will hold me to it. Hibernation: I have a group of friends who have a similar tendency to hole up, and if we don’t hear from each other at least every two weeks we do a head count. “Everybody okay?” We also have fixed times for social gatherings-birthdays and holidays, at least.
How you deal with your vulnerabilities:
Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. It will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.
1 I culled about half of these items from a list, published on the Internet, of quotes about self-knowledge. It seemed more efficient than reading all the books they represent. I’m always leery, however, of quoting a person I’ve never heard of. What if that person never existed? What if the compiler of the list just made up the quote and threw it in as a joke?
Richard of Saint-Victor, a Scot by birth, did exist. He was, according to Wikipedia, a “mystical theologian” and prior of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris during the twelfth century.
2 Ursula K. Le Guin is a famous American fantasy writer – practically a household name, I’m told. Apparently my household got skipped.
3 I discovered next to nothing about Bud Bray, but I included his quote because it’s the kind of thing people are always saying in motivational speeches. It rings true and it gets people nodding in agreement.
4 How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 8
5 You never dialed long-distance phone calls yourself. You called the Operator and gave her the phone number you were calling. (All the Operators were women, and they sat on tall stools in front of huge switchboards with cords going everywhere.) You told her whether you wanted to call Person-to-Person or Station-to-Station, which was cheaper and which meant that you would talk to whoever answered the phone. Either way, after you made your request you hung up the phone and waited for the Operator to call you back. It might be a few minutes, or it might be hours, especially if you were calling Person-to-Person for Mr. Applebottom, who was an Important Executive involved in Important Meetings. But the Operator kept at it, and eventually the phone would ring and it would be the Operator saying she had your Party on the line.
6 Not all these terms are the official Gallup designations.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 4
Chapter 2, Part 1: Why We Need Poetry
This is important: All moments of meaning
in our lives are moments of the heart. —Anonymous
[At a ] Mind and Life Institute conference… at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003, … Eric S. Lander, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology at MIT and the director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, pointed out that while Buddhist practices emphasize attaining increased levels of mental awareness, the focus of modern science has rested on refining ways to restore mentally ill patients to a state of normalcy…. “Why stop there?” he asked the audience. “Why are we satisfied with saying we’re not mentally ill? Why not focus on getting better and better?” —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living *
Art is always involved in events and circumstances that have significance and meaning. Arthur C. Danto, from Columbia University (by no means either a conservative or a Christian) said, “Art is getting across indefinable, but inescapable meaning.” This is a helpful definition, because he is saying that if in your art you are getting your meaning across in a way that is too definable, it is really preaching rather than art. Of course preaching itself can be an art form, but it is an art form that is and should remain distinct from the other arts. Art has to have a place for the observer to explore and wrestle with the message. If the meaning of a work is apparent, allowing the audience with little effort to say, “of course, that is what it means” and if the message can be simply stated in one sentence, the work is not art. You may have heard the famous statement by a dancer who was asked, “What did the dance mean?” She responded, “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” According to Danto, if an artist can enunciate the message in his work, perhaps saying, “Oh, that is Mary rocking the baby and putting him in the manger,” then the work is not good art. Art has to be, in some sense, indefinable—but in another sense absolutely inescapable. What we say and do means something. We are not just chemicals. That is why we must have artists. Artists are people who know that, in spite of what we are told by our culture, everything is part of some bigger reality. [p. 118] —Ransom Fellowship, accessed March 12, 2009
If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it
Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is “a parade of odd and wonderful events.” **
It’s that simple, really it is. So why do we need prenuptial agreements, social workers, car alarms, and the like?
Babies are born expecting happiness. Insisting upon it. “I am hungry,” they wail. “This is unacceptable. It is not a Good Feeling.” Their wants and needs are identical.
Newborn babies broadcast their dissatisfaction to the world at large. They don’t know who or what is going to take care of the problem, but, by God, they are not going to suffer in silence. ***
Before long, they perceive that it is not the world at large that responds to their demonstrations of discomfort but rather that every meal has a pleasing similarity and comes with a bonus: warmth and softness, swaying, and other lovely sensations. Soon they discover that the warmth and softness are attached to Something — the same Something that comes to the rescue when they, the babies, are cold or when another, smaller Something has dropped a Tonka truck onto them when they were just lying there cooing and watching dust motes cavort in a shaft of sunlight. The larger Something has the power to ease their pain and restore their little psyches to equilibrium.
Eventually, babies learn that they don’t have to let out all the stops when their tummies are empty. A little less effort with a little more focus achieves the desired result. They sense that a partnership has begun with the meal-providing-Tonka-truck-removing Something, and they find even her presence reassuring. Sometimes they make hungry noises when they’re not hungry, just for the warm, soft swaying. Their wants and needs are becoming differentiated.
Once they know the routine, they are at liberty to look around, wondering if there’s anything more to life. Wow, is there ever! It’s a veritable parade of odd and wonderful events. In no time at all, their world consists of not merely needs and wants but Extras—discoveries, surprises, sometimes unpleasant (like this afternoon’s chickenpox inoculation) but more often delightful.
There’s that pink glow in the morning, for instance. Patiently — they don’t have any pressing engagements — they watch the pearly light move across the wall, brighter, warmer and — oh, wow — suddenly it’s yellow, and it paints the teddy bears and the striped wallpaper and it moves toward the bed and brushes the tiny toes with yellow warmth, and the babies talk to it, and it talks back. They speak the same Language. They chat like old friends.
The mamas and the daddies, who are in the next room, smile and listen to the delighted cooing and burbling. The long-forgotten primal Language stirs a joy that had become almost dormant, and they relax into it as if it were a featherbed. For them, too, time stands still, and if they do have pressing engagements, these are trivial next to the conversation of sunlight and innocence.
For many stay-at-home mothers, these are golden days, and gone too soon.**** In my own experience, there has been no more blessed time than the early months of parenthood… feeling the physical and emotional surge of pleasure when breastfeeding… having the almost godlike ability to supply everything the baby needs and more besides… bathing and powdering and dressing the baby in clean, soft clothes… covering her with a light blanket when it’s warm or enclosing her in a sturdy sleeper if it’s chilly… placing her cradle near a window so she can watch the sunlight dance among the petunias in the window box and ruffle the eucalyptus leaves on the big tree in the backyard… arranging my life so that there is nothing clamoring for my time besides caring for the baby, tidying up the house, and preparing dinner for the rest of the family.
There is a transient sense of power, especially with the first baby. I felt that her father and I would be able to keep her safe throughout her childhood, though I knew we could not, and should not, always shield her from disappointment.
And so, for a few months, the baby is the center of the universe. Her demands are met almost instantaneously.
If I am the baby, feeling the warm sunlight on my toes and listening to my mother hum as she folds my diapers (I am a baby who was born when mothers still laundered diapers), I am thinking that life is pretty sweet, and I smile and laugh a lot, and everybody else smiles and laughs when I do.
I have noticed, however, that when I am hungry in the dark of night, my mother is less and less cheerful and accommodating. Then comes the time when I wake up and cry, signaling that I am hungry, or perhaps just lonely, and my mother comes in and holds me for a minute and talks to me and maybe even gives me a little water, but she doesn’t feed me. She goes away, and I cry for a while, but she doesn’t come back. So I wear myself out crying, and I go back to sleep, and soon I don’t wake up at night any more.
Oh, wow! I can move! My bear is over there, and I am over here, but if I wiggle and squirm a certain way, I can get over there. There are other things over there, too, shiny things, and I reach for them, and my mother says, “No!” in a Different Voice. And for the first time I am thwarted.
As time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that I cannot always have what I want, but I’m not sure why. Apparently other people have wants and needs too. I am playing with other toddlers, and one of them, Ethan, has a bear sort of like mine, and I try to take it but Ethan holds it tight. I want it, Ethan has it, so as night follows day, I bite him. Everyone speaks crossly to me and makes a big fuss over Ethan. I am not the center of the universe any more.
This is where parenthood gets tricky. How do you find the balance between giving your child freedom to explore and keeping him from hurting himself or someone else? How do you convey that his wants and desires are important and at the same time teach him to compromise or negotiate with people whose wants and desires conflict with his? How can you help him learn that it is in his long-term interest to suffer disappointments, failures, separations from his parents—delayed gratification, in short—when (a) he has no clear concept of the future, and (b) you’re still learning those lessons yourself?
Most parents accomplish all this, more or less clumsily, because their biological and emotional need to protect is at war with the imperative of allowing independence and teaching self-reliance. Ideally, they do it in baby steps, so to speak, letting out the leash slowly and gradually. Sometimes the lessons are sudden and brutal, imposed by crisis.
It’s comparatively easy for a child to learn to function within the nuclear family—the home team, as it were. If there’s only one ice-cream cup in the freezer, and both little Rupert and little Helga want the ice-cream cup, Daddy is not going to run out and buy another ice-cream cup. Rupert and Helga each get half, or Rupert gets the ice-cream cup and Helga gets the Popsicle, or some other arrangement is made that is not completely satisfactory but is better than nothing.
As the child’s comfort zone expands—she goes to play group, to school, to church, to the park, and to the supermarket—she has to adapt her expectations to ever-more-conflicting wants. The way her elders deal with these conflicts determines, in part, how much of her essential self she will surrender. Well-meaning but misguided Sunday-school teachers might convey to her that she must always consider the wants and needs of other people before her own. Since other people have unending and urgent wants and needs, she might conclude that hers are of no value.
Ideally, however, she will learn that she has God-given abilities that are pleasing to her and that meet a particular need of her universe—that she is here for a reason, and that in discovering that reason she will give and receive more joy than she knew the universe could hold.
*Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living. Harmony Books (New York) 2007. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. The author, a renowned Buddhist teacher, has, “with an infectious joy and insatiable curiosity,” integrated “the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, neuroscience, and quantum physics” (per the dust jacket) in friendly, affirmative prose. The Joy of Living is a delightful, uplifting read and a demystifying guide to meditation.
***This is so whether the baby is born into a refugee camp, a brothel, or a middle-class family desperate for a baby to love. Though it is hardly universally the case, for purposes of this discussion our baby will be one for whom the basic physical and emotional necessities are available.
****This might be true for fathers, too, though the daddies of my experience have always been in a hurry for the babies to get big enough to play Bonk (the introductory version of Catch) and climb in tree forts.