Poetry

The word poetry is derived from the Greek poiesis, which comes from the verb ποιεῖν which means “to make, create, produce.” A poem, then, could be understood to mean a creation. I suggest keeping this sense in mind while reading the following poem by Archibald MacLeish, published in 1926. “A creation should not mean / but be.”

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

*

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

*

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

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Acknowledgment

There’s much emphasis on the idea of the necessity of ego-deflation, affliction to self, and death in order to spiritually wake up. As Bernadette Roberts often repeats, “as I decrease, God increases.” I didn’t fail to pick this up, though maybe, it recently occurred to me, I had always put my own twist on it. To the term ego-deflation or affliction to self I had always associated the feelings of being rejected, dismissed, insulted, hurt, ignored, and others along this line. Spiritual life not only looked grim, but I understood it as an agonizing torture, a kind of violent murder, like being beaten to a pulp. What I understood as spiritual life was a dog-eat-dog world. Each for herself. And eventually, the impersonal Other, be it nature or society or god, will surely win and swallow me into nothingness.

Little did I know that this conception exhibited more about my psychology than it did my understanding about spirituality. It involved several disparate events to open the way for me to reconsider. To begin with, for some time I’d become aware of my tendency to treat myself harshly. Merely becoming aware of it did not bring much change since I didn’t know other models of relationship with myself. Till one day, a meditation teacher whose class I recently joined, talked about the idea of lovingkindness which needs to first be directed toward oneself. Only when you have it toward yourself can you give it to others. Sure in the past I had come across the idea of loving oneself, accepting oneself, being kind to oneself… but always, without knowing it, dismissed it outright. This time, however, I listened somehow without arguments. What the teacher said made sense intellectually and was intriguing emotionally. Maybe the time was ripe for me. Maybe I had grown intensely weary of living a life of loneliness and suffering. Or maybe I’ve come to the conclusion myself that the only real way I could be of any help to anyone else was by being happy. I’ve seen clearly that feeling miserable is in the way of my ever having good relationships with people. Maybe as I got older I felt pressed for time, and those youthful arguments virtually ceased of asking myself what happiness means or whether or not this was that anti-spiritual thing called ego-boosting.

A conversation I had with a friend brought these preoccupations into a clearer focus. By the time he and I had the chat, we knew each other only for a short time in the meditation group I mentioned above. We did not know much about each other except that we were both interested in spirituality defined very broadly, which motivated us to join the same class. One evening after finishing a practice, I asked him about an experience I had during meditation, which I sense others had had, too. He responded to the question but then added, “I know you want more than just experiences.” Upon hearing it I smiled. He offered his hand, and I shook it. There was a kind of brightening in my mind, and warmth. I didn’t know what he knew about my deepest desire, but it didn’t matter. What was key was the feeling of acknowledgment I received. I felt connected.

At home, still feeling the warmth of acknowledgment, the familiar thinking reaction kicked in. I asked myself whether what I felt was a case of myself being inflated, and whether such feeling, though positive, was going to hamper my “spiritual awakening.” While busy rationalizing, unexpectedly I heard an inner scream, “This is what I want!” And that felt right. I want to feel acknowledged. I want to feel connected. I want unconditional love. And that evening I had a little taste. I think this was honesty, and it stopped the rationalizing process (a process that was trying to mold what happened to fit into my idea of a spiritual life. A process that also told me that unconditional love was a myth).

Then I saw the difference between this warmth of acknowledgment and the suffocating euphoria that came with being acknowledged through achievements, for example, winning a competition, getting praises, getting accepted at a school, etc. I had a lot of this latter kind before, and the term “inflation” is really an apt description of it. Blood rushes into your head, and it throbs, and you feel about to burst from the mania of pride. Even when humility was why I was praised, this prideful elation was still the effect. The warmth of acknowledgment, however, had the opposite effect. It softened me. I was at rest.

I realized then that up to that moment I’d been spending my energy trying to find acknowledgment but without discerning between different kinds of it. And I practiced what was most familiar to me, namely, trying to prove my merit to the world (I have this image of myself as an early twentieth century English politician on a podium yelling out his speech to indifferent passerby). Proving my existence to the universe was and still is the purpose of my life to a large extent, and I always fall short. And this feeling of being defeated, dismissed, ignored was what I thought of as ego-deflation. Though damn bitter, I consoled myself by thinking it was conducive to spiritual awakening. If I’m not awake yet, that means I need more of it. I didn’t consider the possibility that, for my mentality, this feeling of failure could be just as much, if not more, bolstering to the self as the feeling of achievement. Because for me the sense of failure turned into alienation and anger, and these in turn kept alive the determination to show the world I exist. And if the world refuses to look at me, I’d rather cease. Self-loathing, too, could keep the self alive to be criticized, punished, hated. So there was a kind of confused violence in the way I had lived.

But that evening I saw that my new friend and I shared the same desire. A sense of personal property was absent; in its place was a camaraderie. Moreover, he acknowledged something that was already in me (my deepest desire), and I did not have to work to prove anything. So I became softer. That evening I felt I understood, through experience, what Khalil Gibran meant that to love is “to melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.” An alternative was presented to me. Contrary to my usual image of spiritual death, this dying through melting is not torturous. It is not like getting beaten to a pulp. And contrary to my idea of succumbing to that ultimate Stranger, this was deeply intimate: to let my deepest desire take over me.

Coda: I’m not claiming that I now have a better understanding of what spiritual life is supposed to be. Spiritual as opposed to what? After all, I’ve seen that my understanding of spiritual life was derived from my attitude toward the one life I know. I could do many things in life and play many roles, but still they happen in this one life. Nor am I saying that my attitude toward life has changed once and for all. In fact, I have more confidence in the power of old patterns and habits than of my ability to thoroughly learn a lesson and change. This experience did not give me a more correct understanding of spirituality or life but a broader awareness of my psychology. I wonder now if any outlook on life I have is not actually a reflection on how I relate to myself. Life may be a mirror.

Gestalt Therapy part 1

The following experiment is based on one from a book called Gestalt Therapy, which I found by chance in a free book store in Baltimore a while back.  Without knowing much about gestalt therapy itself, I’ve still found the experiments in the book to be really great tools for self-inquiry.  Hopefully you’ll find them helpful as well.

PART 1 – CONTACTING THE ENVIRONMENT

Experiment 1 – Feeling the Actual

This first experiment is directed at heightening the feeling of what is actual, making contact with what is actually the case.  I’m reminded of Paul Hedderman’s terms “what’s happening” and “what’s not happening”.  (which you can find here: “AM on Halloween w/Paul”, starting at 8:50)  Think of this experiment as turning the attention to take a look at “what’s happening”.

This may particularly be a useful exercise if there’s something in the actual which would be to our benefit to pay attention to.  If our tooth is aching, we have a headache, or we are fatigued from overwork, these may be warning signals – signs that something is amiss which needs our attention.  Taking pain-killers to turn off the signal only falsely solves the problem.

A question approached in this experiment is: Are there comparable ‘pain-killers’ of a behavioral sort?  Are there behaviors we use in order to turn away from warning signals and other important aspects of our actuality?

More on that later.  For now, let’s try a very simple exercise.  Like Harding says, there’s no benefit in simply reading about this exercise.  Just DO IT.  Really, it’s easy.

Exercise 1

For a few minutes, make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of.  Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now”.

Not too bad, huh?  Let’s talk some, and then we’ll try it again.

So what do we mean by “actual”?  As far as time goes, it’s what is right now, in the present.  What is actual for you must be in the present.  As far as location, it’s what is right here, where you are.  You cannot be experiencing first hand any event beyond the range of your perception.  You can imagine things happening beyond your perception, but that imagining is really just in your mind (i.e. within the range of your perception).

To quote William Samuel (from A Guide to Awareness and Tranquility):

“When does one experience the occurrence of any event? Now!  Listen carefully: When do we remember the event?  When do we reminisce about the event?  When do we think about the past?  Now; always now!  When do we dream of a future event?  When do we plan and calculate concerning future activities?  Now.  All experience, all activity, all memory of the past, dream of the future, thinking and thought taking are inevitably, invariably ‘happening’ in the now.  Isn’t this so?”

Now, let’s be clear about something.  This experiment is not about living for the present (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”).  It is about living in the present.  Which is where we always are anyway (how could it be different?)

You may have an objection similar to this person: “Others may be able to remain in the now, but, unfortunately, I find it completely impossible.  There can be no constant now for me.  At this very moment I have just passed the now.”

The book’s authors respond: “The wish to seize the present and pin it down – to mount it, as it were, like a butterfly in a case – is doomed to failure…When actuality seems fixed, permanent, unchanged, and unchangeable, this is a fictional actuality which we continuously build anew because it serves some present purpose of our own to preserve the fiction.”

I’m reminded of the common meditation practice of attempting to “be in the now”, which often ends up being an attempt to hold tightly to an imagined idea (i.e. a thought or visualization) of what the “now” is.  Anyway, that’s not what we’re trying to do here.

Ok, so, let’s try it again:

Exercise 2

For a few minutes, make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of.  Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now”.

 

On to some important stuff: questions from the book…

-As you performed the exercise, what difficulties did you encounter?

-Why did you terminate the exercise just when you did?  Not to say you should have gone longer, but…Were you tired?  Had you gone blank and stopped forming sentences?  Did you quit without being aware that you were quitting?

-Did you skip over doing the exercise, or do it sort of half-heartedly just to move on?  Should you succeed in demonstrating that you can do these experiments and still remain unmoved, over whom would you have won a victory?

-Did you talk to yourself or others about what a great exercise this is without actually sinking your teeth into it yourself?

-Do you not want to get close enough to your experience to feel it vividly?

-Do you feel abashed to find your actuality to be commonplace and lackluster?  What impossible kind of actuality are you demanding if you require that it must at every moment be wondrous and exotic?  Or, if you find your actuality chronically dull and uninteresting, what is keeping you from doing something to liven it up?  What hindrances in this direction are you aware of?

-While doing the exercise, what sources of information are you leaving out?  Are you only writing about your internal experiences (thoughts, feelings), or only about your external experiences (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)?  Are you like an editor at a newspaper who favors some news sources over others?  Whether you choose to “print it” or not, take notice of the range of the kind of information that is pouring into your editorial office.  Maybe you’re passing up some good bets.  In other words, take notice of all the different sorts of things you can be aware of at this moment.

-You may approach this exercise as a sort of test of potency, that is doing it to prove to yourself that you can do it, and then leaving it at that.  Well of course you can do it!  Anybody can.  The point is to achieve a result that makes it worthwhile – a change in perspective.

-Do you undertake to decide in advance of doing the exercises how or whether they will have any effect?

Whatever you discover in reaction to these questions, don’t try to change anything or somehow force yourself to stay in the here-and-now.  Just notice what you do in as great detail as possible.

One more time.

Exercise 3

For a few minutes, make up sentences stating what you are at this moment aware of.  Begin each sentence with the words “now” or “at this moment” or “here and now”.

More questions for self-inquiry…

-Do you tend to wander mentally into the past, looking for causes (i.e. excuses) for the present situation?  The present may be an outgrowth of the past, but the past does not solve the present problems.  Such memories are important in actuality only insofar as you notice what you now feel.  For example, what do memories about your past relationship with your father say about present issues in your relationship?  Otherwise, brooding on the past is a mere pretense of attacking problems and is actually a convenient refuge from them.

-Do you tend to wander into the future mentally?  Do you tend to paint the future in an apprehensive or rosy way?  Why?  Are you consoling yourself for some present frustration with daydreams, resolutions, and promissory notes?  Is your hope for tomorrow a means of putting off doing something today?  Do you count on the real uncertainty of the future to avoid involving yourself in what is certain – i.e. the present?

The point of these questions is not to get you to moralize yourself about your escapist tendencies.  Just to notice them, in terms of actuality.  That is, what sorts of these behaviors can you be aware of here and now, in the present, in your actuality?

There are two parts to this first experiment:

  1. Using “now” or some equivalent phrase to describe what you are currently aware of.
  2. Discovering your resistances to doing number one.  The exercise itself if incredibly simple.  So what comes up in you that makes it hard?

So, that’s Experiment number one, Feeling the Actual.  I hope you found it helpful and learned something about yourself and your present situation.

Experiment 2 coming soon: Sensing Opposed Forces!

Life is like…an adventure game

There’s a series of adventure games I used to play when I was younger called Monkey Island.  One of my favorites was the third in the series – The Curse of Monkey Island.  The main character is a young pirate with the amazingly ridiculous name of Guybrush Threepwood.  He runs into various sorts of problems which you spend the game sorting through.

My everyday life often reminds me of this game.  Problems, puzzles in the game, are stacked. 

Game Problem: Your fiancee has turned into a gold statue because of a cursed ring you accidentally gave her.  You have to go to a different island to get a different ring to remove the curse.  But first you have to get a ship, a crew, and a map.  But first you have to convince possible crew members to come with you.  In order to do that, you first have to prove to one of them you can find gold.  So first you have to do that…..

Real Life Problem: Not dying.  So you need food, so you need money to buy food, so you need a job to get money, so you need a car to get to your job.  But your car’s been totaled.  So you need to get a new one, for which you need a photo ID and proof of insurance.  But you’ve lost your wallet.  So you need to get a replacement driver’s license, so you need to print out the form online to fill out and mail in with a check….

In the game, these sort of stacked problems are fun.  In real life, they feel closer to home and just make me stressed out.  I’ve also noticed that in the game, I’m more willing to try ridiculous stuff just for fun.  I’ll make Guybrush say the most ridiculous stuff I can to other characters, just to see what will happen and how they’ll react, because it’s funny.  In real life, I’ll play it as safe as I can out of fear of what will happen and how others will react to me.  It’s not nearly as funny to me in real life when people get upset as it is in the game.  So what’s the difference?  Why do I feel so hurt by others’ reactions in real life, but find it funny in the game?

Another question that comes to mind is that of control.  In the game, you choose who Guybrush talks to, and you can choose from a list of things to make him say.  In real life, where do the options of what to say come from?  How is it decided what I do and where I go?  Is it more like watching a game being played?….which you can do here…..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IBUfXq0nbk

Neuroscience and doership

I kept running into Patrick Haggard’s name related to neurological studies having to do with doership.  Found this video of a talk of his:

http://forum-network.org/lecture/neuroscience-human-will

An interesting site that leads you through a…

An interesting site that leads you through a bit of self-inquiry:

http://www.no-self.com/

Longing

You,
You have taken all

Now,
my joy is the sand
that is running through my fingers
unclenched

Now,
my wisdom is a ball of string
meaninglessness
being unraveled
into nothing

Now,
You have all
And all I feel is emptiness