Thursday, August 22, 2019

poetry and the mind of concentration


Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections—language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who are, what we are. It begins, that is, in the mind and body of concentration. 

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors or perception open; James Joyce called in epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought "too deep for tears." Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person's every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can also be place into things—it radiates undimmed from Vermeer's paintings, form the small marble figure of a lyre-player from ancient Greece, from a Chinese three-footed bowl—and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the whole-heartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done. 

A request for concentration isn't always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in. A ninth-century Zen monk, Zuigan, could be heard talking to himself rather sternly each morning: "Master Zuigan!" he would call out. "Yes?" “Are you here?" “Yes!" Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest and boredom. 

Writers, too, must find a path into concentration. Some keep a fixed time of day for writing, or engage in small rituals of preparation and invitation. One may lay out exactly six freshly sharpened pencils, another may darken the room, a third may develop as add a routine as Flaubert, who began each workday by sniffing a drawer of aging apples. Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry, as Adam Zagajewski points out in "A River": "Poems from poems, songs / from songs, paintings from paintings." Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away. It is then that a person enters what scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as "flow" and Zen calls "effortless effort." At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. 

This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something "breathed in." We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery as revelation. And however much we may come to believe that "the real" is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if "truth" is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.

~ Jane Hirshfield
from Nine Gates, Entering the Mind of Poetry

clearance in the thicket of thought

In prayer, we come nearest to making a real clearance in the thicket of thought.  
Prayer takes thought to a place of stillness.
 Prayer slows the flow of the mind until we can begin to see with a new tranquility. 
 In this kind of thought, we become conscious of our divine belonging.
  We begin to sense the serenity of this clearing.

  We learn that regardless of the fragmentation and turbulence 
in so many regions of our lives, there is a place in the soul 
where the voices and prodding of the world never reach.

  It is almost like the image of the tree.  The branches can sway and quiver in the wind,
 the center of the tree, there pertains the stillness of its anchorage. 
 In prayer, thought returns to its origin in the infinite.  
Attuned to its origin, thought reaches below its own netting. 

 In this way prayer liberates thought from the small rooms where fear and need confine it. 
 Despite all the negative talk about God, the Divine still remains
 the one space where thought can become free. 

 There we will be liberated from the repetitive echoes of our own smallness and blindness... 
Prayer is the path to the secret belonging at the heart of our other lives.

~ John O'Donohue
from Eternal Echoes

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

passing an orchard by train

Grass high under apple trees.
The bark of the trees rough and sexual 
the grass growing heavy and uneven.

We cannot bear disaster like
the rocks-
swaying nakedly
in open fields.

One slight bruise and we die!
I know no one on this train.
A man comes walking down the aisle.
I want to tell him
that I forgive him that I want him
to forgive me.

~ Robert Bly

a story of war

When you are called home, when you are somehow struck by the absolutely mysterious and irrevocable desire to know the truth of who you are, then you must be willing to put aside every story of separation.  Every story of separation is a story of war.

Human beings have been making war in every culture for a very long time.  Culture is a reflection of the individual mind, and the individual mind is a reflection of the cultural mind.  Since you are reading this, I assume you are interested in peace in your own mind.  You are not waiting for them to make peace.  This is good news, because war is fought to get others to do it our way so that we can live in peace.  When you stop waiting for them, and instead shift you attention to your own mind, then you can recognize the tendency toward war in your own mind, the tendencies of totalitarianism, hate, revenge, and holding on.  And you can recognize the suffering that those tendencies continue to deliver.

Some how, in the face of it all, you find you want peace.  You are sick and tired of the war within your own mind.  You may even express it in a conscious prayer, a plea for help, for understanding, for deliverance, for grace.

Grace is here now.  It is knocking at your door.  You have a chance to be at peace in this moment.  You only need to accept the invitation of your own heart, fight now, regardless of outer or inner circumstances, and let yourself sink into the peace of your innermost being.

Unless all of us take the responsibility for our own inner peace, the wars will continue.  We cannot wait any longer for someone else to change, We cannot wait for someone else to forgive us so that we can then forgive them.  We cannot wait for someone else to say they are sorry.  Peace cannot be postponed.

~ Gangaji
from the Diamond in your Pocket

It was like this: you were happy

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent - what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness -
between you, there is nothing to forgive -
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating too, is a thing now only for others.

It doesn't matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

~ Jane Hirshfield

Thursday, August 15, 2019

by presence


The teacher teaches by presence. 
The language of presence is 
more powerful than all the verbalizations 
from all the languages from the world put together. 
It is the eloquence of existence. 

If you allow life to become your teacher, it teaches. 

But if you turn to books 
and want to know whether it be duality or non-duality, 
one god or many, one creator, or two, etc., 
if you turn to books and theories, 
if you want to dig into the past and base your perception on that, 
then the opportunity to live first hand would be missed.

~ Vimala Thakar
from Growing into Wholeness

our inner prisons

Forgiveness is one of the really difficult things in life.  The logic of receiving hurt seems to run in the direction of never forgetting either the hurt or the hurter.  When you forgive, some deeper, divine generosity takes you over.  When you can forgive, then you are free.  When you cannot forgive, you are a prisoner of the hurt done to you.  If you are really disappointed in someone and you become embittered, you become incarcerated inside that feeling.  Only the the grace of forgiveness can break the straight logic of hurt and embitterment.  It gives you a way out, because it places the conflict on a completely different level.  In a strange way, it keeps the whole conflict human.  You begin to see and understand the conditions, circumstances, or weakness that made the other person act as she did.


Why are we so reluctant to leave our inner prisons?  There is the security of the confinement and limitation that we know.  We are often willing to endure the searing sense of forsakenness and distance which limitation brings rather than risking the step out into the field of the unknown. 

~ John O'Donohue
from Eternal Echoes

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

what makes us miserable

It is startling that we desperately hold on to what makes us miserable.  Our own woundedness becomes a source of perverse pleasure and fixes our identity.  We do not want to be cured, for that would mean moving into the unknown.  Often it seems we are destructively addicted to the negative.  

What we call the negative is usually the surface form of contradiction.  If we maintain our misery at this surface level, we hold off the initially threatening but ultimately redemptive and healing transfiguration that comes through engaging our inner contradiction.  We need to revalue what we consider to be negative.  Rilke used to say that difficulty is one of the greatest friends of the soul.  

Our lives would be immeasurably enriched if we could but bring the same hospitality in meeting the negative as we bring to the joyful and pleasurable.  In avoiding the negative, we only encourage it to recur... The negative threatens us so powerfully precisely because it is an invitation to an art of compassion and self-enlargement that our small thinking utterly resists.  Your vision is your home, and your home should have many mansions to shelter your wild divinity.  Such integration respects the multiplicity of selves within.  

~ John O'Donohue
from Anam Cara
photo by edmund teske

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


~ Buffy Sainte-Marie


beneath persona

The person, from the Latin persona, was originally the megaphone-mouthed mask used by actors in the open-air theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, the mask through (per) which the sound (sonus) came.

~ Alan Watts

Walt Whitman - 1854

There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises,
 independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. 
This is the thought of identity — yours for you, 
whoever you are, as mine for me. 
Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, 
most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, 
yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts.
 In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth,
 (significant only because of the Me in the centre,) creeds, conventions, 
fall away and become of no account before this simple idea.
 Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, 
takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, 
it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.

~ Walt Whitman
 from Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose
 with thanks

identity and safety

You ask me how I became a madman.  It happened thus:  One day, long before many gods were born,  I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, - the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives, - I ran mask-less through the crowded streets shouting, "Thieves, thieves, and cursed thieves."

Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.

And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, "He is a madman."  I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time.  For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more.  And as if in a trance I cried, "Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks."

Thus I became a madman.

And I have found both freedom and safety in my madness;  the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.

But let me not be too proud of my safety.  Even a Thief in jail is safe from another thief.

~ Kahlil Gibran
from The Madman his Parables and Poems
art by Leonardo da Vinci

my friend

My friend, I am not what I seem. 
Seeming is but a garment I wear - 
a care-worn garment that protects me from thy questionings and thee from my negligence.

The "I" in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, 
and therein it shall remain for ever more, unperceived, unapproachable.

When thou sayest, "The wind bloweth eastward,"  
I say, "Aye it doth blow eastward";  
for I would not have thee know that my mind doth not dwell upon the wind but upon the sea.

Thou canst not understand my seafaring thoughts, 
nor would I have thee understand.  
I would be at sea alone.

When it is day with thee, my friend, it is night with me; 
yet even then I speak of the noontide that dances upon the hills 
and of the purple shadow that steals its way across the valley;
 for thou canst not hear the songs of my darkness nor see my wings beating against the stars - 
and I fain would not have thee hear or see.  
I would be with night alone.

When thou ascendest to thy Heaven I descend to my Hell 
- even then thou callest to me across the unbridgeable gulf, " My companion, my comrade," 
- for I would not have thee see my Hell.  
The flame would burn thy eyesight and the smoke would crowd thy nostrils.  
And I love my Hell too well to have thee visit it.  
I would be in Hell alone.

Thou lovest Truth and Beauty and Righteousness; 
and I for thy sake say it is well and seemly to love these things.  
But in my heart I laugh at thy love.  
Yet I would not have thee see my laughter.  
I would laugh alone.

My friend, thou art good and cautious and wise; nay, thou art perfect 
- and I, too, speak with thee wisely and cautiously.  
And yet I am mad.  But I mask my madness. 
I would be mad alone.

My friend, thou art not my friend, 
but how shall I make thee understand?  
My path is not thy path, 
yet together we walk, hand in hand.

~  Kahlil Gibran
from Poems Parables and Drawings


Monday, August 12, 2019

singing image of fire

A hand moves, and the fire's whirling takes different shapes:
All things change when we do.
The first word, "Ah," blossoms into all others.
Each of them true.

~ Kukai (774-835)
translation by Jane Hirshfield

Saturday, August 10, 2019

the larger circle

We clasp the hands of those who go before us,
and the hands of those who come after us;
we enter the little circle of each other's arms,
and the larger circle of lovers
whose hands are joined in a dance,
and the larger circle of all creatures,
passing in and out of life,
who move also in a dance,
to a music so subtle and vast
that no one hears it except in fragments.

~ Wendell Berry

photo Jane Goodall with a 
chimpanzee at the Tchimpounga 
Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Centre, 
Congo (Brazzaville).

with thanks to Love is a Place

Thursday, August 8, 2019

to be gentle

It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.

~  Tu Fu (712-770)
translation by Kenneth Rexroth