Saturday, December 25, 2010

Another Little Bit of Rilke

Before Setting Out:

My brother Pat conversing with my 93 year-old mother
The title is actual.  I am literally writing these words in a hurry before setting out for a two mile walk in the snow.  I am on my way, encumbered by the necessary seasonal presents needless to say, to the home of my brother where I have been invited for Christmas dinner.  I'll bring my camera to take some pictures along the way because the snow is only "deliciously" inviting like the dinner I shall be privileged to enjoy in good company in a few hours time.  And, yes, today, like all days, I am setting out once more.  That's life I suppose a series of consecutive settings out and thankfully a series of consecutive arrivals until... until, we all know, there will be a last setting out and a final arrival... our own very last stop on the line.  Now, I'm not particularly sad today at all, lest you might think so.  No, this is the Buddhist sentiment and feeling in my heart, because the very thought, contemplation and meditation on the transitoriness of life allows me to live in such great appreciation of the wonder that life is in itself.

I was taking some photographs of snow scenes earlier today in the neighbourhood and spotted a blackbird singing in a snow-laden tree eating some berries.  It even sang.  (Unfortunately I had no telephoto lens to capture it).  If such creatures can just rejoice in the actuality of now, then why cannot we?  I know, it's the weight of our consciousness and self-consciousness.  All those little and big creatures in the animal world suffer, and indeed suffer much, but it can be argued that we humans suffer even more because we know that we suffer, and even the thoughts of future, not alone imminent, suffering makes us suffer yet again.  And so humankind is an intriguing and altogether strange being because he/she is oftentimes too damn caught up in himself or herself.  As the Buddhists say, in a sense, the world of things is an illusion - maya, I believe they call it.  We poor humans get caught up in this world of illusion upon illusion and become dependent on things and indeed upon people to an alarmingly obsessive degree.  We begin to cling to our thoughts, cling to our possessions and, even, cling to those who are dear to us.  In this way we multiply our suffering.  The whole aim of Buddhist practice and indeed meditation is to go beyond this clinging, to learn to let go of suffocating attachments.  And, strangely, the way to do it is at once simple and oh so complex (paradoxical in a very clear sense), that is, to observe everything as it is, every circumstance as it is, every encounter, good, bad or indifferent, with another as it is, to let the world of appearances come and go as everything and everyone does, as just that - as thoughts and feelings that flit through  the mind as images on a virtual screen.  In this way, we learn to let go, to let go, to go beyond clinging.  As I said just above, this is in a way a very simple thing to say, and also in a strange way easy to understand, but oh so hard (and complex- that's what I meant by the word "complex" above) to do.  Today, the reader will get a sense that I am rushing these thoughts as my sentences are pouring from me as I am conscious that I am pressed for time before I set out.

Footprints in the snow - not mine!
Anyway, that's enough by way of introduction.  Today, this Christmas day, 2010, I should like to offer another of Rainer Maria Rilke's poems to my readers by way of a stiumulus to further meditation or contemplation.  Today's poem is called "Ignorant before the Heavens of My Life." 

Ignorant Before the Heavens of My Life

Ignorant before the heavens of my life,
I stand and gaze in wonder. Oh the vastness
of the stars. Their rising and descent. How still.
As if I didn't exist. Do I have any
share in this? Have I somehow dispensed with
their pure effect? Does my blood's ebb and flow
change with their changes? Let me put aside
every desire, every relationship
except this one, so that my heart grows used to
its farthest spaces. Better that it live
fully aware, in the terror of its stars, than
as if protected, soothed by what is near.

Brief and Rushed Commentary:

These thoughts are by way of connotation and resonance rather than by denotation and paraphrase, the latter two being rather too simplistic and reductionist for the art of poetry.  Let me repeat again here, even if the readers of this blog are tired of hearing it, the famous line from a poem by Archibald MacLeish: "A poem should not mean, but be."  Hence, what I am at here are merely thoughts and feelings that are sparked off by the above wee gem of a poem.  The scientists say that we only use a mere 10% of our brain power.  There is so much to the wonder of the human brain that the mind boggles at the sheer numbers of neurons therein and further at the sheer number of possible connections between these brain cells.  Considering these astronomical figures one wonders if saying that we use 10% is over-stating the percentage of the brain power we use.  Another thing that has always inspired and intrigued me me is the iceberg model or image of the human mind or psyche.  This model of the psyche suggests that like the iceberg only 10% of it lies above the water line - that represents the conscious mind.  Then, what's left, that is 90% of the mind lies below the water line - this, then, represents the unconscious mind. 

There is so much about ourselves that we do not know.  As they say in psychotherapy circles - we know very much more than we are aware of.  In like manner I think of the Johari Window which is a cognitive psychological tool created by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 in the United States and is used widely to help people better understand their interpersonal communication and relationships. It is used primarily in self-help groups and corporate settings as a heuristic exercise.  It seeks to clarify how much we really know about ourselves and this famous window is another take on the iceberg model of the psyche. One can see clearly that the concept is related to the ideas propounded in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,  which in turn we may trace back to the theories about the personality first explored by psychiatrist Carl Jung and inevitably Sigmund Freud.   No wonder the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke puts it thus: "Ignorant before the heavens of my life,//I stand and gaze in wonder.// Oh the vastness of the stars."  In other words my introductory words in this commentary were provoked and inspired by these poetic lines from Rilke. Freud stated that the goal of psychoanalysis was to make the unconscious conscious.  Another famous quotation from the great founding father of psychoanalysis is:  "Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious."  He and his followers and certainly Carl Gustave Jung sought to interpret the dreams of their patients/clients, though Jung did so in a less authoritarian and didactic fashion than his one time mentor.

In line with all of this, I have long subscribed to what the follwers of Freud and Jung would say, namely that we human beings know vastly more than we are aware of.  Why is that?  Well that 90% of the psyche, that unconscious part, is also constantly taking in information from our environment and from our experiences in life with others and with things and with situations.  The brain/mind/psyche/spirit/heart files all this information away, albeit in an unconscious or unaware form.  Many poets and philosophers and artists have seen the human psyche/soul/mind/spirit/heart (I do realise that these words may have different connotations, even denotations depending on whether one is a rigid atheistic scientist, a rigid religionist of any view or hue, but I wish to use them in their most general sense and as being synonyms for what is essentially human about the human animal) as an inner universe tantamount in its infinite depths and heights and expances as the outer physical one.  I have mentioned how the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal used these frightening infinite spaces in such a way as did the twentieth century American poet Robert FrostRilke, to my mind at least is on the same wavelength in his beautiful lyric above.

Another thought that occurs to me is the Buddhist one of clinging which I mentioned in my opening remarks above.  This can be seen so clearly and obviously in the lines: "Let me put aside //every desire, every relationship//except this one, so that my heart grows used to//its farthest spaces. Better that it live//fully aware, in the terror of its stars, than//as if protected, soothed by what is near."  That is, the poet's personal goal is to go beyond clinging to things (every desire) and obsessive dependence in all his relationships and plumb his own inner depths or inner spaces.  Also we have in these lines, I believe, the desire to get to know his real self more and more thoroughly, even if that means facing one's own inner abyss, one's own inner terror (like Robert Frost and like Blaise Pascal)

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