Saturday, December 17, 2005

Birth of a Poet: First Meditation

The poet William Everson achieved his greatest fame while he was a lay brother in the Dominican order. He once appeared on the cover of Time Magazine under the title of The Beat Friar. He was friends with Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, and Denise Levertov, among others, who are central to the development of poetry in America during the 20th century.

Everson received attention as a Dominican as much for his persona as for the quality of his work. The poetry from that period was deeply religious, yet it contained a pronounced eroticism, nowhere more evident than in River-Root, the book-length poem of sexual union that was not fully published until after he left the Dominicans.

Despite all that, his most important work came in the final stage of his life, when he returned to the world and married. In this final period of his development, Everson adopted the persona of the shaman, and it was deeply authentic in his experience of it. He began the "return" portion of the monomyth (separation, initiation, return) when he took a job teaching at UC Santa Cruz. One of the classes he taught was called "Birth of a Poet."

A book containing the lectures from one year of his "Birth of a Poet" class was published by Black Sparrow Press (defunct) in 1982 (edited by Lee Bartlett). The class was on vocation as much as it was on poetry and becoming a poet. I once taught a small course based on the Everson class and have wanted to teach such a class again.

But here in this blog, I can present some of the ideas, with an added integral twist, and hopefully spark some conversation. This first meditation serves as an introduction to the topic. Future meditations will amplify various themes and concepts.

* * *
Meditation One: Vocation

Everson thought of the poet as a charismatic vocation. Vocation: vocare, the calling; vocari, to be called. We tend to think of the most noble of human professions as callings: priest, nurse, doctor, firefighter. To become aware of one’s vocation is to hear the call as it rises from the depths of the unconscious. Hearing and accepting the call represent the approach to and crossing over of the threshold between linear time and cyclical time.

Linear Time..................Cyclical Time

cause and effect...........synchronicity of myth
ego consciousness........expanded consciousness

Cyclical time is the only kind of time known to pre-egoic cultures. Linear time is a rational concept that is unavailable to all but the most advanced members of primal cultures. However, as we transcend linear time through transcendence of the ego, we again gain access to cyclical time, but it now exists in the form of all time being one time. This is a distinction that Everson and Jung were unable to make.

It's important to avoid the mistake Carl Jung made so often in seeing mythic consciousness as exclusively transpersonal, rather than recognizing that most myths and archetypes are prepersonal. Everson, as a Jungian, made the same mistake. In the list above, which is based on Everson's own dichotomy, some of the elements are personal versus prepersonal, while others are personal versus transpersonal. For Jung and Everson, anything not personal was thought of as transpersonal since they could only distinguish between personal and not personal. This is Ken Wilber's classic pre/trans fallacy.

I will try to be clear as I progress so that I don't fall into pre/trans fallacy myself. Many of the stories and myths involving a hero figure grew out of the transition from tribal, animistic cultures to cultures focused on "power gods," essentially the first emergence of an individual self unique from the tribe. These myths mark the transition, historically, from pre-egoic to egoic consciousness.

Joseph Campbell named the process of answering the call the monomyth, a term he borrowed from James Joyce. The monomyth is an archetypal process that occurs outside of linear time, fully imbued with the power of cyclical time. Jung referred to this process as individuation, the development of Self, the archetypal self. Self: that aspect of each individual psyche which is connected to cyclical time; self: that aspect of each individual psyche which lives in linear time (i.e., the ego).

Perhaps it might help to ground this idea in something we all experience. Our dreams offer the possibility of a hero's journey every night, the possibility of what we may be, the nature of our vocations, and the clues to our callings. Arnold Mindell, who developed a system of psychology called Process Work, focused on the concept of the “dreambody.” He maintained that all dreams occur “over the edge,” in cyclical time, and that dreams are about a new identity trying to happen but that has not fully arrived.

Many of us are still living on that edge. Someplace in our unconscious minds we are converging on what is possible, listening for the call. Some of us already have heard the call and are attempting to reconcile our lives as they are to the knowledge of what they can become. Most of us, though, still await the sign or symbol that will concretize the calling of our vocations. Our culture does not offer much in the way of guidance for this process, and it often ends manifesting as a midlife crisis or "spiritual emergency" (Christina Grof's term), or as some other event that totally shakes up our lives.

Every vocation is controlled by an archetype and its corresponding symbols. This comes not from the individual but from what Jung termed the collective unconscious. It is the human race which creates the vocation; all we, as individuals, can do is answer the call. The vocation can only be actualized if the response is in sync with the call. This is important.

Each of us possesses a unique set of traits and potentials--our inheritance. There is no one else who possesses the same set of skills and traits. There is a certain convergence of energies that can manifest only in one individual, and that unique identity demands recognition. Our callings offer us the opportunity to serve that identity, that potential of being, both consciously, through our outer lives, and through the unconscious, our spiritual lives.

Everson suggests that vocation is like love: until you have been awakened to it you can not know its truth. This is how it is with all forms of expanded consciousness, whether it's drugs, conscious dreaming, or advanced meditative stages. This is also how it is with death.

On the subject of death: Everson felt that

the whole mastery of your vocation is a mastery of the mystery of death. It is an approach to that mystery, because in death all our purposes are subsumed into another dimension; we achieve in death what we opted for in life.

Hearing and answering the call of vocation teaches us how to surrender and, in so doing, teaches us how to die.

"We achieve in death what we opted for in life." What an interesting statement. Everson was devoutly Catholic, but this comment has a very karmic flavor to it. We might interpret this statement as a suggestion that our next incarnation will be based on how we live this life, which is an essential Buddhist tenet. In surrendering to the call and living our vocation, we earn merit that may result in a better incarnation the next time around.

The idea of surrender is also contained within the Tarot card of the Hanged Man, active non-doing. We are taught that surrender is wrong, that it is a sign of weakness. But if we want to have access to cyclical time, we must learn to surrender; we must learn the art of active non-doing. We must learn to surrender self, the ego, to Self, the transcendent convergence of spirit and soul.

* we surrender to God if we are religious
* we surrender to the other if we are in love
* we surrender to the call if each of us is to know a true Self

If we are unable to surrender to these things, we learn nothing--we do not grow as individuals. Everson said: “You have to lose your life in order to gain it.”

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