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.”

Friday, December 16, 2005

Deepak Chopra on the Forgiveness Teaching of Jesus

Huffington Post is running Deepak Chopra's post from his Intent Blog. I often don't agree too much with Chopra's posts, but in this case I think he is right on the mark and has something important to say.

He's riffing on Jesus' admonition to "resist not evil," from the "turn the other cheek" teaching in Matthew 5:38-42. Chopra provides an updated version of the teaching:
You've been taught an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say don't resist evil.
If someone hits you, let him hit you twice.
If someone sues you in court to get your coat, give it to him and your cloak, too.
If someone forces you to go one mile, go two.
If someone asks you for something, give it to him. If he wants to borrow money, don't turn your back.

Here is Chopra's interpretation of the teaching:

"Resist not evil," if carried out in real life, would lead to a society of forgiveness. Horrendous notion! If we went around forgiving everybody, either they'd completely take over and dominate us or they might forgive us in return. This second option, which Jesus perhaps had in mind, is so unthinkable that the first option is the only one society considers viable. To forgive, as we now view it, is to show weakness, and those who show weakness deserve what they get: Evil will overrun them.

The only fly in the ointment is that Jesus gave in to evil and is worshipped for it. This moral dilemma has vexed the world for centuries. Now that morality has reversed itself and punishing all evil-doers to the absolute maximum is the most Christian thing to do, we can all rest easy. Jesus's most radical ideas have been washed clean from our memories and our conscience.
It amazes me sometimes how the teachings of Jesus have been ignored or forgotten (as Chopra is suggesting) by so many "Christians" today. He did not preach an easy path. Having been raised Catholic, I can honestly say that I was not taught the path of Jesus; I was taught the path of the Church. I think this is true for many Christians from the full spectrum of denominations.

However, I know many other Christians who do study the path of Jesus and try to live that path in their lives. These people are kind, generous, forgiving, and open-hearted, and do not discriminate against anyone, no matter what their church might teach.

When I think about Christianity, so often the image that comes to mind is the self-righteous, closed-hearted, bigoted leader of some fundamentalist group determined to make everyone live by his archaic and intolerant values. It saddens me that these people have become so prominent as to give Christianity--and Christians--a bad name.

There are many Christians and non-Christians in this world who try to uphold the teaching of Jesus that Chopra discusses. Maybe by their example, others will follow and this can indeed become a world of forgiveness.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person, 2005

After narrowing the field to the final three candidates by reader votes, the editors have chosen Victoria Ruvolo as Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of 2005.

Victoria Ruvolo, the Long Island woman who urged a judge to deal leniently with her assailant, got more votes than Rick Warren, the mega-preacher and best-selling author who is now giving away most of his money to help fight disease, illiteracy, and poverty in Africa. David Rozelle, an American soldier who lost his foot in Iraq and then returned to combat, beat out rock star-activist Bono, despite his work with world leaders to combat global poverty and injustice.

Victoria Ruvolo: Compassionate Victim

If a stranger brutally injured you, would you show mercy to your attacker? Victoria Ruvolo did exactly that in October, 2005, at the sentencing of Ryan Cushing, a 19-year-old whose "prank" had nearly killed her. Ruvolo, 45, of Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, was on her way to hear her niece sing in a recital when her car passed Cushing's. He was riding with five other teens who had just gone on a spending spree with a stolen credit card at a nearby supermarket. One of their purchases? A frozen, 20-pound turkey.

Cushing decided to toss the turkey into oncoming traffic, and when he did, it smashed through Ruvolo's windshield, crushing her face.

It took 10 hours in the operating room at Stony Brook University Hospital, a medically induced coma, and a month in the hospital before, miraculously, Ruvolo was able to go home. She still had a tracheotomy tube. Months of painful rehabilitation followed.

During her ordeal, Ruvolo was in touch with Cushing, who wept and expressed remorse for his action. At his sentencing on October 17, 2005, Ruvolo asked the judge for leniency. Part of her statement read: "Despite all the fear and the pain, I have learned from this horrific experience, and I have much to be thankful for... . Each day when I wake up, I thank God simply because I am alive. I sincerely hope you have also learned from this awful experience, Ryan. There is no room for vengeance in my life, and I do not believe a long, hard prison term would do you, me, or society any good."

Cushing was sentenced to six months in jail. He could have gotten a 25-year prison sentence had Ruvolo not intervened.

She saved that kid's life by showing such amazing compassion. Twenty-five years in prison would have ruined his whole life.

I have to admit that I voted for Rosa Parks and Bono in the early rounds, neither of whom made it to the final three, thinking that their influence was greater and the results more tangible in solving some of the world's problems.

But how do we measure influence and results. Surely Ryan Cushing can think of no greater impact on his young life than Ruvolo's lesson in mercy. How many among us can say we would show the same level of compassion and concern?

It seems to me that readers responded to the intimacy of the actions some of the candidates demonstrated. We can visualize and understand the significancegance and challenge of forgiving someone who has harmed us. It is nearly impossible to conceive of the work Bono is doing to end world hunger. Since many of the voters are undoubtedly white, middle-class Americans, it's equally challenging to understand just how important it was for Rosa Parks to stand her ground.

Still, Ruvulo offers us all a chance to learn about compassion and forgiveness. The world can use a lot more of both of these qualities.

Monday, December 12, 2005

An Article on Memes

Disinformation has posted a link to an article at New Dawn Magazine on the nature of memes. There isn't any new information, but it's a basic primer for those not fully familiar with the term.

The author presents a fair explanation of memetics, though he doesn't reference the concept of meta-memes, or Memes, as used in Spiral Dynamics. In fact, he seems to think that social movements and other widely spread memes have not previously been included in meme theory.

One other objection: he uses the discredited 100th monkey theory to explain meme movement. The original story of the "100th monkey" was a hoax. I wish people would quit using a false story to build their arguments.

Here is a little taste of the article:

The word ‘meme’ was first popularly used by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. The word ‘meme’ has come to mean a cultural accretion of knowledge, a package of several ideas that can be passed onto others. It’s usually more complex than a single idea, and can represent a fashion/music/lifestyle or a belief. It is the mental equivalent of a gene whereby a package of many attributes is passed on.

The science or study of memes in action has come to be called memetics.

A meme has been regarded too narrowly I believe, and I am interested in broadening the definition of a meme. No matter how narrow a definition you give to a meme, sooner or later you have to consider more nebulous or abstract ideas as having acquired enough cultural accretion to have become memes. It’s easy to conceive of a visual fad such as the hula-hoop as having a chartable spread through society and calling it a meme, but surely socialism, futurism or a new political idea are also memes that spread through society.

Memes like these, just as in any fad or fashion, have a zenith before arcing into decline. There will always be a few adherents of any ‘ism’ who may be the actual carriers of the meme, but eventually they may find themselves beached upon a shore that has no tides.

Someone new to the idea of memes might say: why don’t we just call them ideas? The answer is that memes act as if they have a life of their own. Whether they do or not is not the relevant point, but they do replicate and have a dynamism absent from our common notion of a simple idea.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sunday Poem: Rainer Maria Rilke

Sonnets to Orpheus,
Second Part, Sonnet 29

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how space dilates with each breath of yours.
Among the rafters of dark belfries peal
your own sweet tones. Your predators

will grow strong upon such fare.
Know transformation in its varied sign.
Which experience produces most despair?
If drinking offend, transform yourself to wine.

Be, in this immensity of night,
the magic force at your sense's crossroad;
the purpose of their mysterious plan.

And though you fade from earthly sight,
declare to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water say: I am.

(Translation by Robert Hunter, 1993)

Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875, in Prague, to a mother who had recently lost her first child, a daughter, and desperately wanted another little girl. His mother often dressed him as a girl and called him "Miss." At age eleven, his parents decided to divorce and sent their dreamy, sensitive son to military school.

Rilke survived his childhood and teen years, but they clearly left a mark on his psyche. He had completed his first book of poems before going to university, but they were imitative and immature. He published as much as he could, but most of his early work has been justifiably forgotten.

Rilke found his poetic voice through a relationship with an older woman, fourteen years his senior. Lou Andreas-Salome was also a writer, university educated, and a friend of Nietzsche. The affair did not last long, but it was a turning point in the young author's life.

Rilke continued to publish increasingly important work. But nothing in his early output suggested the eruption that would eventually occur. In 1912, Rilke stayed at the home of his primary patroness, Marie von Thurn und Taxis, in Duino Castle. There he wrote the first two Duino Elegies. Following the war, Rilke found his way back to Duino Castle and hoped to complete the series of elegies he had begun.

In a single month, February, 1922, Rilke finished the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in one of the most amazing literary explosions known. These two collections are considered by many his finest work. This is how Rilke described the period to his patroness:

Everything in only a few days, it was an indescribable storm, a hurricane in my spirit (as before in Duino) everything that is fiber and tissue within me was strained to the breaking point. There could be no thought of eating, God knows who nourished me. (Cited in Hunter)
What distinguishes Rilke from many other poets is the method of his creation. He was not a craftsman working on a few lines each day until he had created the poem. Rather, Rilke was at the mercy of inspiration, possibly even revelation. He claimed he did not author poems--he received them.

His later work moved away from the influence of Christianity, which was always a fixture in his writing, toward a more Gnostic transformative vision. He began to define an "inner space" void of distinctions between life and death, with all time being one time. For Rilke, only his poetry could express this beauty--the mystic's vision.

Rilke died of leukemia in December of 1926. He is best remembered today for his small book, Letters to a Young Poet.

My personal favorite of Rilke's poems is the "Seventh Elegy," which begins:

Wooing no more, no more shall wooing,
voice grown beyond it, be the nature
of your cry--though the cry be pure,
as of a bird when lifted by the
spiraling season--nearly forgetting
that it is a simple fretful creature,
not a solitary heart tossed into
the brightness of intimate skies.
The Elegies are mournful, pensive, and grand, no doubt influenced by the atrocities of the recently ended WWI. Still, they are filled with beauty, a celebration of life and language that erupts full-blown in the Sonnets.

The Sonnets are clearly lesser poems, but they have an energy and joy in the music of language that elevates the spirit. Some of the poems are better than others, but as a whole they contain the soul of Orpheus, the God of music and poetry--the lyre player. Another key figure in the poems is the young dancer, Vera Ouckama, who died at age nineteen and to whom the Sonnets are dedicated.

The central theme in the sequence is Orpheus's ability to move back and forth between the lands of the living and the dead, just as Rilke's Angel does in the Elegies. It was Orpheus who sought to recover his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld (according to Virgil), and fails when he is unable to trust that she is behind him and looks back to check on her, thus violating the rules of her release.

Orpheus is also known as the revealer of magic arts, as well as founding or making available various cults, such as those of Apollo and Dionysus. Rilke uses these elements throughout the Sonnets. It is possible to read in the Sonnets a conflict between the rationality/light of Apollo and the intuition/darkness of Dionysus, a conflict Rilke would likely have read in Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy.

The Sonnet posted above is the final poem in the sequence. As such, it sums up, in a sense, the meaning of the collection. He offers advice in leading a good life:

Know transformation in its varied sign.
Which experience produces most despair?
If drinking offend, transform yourself to wine.
He advocates self-knowledge, but he also wants us to embrace our weakness and fear. Through our weakness comes our strength, and that is why we must know transformation in all its variations. If we are offended by drinking and drunkenness, then we should become the wine--the only way to know ourselves fully is to know that which causes us discomfort.

If you have been reading my blog of late, you might see why this poem speaks to me. I am learning how to find the gifts inherent in pain. Rilke offers a path for such a journey for those willing to follow.