Saturday, January 4, 2014

Three Poems Dancing Around Immensity


(1) I Sit and Look Out
by Walt Whitman

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill'd, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.


(2) Brahma
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

If the red slayer think he slays,
      Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
      I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
      Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
      And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
      When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
      I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
      And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
      Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.


(3) Still
by Alanis Morissette

I am the harm that you inflict 
I am your brilliance and frustration 
I'm the nuclear bombs if they're to hit 
I am your immaturity and your indignance 

I am your misfits and your praiséd 
I am your doubt and your conviction 
I am your charity and your rape 
I am your grasping and expectation 

I see you averting your glances 
I see you cheering on the war 
I see you ignoring your children 

And I love you still 
And I love you still 

I am your joy and your regret 
I am your fury and your elation 
I am your yearning and your sweat 
I am your faithless and your religious 

I see you altering history 
I see you abusing the land 
I see you and your selective amnesia 

And I love you still 
And I love you still 

I am your tragedy and your fortune 
I am your crisis and delight 
I am your profits and your prophets 
I am your art I am your bytes 

I am your death and your decisions 
I am your passion and your plights 
I am your sickness and convalescence 
I am your weapons and your light 

I see you holding your grudges 
I see you gunning them down 
I see you silencing your sisters 

And I love you still 
And I love you still 

I see you lie to your country 
I see you forcing them out 
I see you blaming each other 

And I love you still 
And I love you still


     The first two pieces have in common the quality of being manifestations of a spiritual resurgence in America during the mid 19th century, in some respects a last blaze of inspiration before scientific materialism put the spirit of the West in bondage. The third poem, in contrast, was composed in the very late 20th century, apparently as the lyrics to a song for a movie soundtrack (Dogma, released late in 1999). The musical version of "Still" may be heard here, or if that link stops working, maybe here or here. It's really a lovely song.
     The first and third are similar in that the narrator sees the human race at its very worst, and lovingly accepts us anyway. 
     The second and third resemble each other in that the narrator is apparently meant to be the highest Deity—a rather more Indian and all-inclusive kind of God than the standard Christian version who is eternally distinct from His creations. (The more or less Indian orientation of the narrating Deity is indicated by the title of Emerson's poem, and by the sitar-and-tabla-sounding music accompanying Morissette's song.) This Infinte, Ultimate Principle not only sees us at our worst but in a sense even is us at our worst, as well as at our best, and everywhere in between. "I am the doubter and the doubt." "I am your faithless and your religious." One obvious implication is that, ultimately, we are all manifestations of Divinity.
     A Buddhist might say that this is simply wrong view; that our ultimate essence is ignorance, or defilement, or sheer emptiness (that is, that we have no ultimate essence at all). But what is Nirvana? Isn't it the Absolute Good, unconditioned and without boundaries? And if it truly is without boundaries—and any boundary it might have would be the result of some condition—then IF it exists at all it is everywhere, and pervades everything: If it is in the mind of an enlightened being, it is also in an Adolf Hitler, and in a rabid dog, and in you, and in me. We're just not aware of it, while an enlightened being, presumably, is aware.
     I feel that the Hindu deity Brahma, or rather the non-personified, unqualified Brahman of the mysticsis essentially the same as Nirvana, although interpreted in slightly different language. The Hindu sages who composed the Upanishads, or someone like Ramana Maharshi, apparently experienced the same state as Buddhist sages experienced, yet described that state in more Hinduistic terms. And this despite the fact that propagandizing ancient Buddhist wiseguys declared Brahma to be somewhat of a fool, and to inhabit a rather mediocre heaven realm with many heavens above it, some accessible only to Buddhists, and none of them being Nirvana.
     So assuming that the entire Universe is always necessarily pervaded by this Brahman, or Nirvana, or God, or Tao, or Ultimate Reality, or whatever one chooses to call it, then really, what we are at the deepest level, is infinity and perfection.
     Consider a play like Shakespeare's King Lear, or James Cameron's blockbuster movie Titanic. They are tragedies, with plenty of misery, horror, and death. Most of the major characters in Shakespeare's play die gruesomely, with King Lear himself first driven insane with despair and grief; and in Titanic around 1500 people very realistically die a nightmarish death, in a re-creation of events that actually happened (in fact one of the main messages of the movie is to remind us of the heartbreakingly, mindblowingly intense fact that the horror of the Titanic's sinking really happened). Yet, when viewed from a higher level of reality than the staged or screened events themselves, both of these dramas are considered by many to be works of art, masterpieces, objects of awe-inspiring beauty. Even so, the "reality" in which we are currently stuck, if viewed from a higher perspective, even with its wars, holocausts, famines, etc., etc., may also be seen as perfection itself. Ultimately, we are already perfect, just the way we are. There is no real need to change anything.
     As I have said elsewhere, this is the only way the world will ever be made perfect: by realizing that it already is this way. By trying to fix things, in accordance with some ideal of how things ought to be in order to be perfect, or at least as good as possible, we may achieve the result of making life more outwardly easy and comfortable, but inwardly we become softer, weaker, fussier, harder to please, more jaded, more bored, and finally no more satisfied than we were before. There is no real evidence that people in the modern Western world are any happier than their ancestors were two thousand years ago, or twenty thousand, or two hundred thousand. We may have more luxury and convenience, fewer diseases, more outward security, but still we are not satisfied, and think things ought to be better—different than they actually are.
     However, it's not necessarily bad to fix things, or to walk away from them if they are negative and unfixable. In such a case we accept the way things are, and accept that it appears appropriate to fix them, or to leave them. The situation is perfect, the intention to do something is perfect, the fixing or walking away is perfect, and the final result is also perfect—if one sees it that way. It all depends on how we look at it.
     It is insisting on this ideal of how things ought to be that causes the most suffering. Nowadays so many people are burdened, maybe even tormented, by feelings of guilt and shame because they haven't lived up to an unrealistic ideal, and most ideals ARE unrealistic, i.e., in conflict with reality, with the way things actually are. Most people don't realize that this burden is unnecessary and harmful. But ultimately all this is perfect too, so I shouldn't complain.
     This awareness that everything is perfect may be a matter of the head or of the heart. If it is more head-oriented it may be called gnosis, jñāna, or realization, just to list a few of its names. If it is more heart-oriented, it is called LOVE.
     As Neem Karoli Baba used to say, "Always tell the truth, and love everybody."
     And whether you have this awareness, or realization, or love that miraculously transmutes the world into perfection and divinity, is ultimately up to you.


Walt Whitman




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