Poetry and Life: “Stufen”

I’ve recently been looking for new bands which catch my ear and speak to my heart. I love post-rock, and it’s a genre that’s difficult to wade through, in the sense that there are a lot of bands that sound similar within separate subsets of the genre, and if you like one style, you may only have a few other bands that really speak to you, but finding them may take listening through a lot of other stuff. What can I say? I’m a bit picky.

In any case, I found a German band, Frames, yesterday, and was impressed with their album, “In Via”. The second song blew me away with a sampling of a poem by Hermann Hesse, in which he’s reading his “Stufen”, which I had not run across previously. Furthermore, this poem is amazingly apropos for me, as it speaks of how every stage of life is transitory and how we must go through them with an open heart of joy. Even in death, there are further possibilities for ourselves and for the rest of the world.

Here is a link to a site with both the poem and the full recording of Hesse’s reading. I’m providing the poem here with my own attempt at an English translation, which I love to do but have not had the chance to in some time. If you’re interested in just the English, scroll down to it.


Original German:

Wie jede Blüte welkt und jede Jugend
Dem Alter weicht, blüht jede Lebensstufe,
Blüht jede Weisheit auch und jede Tugend
Zu ihrer Zeit und darf nicht ewig dauern.
Es muß das Herz bei jedem Lebensrufe
Bereit zum Abschied sein und Neubeginne,
Um sich in Tapferkeit und ohne Trauern
In andre, neue Bindungen zu geben.
Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne,
Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.

Wir sollen heiter Raum um Raum durchschreiten,
An keinem wie an einer Heimat hängen,
Der Weltgeist will nicht fesseln uns und engen,
Er will uns Stuf´ um Stufe heben, weiten.
Kaum sind wir heimisch einem Lebenskreise
Und traulich eingewohnt, so droht Erschlaffen;
Nur wer bereit zu Aufbruch ist und Reise,
Mag lähmender Gewöhnung sich entraffen.

Es wird vielleicht auch noch die Todesstunde
Uns neuen Räumen jung entgegen senden,
Des Lebens Ruf an uns wird niemals enden,
Wohlan denn Herz, nimm Abschied und gesunde!


My attempt at an English translation:

As every blossom withers and every youth
Subsides with age, blossoms every lifestage,
Blossoms every wisdom and also every virtue
In its time and cannot last forever.
The heart, with life’s every call,
Must be ready for the farewell and a fresh start,
In order to give itself to other, new connections
With mettle and without mourning.
And magic resides within every outset,
Which protects us and helps us live.

We should buoyantly stride through one space to another,
Hanging onto none as a homeland,
The World-Spirit* does not want to shackle and narrow us,
It wants to lift us from stage to stage, to broaden us.
Barely have we gotten accustomed in a circle of life,
And cozily settled, before enervation threatens;
Only those ready for departure and journey,
May escape paralyzing habituation.

Even the final hour will perhaps
Send us freshly towards new spaces,
Life’s call to us will never end,
Now then, Heart, take leave with health!

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Note: “Stufen” is more literally translated as “Steps”. In the poem, it makes more sense as “stages”.

* – Note: The “World-Spirit” is a concept from Hegel’s philosophy about the development of the universe’s consciousness (to put it as simply, and perhaps, overly ham-handedly as possible).


May this poem inspire others in making sense of the changes in life.

Gassho!

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On Communication: Affirmation and Clarity

Two very different conversations recently have made me ponder the importance of being clear with your expression about your intentions, beliefs, feelings, or values. There are many reasons for this, so let’s build up some clarity around this issue.

First of all, from the aspect of discussing complicated political issues, I’ve seen some convoluted rhetorical stances that ultimately can only be called disingenuous. If you rely on questioning other people’s positions as being too partisan while hiding the fact that you have no problem with a highly controversial position, do not be surprised that your subterfuge will only result in complete disavowal. Any good points you may have had were used merely as a rhetorical ploy, so the discussion is moot. If you’re going to be provocative, be forthright about it — affirm it. Then, you can create real dialogue. That dialogue must be based on the truth of admission of what your beliefs are and what your intentions are: i.e. it must be based on a hermeneutics of trust to be productive, otherwise it always risks doubt and dispersal. In fact, that’s the problem with a large swath of our news narratives today regarding politics; they’re based on a hermeneutics of suspicion, looking for hidden agendas, secret agents, and conspiracies. There may be truth to such critical analyses, but the problem happens when this style of meaning-finding reaches successively meta-levels of suspicion: the people behind the people behind the people are the real instigators of some ultimate evil plot! Unfortunately, this is necessary to a certain extent (political scientists and myself do find plenty of evidence for seeing oligarchy at play behind many machinations in current events), but it can get to conspiracy theory levels sometimes — thinking of some of the crazy stories of the “deep state” I’ve heard in the last year or so.

TLDR: if you want to have a meaningful discussion with others about a political issue, make clear your values, beliefs, and intentions. If you try to hide them while you merely attack and mock, you will be ridiculed all the more when your ulterior motives shine through, and even if you had some critically amazing points, they will mean nothing. Affirmation and clarity are needed in a conversation among equals.


Secondly, I heard a podcast recently that told the story of an odd relationship between a distant, disciplinarian mother and a stranger to the family in a traditional culture (seen as odd by her sons). The story ended with sadness amongst surviving family members of two generations regarding the reticence of expression — the mother never told her son she loved him, and the son only told his daughter once or twice. Having recently undergone the loss of my father, it made me stop and ponder the things I wish I asked him or told him. There are simply things I will never know but meant to ask for a long time, now mysteries washed away by the tides of time.

This has made me realize that mindful, clear expression needs to affirm the fact that we all die and could at any time. This authenticity, resoluteness in the face of death, if you want to be Heideggerean, should animate our language and interaction with those for whom we care. You never know if you will have another chance to say, “I love you!”, to tell someone to take care of themselves, to ask questions you may have held for years, or to resolve any nagging doubts from childhood. The chance to express, to question, to profess, to pacify, to let out, to let go in all the verbal ways possible, could disappear in a breath now, in the next moment. You never know. So please, make sure to reach out with your thoughts and feelings. Timing may be important, but life shouldn’t be lived as “Some day,” or “Maybe next time,” if you can say it now. Affirmation of ourselves, our values, and our purpose as well as expressive clarity are key to fulfilling intimacy in our connections with others.

With that, I’m adding three songs which have been pulling at many of the various feelings I have about my dad in the gamut of emotions that play through. Post-rock will always be the most expressive music to me for feelings, especially with no words to conceptually narrow the rawness. May it touch others’ hearts out there as some sort of clear expression of the depth of human experience.


Gratitude and Connection in Loss

I don’t usually make this blog about myself. It’s more about ideas, insights, moving forward on an ongoing path of wisdom and compassion. However, sometimes, what’s going on in my own life is key to that sharing – to potentially helping others find further progress and acceptance on their own. Furthermore, it’s healthy for my own processing of the confusion I’m going through.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have had very few brushes with physical death (versus the death of an idea, a relationship, a period of time, etc. with which I have much experience). I’ve had pets die and some great grandparents who were not particularly involved in my life regularly. A classmate died in high school. A family friend or two died over the decades. Otherwise, I’ve been more or less spared. However, now, at 35, I’ve experienced significant loss. My dad died a couple days ago.

I’m not sure if I’m in shock or have handled this great life transition with a modest amount of grace. I cried and was upset for the first few hours after having heard but moved on to feeling grateful for having had him as a father and feeling grateful that his suffering was short and that he died, rather than surviving his ordeal as a debilitated shell of himself — I feel that may have been harder for he and my mom to bear than saying goodbye on a high note, albeit sudden and tragic.


Sighs, creaks, heavy heart
Yellow blossoms spring to life
Greetings at the window

The morning after, I saw exactly that – the yellow blossoms of spring that grow alongside the Japanese cherry trees. This was my first time seeing them this year, and I immediately thought of the cycles of life and death, of how everything comes to an end — and how it might be painful, cold, and dark — but in the end, something new comes to be. Everything that we see and experience is in flux. As Dogen, the famous Zen philosopher, described it — it’s all being-time. The ashes of the burnt wood are no longer the wood, but they are the subsequent state of change linked but inherently divided from the past — a paradoxical threshold that shows the process, the lack of inherent essence to things: that point where the wood is not-wood and not-not-wood. In other words As Ovid said in The Metamorphoses (a title that in itself captures the dramatic changes of existence):

Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (Everything changes, nothing perishes.)

Yellow tree

The same tree in my front yard around this time last year.


I’m extremely lucky to have had my dad as a father. I can’t claim that he was always great, kind, or insightful; we had our difficulties — as do all relationships. That being said, few people have had the quality of excellence that he had. I’m taking this opportunity to take some inspiration from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in evaluating that my dad had a happy life and that he was a man with excellent qualities which are rare to find, an evaluation that can’t really be done until a life is complete.

I’m actually lucky to have both my parents as my parents. They’re equally amazing but in different ways. In an odd way, they’re like yin and yang – my dad had a keen mind which tempered an overwhelming greatness of heart and emotion. My mom has a warm heart that tempers an extremely powerful mind. Through the cocktail of their genetics and growing up with them as my models and teachers, I learned both of their strengths. My dad gave me the emotional warmth and calm that draws many to me, generating feelings of support and understanding, and he also taught me that these depths of feeling are not weaknesses unlike our current understanding of masculinity in American culture. In looking back on my time with him and his life outside of me, I have so much more to learn from him still, whether he is physically here or not. As above, he’s still “here” just as a different aspect of the process, a different being-time.


Our lives are not written. We write them. However, as we write, our story takes shape, and certain words, plot twists, and styles of expression become more and more likely to follow. We create words, a story, a voice in the universe which shines and reverberates forth as an unfolding path of neverending light–ever-changing, dynamic, but with direction. Rather than the gloomy story already decided, the tangled yarn of fate as usually understood, fate is both defined and indefinite, deciding and decided, bound and boundless, free choices made within discreet limits and an open future limited by the karmic consequences of choice. It is the paradox of luminous emptiness and karmic interdependence.

– From a previous post: “Fate???”

The term “karma” is very misunderstood in common parlance. It’s not about “what goes around, comes around” or mystical mojo. It’s a succinct and insightful understanding that our actions, even our thoughts, have effects. The word karma in Sanskrit means “action”. That’s all. However, karmic theory emphasizes that actions bring about associated events. It’s not quite the billiard balls of cause and effect that we modern Westerners might hold onto from the scientific advances from the Enlightenment. Think of it more like planting seeds. Planting a seed doesn’t mean it will grow into anything, but if you plant it, water it, and place it in favorable conditions, that likelihood goes up.

I can hear you crying, “Get to the point, good sir!” Well, my point is: I don’t believe in anything like a soul. The entire universe is a constant flux. All composite things are impermanent. I think that the concept of a soul is an attempt to make us feel better about our egos no longer existing. In a sense, it’s a natural reaction to facing death with self-consciousness. Yet, my dad will live on forever. How so? His actions, his karma, will resonate through the universe in countless, myriad ways both subtle and immense. This will happen through the people he influenced and the people they will subsequently influence, through the choices he made, and through anything else he shared in his time here — both “good” or “bad”.  This applies to all of us, we are all resonating instantiations of being-time, not objects, things, or souls, as much as a human becoming — an unfolding event of a human life that is intertwined with the entire history of the cosmos.


Raucous ribbits ring
Croaking Casanovas’ cries
Dark hides spring’s embrace

When I was running last night, inspired by memories of my dad to go running — an interest we shared, I ran through a sea of frogs’ voices, almost as loud as the similarly raunchy goings-on of a college house-party. It was thrilling to hear them crying out so loudly, so lustfully displaying nature’s vibrance — not even bothered by my feet clonking nearby.

These natural signs of change are quite meaningful to me in understanding the changes of life that are brought about by my dad’s death because nature was certainly his greatest passion. I can imagine him being just as awed as I was by the crazy cacophony of croaks that we lacked the wetlands and temperatures to hear in my home region. If he were a disembodied spirit, trying to console me (because he certainly wouldn’t want me to be sad or miserable), he would point to moments like the frogs to show me the wonder of the universe that is all around me, that change is an ongoing thing that brings both joy and sadness — it’s merely our interpretations of them that bring those feelings, not the cycles themselves.

Whatever he is now, whether merely an echo reverberating throughout the universe’s unfolding wonder or in some sort of afterlife I have yet to know, I’m grateful that this excellent person was so directly connected with my life and that he imparted his own kindness, heart, and wonder to me. I still have much to learn from my memories of him.


May anyone who has lost a close family member find their own peace and wisdom in these words, insufficient and cerebral though they may be.

Respir(it)ation

Air brushes in
Rasping gently through
Tight passages
Winding its way
Deep inside
Lungs fill
Oxygen crosses membranes
Blood absorbs
*Thump, tha-thump*
Heart beats
And the entire body
Is provided life
Breath, air, oxygen
Spirit

What was moments ago
Outside, separate, part of the World
Other, inanimate, simple gas
Has, in a breath,
Intimately entwined itself
Into the depths of the body —
Life, animation, blood and energy
Respir(it)ation
Me

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Blood flow returns
The waste, the exhaust
Exchange CO2 for O2
— Lungs never empty —
Inside for outside
Outside for inside
— The answer to life’s mystery:
A chiasm between inner and outer?
Between Self and World? —
Air pressed back out
As diaphragm asserts
Body becomes World
As remnants of
Respir(it)ation
Are secreted
This is the great secret
No separation
Where does one end
And the other begin?

Musings of an Aspiring Oneironaut: Interconnected Awareness in Dream?

I recently had a dream in which I went to a doctor — and there was a weird sexual temptation and gender-bending with this doctor, but hey, dreams are weird that way. I don’t recall the reason why I was visiting this doctor, but the doctor was known for having unique and alternative methods to address issues.

At some point, the doctor kneeled before me and induced a trance in me by looking me in the eye directly and asking me a question (although it’s a couple weeks later, so I don’t remember what the question was). The important thing was my answer. In my trance, my eyes closed, and I saw a beautiful golden statue of the Buddha. It emanated wonder and peace – a soothing certainty that the universe is an unfolding connection in all aspects, not only in those I like, and I felt myself dissolve into that interdependence. Along with this feeling came the words, “I love the Buddha. I am a Buddhist.” Yes, not nearly as profound as the emotion, but it capped off the whole experience and made it even more personal.

This feeling that I tried to describe just now is an intense insight that I’ve been lucky enough to feel a few times in meditative practice, an embodied experience of interdependence and the other seemingly mysterious and abstract ideas of Buddhist cosmology. Then again, I had the first experience of this before I had fully read up on these ideas, perhaps its what made them sensible to me – having already sensed them.

The interesting thing about the dream is that this is the first time I’ve had this experience within a dream. I have read a lot about all the amazing things that are possible in lucid dreams, but I hadn’t expected that deep meditative insight could be experienced in dream.

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I take this as an exciting inspiration. I have ups and downs with dream yoga, but this experience shows me that the potential of it is just as deep (if not more so) than waking life.


May this inspire you to feel interdependence in your waking life and to deepen your own pursuits of insight, whether waking or dreaming.

Gassho!

Dreams at Peace?

Have you ever noticed that dreams are almost never at rest? Sitting still? Peaceful?

As I pondered my dreams this morning, I realized that there was always movement — a going to, a meandering, a restlessness, whether with a purpose or purposeless. As this dawned on me, I realized that my dreams are always like this — in action, in motion. At some point, I’m certain that I’ve read about this as well, but it doesn’t really sink in exactly what this means and feels like until you’re experientially remembering it.

As I thought over dream experiences, I realized that even my conversations in dreams involve dramatically hyperbolic expression or movement. There’s never just a relaxed conversation over a cup of coffee or something like that. Rather, even a casual chat is as emotionally engaging and dynamically expressive as possible.

All of this makes me think about the nature of dreams. The only sensible conception of the Unconscious to me is the dynamically creative aspect to our mind which doesn’t come fully into expression. When there aren’t waking stimuli and thoughts to contain this creative force, it flows, moves, and becomes in a gushing series of expressive bursts. With this in mind, it makes sense that our dreams will seldom if ever be a calm, serene experience.

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As such, here’s a reality test: are you moving or at ease? If you’re not moving, how dynamic is your environment and any conversation you’re having?


May this bring new perspective to the distinctions between your dreaming and waking experiences.

Gassho!

The Shadow and Compassion

Recently, my dreams have seemed more erratic and emotionally charged. I think there are a few reasons for this.

  1. I misplaced my dream journal for a while, and even though I don’t write in it that often, it seems to have had an impact on my dream recall. When I found it again, my dreams suddenly were more remembered when I woke again, almost as though my dreaming process appreciated its reappearance.
  2. Last week, I underwent a bout of sickness that renewed my sense of mortality — my awareness of impermanence and gratitude for health are currently sharp.
  3. Recent events have made this summer feel like a charged examination of current cultural and social trends as well as the human condition.
  4. I’ve been reading a lot about The Heart Sutra and, therein, about the prajnaparamita teachings’ deep yet confusing pronouncements regarding emptiness and the view of no view.

Those dreams I mentioned have been all over the place. They’ve ranged from feverish problem-solving of work issues to brutal violence. The most unsettling thing about the violence, to my waking, analytical mind, was that I was perpetrating it, and although purposeful, it was still violence of the most disturbing and vicious sort — carnal murder with a blunt instrument of someone who wasn’t even fighting back.

My analytic, waking mind reacts to memories of this dream by lashing back, saying “I could never do that!” and “How horrible!” However, this judgmental simplicity covers over truths I know from both my academic and self-reflective studies. Furthermore, I recognize this quick reaction to be an attempt to shore up my ego-identity to fit a narrative in which “I” am a permanently righteous being, always wearing the white hat without any aberration.

Here are some truths I know to the contrary of my ego’s simplistic, self-defensive narrative: I know that the greatest finding of social psychology is that people do strange things when in strange situations. Study after study, ranging from Milgram to Zimbardo to Asch challenge our understanding of identity. Beyond that, my studies of Buddhism and existentialism make me question any simplistic appeal to an unchanging thing as the core of who I am. Even the most introductory of Buddhists should know that this is a concept to be cut through with Manjushri’s sword. Another truth: I’ve gone through enough life and have sat with my thoughts for hours in meditation, both leading me to know that I have a great capability for anger. If anything, it may be my greatest personal obstacle to overcoming reactivity for pure, responsive, and compassionate awareness. All of my experience in academics and in personal reflection lead me to know that I have a Shadow (as Jung would call it – but without the intended hard understanding of the term with a Jungian “Unconscious” at play).

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Knowing the truth of this Shadow takes me beyond the ego’s defense, and I have nothing to do but embrace these darker, incomplete, difficult feelings, for which I have a propensity. Those are all possible ways for me to be and feel, but seeing them, however, embracing their possibility even, doesn’t mean that I have to act out upon them. If anything, it allows me to potentially move beyond them to the compassionate awareness I just mentioned. Recognizing and accepting our feelings without repressing them or enacting them is a way to understand the emptiness of who we are and our connection to all other beings. Recognizing my own dark, destructive impulses allows me a point of connection with even the most pained or hateful of beings, giving some small ounce of understanding to see those current perpetrators in our world and hope to better understand how I can communicate with them to help them get beyond their own darkness.

When I think of this, I inevitably think of the closing section of Hesse’s Siddhartha, in which Siddhartha is shown to share the face of all people in Govinda’s mind — even thieves and murders. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do, and if you’d like to know more about The Heart Sutra, I recommend Karl Brunhölzl’s The Heart Attack Sutra. If you’re interested in social psychology’s findings regarding identity, I recommend this episode (The Personality Myth) of the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. If you’re interested in a more Buddhist take thereof, check out the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really AreFinally, to read more on dream yoga itself, Dream Yoga by Andrew Holecek is a good all around source.


May this help you see yourself as you really are and help you reach out to the world with compassionate wisdom.

Gassho!

 

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