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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole.

At the same time, however, Stevens’ lines illustrate a prominent element of the English language and a dominant tendency of the Western mind, namely a propensity to divide undifferentiated reality into its constituent and often opposing parts. In the last two lines in particular, the totality of human experience is divided into “pleasures” and “pains.” Employing the rhetorical device of parallelism, Stevens links the former with the fecundity of summer and the latter with winter’s cold austerities.

The mind that so divides is sometimes called dualistic. Viewing the world from the vantage point of the private ego, the dualistic mind divides reality into “self” and “other,” “mine” and “yours,” and “this” and “that.” As the philosopher Fr. Richard Rohr has noted, dualistic thinking is “essentially binary. It is either/or thinking. It knows by comparison, by opposition, by differentiation. It uses descriptive words like good/evil, pretty/ugly, intelligent/stupid, not realizing there may be 55 or 155 degrees between the two ends of each spectrum.” In Rohr’s view, dualistic thinking has become “the ‘hardware’ of almost all Western people.” And though it is both necessary and effective for navigating everyday life, it can also keep us from seeing people and things as they truly are. In Rohr’s words, dualistic thought “works well for the sake of simplification and conversation, but not for the sake of truth or even honest experience.” Dualistic thinking, he concludes, “is great stuff as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The dualistic mind cannot process things like infinity, mystery, God, grace, suffering, death, or love. When it comes to unconditional love, the dualistic mind can’t even begin to understand it.”

And what (to pose a dualistic question) might be the alternative to dualistic thinking? One venerable alternative may be found in traditional Asian poetry, specifically the art of haiku. Here, by way of example, is a haiku by the Japanese poet Yosa Buson (1716–1783):

              Silence

              of an oak grove

              the moon high in the trees

In these elegant lines, as in Stevens’ poem, the poet represents a state of being through the description of natural phenomena. But here the strategy is not to divide the chosen subject into its component parts, which the poem will subsequently reconcile. Rather, Buson’s language serves to amplify and clarify the presence of the whole: the moon in the silent oak grove. By so doing, Buson closes the distance between that presence and the reader, creating a heightened sense of immediacy. And, not least, his spare but potent language, void of comment, judgment, or comparison, evokes what Rohr has elsewhere called the “silence around the words.” Precisely because the moon in the oak grove is not being opposed or likened to anything else, Buson’s haiku invites us to honor and contemplate the moon’s mysterious presence, just as it is.

The habit of dualistic thinking is deeply embedded in our culture and our psyches. Almost from the cradle, we are conditioned to divide the world into its separate parts, often creating conflict where none inherently exists. But as Stevens’ poem vividly illustrates, balance and reconciliation are also possible, chiefly through the vehicle of the poetic imagination. And as Buson’s haiku reminds us, the practice of non-dualistic, egoless contemplation, so central to Zen and other meditative traditions, can be more than an ennobling daily activity. It can also be a constructive counterweight to the all-pervasive and frequently destructive habit of division.


Fr. Richard Rohr, “The Egoic Operating System,” adapted from Rohr, A New Way of Seeing, A New Way of Being

Yosa Buson, Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento (Copper Canyon, 2013), 216 (807)

 

 

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194. The specter of impermanence

All conditioned things, Zen teachings tell us, are impermanent. A conditioned thing is a phenomenon that arises from contingent causes and conditions. A pickup truck, a million-dollar home in California, a relationship, thought, or state of mind—all arise from particular causes and conditions;  all are subject to what Zen calls the “law of impermanence.” (more…)

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In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. (more…)

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192. A singular image

Last month I read a book I hadn’t intended to read. Entitled The Camera Does the Rest, it is an illustrated history of the Polaroid camera. Its author, Peter Buse, chronicles the creation, the triumphant success, and the sad demise of the Polaroid phenomenon in twentieth-century American culture. More broadly, he assesses the impact of Edwin Land’s brilliant if rather bulky invention, once considered near-miraculous, in the history of photography. There had been nothing quite like it before, and though it foretold the digital era, its unique properties have yet to be fully replicated by digital technology. (more…)

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I once had a neighbor who rarely stopped complaining, chiefly about his ailments. On one day it was his allergies, on another his asthma. On rare occasions, when his body was being relatively compliant, his monologues might briefly turn to other matters, but sooner rather than later they came back to his maladies. He seemed incapable of changing the subject.

However pronounced, my neighbor’s habit of mind was not all that unusual. The activity of complaining is as embedded in human nature as the verb describing it is in the English language. Complain derives from the Latin plangere, which means “to lament or bewail.” From the same root come plaintive, plangent, and of course complaint.  If you are of a certain age, you may recall that physical afflictions and disorders, which are now euphemistically called “issues,” were once known as complaints. There were back complaints, neck complaints, stomach complaints, and many more. Some were real, others imagined. All caused the sufferer to complain, which is say, lament, often to no avail. (more…)

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ENSO by Shinge RoshiThe British poet Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) once described words as repositories of meanings. Those meanings may be social, historical, or political. They may also be hidden or manifest, dormant or active. The word silly, for example, once meant “innocent,” as in “the silly sheep,” but that meaning is no longer current. By contrast, the original meanings of other words may be extant in one culture but not in another, though the two share a common language.

Nature is one such word. In ordinary usage, nature refers to a physical world apart—or seemingly apart—from the human: the world of stars and planets, mountains and rivers, flora and fauna. But as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, the word nature could also refer to a quality altogether human: one’s “natural feeling and affection” (O.E.D.). Thus, in 1841, the English cleric Charles Henry Hartshorne could observe that “There’s often more nature in people of that sort than in their betters.” Commoners, in other words, often expressed more natural feeling than did the lords and ladies. By the end of the nineteenth century, lexicographers had deemed that older meaning archaic, at least in England. But in Ireland, it has persisted into the present century. In Brendan Behan’s play The Quare Fellow (1954), a prison guard who has just learned that a fellow guard has done him a favor responds by saying, “I’m more than grateful to you. But sure I’d expect no less from you. You’re all nature.” (more…)

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189. Inner weather

                                      

                                       That day she put our heads together,

                                       Fate had her imagination about her,

                                       Your head so much concerned with outer,

                                       Mine with inner, weather.

                                                 — Robert Frost, “Tree at My Window”

If you pay attention to your inner life, you may have noticed how your experience of the world around you conditions your states of mind. Sitting with friends on a summer afternoon, you feel happy and relaxed. Watching the evening news, you feel tense and depressed. What may have escaped your notice, however, is the degree to which your mental states condition your experience of the world. “I feel different now,” my granddaughter remarked, having fallen and broken a front tooth, “and the world feels different, too.” In ways less dramatic and often less apparent, that is true for us grown-ups as well.

In Buddhist psychology, the part of our makeup that causes us to feel one way or another is known as a “mental formation.” According to traditional Buddhist teachings, the so-called self consists of five components, known as “form” (physical body), “feelings” (sensations), “thought” (perceptions), “mental formations,” and “consciousness.” Like the other components, mental formations are constantly in flux. They pass through our minds like changing weather. But while a particular mental formation is present, it mediates between our raw sensory impressions and our awareness of the world.  It influences and may determine how we think, speak, and act. If, for example, the mental formation craving is present, we are likely to grasp, or try to grasp, the manifold things we encounter. By contrast, if the formation mindfulness is present, we are likely to see those objects clearly and allow them to remain as they are.

Mental formations might be likened to filters, through which we screen the evidence of our senses. At any given moment, what we call the world is in reality an immediate sensory impression—the bark of a dog, the smell of gas, a roseate evening sky—perceived through the medium of whatever mental formation might be present. In a microsecond, what began as a pure impression becomes a complex of thought and feeling, as we superimpose on that impression our personal and cultural memories, our moral concepts, and our fixed opinions. Together this multilayered amalgam becomes what we call our experience. (more…)

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