Sunday, July 02, 2006

Visionary Poetry 7: Orders of magnitude

There is perhaps a distinction between the infrequent Big Vision, which can be life-changing, and the ordinary visionary experience, which can be of lower dramatic content, but no less life-changing, over time. There are many legitimate mystics whose visions are quiet and personal. We hear most often about the dramatic experiences of the mystics, because in part we are addicted to drama, and think that all life-changing experiences have to come as rupture. Well, they might, but they're not required to. They can be slow and quiet, and grow over years into a restlessness that makes a person change his or her life because there is, finally, in the end, no other choice.

I think that the distinction being made between the Big Vision and the little vision(s) is a false one, an illusory one, because it it not in fact a difference in kind, but merely a difference in scale, intensity, volume. Either path of vision can lead us to where we want to arrive. And I think it also to be a mistake to think that little visions can give us only consolation (such a condescending word!), while only the Big Visions can be life-changing. I think that's a real misunderstanding that requires clarification at this point.

I am reminded of the tradition of quietism in contemplative meditation, which, over time, can lead to visionary experiences. But the root of the practice is to let all things rise, and let go of them, and let them pass on, without getting attached to them. This is Meditation 101, and forms of it appear in all of the world's sacred traditions; because it is so universal, it is not limited by or tied to any one religion, but in fact is fundamental to the human birthright. So, we can refer to it as spiritual technology.

Not everyone is temperamentally suited to having Big Visions, and in fact Big Visions can distract us from the Way, because they take up too much energy and attention, especially when other people start oohing and ahhing over them. The quiet mystic, who keeps seeing golden light in the garden of a calm afternoon, is no less a mystic, and the vision is no less a vision, for being less dramatic than having a blinding white light knock you off your horse (St. Paul), or angels dictate to you visual maps of cosmology (Hildegard of Bingen).

We are attached to Big Visions simply because we are attached to drama. Ego likes drama. Psyche does not require it, however.

Meditation, or contemplation, or quietism, is spiritual practice via several practical techniques of meditation practice, the gradual calming and silencing of the mind and the ego's need for drama and self-display. This is a variety of visionary experience: but it is, in the words of Meister Eckhart, "a sinking and cooling," an experience of the void of nothingness, of silence, of non-action. It is the opposite of Big Visions, but no less life-changing. The experience of nothingness, the Void itself, was one of my own key Big Visions, and it was truly horrifying, at first, to feel such emptiness. It was the loss of meaning, of the roots of everything I had believed to that date, and I struggled for years after that vision of the Void to try to find or create a meaning for my existence. (I wrote three Sutras about it, in that series of spiritual-exercise poems.) But the Void is also the place where there's nothing to be done, no big agenda, no great missions or purposes—and that is a relief, as well. The second vision of the Void that was given to me, was of a place of rest, calm, and tranquility. Nothing exists, and there is not meaning, so there is nothing to be done. What a relief!

I think it's possible to get too attached to the Big Vision, and the big dramas around big visions, and come to think that only Big Visions can be life-changing. Experience, and the mystical record, have shown us otherwise. Hollywood is very attached to the Big Vision; yet how much more profound are most small visions, such Little Mysteries.

Now here's a paradox for you: I personally am prone to Big Visions; I've had several in this lifetime, and written about them in various poems over the years; and yes, they've been life-changing experiences. Two of my spiritual teachers, who I view as much further down the path than I, and both of whom are very wise individuals—neither of them have Big Visions. They're both very intuitive, even clairvoyant, if you will, but neither experiences the drama of Red-Sea-parting visions that I experience. So, what's the lesson here? The lesson is simple: intuition is a birthright of us all; guidance is ordinary; visionary and mystical experiences are common and no big deal; they happen to everybody. My Big Visions, which I still get, are no longer so life-changing; they're cumulative, for one thing, and while the first few can seem like a Big Deal, after awhile they're all No Big Deal. The Big Vision becomes the ordinary, everyday little vision.

The whole purpose of practice, according to some visionaries, is to let go of the Big Visions, as well, and realize that visionary experiences are all very ordinary. The secret of enlightenment is really very plain and simple: chop wood, carry water. You don't need to do anything different after the Vision. You don't need to go announce it in the streets, and proclaim it from the hills. You can quietly create ripples of mindful action that have, in the end, perhaps more power to make the world a finer place, because it all goes on quite normally, behind the scenes, below the radar, out of the spotlight. The divine has in more than one tradition been described as "the still small voice," after all the Big Drama has passed on. And you can write poems about your experiences, and the ways your life has changed as a result: quiet, creative responses that create ripples that spread in all directions.

A good sourcebook for reading the mystics and visionary poets, as well as a guide to the mystical pathway, is Matthew Fox's Original Blessing. Each chapter is prefaced by lengthy quotations from various mystics from various traditions, and the annotated bibliography itself is worth the price of admission, and can serve as a reading guide for anyone who wants to pursue this topic. Numerous poets are included in Fox' listings, too, including but not limited to: Rilke, Yeats, Whitman, Vallejo, Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, D.H. Lawrence, Dante, others.

The first stage of the experience of the Void, the experience of Nothingness, is letting go of images and letting silence be silence. Silence doesn't need to be filled: not by our clamoring voices; not by anything. I have noticed, after all I've been through, that I am quite comfortable being silent with my friends; when we are looking at a beautiful sky, just being silent is enough. The vast majority of people can't bear the silence, and need, it seems, to fill that void with chatter.

Meister Eckhart:

God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by a process of subtraction.

The ground of the soul is dark.

Nothing in Creation is so like God as stillness.


Tao Te Ching: The Tao is beyond words and beyond things. It is not expressed either by word or in silence. Where there is no longer word or silence Tao is apprehended.

The paradox, then, is that behind the veil of drama that is the surface of every Big Vision, which we imagine must be life-changing in order to be authentic, is the quiet, even silent, slow absence of drama, and that is where the truly life-changing truthes lie, and are activated.

It is possible to become enlightened while peeling an orange. It is possible to achieve true mindfulness while doing nothing special. It is possible to find such inner stillness that Spirit floods in, with no hindrances made by oir filters and assumptions. All these things happen, every day.

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