Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Depth Charges

In his Fourth Letter to the young poet Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke writes, in the Letters to a Young Poet:

Don't be confused by surfaces; in the depths everything becomes law. And those who live the mystery falsely and badly (and they are very many) lose it only for themselves and nevertheless pass it on like a sealed letter, without knowing it.

Sam Hamill, writes in his essay A Poet's Place, from his essay collection A Poet's Work (Broken Moon Press, 1990):

When Marx declares "the bourgeoisie has turned the doctor, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, and the man of science into paid servants," he is wrong only in regard to the true poet. Even in Marx's lifetime, the patronization of poetry on any significant level was nonexistent. Even then, poets existed outside the comfortable drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie. By the Age of Marx, the poet has become a religious heretic, one who believes in divine inspiration and its revelatory powers, one who believes, indeed, that all religions are one, and that the revelations that serve as the roots of religion are in fact expressions of the poetic experience. Or, as [Octavio] Paz says, that “religion is the poetry of mankind.”

In the twentieth century, we see such poets as Rilke, Yeats, Eliot and H.D. becoming immersed in hermetic studies, in explorations of comparative religions; we find Rexroth schooling himself deeply in all the world’s major religions, and especially in Buddhism and Gnosticism; we find Robert Duncan’s explorations of the Talmudic tradition and Gary Snyder’s search for the continuous thread that leads from primitive shamanism up through the ages into materialist culture.

This search for origins, for ancestry, is the search for a sense of place in a culture which has no means for justification of the spiritual exercise of divine revelation. The poet returns to tribal culture and gathers a few initiates into the spiritual community, into the secret society of poetry.


I identify with Snyder’s search for “the continuous thread.” I have undertaken a similar search myself, beginning at a very young age:

It is 7th Grade at Tappan Junior High School in Ann Arbor, MI; I am 13 years old. In my Civics class that year, I discovered for the first time how the Christian holiday festivities I had taken for granted my whole life were borrowed or stolen from existing pre-Christian holidays, such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Yule or Tannenbaum trees. This was revelatory: I realized at that age that all religious practices have a timeline of historical development. Later on, in graduate school, reading David Lowenthal's book The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge University Press, 1985), I came to realize that every tradition is an invented tradition. In fact, I realized that in this 7th Grade Civics class, in our weeks-long unit on comparative religion; but I was unable to articulate it clearly until I had read Lowenthal, years later.

Some insights sink into the bone, even before you have words to express them: and that is what poetry is for. Some things are best expressed in poetry, and song.

That same year, in that religious studies unit of that same Civics class, I read for the first time Huston Smith's classic of comparative religious studies, The Religions of Man. I had spent the first half of my childhood in southern India: I was the only person in my Civics class who had seen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam being practiced at first hand, in my presence. I had a feel for comparative religion that my classmates didn't share; I think my teacher recognized it, though, because in retrospect I believe she encouraged me to go further with my studies than most of my classmates did.

I also at that time began to read a classic anthology of spiritual literature: The Choice Is Always Ours, ed. by Dorothy Phillips, Elizabeth Howes and Lucille Nixon (originally published in the middle of the 20th Century; there is in print a 1989 unabridged reprint from HarperCollins). This tremendous anthology contains large excerpts, organized thematically, of spiritual, religious, and psychological literature. Looking back, I am sure that this book was my first introduction to the writings and sayings of Rainer Maria Rilke, Carl Gustav Jung, Meister Eckhart, Sheila Moon, and many other writers I now view as central to my education: my mentors. I had already read Moon’s young-adult novel, Knee Deep In Thunder, which is based on the Navajo creation myths—which Moon had also written a nonfiction study of, from a poet’s and Jungian’s perspective—and I had already started reading and studying all I could find about the Navajo (Dineh) people. The Choice Is Always Ours became for me both a guide and index for who I needed to go search and read in more depth, and a kind of a substitute bible. Since bible essentially means a collection of books, I began at that time to collect together my own books, into my own personal ur-bible. I still keep a collection of books, only it is very much larger now; but there is a small subset of books I keep on hand to read, and reread, and a few of which I always take with me when I travel.

All this information about religion was revelatory to me. It began my life-long tendency to Question Authority. It was the beginning of my understanding that life is always more rich and complex than you believe it to be. It began a life-long study of the history of ideas. It was also the beginning of the end of my unthinking devotion to the faith of my parents, who were rationalistic Lutherans. (Lutherans tend to be pragmatic; they largely don't believe in mysticism. They are devoted to improving the quality of life of this world, in fact the reason I grew up in India was because my father was a doctor who spent ten years doing medicine, and teaching it, in India, sponsored by the Lutheran Church in America.) This was the time of my life I began to realize that I was a mystic, although, again, I did not have the language to describe it at that time. I had already been seeing visions of other levels of reality, which were largely ignored or dismissed by the rationalist branch of Lutheranism that was the norm of the church my parents attended. (The pastor at our church in Ann Arbor was personally very supportive of me, but he didn’t pretend to understand me.) We had a lot of college people, professors and staff, at that church. We had a terrific church choir, because the choir director was also a choir director at the University of Michigan. I sang in that choir out of the pleasure of singing, for several years after I had lost all faith in Christianity. This time, when I was age 13, was when I began to lose that childhood faith. By the time I finished confirmation studies, at age 15, and was confirmed, I no longer considered myself any species of ordinary Christian. Everyday Christianity could no longer fulfill my needs, and no longer spoke to me rationally or theologically.

What I did understand, at age 13, and what I was able to articulate to myself, even then, was that all the existing religions had forerunners: None of them had sprung out of whole cloth, in the fixed forms in which they now existed. None had sprung forth fully formed, by divine fiat. They had all evolved. All of them had accrued cultural habits of practice that may or may not have been true to their original revelations. (Go look up why Catholics eat fish on Friday: the reason for that is nowhere in the Bible.) I began a quest of study for myself, at age 13, to search for what I then formulated as “the original religion.” I formulated this, even at that time, as the spiritual revelations, experiences, and sacred technologies that underlie all the world’s existing religious institutions. I set about to study religions almost as an anthropologist would, and within 3 or 4 years of reading, felt I had found something of an answer to my quest. Others had made the same search before me, and written about it:

My search for the original religions led me, eventually, to shamanism, what Mircea Eliade in his groundbreaking academic study of shamanism termed archaic techniques of ecstasy. Shamanism, I discovered, was ecumenical: it exists, or existed, in every cultural stream, in every civilization or tradition, in every culture, worldwide. Shamanism is a spiritual technology, not a religion. You can be a practicing member of any of the dominant organized religions, and still be a shaman. Shaman deal with the divine, or its helper spirits, directly, on many levels. Shaman tend to be pantheistic, or panentheistic. As a Tungus shaman once told an anthropologist: Everything that is, is alive. This is what I discovered, in my religious studies, as the best candidate for ‘the oldest religion”—even though, technically, it’s not a religion, but a set of near-universal ecstatic practices, trance states, ecopoetry, and pharmacology. Shamanism is everywhere, even if it has been subsumed by later ritual practices, or condemned by later orthodoxies. Shamanism is universal, and heterodox. And shamanism, as are all spiritual technologies, is a form of pragmatic or practical mysticism. This is the worldview I have come to subscribe to, more deeply than any other.

So, my somewhat precocious search for the roots of religion led me eventually to mysticism—which, in its depths, is the same as poetry. Poetry for me remains a taproot to the divine. I am a poetic heretic in this rational, language-based day and age, and I proudly admit it: for me, poetry at its best is never about just the mind or intellect, never about playing word games, never about intellectual puzzlery, never about academic theorizing. Poetry at its best, for me, is revelatory, divine, deep, resonant, spiritual, evocative, concretely imagistic, and, yes, inspired. I find most modern poetry, with its focus on self-conscious self-revelation—the celebration of the self—to be shallow. Even poems I admire, but poets I admire, in this modern age, lack spiritual depth. I agree with Gary Snyder when he says, As a poet, I hold the most archaic values on earth. I agree with this sentence; my artistic inspirations are paleolithic as often as they are modern, and they intermingle with each other, with complex, fractal edges. As a poet, I am of this paleolithic, ancient tradition, as well.

So: All my life, poetry has been my mysticism, and mysticism has been my religion. I subscribe to no creed favored by established, organized religions. (I prefer what you might call disorganized religions.) Yet I do find wisdom and truth in the creeds of all the world’s great religions. I find great poetry in their wisdom traditions. I have felt it to be true, since I was a boy, that at their hearts, in their depths, at their roots, all the world’s great religions have an essentially similar mystical experience, of Union with the Divine. The differences between the religions, I feel, grow out of their local languages, customs, and beliefs—those local systems of mythology that color perception of the Undescribable. At their cores, all of the religions speak of similar things; and it is most remarkable how the mystical teachings and writings, of all these diverse religions, all depict some very similar, even identical, wisdom teachings.

And, just as it was for many of those poets, artists, and musicians, who I deeply admire and emulate, and who I view as my mentors, creativity is my spiritual practice. And Frederick Franck has said, Art is a Way.

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