This observation by Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and the subject of being vs non-being was a recurrent theme of the Bard. On one level the issue in this famous soliloquy was merely that of physical existence, The morose young oedipally-conflicted neurotic was serotonin-depleted and questioned that it was worth it to toil on against those “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” rather than opt for the “bare bodkin” (knife)
But a more substantive issue for Shakespeare than physical life or death was “being” itself—-”what does it mean to ‘be’ as opposed to ‘not be.’ This is best illustrated in Sonnet 146 when he lamented a “poor soul…pining within…painting thy outward wall so costly gay” while disregarding that inward estate which he saw as the real, concluding that we should instead “within be fed, without be rich no more.” (See http://www.artofeurope.com/shakespeare/sha6.htm)
Shakespeare saw that humanity had lost his way and was immersed in the ephemeral, making the mistake that John Masefield described as “like a lame donkey lured by moving hay, chasing the shade and letting the real be,” the state of affairs which C. S. Lewis later described as sin, “misplaced concreteness”. (For Masefield sonnets, see http://www.sonnets.org/masefield.htm)
The issue is an “external” reference point which…and here things get complicated…is not really “external” but “spiritual.” But to delve into the “spiritual” we must first use language…most of us anyway…and so we must use words like “external” to evoke images. Shakespeare was merely saying, “Hey, there is more to life than meets the eye!” and that is a message that humankind has always been averse to as it takes him out of the comfortable little orbit of his ego-bound day-to-day life. But, in spite of this aversion, there is still “more” out there and we ignore it at our own peril.
I have a thirsty fish in me
that can never find enough
of what it’s thirsty for!
Show me the way to the ocean!
Break these half-measures,
these small containers.
We are a composite of personalities, a composite of viewpoints that we had at earlier points in our life. When I was in high school I was a fundamentalist Christian, already a “hell fire and damnation” Baptist preacher who interpreted the Bible and everything very literally. So, when I came across literature in high school…poetry in particular…and was asked to understand and even interpret it, I was so frustrated and often angry as it made no sense to me. “There is nothing to interpret,” I would exclaim, “It means what it says” and often I could not understand it in the least. And Shakespeare, who I now love passionately and quote obsessively, was the worst of the offenders back then.
So, when I approach this beautiful poem by Rumi in the depths of my heart I can still feel that old high school Lew approach the poem with concrete thinking and remember my frustration and anger. But, that is only a faint memory for now there is another Lew, “literarylew”, and I grasp the metaphor and the imagery and am deeply moved by his wisdom. But I can always imagine how it must grab some people who might have the misfortune of stumbling across this blog. I’m sure they read this poem and, with furrowed brow and bewilderment, replay, “Huh?” And that is okay as our world needs all types of thinkers. This poem, and most poetry, is just not for them.
Now what happened between my high school days and this poetic awakening in my mid-thirties is another story for another time. Let me just briefly say, my life began to “come apart” (but in a good way) and the concrete thinking began to fracture and words began to come to life for me. To summarize, a spiritual awakening began which continues today three decades later.
Rumi’s poem reflects the passion of the Infinite that is always seeking expression in our life. To be more precise, we are Infinite in that we are an expression of our Source, the Divine, but we are trapped in this time-space continuum and often feel a longing to make our way back to the “Ocean.”
So, how do we get there? Well, we don’t want to go the Jim Morrison route of drugs and alcohol as it cost him his life at an early age. I think through spiritual practice, mature religious devotion, including prayer and meditation, we can occasionally get glimpses of that Ocean which we will swim in freely only when we “cross over” and return to our Source, the “Ocean” in this poem. And, I do think there are gifted souls such as Rumi who can “take a swim” occasionally or even quite often while still trapped in this time-space continuum.
But most of us must take the advice of T.S. Eliot who advised that spiritual practice is patient and humble, “prayer, discipline, thought, and action.” And, I like the observation of W. H. Auden who noted:
In the desert of my heart,
Let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of my days,
Teach this poor man how to praise.
Decades ago a friend told of her four year old son casually expressing his delight with a springtime morning, describing it as “puppies and flowers all over the place.” I was stunned that a child so young could capture the beauty of the world so eloquently and create a poetic image with complete childhood innocence.
At times I now see this pristine beauty that he saw and have faint memories of my own innocent apprehension of that beauty, though mine are “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” that Hamlet lamented. Childhood is a magical world and it is sad that we have to say good-bye to it at some point.
But, do we? Well, in a way we do for we have to enter another world if we are to become “human” though if things work out well we will always have access to that childhood innocence though it will probably come to us with some taint of “adulthood.” Children are our most precious resource and should be our number one priority. That innocence needs to be respected as it is the matrix in which the child’s nascent soul, constituted only moments earlier, is given direction and purpose. If that child is allowed to see “puppies and flowers all over the place” quite often, he/she will be able to unfold more as God intended than if he/she is buffeted my misfortune and disappointment most of the time.
These thoughts were inspired by a blog I read this morning from a friend in India who still has that childhood purity and innocence in her adulthood:
Too many good things confuse me especially in May when the flowers are out and wearing Rain, like hi-fashion ear drops. People look great, smiling. I talk to strangers, they talk back. What’s this ? It is beautiful, a Peace returning. Storms wear pretty coats, gray silver lining and gentle breathing songs. Koyal. Milkmen on cycles, newspaper boys fabulous eyes fringed with lash.
I must always go on these walks. I forgave Ms Lily K for the yelling I got flunking a Maths test and how I wept all over my blue pinafore that noon after school, pigtail come loose with shock and horror….
I finally forgave her ; she looked great with the morning light now bright in her little curls. Weird that we remember her curls now, so many dawns down the calendar since that day.
Walks should not be too long. I might bring down all my defenses, all barbed wire and put up friendly posts everywhere… uh. Just a lil walk ‘ll do. Too much heaven complicates this earthling…
I am so horribly uncreative, but I did create “tree therapy.” “Tree therapy” is what I used to suggest to my counseling clients who were having trouble getting out, or verbalizing, re haunts that were obviously troubling them. I told them to go into the woods and talk openly about what was troubling them to a tree, encouraging them to “just put it into words.” A similar ploy was to have them put “it” into writing and then ceremonially burn the paper. Sometimes I would encourage them to tell of their woe to a pet, and later to a friend, or a pastor, or family member, or to myself. But the point was to verbalize, to “get it into words,” or (borrowing from Shakespeare), to “unpack my heart with words.” And, to complete the process, it is necessary to take the advice of Richard Rohr and tell of the anguish or self-loathing to one other person, this being tantamount to “confessing our sins one to another.”
It is tremendously powerful to put thoughts and feelings into words. “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break,” said Shakespeare. And George Eliot advised, “Speak words which give shape to our anguish.”
Now, there is one other dimension to “tree therapy.” It was also very therapeutic to encourage clients to plant a tree, or any type of plant, or flower and care for it. This was to facilitate “getting out of yourself” which is a basic problem with most garden-variety neuroses.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews ch. 12)
I have always loved this verse. In my youth it was one of my favorite verses and I frequently used it as a text for my sermons as I was intoxicated with the ego-ridden notion of wielding the “word of God.” And even then I grasped the significance of the notion of “discerning” the “thoughts and intents of the heart.” I still believe in the Judeo-Christian notion of the “Word” of God having been spoken, that the whole of creation is His “Word” reverberating throughout this void that we live in. Of course, at this point in my life, I am wont to ask, “Now, just what does that mean? which leads me into this complicated, ambiguity-filled world of “literarylew.” (I’ve tried medication but it just won’t go away!)
Yes, I do believe that I speak “the Word” today but not in any special sense, any more than do you, or even those people who believe differently than myself. And, even more so, “the Word” technically speaks “me” just as it does “you” as it is a basic, guiding energy which lies at the heart of life. For, science and mythology tells us that the whole of this universe is merely energy…including ourselves…even though I still prefer to refer to that “energy” as a “Person.”
But back to that “discerning business.” This “Word” that I believe in is indeed “personal” and therefore is essentially dynamic; it is alive. When we come into the presence of life that is static, I argue that we are face to face with death. This is very much related to the scriptural observation that “the letter of the law killeth but the spirit maketh alive.” Those who live only in the “letter of the law” (those who are literalists, for example) live in a static world and according to the Bible, they are in an important sense, “dead.” And when this Word is allowed to live within us, to be dynamic, it does offer us a “discerning spirit” which often comes through the feedback from other people. This “discerning spirit” is closely akin to the Buddhist notion of “mindfulness.”
I have friends and a wife who frequently facilitate this “discernment” process in my heart; they give me feedback. And the blog-o-sphere also provides valuable feedback re my “literarylew” ramblings which, as a body, are very reflective of what is going on in my heart. Two of my readers are very well blessed with this gift of “discernment” though both of them would be given pause for me to assign to them this “gift” as they are hardly Christian. But the Spirit that I believe in, that spoke this world into existence and continues to allow it to cohere, supersedes all religious creeds and belief systems, including those who avow that they have none. These two individuals often cut directly to the “heart” regarding my musings and their blogs themselves approach the heart issues on basic life issues that we all face. These two people have the gift of “assessing” or “judging” (in a good sense) and providing critique of what is being said and of what is going on in their world. This is a “discerning spirit” which is often missing in our world.
I am sharing on this occasion Richard Rohr‘s blog as I have done occasionally. I will say as I usually do, I really should just shut up and post the link to Rohr’s blog on my blog each day. He says everything I could ever want to say and more. But, if I did that, then I wouldn’t have any fun in my life, would I?
Richard appreciates the literary nature of the Bible. He sees it as a “story’ and therefore needing interpretation. And, if you think about it, our own life and the life of humankind and of the universe itself is a “story” and it is the job of each generation to interpret this story…and various parts of it…and make it meaningful to the contemporary world. Richard does an excellent job in this hermeneutic endeavor with the Christian story.
A Big Surprise Meditation 16 of 49
I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever, and revealing them to the little ones. (Luke 10:21 and Matthew 11:25)
We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right. That might just be the central message of how spiritual growth happens; yet nothing in us wants to believe it, and those who deem themselves “morally successful” are often the last to learn it.
If there is such a thing as human perfection, it seems to emerge precisely from how we handle the imperfection that is everywhere, especially our own. What a clever place for God to hide holiness, so that only the humble and earnest will find it! A “perfect” person ends up being one who can consciously forgive and include imperfection (like God does), rather than one who thinks he or she is totally above and beyond any imperfection.
It becomes sort of obvious once you say it out loud. In fact, I would say that the demand for the perfect is often the greatest enemy of the good. Perfection is a mathematical or divine concept; goodness is a beautiful human concept. We see this illusionary perfectionism in ideologues and zealots on both the left and the right of church and state. They refuse to get their hands dirty, think compromise or subtlety are dirty words, and end up creating much more “dirt” for the rest of us, while they remain totally “clean” and quite comfortable in their cleanliness.
Adapted from Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,