Friday, March 13, 2015

"New possibilities of perceiving" - overcoming our cultural delusion

Poetry's work is not simply the recording of inner and outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving. ~ Jane Hirshfield
The power of poems, and of the best creative writing, is this ability to alter perception - not just the perception itself, but the way of perceiving.

Words have often failed us. Words combined with rational thinking and mechanistic science (also much of academia) have fooled us even more. That combination has given western culture a way of perceiving reality, the world, Nature, that is destroying life on the planet at scales not seen since that asteroid crashed into the planet and wiped out millions of years worth of evolution. It is because that way of perception is delusional.
It can help us do some things, manipulate some things, organize some things, but when it becomes a view that shapes our sense of ultimate meaning and our place in this world, it becomes quite destructive.

Desertification in China
The evidence is everywhere, spread now across a globe that is being swallowed up, consumed by industrial growth based on consumption of resources and manufactured stuff to feed the individual, fragmented self - if you are affluent enough to participate - which most people are not.

But because that way of perceiving, especially fragmented into the small units of the individual self fortified by culturally sanctioned self-interest (= economic thinking), has given us such comfort, provided such escape from things like mortality, our vulnerability before forces so much more powerful than we are, it has become our path of denialism even in the face of the ecological wreckage and spiritual death that has accompanied the way of life built upon this delusion.

It gave us the comfort of believing we could control life itself, life and death, mortality, yes, and force permanence onto the frail ego, force permanence into a living reality where everything is in flux, where everything dies, where everything emerges and will emerge, and then die again.

A world in which nothing we hold onto actually lasts.

And when you impose that kind of thinking onto reality, really bad things are bound to happen.

We desperately need new ways of perceiving.

Maybe that's why the resurgence of poetry within the non-mainstream culture gives me such hope. If you love poetry, you know that one turn of a phrase, a last line after the journey through the verses, or a stunning metaphor, can open perception in amazing ways, sometimes very painful ones.

So, too, of a good story, a searing essay, a work of visual art. This perceiving business is not always easy, especially in times like these.

The opening quote above appeared in a new book of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (about to be released). A brilliant poet, Hirshfield is also Buddhist, which adds profundity to themes of impermanence and perception that are so much part of her work. While we in the West keep trying to figure things out, to understand, life simply unfolds, the story of the cosmos unfolds, always changing in color, texture, form, even in meaning (if there is any). Western humans try to fit a story fully beyond our comprehension into a human framework, as if that is possible, as if 13.8 billion years of cosmic inflation after the first flaring forth can be fit into the brains of this one species whose brief appearance is a minuscule happening in that vast cosmic narrative.

Photo: M. Swedish
Aren't we merely lucky to be here at all, and to be able to perceive things like truth and beauty, to get up at sunrise and see what the colors and shapes will look like this morning, different from all other mornings before it? Aren't we lucky to have this capacity to be struck deep in our spirits by the lines of a poem, or the twists and turns of a story plot, or the one or two added brushstrokes on a canvas that changes everything?

Why isn't that enough for us - since it seems so much more worthy than accumulating stuff? I mean, along with growing the food and caring for the water and for the needs of one another on this once-abundant planet, why isn't that enough? Why must we impose small human meanings over this whole evolutionary narrative, then compete with other "meanings," and even go to war over them. Shouldn't our stories open rather than close us?

This is worthy human work - not an attempt to understand, but to participate in, to peer into, to be conscious witness, to enjoy the ride for as long as we are here...

The book review, which is about Hirshfield's new collection, The Beauty, offers this line from one of the new poems, "Perspective: An Assay." And here she is at her best buddha-poet self:

"Like everything just as it it, then just as it is, then just as it is."

Stop, take a deep breath, read it again, and ponder how much easier, less painful, richer, more tender life would be if that was how we lived.

Why isn't that enough for us?

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