National Book Award winning poet Robert Bly, now 83, has been an icon and a formidable force in the cultural and spiritual movement of America and the Western world since the 1960’s.
When he translated the Bhakti poetry of Kabir in the early 1970s, and a few years later requested his friend Coleman Barks to translate Rumi’s poetry into contemporary American English, he spawned a growing literary and spiritual revolution in America.
Indeed, Robert Bly is one of the main forces behind why the medieval Sufi poet Rumi is one of the most read poets in America today, and why so many of us are able to quote his ecstatic love poetry to our friends and beloveds.
Robert Bly was even featured on the cover of Yoga Journal once. Given the current market’s penchant for female fitness stars, featuring this fierce yogi of the heart on the magazine’s cover would be unthinkable today.
Robert Bly has become a dear friend and mentor over the years and has visited the Prama Institute, the retreat and seminar center I co-founded, for the past couple of years to give readings and workshops on poetry and spirituality.
Last year, he gave an incredible reading of his translations of Rumi and Hafez set to Middle-eastern jazz improvisations. He ended the reading by encouraging the 300 people in the audience to stand up and chant: Allah! Allah! Allah! We did this enthusiastically to the accompaniment of energetic drums and fast, limber strings. Since the chanting took place in the Bible belt, it was an awesome and rebellious expression of universalism.
Late that night, he and I sat up in the hot, humid air eating ice-cream. Full of stories, he had insisted on a large bowl of ice-cream at midnight! The next morning he was sick as a dog, throwing up wild fountains of slimy whiteness, as if from the cold depths of wintry Minnesota where he lives!
Hence, I had to entertain the 50 workshop participants with stories and poetry, hoping Robert would quickly get better and that the students would not leave out of frustration, demanding their money back. (Indeed, three of them had already left)
When Robert finally showed up, he looked extremely sick and could hardly talk. We told him to go to the doctor. Thinking that the whole event and all the profit had gone down the toilet, I started to panic.
In the midst of all this, while one of the participants read a poem, an older woman, the dancer Ann Igoe, came up to me and whispered sweetly but firmly into my ear: “Please conduct a healing for Robert!”
“I am not a healer,” I protested.
“Just do it,” she said.
And I did.
For the next 10 minutes, I had the whole crowd close their eyes and breathe deep breathes of love and healing towards the ailing 82 year old poet Robert Bly, who at the time was in the emergency waiting room with a friend of mine.
A few minutes after our incredible healing session (I swear we all felt as one shiny breath of love), my cell phone rang. It was my friend Sid.
“You won’t believe this,” he said. “Robert was just about ready to see the doctor, but now he suddenly feels much better. He does not even want to see the doctor. We are coming back.”
Indeed, Robert Bly came back, and he kept on teaching for seven hours that day. In the evening, we invited him to dinner at a Thai restaurant in Asheville. He smiled and laughed, ate spicy food and told stories and recited poetry. As if nothing had happened earlier that day.
The next morning, a few minutes after 5 AM, he came out of the bathroom, ready to drive to the airport. But first he had to recite the poetry of Yates, all the stanzas came flowing effortlessly, from old habit and the fondness of memory.
Then he said to me: “What this country needs is praise. The kind of praise that Rumi and Kabir sang about.”
What Robert Bly means is that America needs Bhakti Yoga. Love poetry and love songs to God. Love songs hurled like dancing arms into the wind of open Spirit.
More than the latest yoga mat, more than the latest health food fad, what America needs is the fierce grace of spiritual praise!
Here is an interview I did with Robert Bly on ecology, spirituality, and the capitalist market-place. As you will notice, he comes from a different era, where computers have still not been invented, where life moves a bit slower. That’s why we still need artists and Bhakti Yogis like Robert Bly. Enjoy!
Bjonnes: You have written extensively about the descending path of spirituality–our love for nature–whereas the ascending path focuses on our love for God. Wouldn’t it be good to find a balance between the two?
Bly: Well, that’s obvious. But the ascending path has been so strong that people often forget what the descending path is all about.
Bjonnes: Through eco-psychology, spiritual ecology and eco-feminism, the descending path is getting a new renaissance.
Bly: Yes, I agree. The metaphor for the descending path is the descent of Sophia. According to the Gnostic religion, Sophia looked down upon this planet of ours and decided to descend into it. She entered inside the stones, the trees, the birds, and the water. She went into fire and air. This is the story of Sophia.
Bjonnes: This reminds me of the Tantric concept of Shakti.
Bly: Yes, exactly. Sophia—like Shakti—is an active, powerful force, all-encompassing and all-pervading energy in nature. So why do people look for the spirit only in the heavens? The descent of Sophia is the first stage of the later ascent of Jesus. These two are companions. It is therefore important for us to follow the descending path of Sophia, down into nature, before attempting to ascend.
The ecology movement, then, is a response to the inability of the capitalist world to understand that Sophia is also in the rainforest.
Through the loss of the story of Sophia, the Christian Church has given permission to the capitalists to destroy nature. This was done partly by translating the word ‘Sophia’ as ‘wisdom’. This destroys the story and takes away the feminine quality. There have been many such errors in translating the Old Testament, and we are suffering from those mistakes today.
You see the same kind of energy in the Lady of the Mountain as when you look at statues of Shakti in the form of Kali. Shiva is the passive energy. In those statues, Kali often stands on top of Shiva. In the masks of Kali, you are looking at tremendous spiritual energy.
Bjonnes: A ferocious kind of energy.
Bly: Yes, and why is it ferocious? Because it tries to defend nature, which is the embodiment of Sophia.
Bjonnes: Since nature is a manifestation of Shakti or Sophia, she is conscious and intelligent, but not having as much self-consciousness as humans. What is your perception of consciousness in nature?
Bly: I was actually thinking about Wordsworth’s praise today: “Nature never did betray the heart that loved Her.” So, yes, it is true that there is greater self-consciousness in humans, but humans are also full of betrayal. We betray each other all the time. The reason why Japanese poets go to nature, for example, is because “Nature never did betray the heart that loved Her.”
And that’s why Taoists like to move toward that which has an affectionate consciousness, and which will not betray you. So, by destroying nature, we are destroying the one thing in the universe that will not betray us.
Bjonnes: I have heard you also spend a lot of time in nature, especially when writing poetry.
Bly: Oh, yes. I leave the city to be in nature because it nurtures my soul. William Blake said: “The important thing is to live in the moment during the day when the devil cannot find you.” It is the moment in nature when the devil cannot find me—it is the moment I write my poems.
Blake also said: “The robin red-breast in his cage/ puts all of heaven in a rage.” In other words, our habit of imprisoning nature in a cage is felt by heaven as a real betrayal. There is an important awareness in these words, a deep understanding of the harmony between both the ascending and descending path.
Bjonnes: So how does modern technology fit into all of this?
Bly: Well, I think it is absolutely ridiculous to think that the computer will bring some kind of renaissance. Technology used to move much slower before. A Japanese poet recently said: “We have moved from walking to the rickshaw to the horse-carriage to the airplane without taking time to stop or pause.” And that is terrifying. The speed with which technology has developed is demonic.
I recently read a book in which the author said something like this: “We used to build great houses, beautiful bridges and roads, but today we build only markets.” So, the only thing that can become bigger now is the capitalist market-place. We have simply given up on our pride in building great and beautiful things.