November 22, 2012

Gratitude & Rilke’s Advice to Youth.

Darkness implies many things other than the shallow, Western-based interpretation of evil.

It can also represent the unknown, the uncanny, death, fertility, a quiet sleep, the vastness of space, the abundance of nocturnal life, a rite of passage, nighttime or the beginning of an internal transformation.

When we are caught in the midst of darkness, we don’t know where we are and that not knowing might be a good thing. Getting rid of our interpretations in favor of a kind of boundless openness could lead to something unique and vast, light and ultimately congruent with the nature of the world that surrounds us. But how are we to move initially through what cannot be grasped or seen?

The Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, put it like this in his Letters to Young Poets:

“I would like to beg you, dear sir, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”[i]

This quote was handed to me out of nowhere when I was groping through a tough situation. At the time, I felt as though I couldn’t function let alone move in a linear direction. I had lost all sense of traction, slipping and then catching myself as I made my way through the unknown.

Rather than coming upon some crampons or finding a small, comforting light to illuminate an imaginary pathway, Rilke’s advice was simple, don’t make anything up, just be lost. Then you might wake up one day and bump into something large and substantial.

It is a message that echoes an old Zen master’s evocative words some centuries before when he told a struggling pupil, “Well, why don’t you cut off your head!?” Full of patience and tinged with a kind humor, sitting with darkness is an artless art. The action of being or in this case, cutting off your own head, is a wise move, centered on alertly watching the birth and decay of thunderstorms or the rise and fall of shoreline tides without succumbing to the mirage of a thought-based existence. There is something profound, even poignant, in learning to sit intimately and openly with what is here.

I spoke to someone recently about his past grievances. He was working through a difficult time in his life that had occurred when he was a child. His current problem wasn’t the past as much as how he dealt with it in his mind. He had built his entire life around darkness—around the things he had continuously pretended weren’t there until he actually believed that everything had occurred differently. He approached the darkness in psychotherapy and began to release it through speech, though he had the tendency to come to abrupt conclusions such as, “Oh, he shouldn’t have been that way and this is why I did this, so I must fix it through doing that.”

I commended his straightforward approach, but thought it might be interesting for him to sit in the presence of beasts and just let them be—to watch them graze or light things on fire until there was an intimate connection to what lay buried in the neglected darkness. He is still undergoing his process in his on way and in his own time, but the shrewdness is gone and he speaks of a new found depth he is just beginning to uncover. He isn’t coming to any conclusions anymore. He has accepted that he is lost inside something vast and that it is okay to be lost.

Rilke’s advice is really about permeability, or how open we are to what makes its way out of the inconceivable into the foreground of our lives. The man’s letting go of shrewdness or logic to just sit with what he could not really control is openness.[ii] Rather than rush to a false, narrow conclusion, he headed toward the totality of life with no agenda, trusting in the undercurrents of the universe—the same currents that gave him his life, the ground he walks upon, his dilemmas, nourishment, love, his death, and the luscious evening views of the ocean he loves.

Life’s seething questions, the darkness of the unknown and the creatures lurking beyond the periphery of our dulled senses is what makes life intriguing and in the end, worth living. The patience and openness Rilke begs his young poet friend to bring into his life leads to a quiet gratitude for the seconds that are kindly handed to us out of the same darkness that claims us once more.

Inhabiting the present, even when the present is dark and dreary, means living our way into the answer.

Note: I had an interesting day before Thanksgiving. There were errands, patching up a bureaucratic error, driving to Oakland, making dinner plans, laughing at a joke, encountering two great horned owls in the Presidio and hooting them down to a tree next to me for a chat, taking out the trash, and then making dinner—a very ordinary day really. And then I had to move the car: I put on my socks mindfully and felt a surge of happiness and gratitude run through my body, “Ah, putting on socks, how wonderful.” There wasn’t anything special about it, but the fact that something so mundane could blast the walls of my mind apart in an instant was intriguing.

Not knowing means freedom, freedom to be grateful.


[i] From one of RedwoodZen’s first blog posts, “Living the Questions”
[ii] It is easy to say that things are under control or dawn a mask to defend against dealing with the initial terror of being lost in the uncontrollable wilderness of the unknown. The word “really” is italicized here to underline the fact that life, in its ultimately vast form, is never inside the cookie-cutter box we conceive of as what we have under control.


Ed: Brianna B.

Photo: Suraj Baadkar/Flickr

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