Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge This week is a rebroadcast of one of my favorite episodes of Insights at the Edge, and one of the episodes that has received the most positive feedback from listeners: “Being at the Frontier of Your Identity” with David Whyte. David Whyte is a passionate speaker, poet, and the author of the Sounds True audio learning program, Clear Mind, Wild Heart, and a new program from Sounds True, What to Remember When Waking: The Disciplines of an Everyday Life. David is also a featured presenter at our 2013 Wake Up Festival: A Five-Day Experience of Transformation, August 14th-18th in Estes Park, CO. In this conversation, David and I spoke about exile as a core human competency, the conversational nature of reality, and vulnerability as enhanced perception. David also shared with us some of his poetry, and talked about what it might mean to tap into the invisible support that surrounds us. Here’s my conversation with the very lyrical David Whyte.
Welcome, David, to Insights at the Edge. I want to share with you a little bit about what happens behind the scenes here at Sounds True, which is: our copywriters listen to new programs that we’re putting out and they take notes on them and then they write the package copy. And before this conversation, I asked our copywriter Grayson if I could read his notes. And he said, “Yeah, sure. You’re going to love this program, Tami, it completely blew my mind.” And I was like, “Okay. Let me read the notes.” And I’m reading his fourteen pages of detailed notes on What to Remember When Waking: Disciplines That Transform an Everyday Life. And I’m serious, David, I’m underlining four to five items per page. And what is striking me is how original the program is and how fabulous I found that and how fresh and how rare. And I wanted to begin by asking you about originality and where you think it comes from in a writer, in a poet and in yourself.
David Whyte: I suppose it comes from this edge identity, this frontier conversation that I talk about, but it’s in many of our great traditions. The understanding is that there is a conversational nature to reality, I suppose. So in other words, whatever you want to happen, will not happen. But equally, whatever the world wants to happen for you will not happen either. And what happens is this meeting. And it’s in that meeting that you overhear yourself being surprised by your reality, by the larger context that you haven’t yet explored. So you’re trying to overhear your self whom you didn’t know you knew. And you’re trying to speak it out loud in the world so it can be known consciously. There should be a lovely sense of surprise when you’re working at that edge and a sense of being gifted. Often people will say, “Well I didn’t write that piece, it just wrote itself.” Or “I felt as though I was the recipient of some kind of grace.” And that’s true in many senses, but it also couldn’t have happened without you being present with your particular contribution to the conversation, your particular presence, and the way that you hold that conversation.
I often say, “Don’t try to be original. That usually ends in disaster.” In fact, Cory said that no poet begins in philosophy or they write very bad poetry. But every poet becomes a philosopher.” So don’t try to be original. Just put yourself at that frontier, at that edge, and it should take care of itself and you should be surprised by what you say.
I read a condensed version of those fourteen pages. (By the way, I’d love to see the fourteen pages.) And I was surprised myself by what I’d written. The recording itself was a beautiful immersion, partly because we were almost marooned in that recording studio for three days by snow. And the recording studio is in a beautiful geographical position on top of one of the very highest hills on Whidbey Island.
And we got unusually deep snow and it was only by the dint that I had a Land Rover that I was able to get up there every day. So there was a wonderful sense of both being held but also being in a crucible. It was a very intense three days. I couldn’t remember much of it after I had come out of the three days, but everyone who was recording it seemed to be very happy.
TS: If originality is something that can’t be manufactured but is a natural outcome of this “frontier identity,” can you tell me more about how I live at the “frontier?”
DW: Well it can’t be manufactured, but that doesn’t mean to say that you don’t use your will, your focus, and your sense of presence. You need to be in the conversation.
The old Latin root of that word is Conversatia and it really means a kind of “living with” or “in companionship with,” so you’re having a Converatia with your spouse or your partner at home every day. There’s a “living with” whether it’s spoken out loud or not. There is an equal kind of conversation with silent, and with a particular way that you as an individual ask the question of life. You’ve got to find that contact point as an individual. Ask the question, “Where am I interested? Where, in a very short time, do I become passionate once I’ve opened up that initial interest? What do I have energy for? And will I have faith enough to actually spend enough time that I can open up that door into what to begin with is a new territory but eventually becomes my new home?“
One of the difficulties of this conversational identity is that you have to learn to live with the unknown in a way, just as you have to learn to live with another person or with other persons in human social existence. The interesting thing is that that unknown has a life of its own, but also in a kind of ancient, mystical Meister Eckhartian way, it is given life by the way that you actually pay attention to it.
One of the poems that I work with is called “Start Close In,” which is about finding this ground of your own. You know, start close in. Don’t take the second step or the third. Start with the first one, close in, the step you don’t’ want to take. Start with the ground that you know, the pale ground beneath your feet, your own way to begin the conversation. You’re learning how to find your own place, but you’re not doing it in the kind of “me” generation way so you can become the greatest “me” in the world. You’re doing it in order to find the ground of your own attentiveness to the rest of the world. So you’ve got to find the way that you naturally pay attention and the way you can naturally deepen that attention so that the world will come back to you.
This is actually in all of our great traditions. It’s in the Zen tradition where Dzogchen says that “If you go out and confirm the 10,000 things, this is delusion. If you name everything--this is A,B, C, D, E--that’s how that all belongs together . I’ve got the whole thing worked out as a system.” If the 10,000 things come and confirm you, this is “Enlightenment.” Meister Eckhart said it in a different way, out of the Christian mystical traditions. He says, “You must go out of yourself so that God can come into you.” And that going out is a fierce kind of attention to what, to begin with, seems other than yourself.
There’s a lovely byproduct to that because if you’re really paying attention, the beauty of the world starts to come alive again. The greens and blues and the austerity of the mountains in Colorado, or the beautiful density of the imagery in the English countryside, start to speak back to you and nourish you in and of themselves, whether they are useful to your life or not. There is a beautiful kind of physical sensuality to everything, at first when you start reading or looking into it, which at first seems like an intellectual abstract.
TS: Now there are a couple of things, David, I would like to go back to and ask you about. When you were saying “Start close in, take the first step, not the second or the third but the first, the step you don’t want to take.” Why is the first step a step I don’t want to take? Maybe I want to take the first step.
DW: Then it’s probably not the courageous step. If you understand the phenomenology of the way we make human identity, we’re constantly making these contingent identities. Let me just parse that one out a bit because I’d say that in the early stages, almost always, you’re trying to take the third or fifth or even fifteenth step that will abstract you from the necessary physical presence and courage for you to get into the fierce center of the conversation. And there are great parts of us that are rightly afraid of that confrontation and that presence, partly because as soon as that presence has made itself known, then enormous parts of you are going to disappear and they’re not going to be wanted anymore. As my wife, a very insightful psychiatrist says, “Why is it so difficult to claim your own happiness in life?” That’s a great question in itself. She asks it as a rhetorical question because she answers it in the next sentence and she says, “Because if you did claim your happiness, then large parts of you would be immediately unemployed. And they’d have to go off and be retrained to do something else.”
I find that when you investigate the way you are in world, you will find that you are actually afraid of the necessary central conversation--and it’s because it leads to some kind of disappearance or death, a kind of falling away of what is extraneous and an emerging of a kernel that is not yet fully known inside of you. It’s a center which is as much unknown to you as the outer world; in many ways, it is a mystery to you, too. This is why, in the early parts of the recordings, I work a lot with making a friend of the unknown and building a relationship with what cannot be spoken but what is, in many ways, a physical beckoning uncertainty. One thing that poetic tradition is really good about and very compassionate about is that it doesn’t matter how much you know, really, around the specifics of your future life. As long as you can feel that gravitational pull and as long as you can speak it, then you’re on your way home. And the interesting dynamic is that sometimes you only understand your conversation through exile and feeling really far away from yourself and your world.
If you look into tradition, at least as the way I see it, the great poets, the great religious teachers, and many great artists are saying, “All that you have to do, actually, is enunciate the exact nature of your exile.” And that will open up your door to your conversation because there is no one else in the world that feels exiled in the way that you do. There is no one else who can feel far away from things with exactly the same coloration and tonality that you do. And therefore you must have faith in whatever you are presented with and many times in life for us it has to do with the way we have forgotten. We’re far away from the conversation and we’re living out what was once a conversational identity but has become someone impersonating themselves.
TS: So we need to go a little bit more into this idea of the “conversation” because I want to make sure I really understand what you mean. At first, you were talking about reality having a conversational nature and that makes sense to me in terms of “I have these ideas that I want and then I get feedback from all kinds of people about what’s actually going to happen here.” And it keeps going back and forth. But now you are talking about an “inner conversation” and some “central conversation” and I’m not quite tracking. I could have a ton of conversations with myself. I mean, there are a gajillions of me in here! What conversations are useful and not useful and how I do I know if I am in this fierce, central conversation?
DW: Well I’d say that the diagnostics of that fierce, central conversation is that everything starts to make sense in your life. For instance, to use a practical example, if you’re a writer or you’ve got some form of artistic discipline, and you say, “Well, I’ll get to it when I’ve done my work during the day, when I come home.” Or, “I’ll get to it when I’ve done this project work and I’ve got a little bit of space. I’ll get to it when I have enough money in the bank, or when I’ve retired.” Or even, “I’ll do all my chores in the morning and when that’s done, I’ll get to it in the afternoon”…if you say these things to yourself, you’re living a life of contingency and it’s very difficult in the afternoon to actually change your identity. You can do it but you’re lucky if you can. You have to change your identity back to this initial, original conversational focus.
If you tend to the things that are most important to you first, you don’t actually need to spend much time. You can spend even just twenty minutes or half an hour, an hour as you get further into it, perhaps a couple of hours. The rest of the day, and all the other chores, including getting the curtains cleaned and cleaning out the refrigerator and getting the car to the garage to be worked on--all of those things actually can take on a kind of delight instead of something that is standing in the way of your real life.
One of the things that we have to learn in life is “What is my core conversation?” Of course, that is one of the great pedagogical questions when you’re growing up through your teens and into your twenties and thirties. It is finding out, “What is my conversational frontier?” And the only way that you find it out is often by making a lot of mistakes and getting into relationships that aren’t good for you, getting into work that’s not good for you, or doing the work in a way that’s not good for you.
But eventually, if you’re sincere, you start to get closer and closer to what is real in your life. But you’re also, while you’re doing that, gaining self-knowledge, otherwise there will be a place that you come to where you’re just too afraid of taking the next step. This is what delineates what you could say is the “serious practitioner or artist, the serious conversationalist” from those who are constantly, throughout their life, on the periphery and never able to step into the core. That core is where parts of you start to shrive away, to disappear, shaved away, and you get this sense of a nucleus.
This kernel or nucleus—this creative crucible—is not something that exists just by itself. So when you’re talking about this creative conversational core, it’s something that’s working with all of the phenomenology of life around you. It’s constantly looking, hearing, seeing, and creating this identity—this “frontier identity” where you’re partaking of both at the same time so what you think is you and what you think is not you.
TS: Continuing with this idea of a real-life example to elucidate what you’re saying, I’m wondering if you could talk some from your own life. What would be a central conversation that is happening now or happened in the recent past that birthed a new identity in you?
DW: What would I choose out? The first thing is a book of poetry, the last stand-alone book of poetry that was the collected poems, River Flow and Everything Is Waiting for You. That was written out of the grief and loss of my mother and a kind of loss of a central foundation in my life. It was in many ways about the times looking after her, beforehand, and the necessity to travel to Britain to be with her and looking after her with my sisters, the local community, and my father. And then it was also about her death and her loss. I found that the necessity to speak about it was not in a social sense, but to speak about it on the page was incredibly powerful inside me and I felt that if I hadn’t sat down and written about it, I would have created a fence in myself that was very far away from life and very afraid of life.
I think, for instance, one of the dynamics that occurs around losing someone really close to you is that part of you actually says, “Well, God, if this the way the game is played then I’m not playing it.” “If these are the rules, I’m not participating.” Part of a human being can’t believe how much loss there is in the average life. One of the tenets and hallmarks of real healing from a grief or a loss is that you actually start to come out and play again. You start to make yourself visible again in the world. You start to reach out to others. You’re not caught in this necessary, initial, hermetic enclosure where you’re finding shelter because you’ve been hurt in such a powerful way.
I found that the ability that poetry gave me to stay close to the central, necessary conversation took me through, in about six months of writing, what might have taken six years or six decades, if I had been given them. It was just so good for me to be able to stay on that conversational frontier, on that edge, with my mother, and all kinds of beautiful mercies came out of it--the fact that during the writing I was able to articulate how beautifully my mother had brought us all up.
I also realized how imprisoning the word “mother” is for a woman. One of the things that I had to do was to give away my mother as my mother and this really extraordinary intuition that whatever she was involved with now (and of course every human being has this imagination of where someone has passed away to not actually if there’s any sort of reality behind it) had nothing to do with us. That was incredibly radical actually when you’ve held this person, and there’s no one at the center of your life, whether you have a close relationship with them or not, or whether you’ve had a falling out or are social enemies almost; it doesn’t matter. There’s no one closer to the center of your psyche than the person who actually gave birth to you. And so to be able to get to that core and to give my mother away to whatever life allowed me to claim a new form of freedom in my own life. But strangely enough, it also gave me a sense of the way it was necessary to mother others when they needed it.
And I mean that in the best sense of mothering. Particularly in contemporary American society, mothering has a kind of a pejorative aspect to it. But there’s a beautiful necessity for us to mother others when that mothering is needed and, of course, to father others in other circumstances too. Of course it takes a certain bit of skill to know when that is necessary.
I’d say that was a very intense and powerful meeting I had with something I would never have voluntarily invited into my life. It called on everything I had and called me to be equal to a revelation that would have been frightening to my ordinary, everyday, peripheral social identity.
TS: Interesting. One of the lines that I underlined in these fourteen pages of notes on the new program was that “the leading edge of ourselves is often an irrational part of ourselves.”
DW: Yes. I would say that it’s irrational only in the sense that it can’t be defined by the person it’s leaving behind. I think eventually you do find that there’s a greater kind of intellectual context that can’t be recognized when you’re in the initial stages of a new phase in your life, where you’re pushing yourself and focusing and things are starting to happen that you can’t quite define. In the early stages, there’s a lot of danger in this because you can pull away from it thinking that you’re losing control and you’ll be drowned by what you’re actually paying attention to. It’s at that point where you need to focus more intensely but you also need to ask for help from other people who have been through this.
You could say that poetry and the poetic tradition has a great deal of help in it, as well as our great contemplative traditions, too. And that you can go to some of these people, whether it’s Anna Achmatova in Russia, a great Russian woman poet, or whether it’s Meister Eckhart or the Kabbalah. There is a lot of help in the world for us and of course that’s another great theme of What to Remember When Waking. You’re not alone in this, and by definition, if the underlying nature of reality is conversational, there are all of these other elements or helping hands in the world without which you can’t actually claim your happiness.
TS: Now what would you say to somebody who is in a faithless place at the moment and hears that? There’s all this help, there’s all this possible assistance, and they are like, “Yeah, I don’t feel that.”
DW: The mode of your voice there is one of utter boredom. If it is utter boredom then probably it’s a kind of defense, you know, and the person would have to get out of that themselves. It’s very hard unless you’re close in with them—a parent, sister, or brother- and you knew their psychological weak point so you could move them along a little bit. You would want to leave them to themselves until they got into such a state of difficulty that they would actually want to get out of it. But if a person is saying that “I just don’t feel it” in a more desperate way, then I would give them the same advice that I would give a writer, which is, “Then just write about the way that you don’t feel it.” That’s the close-in conversation.
Take the first step. Not the second. Not the third. Work with exactly what you’re presented with and the nature of your own exile at the moment. And you find, to begin with, that you don’t know how to get in there at all. But as you learn skillful means, the contact point of the conversation, after a while once you realize that what you’re doing you can get through it incredibly quickly.
If you read Pema Chodron, she talks about the way that once you’ve built a practice, and then when you start to move into exile in your life or when you start to be filled with self-pity, you can catch it very early because you recognize it. You recognize your sudden necessity for retreat or hiding and you can very quickly bring yourself back to the central necessity.
TS: This sense of exile that you’re pointing to and actually redeeming it, in a sense, this was one of the parts of the program that I found the most “cold-water-in-the face” in a good way. I want to read this quote to you and see what you have to say.
A form of enlightenment may be to understand that you may never feel quite at home in the world and you’re not meant to.
DW: Yes. It is a lovely relief, isn’t it just to think about it in that way? And that’s the way it came to me. It was a sudden understanding. And part of it came to me when I was in a very exotic place. I was out in the African bush and watching a Malachi King Fisher, whose feathers are these really, primary colors of blue, white, and red and it was lit up by the evening sun. And I could just feel the “King Fisherness” of the world. And there was no other corner of creation that could actually substitute for the King Fisher. It made me think about what it meant to be fully human. I had had experiences with this living in the Galapagos for years in my twenties. I suddenly realized that one of the core competencies of being human was that we were the only corner of creation that could refuse to be ourselves. The King Fisher doesn’t get to choose to be a crow. And the mountain is just a mountain and the cloud is just a cloud. The tree is just a tree. That’s why the natural world seems to be so nourishing to us because we get an intonation of what it might be like just to be ourselves. But as human beings, we have this extraordinary ability not only not to be ourselves, but to pretend to be someone else and to hang a mask in front of our real identity. We can even take a further virtuosic step and forget that we’re hanging a mask in front of our face, which you remember to begin with the first few times you did it. Suddenly you’ve become the mask and you’re actually practicing that identity as a beautiful form of defense against the world.
I think it’s quite merciful actually to think that you can look at yourself and others and have a sense of compassion about that reality is actually very fierce and very difficult--that is actually quite extraordinary with the consciousness that we have of being alive, which many other creatures do not have, of loss and the poignancy of that loss. Therefore, it’s one of the foundational building blocks of real compassion for others. And I think that when you are a Father Keating or a Dalai Lama, when you’re with real authentic presence, it’s because they understand the fierce nature of the average human life and the loss and losses that are involved with it. Every human life is quite magnificent and dramatic and mythological because of the intensity of what’s at stake.
Once you understand that and turn your face back toward it, toward your ability to feel exile, toward the necessary human qualities of losing and being lost, then suddenly you find a place to stand in it all. And strangely enough, you find yourself emboldened by it actually and more courageous, because, I think, as you move closely into that sense of physical presence, you realize that you’re going to lose it all in the end. You’re going to have to give it all away, no matter how much money you have in the bank, no matter how big your spread is, it’s all going to go to other people in the end. Why not start practicing giving it away now, not necessarily in a Puritanical, saintly way but just risking it for what is really, really important. You know the central journey that you’re on, that edge where you come alive and where you’re able to see the beauty of the world again and the beauty of other people.
When Sartre said “Hell is other people,” he was really talking about a psychological state of exile and the ennui that was there in a cultural sense in pre-war France. But I think that once you actually turn your face toward the phenomenology of loss, then other people are not hell at all, they are companions and possible “helps.” Sometimes the help comes in the form of realizing that you don’t want to be like that person at all and that you don’t actually want to spend physical time around them. But everything is actually speaking back to us in its own voice and everything is form of revelation. These are the things that “what to remember when waking” is about, trying to remember that. What are the ways that you can physically remember and be present to what enlivens us and emboldens us and gives us presence?
TS: So just to ask you to explain what you’re saying in a slightly different way, if you can stick with me here…what you’re saying is when we discover our sense of alienation, our sense of “I don’t fit in; I don’t belong,” that this could actually open us up to compassion for other people and an appreciation for what it means to be human because humans are the only beings that have this kind of alienation, that it’s not in nature and that this could actually soften us? You’re actually calling it “a core human competency.” That is the language that you use in your book.
DW: Yes, it is a competency, Tami, because it opens up a real sense of vulnerability. I’ve often said (and I speak in all different kinds of ways from the organizational world to ashrams and religious communities) that one of the things that you do feel in many transplanted, Eastern communities (whether they are yoga communities or Eastern communities of any kind) is that the whole sense of enlightenment is about creating this fortress into yourself, where you know exactly what to do all the time and you’re completely perfect. You’ve got the spiritual gold medal hung around your neck. As far as I can see, it’s exactly the opposite. Enlightenment has something to do with understanding the constant and inescapable nature of your own vulnerability.
Once you actually turn toward vulnerability, not as a weakness but as a faculty for understanding what’s about to happen, you can transform your life in a way which is quite extraordinary. If instead of physically tightening whenever you feel a sense of vulnerability, you actually teach yourself to turn toward it (and I mean really, the physical sense of vulnerability in the body, that tightness you might feel in your chest when you’re in the presence of someone who is a bully or a social bully, that vulnerability when you’re risking your artistic charms in the world), something quite extraordinary starts to open up.
I have a little piece that I wrote, which I think appears in the recording, called , The Seven Streams,” , and it’s a place up in the high country in the Burin in the Country Clare in the west of Ireland. This place always had a sense of deep rest to me. And at the same time, this introduction to the way you’re this ephemeral blow of a visitor in life. Two key lines in it which speak to what I said:
Come down drenched at the end of May.
With the cold rain so far into your bones that nothing will warm you except your own walking.
And let the sun come out at day’s end, near Slievenaglasha.
With the rainbows doubling over Moloch Moor and see your clothes steaming in the bright air.
Be a provenance of something gathered; a summation of previous intuitions.
Let your vulnerability walking on the cracked, slimy limestone, be this time, not a weakness but a faculty for understanding what’s about to happen.
Stand above the seven streams, letting the deep-down current surface around you and then branch and branch as they do, back into the mountain.
And as if you’re able for that flow, say the few necessary words and walk on broadened and cleansed for having imagined.
It’s quite interesting. I work with this dynamic actually with hard-bidden executives in the center of international financial companies, this idea that you need to redefine vulnerability as a quality and not something that you’re meant to push out of your life. It’s exactly the opposite.
Hopefully in the recording, when I learned that myself through speaking it out loud, myself, around vulnerability, it really helped me in my life, so I hope it helps others in the same way.
TS: Can you be more specific? What in your own life? How did you become more vulnerable and how did it express itself?
DW: Well, I would say that just in close relationships with a wife, daughter, or son. There are dynamics in life that are constantly erroneously reinforcing the necessity to be the center of all knowledge in life. And this of course comes in spades when you are a father or a mother. But it can also come when you’re with a friend and you’re doing well in your life and they are not and you find that you have all the answers in life and, of course, things turn around the next year and it’s quite the opposite. I found, for instance, with my daughter that I started actually looking for the edges of vulnerability in my discourse with her and actually trying to magnify them.
For instance, there was one day when we got into a little spat with one--another as you do as a father and daughter, and the conversation ended with me just telling her that she had to do something. She charged upstairs, of course, and there’s the wonderful and eternal sound of the door slamming upstairs. There was the possibility that I could have just left it there, and said, well she can just do it because in the long run, I know better. But I realized that it was connected to something else and that this is that dynamic of one of the difficulties of parenting, in that you’re constantly attempting to relate to someone who is not there anymore. They are growing so quickly and you also have this internal heartbreak that they are growing away from you and they are no longer the person who needed you in every facet of their life. So there are tremendous dynamics that are attempting to stop the child from growing.
After I collected myself, I went up and we sat down and I said, “Charlotte, tell me one thing that you want me to stop doing now as your father. And tell me another thing that you would like me to do more of.” And that was a beautiful moment and it really opened up the sense that I was trying to actually speak to her from where she was in her life now and not someone that I needed her to be. It was a lovely healing moment and it came just out of catching myself and instead of trying to reinforce the image of the parent who knows and protects the child from everything and protect yourself from it, to a beautiful proactive not-knowing. That would be an example of moving toward that edge of vulnerability.
In the workplace, that vulnerability might look very different. It’s not the same kind of vulnerability you would have with an intimate partner at home. Unusually vulnerability in the workplace has to do with simply admitting that you don’t have all the answers and therefore don’t need everyone’s help around the table in order to ascertain what the real pattern is and the best way of going out to meet that pattern. That is really necessary in today’s organizations where the technical world (and also the way people are making their identities through that technology) is changing so quickly.
Every area of your life—all three marriages in your life: marriage with another person, the marriage with your work, and the marriage with yourself—all call for a different form of vulnerability and it’s our job as individuals to find out what that vulnerability looks like.
TS: I’m curious to know a little bit more about the vulnerability with oneself. Pointers in that direction?
DW: Yeah. I’d say that one of the vulnerabilities is the extreme disappointment we have around the version of our life that we’ve established against what we’ve set ourselves to create when we were much younger. One of the vulnerabilities is putting an arm around yourself and saying that “It doesn’t look very good, does it?” compared to what your best hopes were. And finding the way through, in the midst of it all, to start to craft something that is closer to what you want. As soon as you do that and you start to get into the center, a lot of the peripheral stuff that you’re stuck to starts to naturally fall way so as soon as you start to move your focus away from all the ways that you’re trying to hold the world together, you start to find more, I find, a leverage point at the center. I think a lot of what What to Remember When Waking is about is about remembering this core conversation. If you take care of that, a lot of what takes enormous will and energy and rushing about on the edge starts to either disappear or take care of it self. Of course there is a part of us that is afraid that if we stop taking care of everything that it will fall apart. And luckily, the intuition is entirely correct and it will beautifully fall apart. Or it will come back to you at the center in a different way and you reengage it.
My feeling is, as I move along through the old great pilgrimage of life, that there is actually just a small contact point for every human being and that we’re mostly diluting our powers in trying to work with life in a way that’s too abstracted. For instance, you only need a certain amount of money to live out your dream in the future and you may have millions in the bank, but actually, if you took all those millions and focused it on what you wanted to do, it would actually distort and destroy the spirit of what you’re about. As an example, if you have millions, there may be only fifty thousand that you could take of that and take the initial step with. For most of us (this is not true if you’re starving or thirsty without food or running water and growing up in a shack at the edge of La Paz in Bolivia) in the developed world or the newly rich developing world, we have much more than we actually need in order to take the next step. It’s finding this contact point, this crucible, or the leverage point where things really happen. You can take a small step at the center of that pattern, and it has enormous consequences. Whereas, you could rush around killing yourself in a stressful way on the edge, and hardly move anything at all.
The central conversation, what to remember, is that it’s close in, it’s both right at the center of your physical body but it’s also in the way that physical body, once it’s got a sense of really powerful focus presence, has an effect on other people and is induced to things by other people that all the energy starts to come. If you take conversation, for instance, as a basis of understanding of reality, then what you’re trying to do is create a conversation that will float you along so you’re not having to do all the work. You’re just making sure that the conversation stays alive.
And I’d say that that’s one of the defining aspects of a good leader in an organization, especially if you’re at the top of an organization or near the top. You are chief conversationalist, actually. Your job is to make sure that the conversation stays alive. And where you have difficulty with that conversation, you bring in the other people to help you. Of course, everyone is a leader in one corner of the organization even if it’s just their own desk. And then you’ve also got leadership in your own life. You have to gather all the different parts of your self, in your personal life, around the table metaphorically (you can do this just sitting in your chair) and you have all these clamoring voices, but your job is to ask, “What is the central conversation?” and invite those parts of yourself to either come in closer and help you out or to go elsewhere and find a different place to dwell. I think I’ve spoken enough on that topic.
TS: As you’re talking, I’m inquiring about what the central conversation is in my life now or at other times. And what I’m reflecting on is that I’m only able to identify that by really spending some time with myself. It’s not like just in the midst of busy, busy, busy that that central conversation becomes apparent.
DW: Yes, so one of the disciplines I call for is the necessity to hiving off and eventually learning how to bring it back into the workplace and create an internal silence, even as you’re speaking with others. But I do think that it’s really necessary to have a contemplative discipline and that can be just going for a long walk every day, where you’re not simply going over your to-do list and all the things that are preying upon your mind and worrying you to death.
TS: Wonderful. I am talking with David Whyte, the author of the new Sounds True six-part series entitled What to Remember When Waking: Disciplines That Transform Every Day Life. David, I’m wondering, as we conclude here, it’s kind of like asking a storyteller to tell a story or a magician to do a final trick, it’s just so enjoyable to hear you recite a poem. So I’m wondering, David, if there’s a poem or two that you think might illuminate or point to some o f the discoveries that we’ve touched on here in our conversation together?
DW: Yes. One thing that we haven’t talked about much is the theme of invisible help that one of the things that we have to do out of that vulnerability is to ask for help. The help doesn’t just come in a human, social dimension, although there is plenty of that. But it also comes from the world itself and from the beauty of the world, whether it’s another person’s face or the face of a landscape or even the memories that we have of people who are no longer with us. As the Irish say, “The thing about the past is that it isn’t the past.” All kinds of elements are present to us, which are offering their perspective and understanding and I’d say, in many ways, comfort.
This poem is about getting yourself out of yourself. So you start paying attention to something other than your own worries or your own necessity to stay alive at all costs. It’s called Everything Is Waiting for You. It’s written in the style of an Irish poet, Derik Madden, who is one of my favorites.
Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you’re alone
As if life were a progressive and cunning crime, with no witness to the tiny, hidden transgressions.
To be abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings. ,
Surely even you at times have felt the grand array and the surrounding presence and the chorus crowding out your solo voice. ,
You must note the way the soap dish enables you or the window latch grants you courage. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. ,
The stairs are the mentors of the things to come. The doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you. And the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream ladder to divinity. ,
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. The kettle is singing, even as it pours you a drink. The cooking parts have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and the creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. ,
Everything, everything, everything is waiting for you. ,
That would be written in the form of my self giving myself a good telling off and reminding myself what is first order. It is a reminding to your self how much time you waste at the periphery, which disappears into nothingness and how much energy, which is given at the center, turns into this beautiful, surprising, something-ness, which is inviting you on and bringing all kinds of people into your life to share the adventure at the same time.
I’ll finish with this piece, which is called No Path. It’s a fierce little poem because it’s about our own ultimate disappearance. But there’s, I found, a marvelous kind of generosity at the end from the revelation, you could say. One of the great dynamics at the center of the revelation about the evanescence of life, about the way that everything passes away so quickly is that you must therefore be present to it. You must appreciate it. I lost a good friend of mine a couple of years ago. He was a big fellow and he loved everything. He loved food, drink, and good company. I said to myself, after he’d gone, “You know, heaven had better be a good place, “ because he was a Catholic theologian, too, “because it couldn’t actually be better than he appreciated this place here and the way he was so alive to everything he had been given here.”
This is a poem that takes a line from a famous piece of Chinese poetry called the Han Shin Poems or Cold Mountain Poems, written by a hermit who takes his name from Cold Mountain, so this is a famous line, which has become one of those koans, which is supposed to take you all the way to enlightenment, and that line was, “There is no path that takes you all the way.” I felt this question very intimately because whenever I walk in the mountains (I spend as much time in the mountains as I can), I always fall in love with the path itself. I remember traveling in the Himalayas and coming back with photos in the times when you actually developed them, and I found that every photograph I had taken was of the path itself and the way it winded it’s way through villages or over a path or through the snow.
Han Shin says, “There’s no path that goes all the way.”
Here is the poem entitled No Path.
There is no path that goes all the way. Not that it stops as looking for the full continuation. The fixed belief we can hold, facing a stranger that faces the trouble of a real conversation.
But one day, you’re not imagining an empty chair where your loved one sat. You’re not just telling a story where the bridge is down and there’s no where to cross. You’re not just trying to pray to a God you imagined would always keep you safe.
No. you’ve come to the place where nothing you’ve done will impress and nothing you can promise will avert the silent confrontation; the place where your body already seems to know the way, having kept to the last its own secret reconnaissance.
But still, there’s no path that goes all the way. One conversation leads to another. One breath to the next until there’s no breath at all, just the inevitable final release of the burden. And then, wouldn’t your life have to start all over again for you to know even a little of who you had been?
TS: David, thank you so much.
TS: David Whyte, the author of a new Sounds True series What to Remember When Waking: Disciplines That Transform an Everyday Life
For SoundsTrue.com, I’m Tami Simon.
Many Voices. One Journey.