Dialogue # 20: The Poetic Power of Language

December 9, 2013

The Poetic Power of Language

[In this dialogue, we  discuss the poetic power of language and ways to enter the poetic mode whatever the circumstance: Meister Eckhart’s meditative sermons, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s generative philosophy sessions with his graduate students, Robinson Jeffers’ yin yang view of the cosmos, investigative classroom dialogue, lectures, sermons, cocktail dialogue, journal writing, and reflective writing. We talk about the language of nature as a sounding board for human theories of truth, beauty, ethics, morality, and values.

Meister Eckhart and the Poetic Foundation of Daily Life

M: I was thinking about your talk at the Unitarian-Universalist Church “Leaving God for God” recently, and I thought, here you are talking about Meister Eckhart (1260—1328), who was preaching a little before Geoffrey Chaucer’s time (1343—1400), and it’s really relevant to a contemporary audience.  That’s remarkable.  It’s as relevant as if he were a modern thinker.  I think that’s great.  I do want to tell you, also, that if I were giving talks to an audience these days, that the way they’ve set up the TED talks, like that YouTube I sent you of Jill Bolte-Taylor talking about her book My Stroke of Insight is how I’d try to do it.  Here’s the thing of it.  TED really works with a speaker to make the presentation compelling. [Since the time of this dialogue TED has expanded dramatically, with all sorts of venues and spin-offs.] It’s high-powered stuff.  They charge a bundle to attend one of their conferences down around Big Sur, originally, but now annually in Long Beach.  So you have to pay a lot of money to go there, and you’re not going to want to hear somebody rambling on.  They make their speakers hone their talks down to eighteen minutes.  They work with that and work out the bugs until it’s smooth and really goes well.  I’ve seen Bolte-Taylor’s talk and Isabel Allende’s talk. Allende, a Chilean writer, wrote books reviewers called “magical realism” [The House of Spirits, City of Beasts]—right up our alley, Steven.  She talked for eighteen minutes, too, like Bolte-Taylor.

H: Tell me about this organization, TED.

M: The letters stand for Technology, Entertainment, Design.  So they’ll have people from any area of modern thinking.  The basis is that’s it’s got to be really, really stimulating.  My point is that if I were doing talks these days I’d look at a few of these YouTubes and see how it’s done.  You can look at anybody who spoke there and see how they organize it, the structure of it.  

H: Yes.  Eighteen minutes is a good amount of time.  These days both at Jungian conferences where I’ve been speaking and the conferences on Joaquin Miller, and Robinson Jeffers, for example, and the talks I’m giving at the Unitarian Church on Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and William Everson.  They want them to be about thirty-five minutes.  The talk on Eckhart was about thirty-five minutes.  Yes, you can pretty much condense a longer talk into this shorter model and compress it.  That’s what I’m learning to do, how to write a paper, let it expand, and then compress it for the audience.

Great Lectures Aim for the Heart, Not the Mind.

M: That’s exactly what I’m getting at.  And what you end up with, Steven, is something that’s more like a poem.  As you know, a poem is a compression, and the words have power.  And the words will strike you, not in your intellect, but in your emotive system.  So the words go right past your brain into your nervous system.  That’s a much more powerful persuader than anything you could say in an academic way.  

H: That’s a good way to put it.  

M: I think about it a lot.  In your case, OK, you’ve got thirty-five minutes.  So you would think of it, Steven, as a twenty-minute talk and then provide for opening it up.  Maybe after twenty minutes you say, “Now I’m going to offer you a chance to talk about this idea.”  Then you can keep on that way.  You can expand it.

H: You can fill in some of what you edited out of the paper.

M: Exactly.  And then bring it in.

H: As needed.  Wherever you want.

M: So I recommend that strongly, because I know, for one thing, people will lose interest after a while.  Their minds start to wander.  I know when I listened to your Eckhart talk, though, I didn’t have any problem with the length.  It was compelling enough that I listened the whole way through. 

But I do know how people are, “Oh, maybe it’ll be good, maybe not,” pretty casual.  But if you capture and hang on to them, you’re in business.  So you don’t want to ever let them get away from you.  

A lecture is a performing art.

Here I am doing monologue, but let me add this: I wrote an article for the Faculty Forum when I was at Diablo Valley College called “Lecturing Is Not Teaching.”  You can’t lecture and teach at the same time.  The central point was that if you are a lecturer, if you are going to lecture, then you should be studying stagecraft.  You should learn how to project your voice.  You could pick up some acting skills.  You should find out how to illuminate your talk in ways that are exciting. 

If you were a good college lecturer, kids would come out of there on fire and really be thinking about what you said, and they couldn’t wait to put their minds to that, and explore it and examine it and come to understand it. 

Then your audience will have something to take away and think about.  

We teach ourselves.

But what do college teachers do?  They come in typically and lecture and just talk.  And the poor souls in their classes are stupefied.  Their brains go numb.  Well, of course, my article ticked everybody off.  “How dare you say I’m not a teacher when I’m up here talking to them for an hour, every day, five days a week!”  So that didn’t go over too well, but I’m proud of the article.  I did make a distinction between what happens when somebody is learning and when somebody is gathering information.  A lecture presents information.  The learning takes place somewhere else-unless you’re really a good lecturer, in which case you penetrate the mind and the audience can’t escape and go on thinking about it after they leave you.  If you were a good college lecturer, kids would come out of there on fire and really be thinking about what you said, and they couldn’t wait to put their minds to that, and explore it and examine it and come to understand it.  You teach yourself.  The student teaches himself. What do you think about that idea?

H: Well, you said a couple of things that touched a nerve.  You said before we started to record that the people up in Montana at your motel…

M: Use to tell each other lies? [Laughs]

The language of nature in Jeffers’ poetry

H: Yes, sitting around the campfire, people would tell each other lies. This is an idea that Robinson Jeffers is very fond of.  Now, I’m preparing a talk, well, a presentation that wants to affect the nervous system of the people in the audience.  It resonated with me because here are these people coming from different parts of Canada, different states, to your little motel there, to spend some time at the lake.  And what they want to do, really, is to have an experience of the truth, and they’re sitting around telling each other lies.  Because that’s what people do in the city.  Now, Jeffers was a master, as you know, of writing very powerful rhythmic poetry.  He modeled it after the rhythms of the sea at the shore in Carmel, and also the cosmic rhythms of stars.  He felt there was a meter you could intone through poetry.  It’s the language of nature, you could say.  How to tap into that, he says, is the real task of poets.  In one of the very few talks he gave–Jeffers never made public appearances until the late thirties.  He had written all of his greatest works by the time he did his tour.  He went across the country to give these lectures.  And he did kind of lecture in the way you’re talking about.  

The Poet’s Art: To set the mind on fire

M: I’d bet he would.  He couldn’t bring himself to sound like a college professor.  

H: Not at all. And what he did distinguish was between prose and poetry.  He said he could tell lies in prose, but he had learned from Nietzsche at the age of nineteen, “The poets?  The poets lie too much.”  So Jeffers made a vow with himself that he would never tell lies in verse.  

M: That’s fundamental.

H: That’s it.   So when he writes these poems, he strikes through to that elemental level you’re talking about. And people, after hearing one of Jeffers’ poems, I’m sure, in those audiences, were moved.  They felt the rhythm of the spheres, of the cosmos.

M: That’s what should happen.

H: And that’s what he intended.

M: That’s what TED tries to do.

H: The other point you made, which I wanted to respond to, was about leaving with your mind on fire.  Now, this is a very poetic idea.  You see it in Emerson.  There’s a wonderful biography on Emerson by Richardson that’s called The Mind on Fire. [Clark laughs.]

“The Women of Point Sur”, “Roan Stallion”

H: You know, in 1925 Jeffers wrote “The Women of Point Sur.”  And in the prologue to that, he repeats what he had written in “Roan Stallion,” which was his great break-through poem, and eventually put him on the cover of Time, in 1932. He was known internationally for a period of time before his reputation sank.  Actually, it was before “The Women of Point Sur” that his reputation skyrocketed.  For a while he was seen as surpassing Whitman and all other American poets.  But the cover story was after he had lost his stature as the upcoming poet laureate of the United States.  In “The Women of Point Sur,” he says this in the prologue: “Humanity is the start of the race.  The coal to break away from, the atom to be split.”  Now that idea of humanity being coal that needs to break into fire, that’s exactly what you’re talking about when you’re saying the aim of a good teacher is to create in the audience a state of mind whereby they leave the room with their mind on fire. That’s exactly what he says humanity needs to break into.  That’s the poet’s task.

M: A couple of things: We can get back to lies in a minute, but when you spoke of coal breaking into fire?  That’s in “The Windhover.” Remember?  Hopkins talks about “the fire that breaks from thee, then,” referring to Christ, “a billion times told lovelier, oh, my chevalier.”  And he says, “And bluebleak embers fall, gall themselves and break gold vermilion.”

H: There you are.

M: Can you picture an ember that’s blue on the outside and when you tap it, here’s this gold vermilion that comes out of it.

H: That’s gorgeous.

M: Yes.  So it’s exactly what Jeffers is talking about.  

H: And you know Jeffers was aware of Hopkins. I think the central difference there is the primacy of Christ and the breaking into fire, because for Jeffers the fire is cosmic fire. 

M: Yes.

And for Hopkins, and for Chardin, Christ could be the whole cosmos. 

H: And for Hopkins, and for Chardin, Christ could be the whole cosmos.  For Jeffers there was not a theology as developed as that at the time.  At least, not published; because Chardin’s writings were censored by the Catholic Church.  They weren’t published until 1955.  So Jeffers did not have a notion of a cosmic Christ in his Presbyterian Protestant theological upbringing.  So he perhaps couldn’t grasp what Hopkins is saying in that poem.  What Jeffers brings into perspective is what he learned from Hubble, who was a visitor at Tor House.  That’s that there is this infinite sphere, Space.

The truth embedded in lies

And all stories are lies.  And when the Modocs take the story, make up myths up at Mount Shasta, it’s a way of penetrating so that you get the truth out of the lie. The myth is a lie that’s trying to show you the truth. A myth is a blue-bleak ember.  You take the myth and it breaks open inside you and it becomes a live fire.  That’s what it’s all about. 

M: Well, that’s what’s so beautiful about Jeffers’ era, that he takes old ideas and puts them into new vessels, as they say.  So now we can get back to lying, because when you tell a story and use metaphor and you say Christ is a fire that breaks loose, this is essentially a lie.  That is, whatever you say is a lie.  You say, “Steven is a man.”  That’s something human beings make up.  That’s language.  Language is not what Steven is.  It’s something that points to Steven.  So my friends out by the fire telling jokes about salesmen or telling stories about their friends-they’re telling it as accurately as they can, but it’s a story.  And all stories are lies.  And when the Modocs take the story, make up myths up at Mount Shasta, it’s a way of penetrating so that you get the truth out of the lie. The myth is a lie that’s trying to show you the truth. A myth is a blue-bleak ember.  You take the myth and it breaks open inside you and it becomes a live fire.  That’s what it’s all about.  Actually, I don’t think Max Whitehorn had any idea he was doing something like that, but what he was doing was enlivening his experiences in life–which had to do with going out and selling stuff.  So you tell a story.  Oh, it’s just funny stories.  And people respond to humor and to witticisms and so forth. There’s something in the way we talk that everybody sits up and listens.  And somehow or other you get past all that and you feel more alive.  And that’s what it’s all about. 

Story-Telling—The Enlivening of Experience 

So I think what you’re saying, and this superficial story-teller up in Montana at the lake, they’re really intertwined, as I perceive it.  And just to keep on with my monologue here, people are always saying, Oh, I don’t understand poetry.  I don’t know anything about poetry.  And yet you’ll hear them using metaphors constantly, right and left.  They make them up as they go along.  They don’t even know they’re being poetic.  

H: Getting back to Meister Eckhart and the mind breaking into fire, for Eckhart, and here we’re talking about truth again, the way to experience birth, which is essentially what he was doing, evoking the birth of the Word in you or me, or in the audience, the way to awaken the spark in the soul–the spark in the soul is the metaphor for that very thing we’re talking about.  

To penetrate into the truth

M: Yes, and as I said before, Wittgenstein was another person who used that method.  He had graduate students come into his rooms in the evening, you remember, and he’d say, “Now we’re going to do philosophy.”  I love that phrase, “doing philosophy”.  Then he would start in on an idea and explore it out loud.  So the students got to watch the process; that’s so rare in academia.  This is sort of what you’re saying about Eckhart’s meditations.  Eckhart would meditate on some idea and trust in himself that he’s going to penetrate into the truth and make it as accurate as he can and use whatever language is necessary to produce what he senses and put it out there.  So it’s the meditative process in public.  That’s it.

H: The meditative process.

M: Which is pretty powerful.  

H: We each have to find our own methods.  That’s what these great teachers are leading us to realize in their theories of truth.  

M: That’s right.  That’s exactly right.

…we all ought to find our own theory of truth

H: These are all theories, according to Jeffers.  That we all ought to find our own theory of truth.

M: Exactly.

H: And at the core of that is that spark that can break into fire.  

Inviting the spirit to come alive

M: And the theory is an avenue toward the truth.  The theory itself is irrelevant.  It’s a tool for getting there.  This is how I see the universe.  Now let’s see if we can go through that view into where the universe actually is.  Let’s experience it somehow. And inadvertently over the years I developed that kind of confidence in the way the classes were set up.  The whole idea was that you would be inviting the spirit to come alive.  

The theory itself is irrelevant.  It’s a tool for getting there. 

[Brief interruption]

M: Let’s go on with Eckhart’s method of meditation when he was in the pulpit.

Run into peace”

H: What he would do is to take a passage from the Old or New Testament, usually the New, and he would start with that one passage as an idea upon which the whole sermon would be based as a meditation. And I learned from Everson, who did the same thing in “Birth of a Poet.”  Take for example Christ saying, Vade in pace, Go in Peace.  Eckhart takes that idea and runs with it.  He says, “Run into peace.” 

M: Yes.

H: Run into peace.  I talked about that in my presentation.  The same thing can be done with his marvelous little passage, “I pray God to rid me of God.”  

M: Yes.  I do like that one.  

The God “God” points to

H: I wanted to ask you what you thought of that, because leaving God for God was the theme of my talk.  And I think that here we’re again talking about… 

M: Truth versus lies.  You know, with all good will, people create the word God, but then people fall for that word instead of running into the God that it’s pointing toward.  And I suppose you could say running is the right word–or falling into–because when you move from the word to what it points to, it’s like a sexual love.  You have no more control.  You’re totally lost in it.  You’ve let yourself go into it.  

H: It’s the same idea.  The idea of going into something, which essentially de-tumescence, which is peace, a sense of complete relaxation of the body and of the psyche in a way.

M: Falling back into what you came from.

H: Back into the sea, into the womb, into the cosmic ocean.

M: Yes, yes.

A much grander idea of God

 H: Now, this idea of leaving a particular God-image that we’re attached to for something much grander is an idea, of course, that Robinson Jeffers ran with when they were putting forth ideas about the origins of the Cosmos.  This “giant atom of the Universe” intends its course, he said.  

M: Wow! Gee, that is well put!

Cosmic Pinwheels

…a sense of the infinite universe
Edwin Hubble– a frequent visitor to Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House. Jeffers had seen the firmament through the Hubble telescope at Lick Observatory.

H: Now, Jeffers, of course, was aware of this. And he had Hubble as a frequent visitor at Tor House. He went to Lick Observatory where his brother was an astronomer, a specialist in double stars. So he had a sense of the new cosmology.  He had a sense of the infinite universe. Jeffers anticipated the Big Bang before it was confirmed by science. The idea, I think, that Jeffers, as the son of a Presbyterian clergyman who slapped Latin and Greek into him, literally with his hands, and who was forced to attentively study the Bible–for Jeffers the theology of the time was of the historical Jesus as the word of God, in other words, not God of the whole cosmos.  Now, how could you say that, after you’ve looked through these new telescopes and saw that those spiral pinwheels out there were not just stars, but were galaxies, that God is human?   

M: Yes.

Over 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.  Over 300 billion stars in our own Milky Way

H: And we’re talking about hundreds of billions of them. [Over 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.  Over 300 billion stars in our own Milky Way] That so enlarged Jeffers’ mind that it reduced man to insignificance.  So the idea that a God-image that had been formed in various theories of truth, whether it was the Buddhist theory of truth, Lao Tzu, or Jesus, they were all theories of truth.  They were not the truth.  So Jeffers put forth his own theory of truth and realized it was also a subjective truth.  All we can ever do is put forth a subjective truth and get close to reality.  And we want to get as close as we possibly can when we’re talking about God.  So anyway what do you think about that–in terms of leaving God for God? Meister Eckhart, again?

M: For me, that’s fundamental.  That concept is probably the basis of everything I talk about.  That’s probably because of my understanding of how language works, what it’s for and what it does.  But did Jeffers continue to see man as infinitesimally insignificant?  Because what I always come back to is, yes, I am not even a speck, but…  That’s that box illusion.  Its base shifts, depending on how you look at it.  Look at your place in the universe one way and you’re nothing.  Look at it the other way and you’re the whole thing.  So that infinitesimal speck is also the center of all those galaxies. You’re it!  You’re right there in the middle of it.

 Look at your place in the universe one way and you’re nothing.  Look at it the other way and you’re the whole thing.  So that infinitesimal speck is also the center of all those galaxies. You’re it!  You’re right there in the middle of it.     

Whitman’s and Jeffers’ Truths

H: You just put your finger on the very problem that I’m going to be discussing on the panel with the world’s authority on Robinson Jeffers right now, Robert Zaller.  He just wrote a big book called Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime. Well, he distinguishes in that book between a democratic sublime in Walt Whitman and a cosmological sublime in Robinson Jeffers, and says that the difference couldn’t be greater.  And I’m going to argue that they’re on the same page.  

M: Two sides of the same coin.

H: They’re speaking the same language.  You’ve put your finger on the problem.  The problem is, What role does human consciousness play in evolution?  

M: Now you’ve taken it a step farther, though. Go ahead.

H:  Zaller takes a Darwinian view.  Basically he argues that Jeffers was out to create a Darwinian view, through verse, of the cosmos.  Now, that’s fine.  I applaud him for his scholarship.  It’s a brilliant book.  However, he’s completely off track when he talks about democracy in Whitman.  The reason he misses the essential point is that he doesn’t see that Whitman was reading Alexander von Humboldt’s book Kosmos.  Already he had at his fingertips an image of the universe in his mind that was infinite.

M: Sure.  

H: He placed consciousness at the center of it, like you’re saying.  Now the question is, What was Robinson Jeffers’ view of consciousness?  That’s the big question in Jeffers studies today.  I’m going to propose a couple of ideas.  I’m turning this around.  Jeffers appears as if he is reducing humanity to insignificance.  However, as a political poet and especially during World War II, Jeffers takes a position that it is our choice whether we are going to destroy ourselves as a species, through the very thing that is coursing through atoms that created this whole beautiful cosmos, and that is violence. The Big Bang.  Right?

M: Yes.  You mentioned that earlier.

“God” is cosmic fire.

…the role of consciousness, according to Jeffers, is not so much a question of whether God is a conscious God, because to Jeffers the whole universe is conscious.

H: Jeffers adds to our understanding of the God-image, the image of God, force or combustion.  He says, Are we going to split the atom and destroy ourselves because we think God is love?  Or are we going to realize that God is cosmic fire and personally God is doing it in World War II.  That it is God who is creating that.  The physicists, the minds of the physicists who created these works.  And it works.  He meant London.  He meant Berlin.  Nagasaki.  He meant Hiroshima.  And getting back to your point, the role of consciousness, according to Jeffers, is not so much a question of whether God is a conscious God, because to Jeffers the whole universe is conscious. The difference is moral choice.  Now this is very interesting.  We have a moral choice to decide as humans what role we’re going to play on the planet.  If we decide that we are not going to tell lies in verse, like Jeffers says, then we are going to tell the truth, our truth, and if we do, we are transforming consciousness on the planet, and having an impact on the ultimate, on God.  Now I’ve found passages that confirm this in Jeffers’ writings.  But the question is, How much of an impact can human consciousness have on an impersonal deity, on one that is completely inhuman?  For Jeffers God is not human.  So, play with that and tell me what you think.  

The power of the impersonal universe

… it’s a matter of perception because from one perspective God is not human, and yet that which is human is God.

M: Again, it’s a matter of perception because from one perspective God is not human, and yet that which is human is God.  So, really, different sides again of the box illusion.  Human beings with all their misconceptions and all their using language in such a way that it’s not pointing accurately to the universe, including the impersonal or sort of impersonal God.  What Jeffers is bringing forth in his poetry is this unbelievably violent universe–and I’d say he’s brutal about it–he’s making you feel it.  And that’s what you get out of his poetry.  What I get out of his poems is this power of the impersonal universe.  But who’s looking at this?  A human being.  

H: Exactly.

The eyes of God

And who are you, Mr. Human Being, but the eyes of God?

M: And who are you, Mr. Human Being, but the eyes of God?

H: Exactly, and Jeffers would agree.  

Viewing a Gorgeous Cosmic Fire

M: So the upshot is that the universe is looking at itself through your eyes.  So you’d better have a good look.  I think Jeffers wants us to realize the fiery cosmos, but the Zen master realizes the most minute dust mite too. It’s the box illusion. We absolutely have to have both perspectives of the box if we are to play fully our essential role in the universe.  And we do make the whole universe change.  We absolutely do.  That vase on the table, I sitting here, Enola Gay and its burden of Cosmic fire—are all one thing, all expressions of Cosmic truth.

 Do it well.  The more you do it well the better it all works.  That means when you’re negotiating peace treaties in Iran, you’re doing it as a poet.

 Someone could look at a potted plant and think, well, that’s pretty soft.  That’s not going to blow up in your face.  But look harder.  Who’s seeing this?  God’s eyes through Steven or Clark are seeing this.  So once you catch on, you get to participate in it, all throughout your experience in life. Where will it all end up?  This is where I don’t know.  Where it’s going to go is irrelevant to me. We may change it all.  We may do something wonderful here on the planet.  It isn’t going to stay forever anyhow.  In terms of the universe, the Earth isn’t even a blink of the eye.  Not even an instant.  The whole show, whatever it is, however, is gorgeous.  When you look at Earth from outer space, it is like a jewel.  But it’s not going to stay.  It’s finite.  It’s coming apart right now.  The atoms are not stable.  They are disintegrating right now.  It takes a little while, maybe trillions of years, but it will stop. So I think, Relax, folks.  Enjoy it and have a splendid life.  Do it properly, Do it well.  The more you do it well the better it all works.  That means when you’re negotiating peace treaties in Iran, you’re doing it as a poet.  You must do it as a poet does, do a good job of it.  You must do it maybe a little bit like Nelson Mandela to do a good job.  They say that his imprisonment for twenty-seven years burned his rebellion out of him, till all that stuff burned away.  He finally emerged as a pure spirit.  At least the metaphor holds up.  

H: Is that what they said?

M: They didn’t say it in exactly those words.

H: They burned it out of him, the rebellion?  

Falling into peace

M: Well, he was a terrorist when he went into prison.  He wanted to bomb buildings and things. Back in the beginning, he said, We tried peace, and that’s not working. So they threw him in jail for five years.  Then they said, Well, we’d better keep him some more, so they made it life.  And while he was in prison, and I’m sure this does work because I know of other people who got out finally. Some of them become like Christ, like Buddha, like anybody who spends a long time isolated till they get beyond all those weights bearing them down, like emotion, and they finally can get a clear view of how things are.  This, I would say, is what happened to Nelson Mandela.  He comes out. He’s fallen into peace.  He actually ran into peace, as Meister Eckhart said.  He was free of his biases.  And he could be a poet.  

H: Of a democracy, actually.  Right?

The enemy in the mirror

M: Yes!  This is how he pulled it off.  I think most great philosophers would say, When you look at your enemy, you’re looking into a mirror.  And you must know this.  I hate that, but I know it’s true. 

What you hate in others is something you don’t want to face in yourself.  

H: That’s the teachings of Christ again.  

M: Any great philosopher, I think, would say the same thing.  

Jeffers as shaman

H: Jeffers wrote a marvelous piece, “Dear Judas,” very beautiful. And now we actually have a translation of the Gospel according to Judas that confirms Jeffers was right eighty years ago! St. Ireaneus of Lyon tried to destroy the Gospel and preserved only the four books of the Apostles, Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John. But here were all these other Gnostic Gospels. Jeffers, of course, had no knowledge of what is in the Gospel of Judas, because it was only pieced together by specialists in Switzerland around the millennium, 2000. But Jeffers knew that to other men Jesus had said Be merciful, but to Judas: Be cruel! How did Jeffers know this?  He was a great prophet and a shaman. 

Christ’s Stories

Christ pretty much did his teaching by telling stories.

M: Which brings us back to story-telling.  Christ pretty much did his teaching by telling stories.  

H: Yes, the parables.  

M: This was going on up at the lake in Montana in a way.  In your talks, the more you tell little stories like Jung’s as part of your talk, the more powerful your talks are going to be.  Because, as you said, he tells that little story about what happened on his way to school, you tell about Steven’s experiences, little anecdotes maybe, and you’re moving right into it, right past the intellect.  

H: Just to tie this dialogue up a little, I’m left with an image of you running down to the lake in your shorts and jumping into that cold water.  Sixty-two degrees.  And that’s a kind of an awakening experience.  

Prime Numbers: One and Zero

H: Now we’re back to zero again, the Zero sum field.  Yes, zero is, I think, the prime number.  One’s the prime number.  But what about zero?  I think you’ve got to have both.  When you look into the cosmos, you see One everywhere.  The whole cosmos is filled with Ones.  And then, if you look beyond, there’s Zero.

The whole cosmos is filled with Ones.  And then, if you look beyond, there’s Zero.

M: I was going to say–and you reminded me of a poem I just read by Antonio Machado in which he talks about the Great Zero.  That’s exactly what you’re saying.  So I think you really must take this image [Clark made a line drawing of a box.]

when you go to your talk.  That’s an optical illusion. If you look at it one way, it’s sitting on one base, but if you stay with it your eye flips it over so that it’s on another base.  

H: Yes, it is an optical illusion.  

M: Well, that’s what your Jeffers presentation with Robert Zaller is going to be about.  It’s the same box.

H: That’s interesting because just now I was looking at it and the box flipped.  I kept looking at it and it wouldn’t go back.  Then I looked away and it flipped back the other way.

Truth Out of the Corner of the Eye

M: Think about that.  Truth is going to catch you off guard.  You look at it one way and you can’t get away from it, and then it flips.  Oh, ho!  Here we are again.  This is the key to philosophical thinking.  

H: You use the word spiritual a lot.

Free to Be Faithful

M: That’s true.  Spiritual fits better for me.  I have to tell you about my friend Sister Vincent, who was a truly, truly religious.  Her being a nun was a true calling.  And she knew I wasn’t a Catholic, although some of the nuns thought I would have made a good one.  She gave me a book about falling into faith, Free to Be Faithful.  I never was fond of the word faith.  But browsing through the book and seeing it through her eyes, it made a lot of sense to me.  I think it was really like what we were talking about earlier, about letting yourself fall into life and not being afraid of it.  

H: Even your Zen poets, Basho, for example, he’s a Buddhist.  So religion is at the center, even of your master teachers.

M: It’s a definition I would certainly endorse. I’m doubtful that Basho would have seen himself as religious in the sense we use the word here in the West.

H: You could say Buddhism is not religious because it doesn’t have a deity at its center.  There’s no Self.  You could say the physicists are not religious, they’re scientists, right?  But then one of the men who developed the atomic bomb, when he saw it go off in the desert, I think had a religious experience.  

M: Yes.  A number of them did. 

H: Some associated it with God.  

M: When you put your hands on such energy, you can really get burned, but nonetheless you do have to let yourself look at it sometimes. H: If you get too close, it is radioactive.  

The Radioactive Truth

M: This is what many, many of the great thinkers do.  They get so close they get burned up.  Or you could say they went mad.  

H: Nietzsche did.  He went mad.  

M: Time for me to leave.  Do you want to give me a punch line here?

H: Hmm.  We can’t tell lies in these dialogues.  We’re going to speak our truth.  We’re going to speak our truth in poetry. 

The Academy as a Poetic Endeavor 

…the truth has to be told in poetic terms.  It’s too bad the academics don’t realize this.  They could transform the way the colleges present their disciplines.

M: Yes, the truth has to be told in poetic terms.  It’s too bad the academics don’t realize this.  They could transform the way the colleges present their disciplines.

H: They might use your book in their classes.

M: [Laughs] I guess!

Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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