The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Entertaining Ideas: Barbara Knott
The Fluttering of Pure Life: On Disenchantment, Paying Attention, Psychic Sensuality, Praise, and Reverence
Reverence is a heightened form of paying attention and a doorway to mystery. The experience of reverence has been with us time out of mind, one indication that it is authentic to human nature. We read a historical description of a Native American ritual in which a priest greets each morning by spitting into his palms and holding his hands up and eastward, offering this substance of himself to the rising sun. We see reverential gestures among patriots with hands over hearts while singing national anthems, among Christians kneeling and praying with hands folded, and among Hindus going about their ordinary lives as they greet each other by pressing palms together and saying, Namaste, a word sometimes translated from the Sanskrit as, "I greet the god in you." Yet we can tell that such gestures nowadays are often rituals of habit and sentiment more than passion.
Some people attribute our loss of reverence to the advent of science and the overwhelming force with which industrialism, urban development and technological innovation have encroached on our lives, effectively wrenching us away from the natural world and leading to the disenchantment of what was once revered. Sacred places once were located in natural landscapes associated with extraordinary occurrences. Today "the sacred" has largely been institutionalized and confined to houses of worship remote from the epiphanies that brought them into being. They are most often dedicated to a single vision of religion and reverence that in many instances is intolerant in the extreme.
Against this religious "single vision," science has opposed its own dogmatic "single vision" that at best simply refuses to entertain ideas about spiritual or imaginal life and at worst is contemptuous of such ideas. Poet William Blake anticipated the standoff between religion and science when he cried out in a poem, Pray God us keep/From Single vision and Newton's sleep. As poets tend to do, Blake rejected dogmatism of both kinds.
So does scholar Tom Cheetham who, in The World Turned Inside Out, his book on Henry Corbin's studies of Sufism, makes these important observations: The rational systems are not to be denied their necessity. But they are inherently incomplete, since they are founded on a limited way of knowing (65), and ... though there is something special about science ... there is nothing special about scientists--they fall all too easily into the traps of dogmatism like the rest of us (182-3). Finally, he says, We should learn to grasp all our truths less tightly, to avoid the heavy-handed certainty of the dogmatist (182). That stance suits my own temperament as a poet and revolutionary on behalf of soul.
Concerned about what we humans are losing in the way of a living, nurturing relationship to our world and to each other, an increasing number of contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and even physicists, are joining artists in calling attention to ideas and images that refresh our awareness of many dimensions of reality, ranging from scientific to imaginal, from nature to soul, from secular to sacred. In this, they offer insights to weave together in our world view so that we can live satisfying lives while we heal and preserve the world that sustains us.
Two Philosophical Views
According to Thomas Moore in his book The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, humanist philosopher Marsilio Ficino said in the fifteenth century that religion is as natural to a human being as barking is to a dog. I myself think any serious (or playful) study of attention might begin with the dog. You can remind yourself of what paying attention means by watching your dog watch you whenever you or anyone else partakes of food in its presence. Try distracting the dog's uncannily focused eyes by any means other than yielding up what the dog wants, even if it has to wait--well, forever, its eyes will tell you. Lovers have such eyes, full of passionate concentration. So do creative people of all kinds.
Scholar and philosopher Jacob Needleman in his book What is God? discusses this interesting idea: for humans, the quality of our attention is the key to the meaning of our lives and the possible growth of our being (204). He gives his idea context:
I could understand through experience that our lives are what they are in large part because of the weakness and passivity of our attention. We are taken, our attention is taken, swallowed, by our streams of automatic thought; we constantly disappear into our emotional reactions; we are taken by our fears and desires, our pleasures and pains, by our daydreams and imaginary worries. And, being taken, we no longer exist as I, myself, here. We do not live our lives; we are lived and we may eventually die without ever having awakened to what we really are, without having lived (204-5).
Needleman builds a good case for his thesis, I am my attention. "Everything else is given," he says, suggesting that it "is not mine." But attention, he discovers as he works through this attempt to expand our awareness of the word, is "close to hand." It is "in me, in my mind, in my selfness." He can "put it on this or that" or "let it go." He refers to it as "this small, thin capacity, this tiny spark of uniquely human freedom" (205). He describes a quality of attention that he says is becoming more and more rare. It is the mutual flow of this special quality of attention between human beings that all people, whether they know it or not, are starved for (107).
I recommend reading Needleman's book for an extended discussion of the kind of attention he is talking about here, based on inward development. It has to do with a readiness to be attracted to the things and places and persons of the world, with looking and listening and touching--all qualities of intense interest that lead to an attitude of reverence. It is that state of mind, I believe, that inspires gestures of humility like bowing or kneeling or folding hands together, and gestures of love, like embracing and kissing, all moves that express our longing to acknowledge outwardly what we feel inwardly about the mysteries of life.
Let's Hear from Three Poets
Let me now lay out a mosaic of quotations in which there are ideas and images to entertain you and be entertained by you.
D. H. Lawrence describes his own experience of reverence in this way:
I feel absolute reverence to nobody and to nothing human,
neither to persons nor things nor ideas, ideals nor religions nor institutions,
to these things I feel only respect, and a tinge of reverence
when I see the fluttering of pure life in them.
But to something unseen, unknown, creative
from which I feel I am a derivative
I feel absolute reverence. Say no more!
Lawrence understood that irreverent expression also plays its part by deflating what is puffed up, phony, contemptuous, exploitative, abusive, wasteful, destructive. But his sympathy flows toward what he calls "the fluttering of pure life," so that he can ask,
What is the good of a man
unless there's the glimpse of a god in him?
And what's the good of a woman
unless she's a glimpse of a goddess of some sort?
Lawrence's work is a long and rich exploration of the mysteries of embodied life. When he writes, There is no god apart from poppies and the flying fish, men singing songs, and women brushing their hair in the sun, he is not speaking as an atheist; he is insisting that there is divinity in the world and in images that describe what we all might see at any moment if we had eyes to see such gleaming.
Poet/songwriter and performer Leonard Cohen can see the gleaming. At his 2013 concert in Atlanta's Fox Theater, again and again while singing, Cohen glided onto his knees to signify his reverence toward the women of his songs, toward his musicians and the listening audience. Among the audience were women standing in the aisles, swaying and holding their hands up toward the stage, enchanted by this man who, like Lawrence, understands that sensuality is enhanced by reverence.
In these lines from "The Window" we can see something of the value Cohen places on the things of this world and on the human capacity for worship:
Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendour
In the arms of the high holy one
For the holy one dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter's death
Oh bless thee continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh
One characteristic that unites the work of Lawrence and Cohen can be found in the meaning of Voluptas, the Latin name given to the child born to Cupid (Eros) and Psyche in the denouement of that tale. The word is often translated as "pleasure" or "bliss." According to James Hillman, For the Neoplatonists voluptas was generally both sensual voluptuousness and a transcendent bliss beyond the senses. We might call it a psychic sensuality, the physical delight in the opus of soul-making, the psyche infused with eros ....
In the picture at the top of this page, Burne-Jones shows the moment in the tale of Eros and Psyche when Psyche, who is emerging from the water where she threw herself hoping to end her misery and where the water itself refused to drown her, encounters Pan, the earth god, who greets her with praise for the act and the art of living.
Now consider these lines from Rilke's sonnets to Orpheus, number 7:
To praise is the whole thing! A man who can praise
comes toward us like ore out of the silences
of rock. His heart, that dies, presses out
for others a wine that is fresh forever.
Rilke and Cohen and Lawrence model for all of us the art of paying attention. All three know that reverence, which comes from paying attention, is necessary for love, for soul, for vitality. All of these artists carefully tend the sacred and make it so that we can see and hear and feel what they are doing and be inspired to do our own work.
In a letter to Franz Kappus, Rilke shows in his comments on human nature and creativity something of immeasurable importance to each of us:
If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.
As we consider each issue of The Grapevine, we find ourselves on the lookout for the fluttering of pure life in poems and stories, pictures and quotations, and for the special qualities of attention and reverence shown by those artists and writers of many kinds who are daring enough to approach mysteries, who recognize what is sacred, and who create from that awareness.
William Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802. Quoted in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake (1956), 79.
Tom Cheetham, The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism, Spring Journal Books, 2003.
Thomas Moore, The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. HarperCollins, 1996, p. xiv.
Jacob Needleman, What is God? Penguin, 2009.
D. H. Lawrence, The Body of God: poems selected & arranged by Michael Adam, woodcuts by Barbara Whitehead. The Ark Press, 1970.
(See Reflections for links to pieces on Leonard Cohen in previous issues.) Leonard Cohen Lyrics and Songs
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, via Stephanie Dowrick, In the Company of Rilke, Penguin Group, 2011, p. 295.
Robert Bly, ed. and trans., Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Harper & Row, 1981.
James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis, HarperCollins, 1992, p. 104.
Copyright 2014, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.