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Sometimes: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Stunning Meditation on Walking into the Questions of Our Becoming

An invitation into the transcendent disquietude of those stirrings “that can make or unmake a life,” “that have no right to go away.”

Sometimes: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Stunning Meditation on Walking into the Questions of Our Becoming

The role of the artist, James Baldwin believed, is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.” This, too, is the role of the forest, it occurs to me as I walk the ferned, mossed woods daily to lose my self and find myself between the trees; to “live the questions,” in Rilke’s lovely phrase — to let the rustling of the leaves beckon forth the stirrings and murmurings on the edge of the psyche, which we so often brush away in order to go on being the smaller version of ourselves we have grown accustomed to being out of the unfaced fear that the grandeur of life, the grandeur of our own untrammeled nature, might require of us more than we are ready to give.

Those disquieting, transformative stirrings are what the poet and philosopher David Whyte explores with surefooted subtlety in his poem “Sometimes,” found in his altogether life-enlarging collection Everything Is Waiting for You (public library) and read here by the poet himself as part of a wonderful short course of poem-driven practices for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit (which I can’t recommend enough and which operates under an inspired, honorable model of granting free subscriptions to those who need this invaluable mental health aid but don’t have the means).

SOMETIMES
by David Whyte

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,
breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,
who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,
you come to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and
to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,
questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,
questions
that have patiently
waited for you,
questions
that have no right
to go away.

Complement with Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means, hardship as the ground for self-expansion, and his lovely letter to children about reading as a portal to self-discovery, then revisit other great poets bringing their own versed wisdom to life: Marie Howe reading “Singularity,” Marissa Davis reading her own “Singularity” in response to Howe’s, Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe,” Ross Gay reading “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” Marilyn Nelson reading “The Children’s Moon,” and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading from “My God, It’s Full of Stars.”

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Psychedelic Fishes from the World’s First Natural History Encyclopedia of Marine Creatures Illustrated in Color

An explosion of wonder at the borderline of science and the ecstatic imagination.

“Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere,” Rachel Carson wrote in her lyrical 1937 masterpiece Undersea, which invited the human imagination to fathom the world of marine creatures for the first time — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — and paved the way for the awakening of the modern ecological conscience.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

More than two centuries earlier, a strange and wondrous book titled Poissons, écrevisses et crabes… que l’on trouve autour des Isles Moluques, et sur les côtes des Terres AustralesFishes, crayfish and crabs, of various colors and extraordinary figures, which one finds around the Moluccas islands and on the coasts of the Austral lands — flashed into being, dizzying and dazzling everyone who chanced upon the 100 precious copies of the first edition with its extraordinary depictions of extraordinary creatures.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

The world’s first encyclopedia of fishes illustrated in color, promising a “natural history of the rarest curiosities of the fish of the Indies,” it advertised these curiosities as “drawn from nature.” The author identified himself as a secret British spy. He was, in fact, the Dutch publisher, bookseller, atlas-maker, and engraver Louis Renard (c. 1678–1746), employed at one time by the British Crown in the rather non-secret work of searching vessels as they departed Amsterdam’s ports to ensure they weren’t smuggling arms for a potential usurper of the British throne. Clickbait existed even in 1719.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

The consummate images — 100 plates of them, populated by 460 individual hand-colored copper engravings, based on drawings by an artistically gifted soldier in the Dutch East India Company named Samuel Fallour, who worked with native artists — are even more vibrant than William Saville-Kent’s pioneering depictions of the Great Barrier Reef’s life-forms, even more otherworldly than Ernst Haeckel’s mesmerizing jellyfish, even more detailed than Harriet and Helena Scott’s Australian butterflies. They are seaborne butterflies, gilled and finned peacocks, psychedelic dragons of the ocean; they are candy-colored aliens, Earth’s proudest freak-flags, floating cosmoses of wonder; they are undulating living poems.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

Reminiscent of Hindu deities and the marine creatures of Indian folklore, Renard’s creatures are so fanciful one might be tempted to take them for fictitious — a temptation significantly magnified by the depiction of a mermaid on page 220, its human portion appearing like a child’s drawing awkwardly appended to the elegant, elaborate paintings of the marine forms.

Available as a print and as a face mask.

But while their beauty is embellished — by the artistic imagination filling in the gaps of science, as mythology has always done — it is not invented. When a modern ichthyologist examined the book a quarter millennium after its publication, he determined that only about one in ten of the species depicted was drawn from the imagination; the rest were identifiable down to the genus, many even to the species.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

Their strange and wondrous countenances seem both alien and strikingly human, projection screens for our own emotions — their round unblinking eyes frozen in an expression of perpetual astonishment, their toothy underbites agape with aggressive incomprehension.

Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.

The wonderful Biodiversity Library has scanned a rare surviving copy of the posthumous edition published in 1754. I have spent some delicious hours — days, really — savoring it, restoring and color-correcting these time-washed treasures to their original splendor, to make them available as prints and, for the artworks that lend themselves to the pre-set cutting pattern, as face masks, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy’s tireless stewardship of this irreplaceable world.

Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print.
Available as a print and as a face mask.
BP

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love… Love is not something to do, but… something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly.”

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But a central paradox of making art and making life is that while uncertainty may be the wellspring of our creative vitality — what is best in life and art often comes into being by “making-not-knowing,” in artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely phrase — we are capable of creating only by hedging against the uncertainty with an arsenal of habits and routines that make it feel containable, controllable, workable. We simply cannot cope with the fundamental precariousness of it all. Every artist’s art is their coping mechanism — their makeshift raft for the slipstream of time and uncertainty that is life.

And so: When some cataclysm in the slipstream capsizes the raft, shatters it, leaves us gasping amid the flotsam, ejected from the familiar flow of time — do we sink or sing?

That is what Zadie Smith explores in one of the six symphonic essays from her Intimations (public library) — a slender, splendid book, all of her royalties from which Smith is donating to the Equal Justice Initiative and New York’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund; a book inspired by her first encounter with Marcus Aurelius’s classic Meditations, on which she leaned to steady herself in these staggering times but which failed to make of her a Stoic, driving her, as the world’s gaps and failings drive us restive makers, to make what meets the unmet need, a contemporary counterpart to these ancient private meditations of timeless public resonance. (We cannot, we must not, after all, expect a white male monarch — however penetrating his insight into human nature, whatever the similitudes of that elemental nature across cultures and civilizations — to speak for and to all of humanity across all of time.)

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

In the third essay, titled “Something to Do,” Smith contemplates the strange and inevitable species of essays in which writers examine their own motives for what they do, that is, examine the pylons of who they are — a genre perhaps not pioneered but popularized by Orwell’s iconic Why I Write and since swelled with specimens by such titans of literature as Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Smith herself. At the bottom of all such self-examination — which spares no maker, whatever the mode and material of their art, be it essays or gardens or equations — is the question of time, the raw material of making, something Marcus Aurelius’s fellow Stoic Seneca took up in his excellent meditation on the existential calculus of time spent, saved, and wasted, concluding that “nothing is ours, except time.”

With an eye to the capitalist commodification of time in a culture of utilitarian busyness, Smith considers how society ordinarily weighs the cultural and temporal responsibility of the artist:

Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do… Out of an expanse of time, you carve a little area — that nobody asked you to carve — and you do “something.” But perhaps the difference between the kind of something that I’m used to, and this new culture of doing something, is the moral anxiety that surrounds it. The something that artists have always done is more usually cordoned off from the rest of society, and by mutual agreement this space is considered a sort of charming but basically useless playpen, in which adults get to behave like children — making up stories and drawing pictures and so on — though at least they provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs… As a consequence, art stands in a dubious relation to necessity — and to time itself. It is something to do, yes, but when it is done, and whether it is done at all, is generally considered a question for artists alone. An attempt to connect the artist’s labor with the work of truly laboring people is frequently made but always strikes me as tenuous, with the fundamental dividing line being this question of the clock. Labor is work done by the clock (and paid by it, too). Art takes time and divides it up as art sees fit. It is something to do.

Art by Christoph Niemann from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Under such a premise, she observes, artists would seem to be most impervious to the cataclysmic disruption of labor that a global pandemic inflicts upon our species. But that is not what her experience — or my experience, or the experience of any creative person I know — has been. One is reminded of James Baldwin, insisting half a century earlier in his superb essay on the creative process that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” Not even time, the artist’s own fulcrum of stability. Smith writes:

It seems it would follow that writers — so familiar with empty time and with being alone — should manage this situation better than most. Instead, in the first week I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life. Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it. Back in the playpen, I carved out meaning by creating artificial deprivations time, the kind usually provided for people by the real limitations of their real jobs. Things like “a firm place to be at nine a.m. every morning” or a “boss who tells you what to do.” In the absence of these fixed elements, I’d make up hard things to do, or things to abstain from. Artificial limits and so on. Running is what I know. Writing is what I know. Conceiving self-implemented schedules: teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat. What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time. The way I’ve done it all my life.

“Artificial limits,” of course, are how we contour and fill our sense of meaning amid the vast, empty boundlessness of being. That is why the artificial limits of those we deem to have meaningful lives — the daily routines of great makers and thinkers — are of such enduring and intoxicating interest to us, why we hunger for the cognitive science of the ideal daily routine.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

But much of our temporal anguish stems precisely from this artificial contouring of selfhood in the sand of time. We are essentially self-referential timekeeping devices. I noticed, for instance — how could one not? — that this book was published on my birthday. We mark up the year with the same artificial timestamps with which we mark up the hour. What we do with our days, how we itemize them into scheduled rhythms, is another twitch of the same ludicrous, helplessly human impulse — to own time, to turn into private property what may be the only truly public good. Eventually — perhaps in the time-warp of a pandemic, perhaps in that of private grief — something stops us up short and we face the absurdity of such artificiality. Smith recounts her own stumbling stop and the disquieting yet strangely life-affirming realization it made her step into:

At the end of April, in a powerful essay by another writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, I read this line about love: “Without it, life is just ‘doing time.’” I don’t think she intended by this only romantic love, or parental love, or familial love or really any kind of love in particular. At least, I read it in the Platonic sense: Love with a capital L, an ideal form and essential part of the universe — like “Beauty” or the color red — from which all particular examples on earth take their nature. Without this element present, in some form, somewhere in our lives, there really is only time, and there will always be too much of it. Busyness will not disguise its lack.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Ending where she began, Smith quiets the moral anxiety to make herself at home in that peculiar and inescapable place that makers inhabit by their very nature, the place between compulsion and consecration:

I write because… well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love. The difficulties and complications of love — as they exist on the other side of this wall, away from my laptop — is the task that is before me, although task is a poor word for it, for unlike writing, its terms cannot be scheduled, preplanned or determined by me. Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love. If it weren’t for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world, and very little meaningful pleasure for any of us. Although the most powerful art, it sometimes seems to me, is an experience and a going-through; it is love comprehended by, expressed and enacted through the artwork itself, and for this reason has perhaps been more frequently created by people who feel themselves to be completely alone in this world — and therefore wholly focused on the task at hand — than by those surrounded by “loved ones.” Such art is rare: we can’t all sit cross-legged like Buddhists day and night meditating on ultimate matters. Or I can’t. But I also don’t want to just do time anymore, the way I used to. And yet, in my case, I can’t let it go: old habits die hard. I can’t rid myself of the need to do “something,” to make “something,” to feel that this new expanse of time hasn’t been “wasted.” Still, it’s nice to have company. Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do “something,” that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.

Complement this fragment of Smith’s solacing and vitalizing Intimations with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley on the necessary chaos of creativity, Borges’s timeless refutation of time, and Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, then revisit Smith, writing years ago as if of and to today, on optimism and despair.

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How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly.”

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic manifesto for the spirit of sauntering, before proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” A century and a half later, Rebecca Solnit picked up the subject in her ambulatory classic: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Perched partway in time between Thoreau and Solnit, Thomas Bernhard twined these sentiments in his exquisite meditation on walking, thinking, and the paradox of self-reflection: “There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking.”

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

But what if the peripatetic body could be an instrument not of moving the mind but of stilling the mind in order to apprehend reality, internal and external, more clearly? What if walking could be not a crusade but a consecration?

That, of course, is what Eastern traditions have been doing for millennia. How to do it — how to master the ancient art of walking meditation and incorporate it into a modern life, into your regular rhythm of being — is what the great Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein details in a portion of her funny, poignant, wholly revelatory 1996 field guide to mindfulness practice, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There (public library).

Sylvia Boorstein

Boorstein — who arrived at Buddhism through the portal of political activism in the 1960s and went on to help pioneer the ancient Eastern tradition as a spiritual and psychotherapeutic practice in the West, and whose teachings have transformed my own life — outlines the basic mental and material framework of walking meditation:

Pick a place to walk back and forth that is private and uncomplicated — one where the walking path can be ten to twenty feet long. If you walk outdoors, find a secluded spot so that you won’t feel self-conscious. If you walk indoors, find a furniture-free section of your room or an empty hallway. Then you can devote all your attention to the feelings in your feet as you walk.

Keep in mind that this is attentiveness practice and tranquillity practice, not specialty walking practice. You don’t need to walk in any unusual way. No special balance is needed, no special gracefulness. This is just plain walking. Perhaps at a slower pace than normal, but otherwise, quite ordinary.

Begin your period of practice by standing still for a few moments at one end of your walking path. Close your eyes. Feel your whole body standing. Some people start by focusing their attention on the top of the head, then move their attention along the body through the head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs, and end by feeling the sensations of the feet connecting with the earth. Allow your attention to rest on the sensations in the soles of the feet. This is likely to be the feeling of pressure on the feet and perhaps a sense of “soft” or “hard,” depending on where you are standing.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

From this mental launchpad commences the actual movement, the intention of which Boorstein takes care to protect from the momentum of our everyday biped habits:

Begin to walk forward. Keep your eyes open so that you stay balanced. I often begin with a normal strolling pace and expect that the limited scope of the walk, and its repetitious regularity, will naturally ease my body into a slower pace. Slowing down happens all by itself. I think it happens because the mind, with less stimuli to process, shifts into a lower gear. Probably the greed impulse, ever on the lookout for something novel to play with, surrenders when it realizes you’re serious about not going anywhere.

When you walk at a strolling pace, the view is panoramic and descriptive. When your walking slows, the view is more localized and subjective. If we could see running readouts, like subtitles, of the mental notes that accompany walking, they might look like this:

Strolling pace: “Step . . . step . . . step . . . step . . .

arms moving . . . head moving . . . smiling . . . looking . . .

stopping . . . turning . . . bird chirping . . .

stepping . . . stepping . . . wondering what time it is . . .

thinking this is boring . . . stepping . . . stepping . . .

swinging arms . . . feeling warm . . .

feeling cool . . . I’m glad I’m in the shade . . .

deciding to stay in the shade . . . smiling . . . stepping . . .”

Slower pace: “Pressure on feet . . . pressure . . . pressure disappearing . . .

pressure reappearing . . . pressure shifting . . .

lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . .

Hey! Now I’ve got it! Now I’m finally present!. . .

Whoops, I’ve been distracted . . . Start again . . .

Pressure on feet . . . pressure shifting . . . lightness . . .

heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . .

hearing . . . warm . . . cool . . .”

“Go out and walk. It is the glory of life.” Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Boorstein adds an essential disclaimer — a disclaimer and an assurance, necessary for us human animals so conditioned by modern life to overdo, so anxious to overachieve:

Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly. The speed-limit guide for mindful walking is to select the speed at which you are most likely to maintain attention. Shift up or down as necessary.

Aware, with Borges, that time is the substance we are made of, Boorstein ends with a similar antidote to our temporal anxiety:

Start with thirty minutes… Set the timer and begin… As you walk note how many times the impulse to check the time arises. Don’t do it. Just walk. This way, in addition to composure and attentiveness, you get to practice renunciation, a fundamental factor in awakening.

Complement with The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame’s century-old meditation on walking as creative fuel and Lauren Elkin’s marvelous modern-day manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to do hugging meditation and savor Sylvia Boorstein’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s splendid ode to silence.

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