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Elizabeth Alexander on What Poetry Does for the Human Spirit

“…and are we not of interest to each other?”

Elizabeth Alexander is among the most entrancing and spiritually invigorating poets of our time, and only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration. Her recent memoir, The Light of the World, is one of the most breathtaking books on loss ever written. In her On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Alexander reads the poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” — perhaps the most beautiful meditation on poetry’s role in human life ever committed to words — found in her indispensable collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library).

Please enjoy:

ARS POETICA #100: I BELIEVE

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Complement with Alexander on love, loss, and the boundaries of the soul and Muriel Rukeyser on why we resist poetry, then treat yourself to the beautiful poetry of Wislawa Szymborska, Nikki Giovanni, and Mark Strand.

BP

The Dalai Lama’s Daily Routine and Information Diet

“To understand the Dalai Lama … perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.”

I think a great deal about the difference between routine and ritual as a special case of our more general and generally trying quest for balance — ripped asunder by the contrary longings for control and whimsy, we routinize daily life in order to make its inherent chaos more manageable, then ritualize it in order to imbue its mundanity with magic, which by definition violates the predictable laws of the universe. I suspect that our voracious appetite for the daily routines of cultural icons is fueled by a deep yearning to glean some insight on and practical help with this impossible balancing act, from people who seem to have mastered it well enough to lead happy, productive, creatively fruitful, and altogether remarkable lives.

Perhaps the most unexpected yet brilliant master of this elusive modern equilibrium is the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer

In the altogether magnificent The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (public library), writer Pico Iyer — who has known the beloved spiritual leader since adolescence and, by the time he began writing this book, had visited him in his exile home for nearly thirty years — describes how the Dalai Lama begins each day:

[By] nine a.m. … the Dalai Lama himself had already been up for more than five hours, awakening, as he always does, at three-thirty a.m., to spend his first four hours of the day meditating on the roots of compassion and what he can do for his people, the “Chinese brothers and sisters” who are holding his people hostage, and the rest of us, while also preparing himself for his death.

Compressed into this humble and humbling morning routine is the entire Buddhist belief that life is a “joyful participation in a world of sorrows.” This daily rite of body and spirit is the building block of the Dalai Lama’s quiet and steadfast mission to, as Iyer elegantly puts it, “explore the world closely, so as to make out its laws, and then to see what can and cannot be done within those laws.” He writes:

To understand the Dalai Lama … especially if (as in my case) you come from some other tradition, perhaps it’s most useful to see him as a doctor of the soul.

As someone deeply invested in the crucial difference between information and wisdom, I was particularly fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s information diet — that is, what daily facts he chooses to fuse with ancient wisdom in his dedication to unraveling the nature of reality and making use of it in fortifying the soul. Iyer writes:

As a longtime student of real life, ruler of his people before the age of five, he listens every morning to the Voice of America, to the BBC East Asian broadcast, to the BBC World Service — even while meditating — and devours Time and Newsweek and many other news sources (I think of how the Buddha is often depicted with one hand touching the earth, in what Buddhists call the “witnessing the earth” gesture).

And yet the Dalai Lama approaches his information diet like he does his meditation — as a deliberate practice. In that sense, “meaning diet” is far more accurate a term, for he is remarkably deliberate about which aspects of the Information Age to fold into his meaning-making mission and which to sidestep. He chooses, for instance, to avoid one of the most perilous byproducts of our era, which Susan Sontag presaged in 1977 in her famous admonition against “aesthetic consumerism.” Iyer writes:

In the Age of the Image, when screens are so much our rulers, anyone who wishes to grab our attention — and to hold it — does so by converting himself into a “human-interest story,” translating his life into a kind of fable…. Those who long to be entrusted with real consequences in our lives acquire that power increasingly by presenting themselves as fairy tales.

The Dalai Lama, by nature and training, is in the odd position of trying to do the opposite: he comes to us to tell us that he is real, as real as his country, bleeding and oppressed, and that he lives in a world far more complex than a two-year-old’s cries of “Good Tibetans, bad Chinese” (the Dalai Lama would more likely say, “Potentially good Tibetans, potentially good Chinese”).

The Dalai Lama by Manuel Bauer

At the heart of this message is a larger testament to the most essential characteristic of reality — something Alan Watts, who began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West when the Dalai Lama was still a teenager, captured memorably when he wrote: “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.”

Indeed, contacting this interconnectedness of all beings and all lives is the very impetus for the Dalai Lama’s morning routine and his information diet — a beautiful assurance that beneath our obsession with routine and ritual lies a deeper, more expansive longing for meaning, for orienting ourselves in this vibrating universe of interconnectedness that we call reality.

Iyer articulates this elegantly:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a body (not difficult to do, since in part that is what you are). You have eyes, ears, legs, hands, and, if you are lucky, all of them are in good working order. You never, if you are sane, think of your finger as an independent entity (though you may occasionally say, “My toe seems to have a mind of its own”). You are never, in your right mind, moved to hit your own foot, let alone sever it; the only loser in such an exercise would be yourself.

[…]

This is all simplistic to the point of self-evidence. But when the Buddhist speaks of “interdependence” (the central Buddhist concept of shunyata, often rendered as “emptiness,” the Dalai Lama has translated as “empty of independent identity”), all he is really saying is that we are all a part of a single body, and to think of “I” and “you,” of the right hand’s interests being different from the left’s, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy to impede your neighbor, because he is as intrinsic to your welfare as your thumb is. It’s almost absurd to say you wish to get ahead of your colleague — it’s like your right toe saying it longs to be ahead of the left.

[…]

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is famous for his laughter, the sudden eruption of almost helpless giggles or a high-pitched shaking of the body. Seen from the vantage point of one who meditates several hours a day, traveling to the place where everything is connected, much of our fascination with surface or with division seems truly hilarious… Talking about friends and enemies is a little like holding on to this hair on your arm and claiming it as a friend, because you see it daily, and calling the hair on your back an enemy, because you never see it at all. Talking of how you are a Buddhist and therefore opposed to the Judeo-Christian teaching is like solemnly asserting that your right nostril is the source of everything good, and your left nostril a place of evil. The doctrine of “universal responsibility” is not only universal but obvious: it’s like saying that every part of us longs for our legs, our eyes, our lungs to be healthy. If one part suffers, we all do.

Suddenly, the Dalai Lama’s morning routine and his information diet are revealed in a whole new light of meaning — they are a form of self-empowerment in the journey toward shedding self-centeredness. (Lest we forget, as another great Buddhist teacher has put it, “you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”)

Iyer writes:

Buddhists do not (or need not) seek solutions from outside themselves, but merely awakening within; the minute we come to see that our destinies or well-being are all mutually dependent, they say, the rest naturally follows (meditation sometimes seems the way we come to this perception, reasoning the way we consolidate it). If you believe this, human life offers you many more belly laughs daily, as the Dalai Lama exemplifies.

And there, with a good-humored smirk, Iyer reminds us that his perspective isn’t perched on a holier-than-thou branch in the tree of life but grounded in his reality as a Westerner and a writer, and thus a creature of ego trying to learn the very lesson he is channeling:

Why despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review is as intrinsic to your well-being as your thumb is?

The Open Road is an illuminating read in its totality, propelled by Iyer’s deeply pleasurable prose. Complement it with Iyer on what Leonard Cohen knows about the art of stillness and his superb On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, in which he recounts the experience of shadowing the Dalai Lama in order to capture his inner light:

On Being is one of these nine favorite podcasts for a fuller life — do your soul a favor and subscribe.

BP

The Value of a Compassionate Lie

A poignant reminder that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is the greatest art of all.

“Anybody who travels knows,” Pico Iyer observed in his altogether marvelous On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, “that you’re not really doing so in order to move around — you’re traveling in order to be moved.” Few have captured this aspect of travel as a mode of intimacy with oneself more enchantingly than writer and documentary photographer Michael Katakis in The Traveller: Observations from an American in Exile (public library) — a slim, absolutely magnificent collection of journal entries, which I picked up on the recommendation of voracious reader and traveler extraordinaire Karen Barbarossa, chronicling twenty-five years of Katakis mapping his inner world as he traverses the outer.

Although every page emanates enormous wisdom, one particular diary entry stopped my breath with how swiftly it sliced through my most fundamental convictions as a person who despises deception and prizes truth above almost all moral goods. And yet here was Katakis, reminding me in an incredibly poignant and beautiful way that a life of nuance in a black-and-white culture is perhaps the greatest art and most difficult moral feat of all.

Women husking in Sierra Leone (Photograph: Michael Katakis)

Writing from Sierra Leone in July of 1988 — a time of growing violence and unrest, shortly before the country erupted into its decade-long Civil War — Katakis describes an encounter with a most unexpected visitor, which taught him a most unexpected and invaluable truth:

On the veranda sat a small nicely dressed man in his twenties I’d guessed. He rose to greet me with an extended hand and held a large box in the other. He seemed familiar and at first did not speak.

After establishing that they had met some time ago in another city, the young man grows increasingly nervous and agitated, eventually blurting out that he has come to ask questions. Katakis recounts:

With that he set the large box on the table opening it carefully so as not to further stress the already broken spine. The contents, which he began to, and there is no other word for it, tenderly remove, were drawings and charts of the stars as well as old and yellowed newspaper clippings with stories about the American space program. There were stories about Mercury, Apollo and the names of some astronauts including John Glenn which were circled in red. The young man’s hand drawings of Saturn and Mars were remarkable and on some of the pages there were a series of equations that I took to mean latitude and longitude but could not be sure. He went on turning page after page. In another place and time he would have been a student or perhaps a professor of astronomy I thought. His passion for the subject was startling…

I told him that this was fantastic but my compliment was either ignored or not heard as he arranged more pages on the table. He then asked me his questions. They were about propulsion systems and temperatures on planets. Questions about Haley’s comet and other astronauts’ names and how the space program had developed after he had lost track. How far was the end of the galaxy and how long would it take to reach it and then questions about the theory of relativity. I was dumbfounded and could only manage a silly, insecure smile in response, and then, I made one of the greatest mistakes of my life. I told the truth. I said, “You have studied this so much and it’s amazing but I’m afraid that you know much more about this than I do. I am learning from you and I can’t answer your questions. I simply don’t know.”

Early drawings of Saturn by pioneering astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, from ‘Cosmigraphics.’ Click image for more.

A quarter century after legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead made her elegant distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” Katakis — whose wife, Kris Hardin, was also an influential anthropologist — illustrates Mead’s point with silken sensitivity to the invisible dimensions of the human spirit:

The look on his face cut deep and in an instant I realized that he had not come for facts at all. He had come for new words to dream by. Perhaps my words would have carried him until August or September and maybe well past. He might have lay in the tall grass at night staring at the stars remembering the veranda where we had talked and ponder what was said. Perhaps he would have fallen into deep sleeps and dreamt of stars and in those dreams he might have taken flight far from his life of questions with no answers and loneliness. But that was not to be for I made the terrible mistake of admitting my ignorance and removing myself from our delicate charade.

I learned in that moment, when I took everything from him, the importance of lying, not merely telling an untruth but lying, with passion and flourish like an actor on a stage claiming to know that which they do not know, for the lie that keeps hope and dreams intact is preferable to a truth that removes them. Lies and truths are easy to come by but dreams that sustain people through difficult lives are not. I wish I could take back the day.

The Traveller is full of dreamsome sustenance from cover to cover. Complement this particular piece of nourishment with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.

BP

Keeping Quiet: Sylvia Boorstein Reads Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful Ode to Silence

A lyrical reminder to break the momentum of busyness that fuels “the sadness of never understanding ourselves.”

“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet…” So begins Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet,” tucked into which is tremendous sagacity on how to be a good human being. “The impulse to create begins… in a tunnel of silence,” wrote Adrienne Rich in her tremendous lecture on art and freedom. “Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence.”

No poet breaks the silence with silence, nor slices through its vitalizing, clarifying, and transcendent power, with more piercing elegance than Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) in a poem titled “Keeping Quiet,” written in the 1950s and posthumously published in the 1974 bilingual collection Extravagaria (public library), translated by Alastair Reid.

The only thing to lend Neruda’s words and wisdom more mesmerism is this beautiful reading by the venerable Jewish-Buddhist teacher and prolific author Sylvia Boorstein, excerpted from the closing moments of her conversation with Krista Tippett on one of the finest podcasts for a fuller life.

Please enjoy.

KEEPING QUIET
by Pablo Neruda

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Every single poem in Extravagaria is rewarding beyond words, beyond time. Complement it with Neruda’s beautiful metaphor of the hand through the fence and the story of his extraordinary life adapted in an illustrated love letter to language, then revisit Paul Goodman on the nine types of silence and the lovely The Quiet Book.

BP

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