Saturday, September 3, 2016

Poems I Journey With 1


Having written on and pondered the meaning of life from a spiritual point of view for nearly forty years now, I return again and again to poetry for spiritual sustenance.  Over the next several months I should like to record here the poems - with a short commentary on each - that have inspired me throughout those years. They are the poems to which I return again and again for comfort.

Pearse as a Barrister
Given the significance of 2016 for us Irish, namely the centenary of the 1916 Rebellion or Rising as we more commonly call it, I should like to start with a poem by one of our major national heroes, namely Patrick Pearse (1879 - 1916) who, along with many others, gave his life for the future freedom of the Irish nation.  I will start with one wonderfully deep poem from his pen in English.  It is called "The Wayfarer"

The Wayfarer
The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way
This poem captures for me one of the central issues in life, namely its transience, transitoriness or impermanence, call it what you will.  I suppose most of us encounter this impermanence most essentially through experiencing loss, especially that loss we encounter in the death of our loved ones.  Another way of expressing this is to say we encounter in those losses our mortality and the brevity and brittleness of the enterprise we call life.  
There are many history commentators with divergent views on Patrick Pearse, but not one can deny his ability as poet, author and perspicacious educationist.  In this poem, "The Wayfarer,"  Pearse expresses his encounter with his own mortality.  Undoubtedly, for those who understand the broader historical motivations of the author, the above poem will have resonances for the reader about dying for one's country.  Pearse knew, indeed believed, that the freedom of the Irish Nation could not be achieved in any other way but through the sacrifice of his life for his country.  However controversial his political beliefs were, and however much we can see their influence in the above poem, nevertheless, anyone knowing nothing of the author will meet the poem in itself, within its own internal coherence without historical interference. It is in this sense of the poem's own internal integrity that I love it. 
The great contemporary psychiatrist and psychotherapist Professor Irvin Yalom has outlined four main ultimate concerns that lie at the heart of every patient or client who comes to his consulting rooms namely (i) existential aloneness, (ii) freedom, (iii) meaninglessness and (iv) mortality.  These four ultimate concerns, he argues, make up the very ground of our being in the world and portray themselves in a vast array of mental complaints in the clients or patients who frequent his therapy sessions.  They also form the four main planks of what he describes as Existential Psychotherapy. 
Pearse as a young boy
Using Professor Yalom's insights into Existential Psychotherapy, and indeed his basic insights into the nature of the human condition we may say that Patrick Pearse engages the two main ultimate concerns of (i) existential aloness and (ii) mortality in his wonderful little poem "The Wayfarer."

The title of the poem is, for me, a very spiritual one, namely that we are all pilgrims or wayfarers on our journey through life.  Without a doubt, the image of pilgrim, wayfarer or journeyer is essentially a religious or spiritual one.  Central to all religions and spiritual traditions is the notion that life is a journey on the way to some destination.  Most religions call such a destination by the name of Heaven or Nirvana or whatever.  Yet within many religious traditions, there are also spiritual sub-strands that emphasise that the journey or pilgrimage itself is what matters and that the NOW of life is what is important, not the goal! If there is a goal, well so much the better, but that often distracts us from the task at hand, namely making the most or the best of the life we live in the now of existing.

Transience (mortality, mutability, transitoriness, impermanence) is noticed in these lines: "This beauty that will pass," "shadows drifted by," and "These will pass//Will pass and change, // Will die and be no more."  Also the beauty of the world will sadly pass, too.

Pearse, when he wrote this poem was obviously overcome with sadness, the sadness of leaving the beauty of the world behind him at his death.  And yet for me, I am never saddened by this poem as I understand his predicament at the time, namely what his sacrifice of his life would cost him.  Moreover, with an understanding of existential psychotherapy as proposed by Irvin Yalom and Emmy Van Deurzen and others of that approach to therapy and to life, it is by encountering our mortality head on that we come to prize life and living all the more highly.  

In the Buddhist tradition, meditation upon dying and death is highly recommended, not from the point of view of wallowing in depression or sadness, but rather in the consequent appreciation of the power of living in the now and valuing all the painful beauty we may meet in that now: of valuing the beauty of the brittleness of the world and the fragility of life, "the leaping squirrel," the beauty of "a red lady-bird upon a stalk," or "some green hill," or even barefooted children running on the sands of the coastal strands, little beautiful towns, "things young and happy," and "things bright and green."

There is no need, like the wayfarer, to go on your way sorrowful that things will pass, but rather to begin the journey to learn to appreciate the presence of life in the now, even if it is fleeting and transitory.  In the end, we are, after all, just a little part of a more eternal cycle. Let us appreciate our little part in that great cycle of things that makes life in the first place. 

For an alternative commentary and a recording of an actor reading the poem see the following LINK.

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