Sunday, December 8, 2013

David Whyte in Vancouver

David Whyte image from his website

For David Whyte, the lived art of poetry teaches us how spirituality is a bodily experience. Poetry is ancient: Whyte mentioned the Irish Druidic tradition that goes back 5000 years. Poetry is not lucrative; it's impressive that this itinerant bard earns his living sharing the power of the spoken word.

To stay engaged with the mystery of life, says Whyte, we must "ask the beautiful questions." As pilgrims on our human path, we need to be touched by the extreme beauty in the outer world; this "elicits internal symmetry." Whyte illustrated this idea by quoting Wordsworth's "The Prelude," a Shakespearian sonnet, and a 13th century Japanese teacher of Zen, who expressed the same idea, which when translated, sounds something like this:

"If you find and name the world, this is illusion.
If the world finds you, this is enlightenment."

David Whyte spoke of marriage, with its symbolic purposes, as outlined in his wonderful book The Three Marriages: Re-imagining Work, Self and Relationship (2009 Riverhead). To enter into a marriage is to invite the certainty that your heart will be broken; this is necessary to make it grow.

Marriages, parenting and friendships are based on forgiveness, he said, and emphasized the value of having "a good healthy circle of friendship to sustain us." We must make friends not only with people but with the landscape, "the colour blue," and even our troubles. Heartbreak, even in a semantic sense, "is intimately connected to courage."

Whyte also spoke of work, encouraging us to keep our eyes on what draws and deepens us, and of prayer, calling it "talking to the Other." He cautions in his much-loved and much quoted line "how easily the thread is broken between this world and the next." (River Flow: New and Selected Poems.)

Life is mysterious but simple. The way to re-engage with the beautiful conversation is to stop having the one we are having now, to be in silence. Engaging with the larger questions of who we are and why we are here, we ask, "How, in this moment, can I become the ancestor of my future happiness?"

Like the pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who call one another simply, Peregrino, Pilgrim, we must give up the "conversational identity" to return to our essence. And we must consider another question. How invitational are we in our interactions with others, especially those we love?

We should also allow ourselves much more mercy in those moments when we moult, shed our old skins, enter a new stage. Doubt comes through the ego, which tries to protect us, as it is bound by its nature to do. Yet the heart knows, and we can uncover that knowledge by reviving what Whyte refers to as "the beautiful conversation."

I sat in the balcony, and so did not see David Whyte at close range until the end of the day. Saw only his shock of dark hair, greying at the sides, cut long around his ears in the fashion of his native country. He spoke of how we are formed by the landscape, the weather, the voices of our childhood. His haircut, along with his words, echo his native Yorkshire, as well as his ancestral Ireland.  

While others waited at the end to have books signed, my books and CDs were in the car. Still, I felt moved to see this poet at close range, and to ask him a question. When my turn came I looked into his dark brown eyes, and asked if he ever had resistance to writing.

"I don't much, these days," he said, and then sensing my disappointment almost before I felt it, he added, "but I remember it."

"And how did you handle it?"

These eyes now shone from their nest of aging lines with a glint of humour. "Well, you write about the resistance." With that simple conversational exchange, I felt the message of the day land in me and I walked away quiet and satisfied.

As I approached the car, I thought about how my day had been bracketed by natural beauty and mystery. In the morning, I saw a wild coyote. As it paused on the sidewalk ahead to scratch itself, I first mistook it for a dog. Then, it looked at me briefly and I saw the eyes were wild; it loped away on feet so light they barely seemed to touch the earth.

The sun was nearly setting as I walked past the ranks of huge trees that line the streets of old Point Grey; beyond, the city lay distant and shining, the sky pink, and the sea my friend, the colour blue.

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