The path of the writer and the path of heart

The bodhisattva reaches out his hand to the drowning man, and says, “Give me your hand.” The man replies, “I’m not going to give you my hand.” So the bodhisattva says, “Alright then, take my hand.”

The teacher is respected everywhere but in his own town. Shake the dust off your shoes, and cast not your pearls before swine.

The role of the writer or creative artist, as Emerson said, is to hold up a mirror so that people can see their reflection, and thus understand themselves better. In fact, he described the role as one who walks down the middle of the street carrying a mirror. This is in line with what Socrates said: the philosopher is the gadfly of society. The gadfly keeps biting the sluggish horse of society in order to stir it to awake. Whether the role is in philosophy or spirituality, the humanities, the sciences, the arts or the socio-political-economic realm, the role of the writer is to bring greater clarity, to whatever extent his or her power, by reflecting ourselves and our reality back to us. But such a role is not often valued, and is in fact often met with disregard, disdain, or worse. The messenger is repeatedly killed: at least flogged or spat upon, if not crucified or burned at the stake. Most people are not fond of the truth, but only of comfort, pleasure, and the illusion of security. The truth is often unsettling – even if it is the only real path to freedom, even if it is the only means of breaking our chains, and unlocking the door of our small and dank little prison cell: it is more comfortable to ignore it when you can, dismiss it or trivialize it when you cannot, and beat it senseless when all else fails.

The path of the majority is the path of perceived comfort and security, and this is not the path of truth, which is not necessarily painful, but requires a higher aspiration than mere comfort. True comfort and peace, as well as joy and security, is found when the obsession to fleeting pleasures, superficial comforts, the praise or acceptance of the herd, and the illusion of security is released, and the deep well within is found, tapped, and drunk deeply from. The writer seeks that well, and draws forth from it freely, for the benefit of all. The masses disdain such acts and outpourings, typically, and especially such acts, unless of course they are accompanied by the great redeemers of our society: money, fame or power.

Galileo nearly escaped being killed for his words. Others fared not so well. But if we value life, then we must, if we are at all conscious, value truth. As Jefferson said, “I fear no truth and fear no falsehood.”

However, that is not the normal view or reaction of most people. Our society pays lip service to truth, science, the arts, writing, philosophy and spirituality, but in practice, the overwhelming majority of scientists are employed designing new and better ways for us to kill each other, or else, new and better ways for the corporate aristocracy to make even more obscene amounts of money, while human and ecological needs to begging and are largely ignored. For the rest, there is homage in words, on occasion, but in practice, disdain and indifference.

As Margaret Attwood said, “Our society doesn’t respect writers. Our society respects success. I could have been a used car salesman, and if I were successful, I’d be respected.” Or as Thoreau said, “The great majority of people respect what is respected, not what is respectable.” And what is respected in this society is money, fame and power. If you have none of these, you’re in for a rough ride – no matter what else you have to give, or have already given.

When a writer becomes famous, or rich, or influential – or best yet, all three – then he or she is respected, and not before. The quality of the work has not changed, but only the outer trappings. Why then the sudden change of heart? There was no change of heart: writing was never respected – the writer simply attained that which is truly respected: money, fame or power.

We are obsessed with the outer shell, with mere surfaces, with the superficial, and “our lives are frittered away in details.” This is why the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation – but the last thing they want is to be told that, or to be shown how they might break out of such a rut.

“When I observe the ruts in a road, I am inclined to reflect on how much deeper the ruts in the mind.”
– Henry David Thoreau

In questioning and challenging our obsession with the material and the outer, at the cost of our persistent and chronic neglect of the inner, the life of the heart, the spirit and the mind, Thoreau made the most beautifully incisive statement, speaking to the very heart of the matter, as is his common form: “If necessary, let us forgo one bridge across the river, go `round a little there, and throw at least one span across the greater gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.”

But do we value knowledge, wisdom, understanding, culture, the inner life, the spiritual, the life of the mind? We say we do, but our actions speak differently. The great literature of the world is at our finger tips in this global village and digital age, yet we turn to Oprah and CNN and the local shopping mall for our spiritual and intellectual nourishment. And why? Because we are exhausted by the task of mere survival – and of course, this is so because we have complicated our lives to such an extent that mere survival becomes exhausting, even debilitating, and we are reduced to semi-vacuous automatons and sheep as a result. Simplify, simplify.

Maybe we would do well to make a bit of a trade: less “stuff” in return for more life. Even more intelligently, we could accept more sharing as a way of simplifying our overly complicated lives. Why should we do everything in isolation, thus re-inventing and re-building the wheel on a daily basis? This is madness. Simplify, share, and live – then there will be time and space and energy for the life of the mind, the spirit, and the heart, and life will grow rich again. But I digress – although, not really, for this pattern explains both why more people don’t value the arts, sciences, spirituality and writing, but also, why writers, artists, seekers, thinkers, scholars and scientists are so few among us, and also so squeezed on all sides. Simplify, share, and make room for life: then there will be room for the creative, the spiritual, the cultural and the scholarly – and in a truer, deeper and richer, fuller sense of all of these. Simplicity does not mean a poorer life. It means a richer life, for in simplicity, there is greater room for the inner life, for creativity, for reflection, for arts, for culture, for communion, for the spiritual and for the life of the heart and the mind. When our lives become too complicated, all of these things are pushed out, and we become truly impoverished. Simplify, share, and live. Life will be richer if we make this decision and follow it through.

For the path of the writer, there can be few who are better guides than Emerson and Thoreau. As Thoreau described, to paraphrase, “I have woven a kind of delicate basket, and rather than seeking someone to pay me for it, I sought to find a way of life that would not require me to sell it, or to sell my time.” Puncture that thought, and find a resolution, a way to enact it, and great vistas open up, to be sure. The power of simplicity is vast beyond what we might expect. Cut away the chaff, and there is life in full regalia and richness.

The mass of men and women, Thoreau rightly noted, “Are busy, as an old book says, storing up treasures which moths and rust will corrode, and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find at the end of it, if not sooner.” This is why we do not value writers, thinkers, scholars, seekers, scientists, sages, artists, philosophers or teachers in any real or meaningful sense: they are too peripheral, it is assumed, to our obsession with the outer shell of things – with money, power, fame, and mere survival.

The path of the writer therefore, as with the creative artist, thinker, philosopher, spiritual seeker or true scholar or scientist, is often, of necessity, a solitary one. You must be willing to accept that there are costs to such a path. After praising the role of the poet, writer or creative artist, Emerson went on to say, “Every profession has its sacrifices, and for the poet [or writer or creative artist – or seeker, scholar or philosopher] the sacrifice is that for a long time you will be considered a churl [a bum] and a fool, and will be understood only by your peers.”

For these reasons, among others, the path of heart, the path of the writer, artist, true scholar, scientist or seeker, requires, if you are to reach your greatest potential, and also, the greatest happiness, that the eight worldly concerns are dropped. To reach the highest potential within us, no matter what our path, and also, to reach the highest happiness – and the two arise from the same basis, and from one basis only – the eight worldly concerns of praise and blame, fame and shame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, must be released. When we begin to release such attatchments, a spaciousness arises within us, along with a greater energy, clarity, empowerment, freedom and joy. In this open state, we begin to give birth to our greatest potential.

The person who is always concerned about what others might think, can never become a great artist, writer, musician, poet, thinker, scholar or scientist, and also, never fully happy, for they are always living in fear, and always living according to what others think they should be doing – or thinking, or writing, or painting. The greatest of scientists, scholars, writers, musicians and artists, and also leaders and sages, share the quality of independence of mind and spirit, with a humble openness to the exploration of life and truth: they are all non-conformist, although they may or may not be rebellious, depending on the needs of the situation at hand. And the most creative, those who bring out more of that same limitless potential that is within us all, do not make comfort, security, wealth, fame, pleasure, possessions or gain their primary concern: all of these are relegated to a lower order of priority, if not dismissed completely as illusory or inconsequential. To bring out your best is to release the eight worldly concerns. This does not mean that we must become ascetic, Stoic, Spartan, or that we shun all pleasure or enjoyment of life. It means that we take joy in life without getting too caught up in chasing or following, or being accepted or praised, etc. It means that the heart is the guide, and not the crowd, nor the attachment to outer things.

Also for these reasons, anyone who is serious about pursuing such a path – and all of these paths share a similar cost and sacrifice: writer, poet, artist, musician, true scholar, scientist, seeker or philosopher – will require the development and cultivation of certain traits, out of necessity. Among these is a willingness to bear with solitude and misunderstanding, if not outright disrespect, disdain or censure, and still maintain the course with confidence and inner strength. Above all, it means being willing to trust oneself, to take the path less travelled by, as Robert Frost so beautifully put it, and to be true to one’s own heart. It means that one must follow the path of the heart, and not the path of society. The two are at odds, unfortunately.

Isolation may not be necessary, although periods of seclusion may be. More to the point however, most essentially, the path of the heart requires that one trusts oneself, and is strong enough, or finds the strength, and brave enough, or finds the courage, to refuse to follow the bleating herd, and instead to follow wherever the wisdom of one’s own heart and natural intelligence may lead. If this inner courage is rejected – and it can only be rejected, if it is not found, for it is always there, waiting to be brought forth – then such a path must be forgone, and we may resign ourselves to flipping burgers at MacDonalds, or running a multi-billion dollar company, or coming up with the next piece of pap which may get a Nobel prize, but which in its true light, is of highly dubious value to humanity, the pursuit of truth, or life on earth; or something else that in and of itself is equally mundane. The path of heart requires courage. There is no way around it. It is the only way to a rich and meaningful life, but it takes guts. You must cultivate courage, and be willing to trust yourself, or you will get nowhere – or at least, nowhere worth going.

If business is the calling, then do it with heart. If law or dentistry or carpentry or plumbing is your calling, then do it with heart. If writing, creative arts, deep study or the spiritual path is your calling, then you will need not only great heart, but great fortitude. Do not be dissuaded. Do not succumb to others’ fears or mistrust or dark thoughts. Know yourself. Be true to yourself. The rewards for following your heart far outweigh any costs. And the alternative is incomparably worse in any event: if we refuse to trust ourselves and follow our heart, then we resign ourselves to a kind of hollow shell of a life, which is not life at all, but a kind of living death, or a slow decay into the grave. Shun this. Follow your heart.

As Don Juan said, “The true warrior does not measure himself through the eyes of others.” Or as Don Miguel Ruiz said, “Don’t take anything personally. Everyone is living in their own dream.” Be true to yourself. Trust yourself. Get real, stay real. This is the only way true riches are found, and the only way true benefit is achieved for anyone, including both oneself and others.

When Jesus went missing at the age of twelve, his parents were naturally frantic. They searched everywhere for him. When a relative found him in the temple, talking with the Rabbis, he exclaimed, “Why are you not with your family?” Jesus replied, “This is my family.” Follow your heart, and you will find your true kindred. You will not likely find them otherwise. Above all, whether you take the path of the writer or artist, seeker or scholar, or whatever path you may choose, keep a good heart, and be true to yourself. All true benefit will arise on the basis of that.

As to what to write, write from the heart. As Thomas Merton said, “If you’re afraid of writing something that might offend someone, why write anything at all?” And as to the question of whether writing, or any of the creative or scholarly or spiritual pursuits are worthwhile, are valuable – of course they are: if they are not, then there is no value and nothing worthwhile anywhere. Food, shelter, clothing, farming; gardening, cooking, tailoring, carpentry: these things make life possible; but art, music, spirituality, literature and love – these things make life worth living. Remember that, when the din and blare and the noisy crowd try to drown out all sensibility and cover over our joy and natural creative power and intelligence. Life is for living, and not merely surviving.

June 22, 2011

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