Against the inspirational

A while back I posted about what I called the Inspirational Imperative; the pressure to craft suffering and distress and setbacks into more-easily-digestible, feelgood stories of “inspiration.”

The need to be “inspirational” can become like the “the success-failure whiplash”, wherein our identities become caught up in how inspirational and positive we can be.

An addiction, not unlike that to being busy or being responsible for others’ pain.

A pressure.

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience.” Hype breeds disillusion. Most of all, our own internal hype, one that is pumped up and primed and built up by technology and our media-saturated lives – but is also something perpetual in human life.

 

We reach for quick fixes,  practice solutionism, search for the new New Thing.

We are continually being asked, “what then?”:

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’ 

When the viral video’s hits have plateaued, when the few seconds rush of Inspiration is gone, when any “success” has been achieved, there is always a “what then?”

I’ll end this post by simply saying that we all have our own Plato’s Ghost. But who is yours?

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The demands of silence

The demands of silence

On of the recurrent themes of this blog has been various writings – by others, by myself – on silence. Of course, all this verbal activity on silence carries with it a kind of hypocrisy. A lot of noise about silence! I’m aware of the irony, and the risks.

I’m aware, too, of the downside of silence – those who have been silenced, had silence forced on them. I’m aware that to be silent can be to condone injustice. A book I read some years ago which has been very helpful in this regard is The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel, full of examples of how conspiracies of silence are maintained, often without any formal “conspiracy.”

One concept Zerubavel mentions (rather in passing if memory serves) is the “conspiracy of noise” – wherein we do not find silence but the opposite, noisy activity about everything except what matters.

This concept, along with this passage from George Steiner – “Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian”, have helped me in resolving this tension between silence as a positive, life-enhancing experience and silence as oppression or repression.

I’ve been gradually making my way through Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide. It is full of good stuff, arresting stuff, stuff that makes me question some of my own habits and practices.

I do have one caveat, which is a nagging sense that perhaps Ross’ approach may make the best the enemy of the good. Her scorn for much nonsense about “mysticism” and “spirituality” is no doubt justified. Similarly the related scorn at the commodification and institutionalisation of an experiential process.

At times, however, the tone is a little like those three step I-You-He miniatures that Craig Brown (for one) has written (I have been try to recall what they might be called) in the form of:


I experience silence in the purest form
You have a rather superficial interest in the practice
He is a middle-class dillitante whose so-called spirituality is a mere commodity fetishism

Maybe a bit unfair to Ross, and no doubt she is right to be wary of romanticisation of monasticism and such. But it all seems rather harsh. Silence is a practice open to everyone (as Ross very clearly sets out – indeed even the term “practice” is too redolent of something forced)

It struck me today that silence has its own demands, ones that compete, usually unsuccessfully, with the demands of busy-ness and of the world. This is especially true as our culture becomes more and more always on, full of alerts and notifications.

I loved the Odon von Horvath quote – “I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him” featured in the post above. Which is of us, if we died tomorrow, would feel that the digital trace of our lives would be “me”, would sum us up, would capture our essence?

Silence is somewhere we encounter our essence. This encounter can have explicitly religious elements, or not This is an encounter, increasingly, that it takes specific effort to have. Our default is becoming noise and the vigilance of alerts (of course, there is a vigilance and threat with silence – a deeper threat indeed)

We also need to remember that “silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth” and that a certain humility with regard to our own efforts is crucial. Absolute silence is probably physiologically unobtainable, indeed much of the discourse on silence is really about freedom from humanly-created noise.

In this context, we need to remember that Silence has its own demands. Just as sleep is something we need to consciously facilitate against various pressures of modernity, despite its “naturalness”, we no longer just experience silence but have to be open to its demands. To take things full circle, “the silent are never at home in our culture again”

Poem: Magheragallon

Poem: Magheragallon

A while back I posted a link to Non-Binary Review’s call for submissions for pieces inspired directly by Dante’s Inferno. Unfortunately (or not) my own efforts in this line were rejected. So I will inflict one on my readers here. Perhaps I should have anticipated this rejection given that I have to explain that Magheragallon is a graveyard in Gaoith Dobhair, Donegal :

Magheragallon
E ‘l duca lui: “Caron, non ti crucciare:
vuolsi così colà dove si puote
ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare.
Inferno, Canto III.
Dúirt mo threoraí: “A Charóin, ná bí ina thinneas.
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.”
Ifreann, Dán III (translation Padraig de Brun)

Here we are, on the rocky edge of the edge of Europa,
Far from where what is willed is done and
Far from where the inevitable and necessary
Forge together; far from where the living
And the dead never meet, where the boundaries are
Never crossed, where the ferryman holds a hard border.

We are far from there. Here is a place of stone
And sea, of island and mountain.
A battered place, tattered rocks mark memory,
Memory that lies in ruins.

Across the waters there are islands that defy the census-taker;
Who knows if they are inhabited or not? Sometimes they are deserted,
Sometimes they ring with another language, not that of
This poem. The teanga echoes each fainter and fainter.
And still it echoes. Sometimes that echo is a roar.

Ruined, overgrown, overthrown,
Far from where what is willed is done,
An edgeland of sharp stones,
Of marram grass grazed bare, of sand-dune mazes.
Here ruins still shape a form,
The overgrowth is marked by the old shape,
Things seeming fallen are only resting.

Again, I step away, making a distance,
From where, in this world, what is willed is done.
I turn my back on our Babel of one tongue.
Faced with death, I speak with Virgil:
Toilíodh an cúrsa so san áit ar féidir
Gach a dtoilítear, ‘s ná déan t’fhiafraí a thuilleadh.

What poets, monks and nuns know about silence

What poets, monks and nuns know about silence

Tracy Rittmueller

Poets live with silence: 
the silence before the poem; 
the silence when the poem comes;

the silence in between the words, as you
drink the words, watch them glide through your mind,
feel them slide down your throat
toward your heart ….

—Michael Shepherd, “Rum’s Silence”

Silence, poetry and prayer have something in common—they connect us to the mysterious aspects of living. We can’t describe or explain mysteries. We can, however, experience them.

I first learned about the benefits of silence through a long association with poets. More recently after becoming a Benedictine oblate, I’ve gotten to know monks and nuns—collectively called monastics—who have deepened my understanding of the beauty and benefits of silence.

In the dark, it’s easier to see with peripheral vision than if we look directly at things. Since the experience of silence is inexplicable, I won’t attempt to describe what it does or how it benefits…

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“silence is not sought for its own sake but, rather, for the space it makes.”

 

From The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, Cardinal Robert Sarah and Nicolas Diat:

 

Silence for us is a form of asceticism and a desire. Asceticism because you have to understand that silence demands an effort, but, more than that, it attracts us and we need it. Simple things are always difficult to explain. A person who is trying to hear a bird-song will be quite irritated if an airplane flies over; his space for perception is then reduced, and he can no longer hear the bird. Make no mistake: silence is not sought for its own sake but, rather, for the space it makes. Silence allows us to perceive better and to hear better; it opens our inner space.

“silence is open to everyone, literate or illiterate, king or slave, secular or religious, saint or sinner.” from “Silence: A User’s Guide”, Maggie Ross on the work of silence

Having come across her repeatedly in the work of Adam deVille, I am gradually absorbing Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide”

There are all too many extracts I would love to share. I am experiencing a little bit of resistance to the message at times…

‘..the process I call the work of silence. It is the choice to turn away from noise toward an unfiltered reality, to receive its gifts of fulfillment and joy. The purpose of the work of silence is to re-establish the flow between self-consciousness, which discriminates, dominates, and distorts our lives, and the clarity and wisdom of the deep mind, which is not directly accessible, but whose activities we can influence.37

The term work may be slightly misleading, for the only effort involved—and in today’s world, to refocus and relax into letting go paradoxically can require a great effort—is to choose to be still, to allow the noise to fall away, to be receptive, and, as Suso notes in the quotation at the beginning of this chapter, to ungrasp so that we may be “grasped” by illumination.38

The descriptive paradox signals this engagement, the breaching of the wall, the restoration of flow between the two different ways of knowing, between self-consciousness and deep mind. This simple work restores balance to our lives; it bestows equilibrium and equanimity.39 Because the fundamental operations of the human mind are universal and have not changed in recorded history, and in spite of centuries of religious and secular propaganda to the contrary, silence is open to everyone, literate or illiterate, king or slave, secular or religious, saint or sinner. It is never too late to seek silence, and one of the most important insights that comes from working with silence is that nothing in our lives is wasted.

“The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him.”

“The most prosaic man becomes a poem when you stand by his grave at his funeral and think of him.”

I came across the above quote from Thomas Hardy’s notebooks via the latest post on Stephen Pentz’s blog First Known When Lost

Pentz highlights a poem by F T Prince inspired by this aphorism:

Last Poem

Stand at the grave’s head
Of any common
Man or woman,
Thomas Hardy said,
And in the silence
What they were,
Their life, becomes a poem.

And so with my dead,
As I know them
Now, in his
And her
Long silences;
And wait for, yet a while hence,
My own silence.

F. T. Prince (1912-2003), Collected Poems: 1935-1992 (The Sheep Meadow Press 1993).

Pentz remarks on Prince’s twist on Hardy’ “prosaic”, changed to “common.” Perhaps for metrical or musical reasons? Hardy’s observation captures exactly a feeling I have long had, as some of my graveyard focused posts might suggest.

So here are some gravestones… as you do.

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