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Poetry And Personal Passion

The Ecology Of Mind And Heart

When David Whyte's book Order on-lineThe Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America was released, the press packet included an interview that caught our eye. In it David talks of creativity and of mythopoesis. While we are probably all aware of the "mythopoetic men's movement," most of us, I suspect, are not aware of the mythopoetic in our literary and cultural tradition, which existed long before Robert Bly's work became popular. In our interview with Shepherd Bliss, Shepherd clarified that he had not coined the term "mythopoetic," but had simply applied the term to Men's Work. As Shepherd explained, "Mythopoetic" is not "myth + poetry." It is the creation of new myths in our own lives. We publish this interview to elaborate on the themes that Shepherd had begun to explore in his interview.

The following is adapted from David's compilation and elaboration of two interviews by Renn Vara and Maureen Taylor for KQED radio's "Family Talk" in San Francisco, and is based on a version published in Magical Blend. We use it with the kind permission of David Whyte.

David Whyte
David Whyte

Heart Aroused book cover
The Heart Aroused
by David Whyte
Order on-line

Order on-line

At the very core of creativity there seems to be an admonition that says, "Your own way is essential." This is true even in a traditional master-student relationship. The word "expert" seems to be like a fog in which we lose ourselves. We feel our lack before we have done the essential work of touching our own inner longing, in other words, we put the cart before the horse. Creativity has much more to do with giving ourselves over to our deepest longings than it does with giving ourselves over to any kind of strategy.

Often the first impulse people have around their creativity has to do with signing up for school or arranging their schedule to fit more of every- thing in. The great poetic and mythic traditions say it's actually the opposite: Creativity has to do with unburdening, with giving yourself a break, with letting fresh air in through the windows, with allowing yourself to be lost - profoundly lost, deeply lost. There is a teaching story out of the Northwest Native American tradition that would be told by an elder to a young girl or boy who asked the question, "What do I do when I am lost in he forest?" In other words, "What do I do when I've lost my creative fire?" which is really "What do l do when I forget who I am?" It has been rendered into modern English in a marvelous way by David Wagoner. Here is the answer the elder gives:


Stand still. The trees ahead

and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it you may come back again.

saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you.

You art surely lost. Stand still.

The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

This poem makes three important points. First of all, it reminds us that the world demands our attention, tremendous attention. You cannot sleepwalk your way into this, hoping that things will turn out right. You have to face up to the fiercer aspects of life and to the eyes glittering out of that dark forest that may see the selfish part, the "expert" part of you as prey.

The second point is that attention takes place in a very profound kind of silence. You can feel the silence in the poem. Deep attention creates deep silences, and in turn the silence feeds the attention back again, making it strong enough for the third quality arising in the elder's words. This quality has to do with the intimation of death: In true creativity the expert hopefully intuits his death. The elder says that the "I" which places itself at the center of the world and asks the question, "What do I do when I am lost?" will not be the "I" that survives the immensity of the answer. In other words, "What do 'I' do when 'I' am lost in the forest?" will not even be answered. There is something very practical in this too, because the elder says if you really pay attention you will know the bark that you can use to make your clothes; you will know the place where the animals go to the salt lick; you will know the rooks: you will know the different kinds of plants; you will know the seasons and what grows at different kinds of lessons. "Wherever you are is called Here." This is as true for a street-kid in Philadelphia as it is for a child in the Northwest forests. You pay attention; you pay attention in whatever kind of silence you've got. Which doesn't necessarily mean being quiet. Silence here means you haven't already got the answer when you ask the question. It seems that in the true art and the true poetic line, the answer lies in the very resonance of the question.

That can't be taught. But I have seen it lived, and then you can pay deep attention to that life.

To me, one of the definitions of art is that the experience brought forward is actually alive: the mythic experience is alive as the art is being performed, or as the picture is being looked at, or as the poem is being heard. When experience is firsthand and alive, perception is not about the experience, it is the experience itself. You are participating when you look at the chair Van Gogh painted in Arles. You want to sit on it, move it around the room, rearrange his pipe and tobacco. And what's marvelous is everyone walks into the painting on their own terms: it's your own experience, but at such a depth that it belongs to everyone. What we need to do is to trust our own participation in the experience. The last thing we need is a person standing next to us telling us whether the painting is good or bad. What's necessary is to just look at it as a kind of fierce entrance into our own being at the moment, and allow ourselves to be taken wherever the painting takes us.

Part of the tragedy of our own mechanistic approach to the body and to its creativity lies in the denial of our own fierce entrance into art as we directly experience it. There is tremendous pressure on us to think and feel in particular kinds of ways. Huge hierarchies, enormous grants, and entire university departments depend on particular ways of perception. Our investment in secondhand experience far outweighs our willingness to trust our own direct participation. I think it is a cruelty we have learned to inflict upon ourselves because we somehow believe we do not deserve the best-the best being not material success but our own grief, our own joy, our own mistakes. Our own knowledge, no matter how small that may seem. These are the best things we possess, if we possess anything, but we have shamed ourselves out of our own firsthand experience.

The first poem in my last book, Where Many Rivers Meet. is called simply "Enough." It's only eight lines long and it deals with the difficulty of stepping into the gravity well of our own experience and accepting that what we bring to the blank page, to the open page must be enough, simply because it is ours. If we are going to write a poem or a prose piece, we have the whole weight of English literature on our shoulders, including Yeats, Wordsworth, Shakespeare - way back to Dante, and the anonymous author of Beowulf - and we sit down and we feel we do not have enough. But the tradition tells us again and again that exactly what we have, exactly our experience, is the only place we can start. Now of course this is just the beginning; there is a long, hard road to mastery. The sorrow seems to lie in the way we refuse to begin that road. We will not say, "Enough!".


Enough. These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life

we have refused

again and again

until now.

Until now

The entire mytho-poetic tradition spends a great deal of time trying to get this through to us! What would it be like if you said everything m your life is enough? Even if it's just the thought that you cannot go on. There is a step even in that, perhaps especially in that. No one else can experience the feeling that you cannot take another step the way you can experience it. That's your gift. You feel it. It opens up, blossoms into something else. You find the door to your deeper longings. You only have to crack the door slightly for the wind to whip[p it straight open. And so poetry, in some ways, is building the facility to do that. You're trying to surprise yourself: you're trying to build your own desire. The desire for your own true home.

The key to your creativity comes through giving yourself wholly over to your life as it is now. That the next step appears only through that fiery, gate. Too often we try to strategize our way out of our predicaments. We might say, "I'11 buy myself a small country, home with a study and desk and birds outside the window and there l will write The Great American Novel." Unfortunately this is only part of you speaking, and it's the part that's trying to arrange things. It is only a small portion of the vast inner ecology of the quietly desperate man or woman driving through the smog in Oakland, trying to get to work.

If you look at why we have a large mortgage, why we are commuting to work an hour and a half every morning, why we are putting up with the exigencies of our particular workplace or corporation. it's usually because we have some strange beckoning intuition of a time when all will resolve itself, and we will find ourselves in the Arcadian and Elysian fields of just pure presence - that one day we will muddle through to this restful presence of just being sat by the fire playing with the children. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be true; a central part of life seems to be reconciling oneself with the irreconcilable - with "being," as the great German poet Rilke put it, "the rest between two notes that are somehow always in discord." What seems to be true is that we must find that pure presence in resting into our lives as they are now, with all their ragged edges. How we do that seems to be the really strong question.

My experience is that poetry. and all the great artistic and contemplative traditions, can be of marvelously precise and detailed help in that. There's a mytho-poetic dimension to life which we ignore at our peril. If there's a precise way of functioning in the outer empirical world, there's a precise way of functioning in the inner intuitive world, and unless those two come together, we lead very sorrowful and sorry lives. The precise direction of the inner world at this point seems to say that you do not do the work of changing; you feed and nourish your longing in whatever way you can and then the longing does the work.

It's all storytelling, really We're storytelling now. When people arc listening, they're listening for the story. The question is, "Is the story worth listening to?" Is our own story worth listening to? I think the tremendous thirst we experienced around Joseph Campbell's work was a sudden remembrance of the great story in which we're al involved. But the question remains, can you tell it? Can you tell it in such a way that you know your place in the story?

That story just as prescient and just as important for person commuting to work in Oakland as it for the artist in the marvelously enormous studio in New York or the writer in some wonderful hermitage out in the wilds in the mountains. There's no difference in the questioning. They're both asking the same thing.

There is this classical image, which we love to nurture, of the artist as a pained and slightly gnarled individual who does not share our challenges in life but some special kinds of challenges. However, I think it's much more the other way. The person who opens to the depths of their own profound creativity must also open the gaze to their own grief, to the places they an stopped and the places they an not hung together properly. In the creative act all parts of us have to go through the door, and it just so happens that these are the parts we have disowned, that we are most defensive about.

In the Zen tradition, they have a quality they call grandmotherly kindness. It's the kind of fierce guardian to the door that guards most temples in the East. The shallow interpretation of these guardians-at-the-door has often been that they are there because we are supposed to leave our fears behind us as we enter the temple. My own feeling about this, and I think the perennial Eastern tradition's experience of it, is almost the exact opposite. The guardian at the door is meant to remind you that all parts of you must enter together.

But it is difficult when you at last get the paintbrush hovering above the paper or the pen above the blank page and you find more grief coming up rather than less. Because what you are faced with at the beginning are all the times you previously refused to open in the past. Not only do you have the joy of new possibility, but you suddenly have to enter this deep well of grief connected to what you have missed. In a recent workshop one woman confronting this wrote:

"I turned my face for a moment, and it became my life."

The great Russian women poets would give gold for this line! Gold! She goes beneath the surface: this line travels downward forever. Here's my own poem on the matter:

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath

the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water

to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source

from which we drink

the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering

the small round coins

thrown by those who wished for

something else.

The coins I discovered at the bottom of the well, the well where I would be baptized into my own disowned grief, were all the coins I had thrown down previously. It used to be that we were baptized in the well; now we just get a touch on the forehead if we are lucky. The fact is that many of us, when we come to a well, simply throw a coin down and make a wish. The wish is that we will not have to go down ourselves - that a secondhand experience of it will suffice. When we refuse to go down into this well, we call this a "creative block." Something of an understatement, I'd say! The language is not commensurate with the experience. And we wonder why we can't figure out what is stopping us!

We often try to enter into any creative process by narrowing as we go in, hoping to damp down the consequences of anything we might come across. What would it be like to widen as we go in, and have all the parts of us, especially the parts of us that we feel are not successful or could never be successful, go in together? In simple terms, to build a facility for self-compassion?

In a sense, this rebuilding of the inner ecology is perhaps a necessary first step toward understanding our outer ecological crisis. We could say the soul has been losing its fertile elements over the last generations as our approach to living as become as equally exploitative of ourselves as it has been of the land.

Paraphrasing Gregory Bateson, we are being asked to take steps towards an Ecology of Heart and Mind. To experience intimately how things fit together. To be a part of that fitting together. To join in the feast, not steal it from our own and others' mouths.

What we're talking about here is essentially the grail quest, Joseph Campbell, in his Power of Myth series, emphasized that in the beginning of the grail quest, all the knights decided that they should go alone, and once they decided what the quest was, they should enter the wood at the part that seemed darkest to themselves. You see, already you get a feeling that one has to have this ability to allow oneself to get lost, and to be lost in a profound way. What one has to do is give oneself over to the longing in the question. When you do step into the gravity field of your own longing, it becomes so strong eventually that it feels as if there's nothing else you can do.

And the person who begins the journey and asks the question at the beginning is not the person who actually fulfills the journey in the end, where the journey itself becomes enough. The man or woman who begins is very different from the person down the road, and it's always astonishing who that person becomes. The cliché is that they become themselves. But actually they become the place where they meet the world!

Which brings us to storytelling. If great poetry is anything, it is great storytelling. The way we tell our stories has a lot to do with the way we see ourselves in the world, with our identity. Perhaps one of the greatest blocks I see to new possibility is our inability to tell our stories with the magnificence they deserve - in other words, our inability to grant magnificence to our own lives. Now, the story is magnificent only if you have the chance of missing completely, that is, if the consequences are very high, the stakes are very high. The tradition tells you that the stakes are very high - that your life is at stake in not touching this essential connection with the world, which we call creativity. When you reach a certain depth in the telling, you realize that the word destiny belongs to you as much as it belonged to Napoleon or Dante or Joan of Arc. Now what would it be like to learn to tell our own stories, not necessarily in a professional way, but in a profound way, in a way in which the word destiny can be used with ease in our own lives? The word destiny, itself, even as it falls from our mouths, demands a maturity that stretches our sense of ourselves.

Related Books:

Heart Aroused book cover
The Heart Aroused : Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America
by David Whyte
Order on-line
Soul of Business book cover
The Soul of Business

by David Whyte
Due out soon!
Pre-Order on-line

Audio Cassette

Poetry and the Imagination
Audio cassette
by David Whyte
Order on-line

Poetry books

House of Belonging
by David Whyte
Order on-line


Where Many Rivers Meet
by David Whyte
Order on-line

Related stories:


 The Heart Aroused A review of The Heart Aroused : Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America by David Whyte. Order on-line

 Men, Spirit, Soul and Shadow A listing of MenWeb articles related to the themes brought out in this article.

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