David Whyte

Inhabited Simplicity

Inhabited Simplicity

"Holiness is reached not through effort or will, but by stopping; by an inward coming to rest; a place from which we can embody the spirit of all our holy days, a radical, inhabited simplicity, where we live in a kind of ongoing surprise and with some wonder and appreciation."

~ David Whyte

Tired of Yourself

Tired of Yourself

"A lot of the poetic discipline boils down to getting tired of yourself, and I really believe that. When you get tired of yourself, then you change." 

~ David Whyte


Topiary Park, January 11, 2014

Topiary Park, January 11, 2014

by David Whyte

if you move carefully
through the forest,

like the ones
in the old stories,

who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,

you come
to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

About To Disappear

Hardy Hibiscus, July 20, 2013

Excerpt from Readers' Circle Essay, “Self Knowledge,” by David Whyte:

Self-knowledge is not fully possible for human beings. We do not reside in a body, a mind or a world where it is achievable or from the point of being interesting, even desirable. Half of what lies in the heart and mind is potentiality, resides in the darkness of the unspoken and unarticulated and has not yet come into being: this hidden unspoken half will supplant and subvert any present understandings we have about ourselves. Human beings are a frontier between what is known and what is not known. The act of turning any part of the unknown into the known is simply an invitation for an equal measure of the unknown to flow in and reestablish that frontier: to reassert both the exterior and interior horizon of an individual life; to make us what we arethat isa moving edge between what we know about ourselves and what we are about to become. What we are actually about to become or are afraid of becoming always trumps and rules over what we think we are already. 

The hope that a human being can achieve complete honesty and self-knowledge with regard to themselves is a fiction and a chimera, the jargon and goals of a corporate educational system brought to bear on the depths of an identity where the writ of organizing language cannot run. Self-knowledge includes the understanding that the self we want to know is about to disappear. 

What we can understand is the way we occupy this frontier between the known and the unknown, the way we hold the conversation of life, the sense of the way our body occupies that edge, but a detailed audit of the self is not possible and diminishes us in the attempt to establish it; we are made on a grander scale, half afraid of ourselves, half in love with the dance of immensities beyond any name we can give…

See also: Why Not Start Apprenticing Yourself Now? 

A Continual but Almost Untouchable Now

October 30, 2012

"Memory is not just a then, recalled in a now, the past is never just the past memory is a pulse passing through all created life, a waveform: a then continually becoming other thens, all the while creating a continual but almost untouchable now. But the guru’s urge to live only in the now misunderstands the multi layered inheritance of existence, where all epochs live and breathe in parallels. . . memory always passes through an individual human life like a building musical waveform, constantly maturing . . .often volatile, sometimes overpowering. Every human life holds the power of this immense inherited pulse: holds and then supercharges it, according to the way we inhabit our identities in the untouchable now. Memory is an invitation to the source of our life, to a fuller participation in the now, to a future about to happen, but ultimately to a frontier identity that holds them all at once. Memory makes the now fully inhabitable."

Letting Ourselves Experience the Vulnerability

Inniswood Metro Gardens, August 23, 2010

Excerpt from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte:

We think that if we investigate the self we will find out there is something wrong at the core, and we want to defend against that revelation at all costs. The surface personality feels as if it is going to  die and becomes deathly afraid of the conversation. The task is to shift the identity more toward the movable conversation that stands behind us, a deep undercurrent we can tap into that carries on unconcerned with the surface tribulations. In this depth we try to create a real silence in which to keep our long-standing, well-established, self-protective stories away, to let ourselves alone so we can experience the physical vulnerability of the question and be transformed by it. We give these smaller protective stories away so that we can see how they come back to us once we have established a larger way of being in the world.

We call this unremitting wish to create a silence in which to see to the truth meditation. The outer form looks like silence as we see a practitioner sitting quietly, but meditation can take many forms, beginning usually with simply following the breath, getting to the very foundations of the way we physically give and take. It can be quite revealing to find out how much willpower we put into that autonomic bodily function; we find that we are controlling a process that can be left well alone and doesn't need so much outside intervention...

We could see meditation as the equivalent of the kitchen or a bedroom in a marriage. It's the place where most of the significant transformative conversations happen; significant conversations that may be silent but that can shift the relationship with the self to a new level. The act of physical transformation can at times be an almost ecstatic, sexual experience. It can also be a fierce, unrelenting and prolonged daily confrontation. 


What is needed in a marriage with the self is what is needed in the marriage to another: a radical letting alone of our partner, the deeper self, to let it live its own life without our necessity for a constant, overarching control. We must stop trying to protect that deeper, more vulnerable self from the way it feels things keenly and at their essence. This self that we are attempting to "marry" can look after itself as much as our partner can. Its vulnerability is not a weakness but actually a faculty for understanding what is about to happen. It does not wish to survive its encounters with its previous reality intact and untouched; it actually wants to be transformed by what it meets. In a sense it wants to be the conversation itself. 

See also: This Difficulty Feels Like This


Your Body Already Seems to Know

Hurricane Mountain, August 2011

No Path
by David Whyte, from River Flow: New and Selected Poems 

There is no path that goes all the way. 
Han Shan

Not that it stops us looking
for the full continuation.

The one line in the poem
we can start and follow

straight ahead to the end. The fixed belief
we can hold, facing a stranger

that saves us the trouble
of a real conversation.

But one day, you are not
just imagining an empty chair

where your loved one sat.
You are not just telling a story

where the bridge is down
and there's nowhere to cross.

You are not just trying to pray
to a God you always
imagined would keep you safe.

No, you've come to a place
where nothing you've done

will impress and nothing you
can promise will avert

the silent confrontation,
the place where

your body already seems to know
the way, having kept

to the last its own secret

But still, there is no path
that goes all the way,

one conversation leads
to another,

one breath to the next

there's no breath at all,

the inevitable
final release
of the burden.

And then, wouldn't your life
have to start
all over again
for you to know
even a little 
of who you had been?

Unsung Courage

Nicolson’s Café was a first floor restaurant on the corner of Nicolson and Drummond Street famous for being the location where J.K. Rowling worked on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Excerpt from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte:

There are two possibilities, perhaps we can call them necessities, for keeping the marriage with work alive through the difficult years of childbearing and child rearing. The first is to reimagine the way we have named our work and defined its success. We may find that our priorities have been erased and redrawn by a birth or an adoption; that we don't care for the corporate world's priorities anymore and that mothering or indeed fathering is now our central work.

We may come to the reimagination of our work through the gladly received, genuine revelations of parenting or especially for women, with difficulty, through a rueful acceptance that the months or years with a child have taken us off the career track and that the sacrifices needed to get back on that moving stair are not worth what it would take. Even if we find that circumstances allow us both to be a good parent and to follow a brilliant career, the moral basis of the brilliant career hinges on not neglecting or abandoning our children at crucial times in their growing, and demands that we reexamine the basis of our marriage with work and many of the outer rewards of prestige we demanded up to the moment we became parents. 

The second necessity is to find a rhythm, often with the help of our partner or our family or our friends that enables us to make short visits to that kingdom of silence and creativity. These short visits on a regular, rhythmical basis may not further the work very much in the early days, but they are essential to keeping it alive in the heart and mind of the struggling parent until time begins to open up as the child grows and goes off to school. As this window begins to widen and allow fresh air into the life of the besieged parent, the work also slowly begins to resuscitate itself and come back to life. Our vocation starts to pick its feet out of the mud and move onto higher, drier ground. 

J.K. Rowling famously wrote large portions of the first Harry Potter book in the midst of this caked, slow-moving, mud-walking, desperate parent stage. "There was a point where I really felt I had 'penniless divorcée, lone parent' tattooed on my head," she said in one interview (Seaton, 2001). Living alone with her infant daughter, Jessica, in an unheated Edinburgh flat, she would trudge through the streets wheeling Jessica to a local café and snatch moments at her writing between feeding and comforting her child. It's a help to know that Rowling felt a general hopelessness during much of that time, and a further encouragement to know that she kept on moving through the mud, kept on writing despite her quiet, private despair. 

The café in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling wrote now has a small plaque on the wall outside to explain who sat there with such private, unsung courage. Most likely the place in which we sit and struggle to bring our work back to life will have nothing to commemorate it except a little window in our own memory that opens onto the small stage on which we appeared during difficult times. 

Perhaps each of us should go back with actual plaques and place them in cafés, on walls or in office cubicles with little notes of private courage for the inspiration of others. "This is where I kept my faith alive during very dark days," "This is where I found the courage to leave my marriage," or "This is where I realized that I couldn't have everything I wanted and so felt the freedom to request what I needed." Such puzzling, intriguing and inspirational signs everywhere might bring us to an understanding of the constant enacted dramas occurring around us. How every chair and every corner holds a possibility for redemption. The plaques that said things such as "This is the table where I gave up on my ideals and took the very large bribe" would be equally instructive for the reader. 

A Marriage of Marriages

Un mundo (A World), Ángeles Santos Torroella, 1911

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.

Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self, and Other. 

A word about this word marriage: Despite our use of the word only for a committed relationship between two people, in reality this book looks at the way everyone is committed, consciously or unconsciously, to three marriages. There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden, to a work or vocation; and that third and most likely hidden marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves. We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and, as I wish to illustrate, they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously. 

Why put them together? To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

This book looks at the dynamics common to all three marriages: first the recognition of what an individual wants, then a pursuit, then the hope to circumvent the difficult but necessary disappointments, and ultimately, in the face of that disappointment, the full recommitment to the vows we have made in each of the three areas, spoken or unspoken.

The Three Marriages looks at the way each marriage involves a separate form of courtship and commitment, each almost a world unto itself that then must be rejoined together. The end goal: In these pages I am looking for a marriage of marriages.

The main premise of the book becomes also its final conclusion: We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

I especially want to look at the way that each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two. As we discover, through the lives and biographies I follow in this book, how each one of the three marriages is nonnegotiable at its core, we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.

The understanding of this book is that the deeper, unspoken realms of the human psyche, work and life are not separate things and therefore cannot be balanced against each other except to create further trouble. The book most especially tries to dispel the myth that we are predominantly thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragon of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective, a moving, more untouchable identity, a slightly more dangerous but more satisfying sense of self than one defined by ideas of balance.

The Three Marriages looks at the way we actually seem to function – as a kind of movable conversational frontier, an edge between what we think is us and what we think is not us…it tries to illustrate the way we can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.

~ David Whyte, from The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self, and Relationship

See also:

Something Much Larger than Just Trying to Be Happy

Excerpt from What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte:

One of the great theological inherited understandings about an everyday human life is that it is absolutely and completely and totally and utterly unique. These forces, this particular tide, will never ever appear again. There'll be other elements, other individuals, other incarnations, but this incarnation, this threshold that you stand on, these qualities, these difficulties that you bring with your qualities and your virtues, have never been bound together before in such a potentiality. 

I often think that if the rest of creation could actually speak, it would be looking at us wondering why we quibble about the details of living out our lives when everything around us and everything inside us is so utterly and totally unique. 

Lying underneath this great theological dynamic is the understanding that every human being must remember the particularity of their own place here on earth, and their own qualities and the way they take joy and sadness in life.

A good well-felt sadness in life can be just as generous to others as a well-felt joy.

What we're talking about here, in many ways, is something much larger than just trying to be happy in life. Happiness is not a large enough word for the deeper satisfactions that human beings are searching for and will search for and have searched for through recorded time. 

Feeling Slightly Out of It Most of the Time

Feeling Slightly Out of It Most of the Time

"actually, it may be that just being yourself as a human being means feeling slightly out of it most of the time. And that a form of enlightenment is to understand that you'll never feel quite at home in the world and you're not meant to, because your sense of compassion for the rest of creation and for others depends on your understanding of exile — how far a creature, especially a human creature, can feel from true parentage, from their true inheritance, from their true home."

~ David Whyte

Why Not Start Apprenticing Yourself Now?

Excerpt from What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte:

Maister Eckhart was asked, Where do we go to when we die? Where does a human being go to when they die? And Eckhart answered, Nowhere, nowhere. As if to say that actually there's nowhere to go because death has been alongside you all the way along in the necessities of your giving away. In the necessities that keep a conversation or a stream of affection or a loving relationship alive. You've actually had to give yourself away, time after time, in order to get to know yourself again in order to escape the imprisoning names you've been uttering that have kept you away from the frontier between you and your own beautiful disappearance. 

It's interesting to think there hasn't been a single human being since the beginning of time who has escaped this transition and this disappearance. And in that inevitability, the great question would be, If we have to give everything away at the end -- everything, absolutely, totally, including our bodies, including our felt physical presence on this earth -- then why not start apprenticing yourself now?

 That when the actual transition at the end of your life comes, if you've spent no time in preparation, the whole thing will be just too frightening. The whole way you enter that world necessitates a different language that you have to learn, and that takes years to learn, in a way, to apprentice ourselves to our own disappearance. But in that apprenticeship, not to find ourselves caught in a morbid, self-indulgent circling in of ourselves, but to have it, in a sense, as a companion. And a fierce companion who allows us to feel the intensity and vulnerability of everyday life -- and every moment of that life.   

Selige Sehnsucht
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Holy Longing
Translated by Shinzen Young

Sagt es niemand, nur den Weisen,
Weil die Menge gleich verhöhnet:
Das Lebendge will ich preisen,
Das nach Flammentod sich sehnet.

Tell it to no one but the wise
For most will mock it right away
The truly living do I prize
Those who long in flame to die.

In der Liebesnächte Kühlung,
Die dich zeugte, wo du zeugtest,
Überfällt dich fremde Fühlung,
Wenn die stille Kerze leuchtet.

In the coolness of loves evenings
Where you beget and were begotten,
You're overcome by strange new feeling
As the silent candle brightens.

Nicht mehr bleibest du umfangen
In der Finsternis Beschattung,
Und dich reißet neu Verlangen
Auf zu höherer Begattung.

No longer are you trapped and mired
In the darkened shadowings
But swept away by new desire
To a higher lovemaking.

Keine Ferne macht dich schwierig,
Kommst geflogen und gebannt,
Und zuletzt, des Lichts begierig,
Bist du, Schmetterling, verbrannt.

Distance does not pall your flight
Spellbound through the air you're borne
Til at last mad for the light
You are a butterfly, then…gone.

Und solang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und werde!
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.

And until you know of this:
How to grow through death
You're just another troubled guestOn the gloomy earth.

Life is No Passing Memory of What has Been

316 West Second Avenue, November 3, 2011The Opening of Eyes
by David Whyte, from Songs for Coming Home

That day I saw beneath dark clouds 
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.

Nourishing Surprise

"The conversational nature of reality means that whatever you want from life will not occur in exactly the way you’d like it to. But, also, whatever life wants from you – society wants from you, your parents want from you, your partner wants from you, your children want from you – will also not occur. And that what occurs is this third quality which is more like a meeting and a dynamic of the two, a conversation between the two."

~ David Whyte

Overhearing Yourself

Excerpt from "10 Questions That Have No Right to Go Away," by David Whyte, from Oprah.com, June 15, 2011:

Poetry is often the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn't know you knew. It is a learned skill to force yourself to articulate your life, your present world or your possibilities for the future. We need Awesome Things #737 Catching somebody singing in their car and sharing a laugh with themthat same skill as an art of survival. We need to overhear the tiny but very consequential things we say that reveal ourselves to ourselves.

I have one friend who, when she is in a quandary, goes out for a drive in her car and sings. Whatever she's grappling with, she sings about it—to the windscreen, to the road, to the oncoming traffic. Then she overhears herself singing how she actually feels about something and what she should do about it.

Sometimes she pulls up to a stoplight, other people look over and she's singing, slightly crazed, into the windscreen, but that's her way of finding out.

Read the rest of the essay here...