constraints

The Impeded Stream

Excerpts from "Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms" by Wendell Berry:

Form, crudely or stupidly used, may indeed be inimical to freedom. Well used, it may be the means of earning freedom, the price of admission or permission, the enablement to be free. But the connection may be even closer, more active and interesting, than that; it may be that form, strictly kept, enforces freedom. The form can be fulfilled only by a kind of abandonment to hope and to possibility, to unexpected gifts. The argument for freedom is not an argument against form. Form, like topsoil (which is intricately formal), empowers time to do good.

Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspirationthe gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith. They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem; occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect. They are points of growth, like the axils of leaves. Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it. Rightly understood, a set form prescribes its restraint to the poet, not to the subject. 

Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different liveswithin the one life of their troth and householdperiodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to "feel together," to "be of the same mind." Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives.  

It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.


Berry, W. (1983). Standing by words: Essays. San Francisco: North Point Press. (library, Amazon.com)

Embracing Limitations

"We must first become limited in order to become limitless...Learning to be creative within the confines of our limitations is the best hope we have to transform ourselves and to collectively transform our world." 

~ Phil Hansen, from "Embrace the Shake," TED Talks, May 2013   

Philinthecircle's YouTube Channel

Limitations and Richness of Experience

Sunny Autumn Day, 1892 George Inness (American, 1825-1894)

"I like spring, but it is too young. I like summer, but it is too proud. So I like best of all autumn, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow and a premonition of death. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content. From a knowledge of those limitations and its richness of experience emerges a symphony of colors, richer than all, its green speaking of life and strength, its orange speaking of golden content and its purple of resignation and death."

~ Lin Yutang, from My Country and My People

Étude

Excerpt from "Find What You Love and Let It Kill You" by James Rhodes:

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be "good enough".

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time. 

Read the whole essay...


See also:

Natural Community

Excerpt from "Sick Love" by Stephen Schettini (Jan. 14, 2013):

I loved the Buddha’s teachings. I found them invaluable and still do. However, I mistook Buddhists for the Buddha and lost my way. Still, I was lucky and my eyes opened one day to the contrived righteousness of communal life. I understood that it was time to move on. Technically, I was free, under no physical and only gentle psychological pressure to stay. However, it took me a full year to extricate myself, to let go of my need for love and validation from this group, to give up the image of myself on a holy and righteous path and return to the plain truth that purity is an illusion, that there is no security and that I had to pursue my mundane way alone.

That in fact, I’d been alone all along.

There is life after a spiritual community. There is such a thing as natural community, not contrived to support your fondest wishes but to commiserate with on life’s hard byways. There is no preexisting group out there waiting for you. Real community forms organically, spontaneously. Prepare yourself for it by traveling light. People of like mind are not found in any particular monastery, school or social group. It’s rare to meet others with whom we truly commune. We know that. You know that. Locking yourself into a gated community, pretending you’re safe and sound, is a sure way to not bump into anyone intimately.

Get out there, vulnerable and honest. Admit you’re alone on your path through life and you’ll sooner or later meet fellow-travelers. You’ll share your insights as equals. Some of them may for a while become mentors or guides. Bear in mind though, that relationship will deteriorate the minute you abandon your discernment, the instant you stop taking your own risks.

Otherwise, how will you know when they’re speaking nonsense, as from time to time we all do? How will you realize that they’re manipulating you, as they might if they see you can’t hold your own? They might even be doing it because they love you.

How would you know what sort of love that is?

Read entire essay...

True to His Art

A Mime
by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky from The Gift: Poems by the Great Sufi Master

A mime stands upon a gallows for a crime he
did not do. When given a last chance to speak
he remains true to his art.

A crowd of hundreds has gathered to see his
last performance, knowing he will not talk.

The mime takes from the sky the circle of bright
spheres, lays them on a table, expressing deep
love for the companionship and guidance they

have given him for so many years.

He brings the seas before our eyes. Somehow
an emerald fin appears, splashes. Look, there
is turquoise rain.

He removes his heart from his body and seems
to arouse all life on this splendid earth with
such a sacred tenderness;

there, for an extraordinary moment, it looked
like someone was giving birth to the Christ
again.

He mounts his soul upon the body of Freedom.
The great breeze comes by. The sun and moon
join hands; they bow so gracefully

that for a moment, for a moment everyone
knows that God is real. So the tongue fell out
of the mouth of the world for days.

See also: One Remembers

[Thanks, Heather!]

Stumped by the Form

Bert Geyer's visual representation of the form of a sonnet (photo by Bert Geyer)Excerpt from Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer:

"The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we've invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming from the right hemisphere. Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.

But that's precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process."


See also:

The Difficulty of the Task Accelerates the Insight Process

Excerpt from Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we've invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming through the right hemisphere.

Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. 

But that's precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent and original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process. 

See also: "How to Cultivate Eureka Moments," a review of Imagine by Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, April 2, 2012

It Takes Time to Get Boiled

Excerpts from "The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami," by Sam Anderson, The New York Times Magazine, October 23, 2011:

Murakami sold his jazz club in order to devote himself, full time, to writing.

Murakami at the finish of the New York Marathon in 1991. Photo by Atsushi Kondo“Full time,” for Murakami, means something different from what it does for most people. For 30 years now, he has lived a monkishly regimented life, each facet of which has been precisely engineered to help him produce his work. He runs or swims long distances almost every day, eats a healthful diet, goes to bed around 9 p.m. and wakes up, without an alarm, around 4 a.m. — at which point he goes straight to his desk for five to six hours of concentrated writing. (Sometimes he wakes up as early as 2.) He thinks of his office, he told me, as a place of confinement — “but voluntary confinement, happy confinement.”

“Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life,” he said. “If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy. I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years. I don’t get bored. I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.”

Like Nothing's Missing

Poems Composed for by the Left Hand
by Mary Molinary, from Beloit Poetry Journal, Winter 2010

1.

to keep dementia away
most of the doctors say
use the opposite hand --
          force new learning on the mind

my left hand laughs
says it's all silly,
doesn't buy the split-
          brain theory

but being a good sport, plays
along--works hard against being
          awkward

it's my right that slays
me--sulking and skulking
at the margins--curled
          up like a forgotten turnip

 

Using Your Nondominant Hand
Excerpt from How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays

The Exercise
Use your nondominant hand for some ordinary task each day. These could include brushing your teeth, combing your hair, or eating with the nondominant hand for at least part of each meal.  If you're up for a big challenge, try using the nondominant hand when writing or when eating with chopsticks.

Discoveries
This experiment always evokes laughter.  We discover that the nondominant hand is quite clumsy. Using it brings us back to what Zen teachers call "beginner's mind." Our dominant hand might be forty years old, but the nondominant hand is much younger, perhaps about two or three years old. We have to learn all over again how to hold a fork and how to get it into our mouths without stabbing ourselves.  We might begin to brush our teeth very awkwardly with the nondominant hand, and when we aren't looking our dominant hand will reach out and take the toothbrush or fork away! It is like a bossy older sister who says, "Hey, you little klutz, let me do it for you!"

Struggling to use the nondominant hand can awaken our compassion for anyone who is clumsy or unskilled, such as a person who has had disabilities, injuries, or a stroke.  We briefly see how much we take for granted scores of simple movements that many people cannot make...

Deeper Lessons
This task illustrates how strong and unconscious our habits are and how difficult they are to change without awareness and determination. This task helps us bring beginner's mind to any activity--such as eating--that we do several times a day, often with only partial awareness.

See also: "Each Flick of a Digit Is a Job for All 5," by Natalie Angier, The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2012

Pinned to the Cushion

127Hours2

I was completely surprised to discover that Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is much deeper than just a movie about someone who has to cut his arm off to survive. It’s also a brilliant account of being pinned to a de facto meditation cushion for an involuntary 5-day mindfulness intensive on the nature of thinking, feeling, the self, loving-kindness, and the liberation that can come from yielding to impersonal forces. The boulder deserves an Oscar nomination for a supporting role as both antagonist and teacher. I expected to feel uneasy, but instead I was completely absorbed in the clever depiction of an excruciating subjective experience of one person's suffering.

Aron Ralston said in one interview, "The entrapment created such an appreciation for the frolicking I had been doing until it happened and there was the euphoric feeling of being free and getting my life back again. Because of what happened, I understand what life is. I'm hopeful that people will see something inside of themselves, as well. I was in an extraordinary circumstance and it fundamentally came down to wanting to live and get back to my family. It is about survival, love and freedom — and those things are common in all of us."

The good news is that the profound yet practical insights Ralston carried out of Blue John Canyon can also be gradually cultivated through the consistent development of attentional skills over time. I enthusiastically recommend both the film and the effort required to experience high levels of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity without waiting for the conditions to become so extreme.

Eunoia

eunoiaEunoia is the shortest word in English containing all five vowels—and it means ‘beautiful thinking.’ It is also the title of Canadian poet Christian Bök's book of fiction in which each chapter uses only one vowel. Mr Bök believes his book proves that each vowel has its own personality, and demonstrates the flexibility of the English language.”

~ “Beautiful Vowels,” BBC Radio 4 Today (11.30.08)

From Chapter E 

for René Crevel

Westerners revere the Greek legends. Versemen retell the represented events, the resplendent scenes, where, hellbent, the Greek freemen seek revenge whenever Helen, the new-wed empress, weeps. Restless, she deserts her fleece bed where, detested, her wedded regent sleeps. When she remembers Greece, her seceded demesne, she feels wretched, left here, bereft, her needs never met. She needs rest; nevertheless, her demented fevers render her sleepless (her sleeplessness enfeebles her). She needs help; nevertheless her stressed nerves render her cheerless (her cheerlessness enfetters her).

[Arigato Dōshin!]