Courage of Consciousness – Stones and Newborns – Thomas Merton and e.e. cummings

Westbunkhousedoor - Leona Bross

Westbunkhousedoor - Leona Bross

Dear Readers!

Today I post 2 poems by others – not because there are ‘only 2’ that touch me, (far from it!), but because these two are of particular value to me. One is by Thomas Merton, one by e.e. cummings. I’ve also posted the pair  on a dedicated page. To enjoy the poems without clutter of commentary, see Stones and Newborns, under Photos and Poems(See p.s. below sig for additional interpretive comments.)

These two poems, like no others, have served me for years! I’ve posted on my fridge-door (the real fridge, in my house). I’ve read and re-read them. I’ve read them slowly. I’ve carried them, their content, and their apparent meaning, in mind when far from my kitchen.  In short, I’ve ‘walked with’ these poems, and still do.

See links for Merton and cummings at bottom of this  post. I’m not at all sure of copyright with either of these, but value these two poems so highly I’ve decided to share.  If a problem comes up I may have to remove them later.

Thomas Merton:

Be still
Listen to the stones of the wall
Be silent, they try
To speak your
Name
Who (be quiet)
Are you (as these stones
are quiet). Do not
Think of what you are
Still less of
What you may one day be
Rather
Be what you are (but who?) be
The unthinkable one
You do not know.

I’ve not made Merton a study, although I’ve looked up information on him, and chased his ideas and writing on internet from time to time. Merton was a Trappist monk. His personal study and mission was much focused on spiritual understandings and teachings outside Christianity, including Zen. In fact, my first copy, of the poem I post here, was given me by a friend well-immersed in zen.

One of the principle concepts of Zen, (as I’ve come to understand it, a concept that’s been essential for me), is that “God”, and “spirituality” as commonly sought, understood, and practiced, is not “Zen”.  Preoccupation with “God” and “spiritual truth” is part of “human confusion”.

My ‘take’ on zen and ‘consciousness’ is that ‘consciousness is what one ‘finds’ when one ‘goes within’ to explore the deepest silence that each of us carries. When one goes within to find and explore this silence, one comes to know something about it. This silence is ‘expansive’, infinite. It is ‘timeless’, and certainly not ‘egoic’. While “going within’ to find/explore the silence, one comes to notice the constant chatter of ‘ordinary’ human consciousness.

The chatter is our ‘egoic’ process. As we listen to our ‘inner chatter’ we find we are judgmental and fearful. We hear ourselves ‘argue’ in defense of ourselves against imagined (and real!) critics. We find ourselves calculating on behalf of perceived (and real!) needs and outcomes. We find ourselves running thought and inner talk – about noticing our inner talk!

Since our ‘quest’ is to experience the ‘deep silence within’ we must sort ourselves out, ‘relax away from’ the inner chatter, and go farther. (We are free to ‘park’ questions that arise, like sticky posts’, in another part of our thoughts. We are free to explore these at another time, any time we like, except when the intent is to ‘reach the deep, expansive, silence’.) (One interesting question that arises is “What is consciousness?”!)

An important ‘rule’ when devoting time to finding deep, inner, expansive silence is ‘no rush’. Time set aside to sit silently with one’s thoughts need not be long. At least a few minutes is advised when beginning. Dedicated meditators may go for much, much longer. In any case, brief time or long, we always return to ‘ordinary consciousness’, and to our chatter.

Most of our inner chatter, we discover, is “stuff we’ve learned and heard” as we’ve grown up. We pick this “stuff” up from our communities – at first the family. Beyond families, there are larger communities. We even pick up “stuff” from ‘broad general culture’ of a nation!

If we engage in ‘ordinary life’  (and we must!) all of us continue with inner chatter. Practicing zen doesn’t take the chatter away, it makes us increasingly mindful. We learn to ‘catch it’ and ‘step past it’ more easily. We learn much more about “being”!  We begin to notice how many ideas and ”truths’ we’ve accepted from others without making personal evaluation. There’s much written and shared about zen. I’ll leave it to readers to find guidance on internet, at bookstores, and elsewhere.

Who are you? What, and who, were we – before we began to pick up all this “stuff” that feeds our chatter? Who was any one before all of us picked up this learned “stuff”?

(Who was your mother, your father, who were their parents, who was that person called ‘the enemy’, who was that broken person sleeping awkwardly in a doorway, … who was any one … before they began to learn “the stuff”?)

The question of Merton’s poem is “Who are you”; Merton recommends we “go into the silence of stones.”

The poem of cummings also gives us a way to think about who we are. It’s treats ‘silent beingness’ differently from Merton’s “Stone in a Wall”   His style (which I love!) slows the reader down, causes a kind of ‘drinking in’ at the same time it ‘opens the mind’. If cummings is new to you, you may have to remind yourself to ‘relax’ into the very unusual style.

e. e. cummings:

the little horse is newlY
Born)he knows nothing,and feels
everything;all around whom is
perfectly a strange
ness Of sun
light and of fragrance and of
Singing)is ev
erywhere(a welcom
ing dream: is amazing)
a worlD.and in
this world lies:smoothbeautifuL
ly folded;a(breathing and a gro
Wing)silence, who:
is:somE
oNe

My study of e.e. cummings has mostly been restricted to reading his poems. He’s written playfully, sincerely, honestly, and deeply. I’ve read cummings with delight, relish, and gratitude any time I’ve come across his poems. I’ve sought them out and relished them.

This particular poem, “the little horse”, is (for me) perfect in so many ways. I’ve printed copies as gifts to others at occasions of ‘new beginnings’. It’s perfect for the theme of this post. The little horse, so very new, has only ‘consciousness’ and the very beginnings of experience.  Nothing in the environment has a name, there are no words. No judgment can be made.  Pain and fright have not been experienced; fear has not  yet developed. There is no way for the newborn to ‘distinguish’ pleasure from not-pleasure, comfort from not-comfort. Environmental factors ‘move in on’ the newborn immediately; learning “stuff” begins.

The great joy and beauty of cumming’s description of the little horse is that we are treated to ‘awareness before the learning’ . We are allowed to pause with ‘untainted’ awareness, an awareness that has no language.  If we try to use language to express untainted awareness, I’m not sure we can do better than cummings:  “a breathing and groWing silence who is somEoNe”.

In closing, I’ll offer something more by e.e. cummings. He said: “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.

My Best!!–MaggieAnn
Merton links:
The Thomas Merton Center; Wikipedia – Thomas Merton.
Cummings links:
The Academy of American Poets; Wikipedia – E. E. Cummings
See also here at Thoughts from The Well: “Who Makes The Human Journey?” and a series of 4 posts on Alfred Adler.
*(Later added interpretive and compare/contrast notes of the two poems):  Thoughts I express in this ‘p.s.’, interest me, but distract from the ‘essence of consciousness’ value I find in each poem. I prefer to post them apart from the above descriptions. Both poems can be used to ‘expand’ awareness of ‘dynamic environment’ as experienced by  individual original consciousness. // In “Newly born…”, cummings identifies, ‘points to’, details of environment that will, eventually,  become categories.  These will – in the human – be captured with words, be assigned values, and have capacity to  introduce distinction between pleasure and threat.  Even for the foal, the sky can bring sun or lightening, air can bring warmth or cold.  Somewhere is the mare; her response to these will help shape the foal’s ‘evaluation’. Presumably  humans may become involved with the foal’s experience – with it will come training, carrots and possibly sticks. Words giving reassurance or threat.  // Cummings ‘points to’ that which will inevitably become part of the ‘dynamic environment’ within which the foal operates.  He doesn’t take time (thank goodness!) to remind us, but these dynamic environmental factors will unavoidably disturb deep silence of pure consciousness.  I think the poem’s intent was to take us into ‘at birth consciousness’ and leave us there.  Cummings invites us to remember, to experience, as I’ve described above. // Merton’s “Be Still” has, for me, always ‘started and stopped’ with the individual (me) “going within the stone”.  No doubt this in part is ’caused’ by a particular detail of my childhood –  I used to “try to be inside a stone” (also leaves, clods of earth, etc.).  I knew nothing about elegant effort to explore consciousness. I was looking for “God” and one of my clues was that I’d been told “God is infinite and can’t be described”! My self-determined logical rule of the effort was ‘no words’.  My experience was something of an imaginative ‘head trip’; I wasn’t conscious of ‘exploring original consciousness’.)  // Today I’ve had an ‘aha’ accompanied by a forehead-slapping ‘duh!’ realization about Merton’s “Be still …”.   For one thing, Merton doesn’t invite the reader to ‘be’ a stone, but to “listen to the stones that try to speak your name”.  An interpretive argument could be launched that Merton keeps the reader/listener ‘outside’, separate from, the stones of the wall.  Such an argument might pursue ‘the nature of stones’ (unable to speak), and might consider the impossibility that anything ‘outside’ individual consciousness could know (and speak) ‘your name’.  // Another. related, interpretive effort might be made to examine the nature of “stones in a wall”.  What is ‘the wall’, who are ‘the stones’ in the wall?  The wall, and the stones in it, can be explored as representing “structured humanity” (with all its institutions) and its collected inability to say anything relevant to individual awareness of deep consciousness.  A wall of stones, with or without cement or mortar, is massive, is ‘interdependent’ (stones must interact with, must support, other stones), and so on. At the same time, each stone is mute, possibly unaware of itself, and certainly unaware of a consciousness external to itself, to its wall-ness.)  // Given the last observation (interdependence of the stones to ‘become’ a massive structure), if the reader/listener is re-introduced as ‘being one of the stones’, then ‘community environment’ can be considered as essential to ‘participation’ of all the stones in the wall, including the reader/listener. None of them, however, can can express any “truth” of original consciousness of themselves, or of one another.  Stuck in an interactive dynamic that sustains the wall, they serve a function (the wall’s needs), but other than that remain in a state of ignorance.  (And how did such a wall come into being?)
At this point, the argument could lead to a discussion of “Merton as social-political commentator”, leading far, far, from a silent contemplation of ones own ‘original consciousness’.  // For me, these ‘add on’ explorations, distract from ‘instant resonance’ I experience with both poems.  Each poem, at first impact, invites reader/listener to pause, to go silent, to appreciate ‘unknowable’ or ‘inexpressible’ aspects of original individual consciousness.  That pause, that journey into silence, is, for me, the gift of each poem. // At the same time, it is fair and valuable to explore these extensions.  We humans are vulnerable like the foal, and are social creatures like the stones of the wall.  Neither of these conditions, (vulnerability, social-interaction) applies to ‘original consciousness’ of anyone – yet both conditions apply to each and all.  In the experience of vulnerability and social interaction, we ‘lose’ the quality of ‘original awareness’ So as to not ‘contaminate’ my enjoyment of the two poems with any further complicated thinking – I close on this for now! 🙂 -MA

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About maggieannthoeni

A description once given of me was "rooted in the earth while roaming the stars" - and this has felt 'right'. I believe in something akin to this for each of us. I am a passionate supporter of discovering the autonomous self while serving the whole as primary intent. I believe in discovery of innate principles, clearing the overlay of socialization that obscures this from us. I believe it is our responsibility to leave no one behind - most particularly to respond to suffering as best we can whereever we find it, whenever we are made aware. I believe in this for the insect as well as the most magnificent form of humanity. I believe in brother/sisterhood without boundary. I believe in righteous indignation when it is appropriate, but do not believe in an enemy. I believe in consciousness, in intelligence, in logic, in rationality, in emotion, in transcendence - and am convinced until we generally practice explore and honor all this in ourselves, we remain profoundly immature. (I believe real maturity is known and practiced by many young children, and not enough adults!)
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One Response to Courage of Consciousness – Stones and Newborns – Thomas Merton and e.e. cummings

  1. Isadore says:

    Merton speaks to me in a language that transcends words, it is as though I am hearing his very thoughts.

    I cannot say the same for e.e. cummings poem on a newborn colt. Which read like a poorly translated Aramaic script typed by someone who inadvertently strikes the caps key even more than I do and has the same problems with the carriage return key and chops up the text in the oddest way. When I employed my Dragon word recognition program (which I call Fafnir) to sort out the poem as presented it came out like this:
    the little horse is newly born,
    he knows nothing, and feels everything.
    All around whom is perfectly a strangeness of sunlight,
    and of fragrance and of singing is everywhere a welcoming dream,
    is amazing a world and in this world lies smooth beautifully folded
    a breathing and a growing silence,
    who is someone.
    Now,that speaks to me, I think, or have I missed the true essence of this poem cleverly hidden by random capital letters, strangely broken sentences,and melded and chopped words?

    In closing I would like to offer this Zen thought:

    The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten.
    The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten.
    The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
    Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.

    PS I really do enjoy the little poem on the newly born horse as translated by Fafnir, just why Cummings disguised that little gem in such an odd way is beyond the comprehension of my simple mind.

    Many, even very many, agree with you on Cummings’ play at his typewriter! Others, like me, find a ‘texture’ with the words as we process them the way he presents them, and it adds to our experience. For me, it’s like the difference between actually eating a delicious strawberry and ‘only’ reading about eating a delicious strawberry. Hope that makes some sense as an explanation. Neither approach, of course, is ‘better’ – except, I guess, to the reader. I’m very glad Fafnir translated the poem into one you enjoy – which, after all, is the main reason to read about this particular little horse! Thanks for taking time to post your thoughts and offering zen teaching!-MA

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