Waking

by Kalidasa

English version by W. S. Merwin & J. Moussaieff Masson
Original Language Sanskrit

Even the man who is happy
     glimpses something
     or a hair of sound touches him

     and his heart overflows with a longing
          he does not recognize

then it must be that he is remembering
     in a place out of reach
     shapes he has loved

     in a life before this

     the print of them still there in him waiting

-- from East Window: Poems from Asia, Translated by W. S. Merwin

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/ Photo by Stig Nygaard /


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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

and his heart overflows with a longing
          he does not recognize


I just love these lines.

It reminds me of revelation I had around age 20 that really helped me through a lost, lonely period. It was a time when I felt an excruciating inner ache, a hole in myself, an empty space, with no idea how to fill it. Other people that age were busy with life: schoolwork, friends, dating, imagining their futures. But at that age I was struggling with a terrible void.

But then I started really watching people. I wanted to watch all the "normal" people to figure out how I could be more like them. Then suddenly it struck me: No matter how "happy" one may be, everyone -- without exception -- has that same gaping hole in their life. Most people pour all of their energies into either filling it endlessly, and with the wrong things, or they cover it up, ignore it, avoid it through endless activity. That sort of happiness is brittle, all too fragile. Suddenly we glimpse something or "a hair of sound touches" us, and that empty space becomes unavoidable. The hunger, the longing overflows.

I saw that the whole world is defined by that longing. And I also began to understand that I wasn't really different from everyone else. It's just that perhaps I found it more difficult to avoid staring at that uncomfortable question mark that sits at the center of everyone's life.

That insight not only reassured me that I was fundamentally okay, it also gave me permission to feel compassion for people I used to quietly envy. Everyone, all of us, high and low, rich and middle class and poor, famous and infamous and obscure -- we're all struggling with that haunting hunger.

But why? What is that hunger? Why is there a hole in the center of the world?

To really know the answer, we have to stop looking away. We have to stop distracting ourselves. And we have to stop trying to fill it with petty things -- money, sex, fame.

Turn and sit and just quietly look at that empty space. Get to know it. Learn its feel.

Here's what I've discovered in my own exploration: That hole is exactly God-shaped.

But there's an important corollary to that statement: God is not shaped like the cutout doll handed to us when we were children. The word "God" itself is too limiting, and is heavily layered with cultural assumptions. That's why I often use words like the Divine, the Eternal, the Real.

The most important thing about that God-shaped hole: When we finally, truly, really see it, an amazing river of bliss pours through that hole and washes over us...



Recommended Books: Kalidasa

Sanskrit Love Poetry Abhijnanasakuntalam of Kalidasa The Recognition of Sakuntala: A Play in Seven Acts Theatre of Memory: The Plays of Kalidasa The Origin of the Young God: Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava





Waking