Sep 01 2017

Mary Oliver – What I Have Learned So Far

Published by at 7:44 am under Poetry

What I Have Learned So Far
by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

— from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver

/ Image by Hamed Saber /

This, to me, is an interesting poem, the way it wrestles with that age-old question of spirituality: faith or works, jnana or karma… indolence or action.

Does the seeking of wisdom lead one into such an internalized state that one abandons the world to its confusion and suffering? Even when we awaken profound compassion within ourselves, is compassion enough without action to back it up? Ultimately the question boils down to, is enlightenment a good in and of itself, or does it only fulfill itself through service?

Different traditions and teachers give us different answers. Many teachers will say that trying to “do good” without first achieving some measure of inner clarity cannot achieve its full potential. Some even say that spiritual opening has a natural resonance; the enlightened are like radio transmitters, apparently doing little, apparently silent, they broadcasting powerful waves into the world. They argue that there can be action that is good intentioned, but meaningless or unstable. And there can be apparent inaction that shakes the universe.

Others say that spirituality and compassion without heartful action is anemic at best, that the physical and social world are themselves part of our spiritual landscape, that we must embody our spirituality on that level too. This criticism can go so far as to say that spirituality in a cave is easy, spirituality in the world is hard; that’s where we truly prove our awakening love. They argue that action always exists, even the avoidance of action is action. One must always seek to express the inner state with outer action. And for the spiritually minded, that action must be in the form of compassionate service to a struggling world.

Mary Oliver seems to, gently, favor the latter philosophy:

Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

Me? I have a fiery nature, and I like a statement like Mary Oliver’s. I see too much passivity in good-hearted people, myself included sometimes.

But I don’t ultimately see a great conflict with any of these philosophies. The universe is a big universe, with endless pathways for the human spirit to travel. The more we release our enlightened selves, the more we naturally embody who we naturally are.

For some, that resolves itself into a profound stillness that is outer as well as inner. And do they not ring out from their mountaintops and closets? Do we not, on some level, hear them and ring out a little more ourselves?

For others, stillness and love seeks a pathway of expression through action and service. The way they use the same two hands we all possess — doesn’t it make our own fingers a little itchy for their own movement?


Sending out a special note of love and blessings to regions so affected by floods recently — Texas, and Northern India and Nepal. Sadly, these extreme weather patterns are becoming the new normal. Both as individuals and as a society in general, we need to adjust our thinking and preparations to expect more of these sorts of events. The most important lesson is that we come together, that we help when we can, and that we minimize suffering and destruction as much as possible through forethought and necessary changes in entrenched ways of doing things.

Recommended Books: Mary Oliver

New and Selected Poems Why I Wake Early Dream Work House of Light Thirst: Poems
More Books >>

Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Mary Oliver

US (1935 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Mary Oliver was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935.

As a young writer, Mary Oliver was influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and, in fact, as a teenager briefly lived in the home of the recently deceased Millay, helping to organize Millay’s papers.

Mary Oliver attended college at Ohio State University, and later at Vassar College.

Mary Oliver’s poetry is deeply aware of the natural world, particularly the birds and trees and ponds of her adopted state of Massachusetts.

Her collection of poetry “American Primitive” won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.

More poetry by Mary Oliver

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Mary Oliver – What I Have Learned So Far”

  1. Annaon 01 Sep 2017 at 12:20 pm

    If we are consciously aware
    in every moment and simultaneously
    within both
    time and timelessness,
    linear and nonlinear realities,
    we will Know
    from the Knowingness,

    from the balanced and centred
    middle point
    duality and nonduality.

    the right path, the right step,
    the right action or no action,
    the choices we have to make…

    …or just the Way…

    Let just we BE
    own Consciousness…

    then everything will just naturally
    and easily will flows on its own…

    …like a stream towards the

    This is what I have learned so far…:)

  2. marrobon 02 Sep 2017 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you Ivan for this poem by the gifted Mary Oliver and your timely, reflective commentary on the choice between action – as an introvert, I admit to being overwhelmed at times by WHAT action to take, and the inward path of expanding
    consciousness and trusting that the paths balance each other.

    I came across a quote by Seneca recently that helps in my choices:
    “Live in accordance with your own nature “.

    I’d like to thank Anna too for putting this so beautifully above.

    Your note of love and mindfulness to all affected by floods around the world
    are sincerely repeated.

    May September bless us with renewal and restored balance.

    Happy Labour Day weekend from the North

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