Jul 30 2014


How can you settle into yourself

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Jul 23 2014

Theodore Roethke – In a Dark Time

Published by under Poetry

In a Dark Time
by Theodore Roethke

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood —
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks — is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is —
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

— from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, by Theodore Roethke

/ Photo by mill56 /

This is one of those poems to keep close in difficult times.

In a dark time, the eye begins to see

The struggle against despair, disorientation, darkness. The solitary individual lost in a lost world. We have all been there at some point in our lives. Deep seekers have a particular tendency to travel through those shadowed spaces.

I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.

That despair is often a deep seated sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the human world presented to us. It can feel uncaring, limited, violent, broken, and incomplete. In other words, it is a place that does not accept the individual as he or she is. To operate in the human world, we are forced into games of pretense and self-disguise. It is a feeling of homelessness and isolation.

What does one do when the soul is at odds with circumstance? It creates a terrible crisis. As social creatures, we align with the group mind, often without awareness or consent. The more naturally we do this, the better we fit into society and exist in the human world. But what about the eccentrics and visionaries, those who resist that psychic pull in order to answer the soul’s need to be itself and see beyond social artifice?

The edge is what I have.

They tend to dwell at the edges. That is where both danger and possibility are found. There we gain the possibility of seeing clearly for the first time, witnessing reality as a complete and self-fulfilled individual.

But the danger is very real, as well. No longer relying on socially constructed reality as our boundary we also lose our safe landmarks. The psyche becomes disoriented and fragile.

To navigate this necessary dark night of the soul, the seeker and the artist must cultivate a highly refined inner sense of balance and discipline. This is an important reason for developing a vigorous spiritual practice. Without the necessary inner solidity, the tendency is to rely on dangerous crutches, like excessive drinking and drug use — a terrible problem for so many creative non-conformists.

Think of it this way: The normal consensus reality is like the rigid shell of an egg. It does an excellent job of safely containing the unformed individual and protecting it from exposure to the unknown outside reality. But, if the individual remains within that shell forever, he never experiences the fullness of life. Through spiritual practice, one awakens the fire of life and takes on inner solidity and form. Then, when the shell has become too confining, you can break free into the open air without danger of fragmentation, ready to encounter the new world.

…Those dark periods we experience, they do actually serve a purpose, awakening clarity of vision and a compassionate heart. When we feel most vulnerable and lost, we are often going through our greatest growth and transformation, readying for the blaze of light.

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Learn to work deeply amidst the darkness; discover what is really you slowly emerging from the shadows, for that is your stable landmark when all else shifts about.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke, Theodore Roethke poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Theodore Roethke

US (1908 – 1963) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Theodore Roethke

6 responses so far

Jul 23 2014

in ourselves and others

The peace we cultivate within ourselves
flows outward.
And in the same way
the suffering we allow in others
creeps into our own lives.

No responses yet

Jul 16 2014

Abdul-Qader Bedil – His Living Proof

Published by under Poetry

His Living Proof
by Abdul-Qader Bedil

English version by David and Sabrineh Fideler

The eternal mysteries,
following wisdom’s lead,
brought forth
the human form
as their living proof.

As long as the drop
hadn’t emerged from the sea,
the ocean
didn’t notice
the depths of its splendor.

— from Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition, Translated by David Fideler / Translated by Sabrineh Fideler

/ Photo by alainf1 /

The “human form” in this poem is not so much a reference to human physical body as to human consciousness. Bedil is saying that humanity was created by God to be a living witness to Divinity. This is the “living proof.” He is not stating that the human body itself somehow proves the existence of the “eternal mysteries;” rather, it is through the witnessing consciousness of humanity that the Divine knows Itself in fullness. The poet makes this more clear with the metaphor of the second verse: It is only when the “drop” emerges from the “sea” that the “ocean” can envision “the depths of its own splendor.”

In other words, Bedil is giving us an answer to that fundamental spiritual question: Why does separation exist within the universe? If all is One, if everything fundamentally exists in God, why is there this devastating sense of separation and duality? The answer many mystical traditions give is that Eternal Unity divides mundane perception into the duality of seer and seen as a way to deepen the full knowledge of Being. Humanity, in this sense, has as its most important role that of witnessing Divinity. From this viewpoint, you could say that humanity becomes the eye of God. Human consciousness becomes a reflection of the Divine consciousness, a mirror in which the Eternal Unity can view Itself.

But there is an added twist to the common perception of duality. When one fulfills the role of witnessing God beyond the dizzying and sometimes heartbreaking multiplicities of the dualistic universe… the dualism fades away, revealing itself as having been an elaborate illusion. In truth, everything has always been One from start to finish. So we have a circular game of awareness: unity seeks self-knowledge through duality, but self-knowledge returns us to unity. The drop no matter how high it is flung into the air, eventually falls back into the embrace of the ocean and merges once more. Even high above the waves, the drop is water. And once returned to the ocean, it is still water (but no longer imagines itself to be a separate drop).

Abdul-Qader Bedil

Afghanistan (1644 – 1721) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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3 responses so far

Jul 16 2014


Remember, you are
supremely complete
in every circumstance.

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Jul 11 2014

Umar Ibn al-Farid – They say to me: Do describe it (from The Wine Ode)

Published by under Poetry

They say to me: “Do describe it (from The Wine Ode (al-Khamriyah))
by Umar Ibn al-Farid

English version by Th. Emil Homerin

They say to me: “Do describe it,
      for you know its character well!”
            Indeed, I have word
      of its attributes:

Purity not water,
      subtlety not air,
            light but not fire,
      spirit without body,

Lovely features guiding
      those describing it to praise;
            how find their prose and poetry
      on wine.

One who never knew it
      is moved by its memory,
            just as one longing for Nu’m
      is stirred when she is recalled.

But they said: “You’ve drunk sin!”
      No, indeed, I drank only
            that whose abstention
      is sin to me.

— from Umar Ibn al-Farid: Sufi Verses, Saintly Life, Translated by Th. Emil Homerin

/ Photo by drainingraven /

A meditation on wine today…

(So it doesn’t sound as if I am encouraging everyone to stock up at the corner liquor store, I will mention that I don’t drink alcohol myself, and I never have. Much to the surprise of my friends and family, I chose not to drink from an early age. I don’t, however, think there is anything wrong with drinking in moderation. But the wine we are contemplating here is of an entirely different sort…)

While sacred wine imagery occurs all over the world, the theme is perhaps most fully developed by the great Sufi poets.

This is especially interesting because of the complex relationship Islam has with wine. In Christianity, wine is the sacramental drink of the Eucharist, but in traditional Muslim observation, wine is forbidden. Yet, surprisingly, wine is promised to devout Muslims in heaven. Sufi poetry thrives on this tension.

But they said: “You’ve drunk sin!”
      No, indeed, I drank only
            that whose abstention
      is sin to me.

The forbidden worldly drink is also the sacred drink. That which is most profane is somehow transformed to become that which is most sacred. What is the difference? What changes the forbidden into the most holy of substances?

The mystically inclined might understand the paradox in this way: As a spiritual practice, alcoholic beverages are to be avoided, along with anything that fogs the awareness. This prepares the awareness to receive the infinitely more delightful wine of heaven.

Is it always understood and practiced this way? No. Sufis often dance in the gap between the forbidden and the promised, turning religious formalism on its head. Amidst sober orthodoxy, Sufis sing drunkenly of wine, wine, red wine! This allows authoritarians to dismiss them as drunkards and fools, leaving true seekers free from the snares of societal approval in order to continue their outlaw love affair with the Divine.

Bliss is sweet — literally. When you relax deeply into it, it becomes physical as well as transcendental. Not only is bliss an internal realization of wholeness and at-one-ness, it is also perceived through the external senses as the purest delight each sense can comprehend.

For many mystics, the sense of taste is pronounced, and bliss is experienced as a sublime, fulfilling sweetness resting upon the tongue while it warms the heart. Tasting this rarified substance is intoxicating; you feel giddy, smiling for no reason. You are no longer yourself. You may tremble and shake. You appear to all the world as if you are drunk — and so mystics speak of drunkenness and wine.

Often accompanying the experience is a feeling of deep purity, a sense of etheric subtlety, and the vision of all-pervading light–

Purity not water,
      subtlety not air,
            light but not fire,
      spirit without body

Ibn al-Farid gives us an interesting statement that implies drinking the sacred wine inspires words and poetry:

Lovely features guiding
      those describing it to praise;
            how find their prose and poetry
      on wine.

Many esoteric traditions formulate this link: the secret drink = poetry = prophecy. Here spirituality and art overlap.

When the mystic becomes conscious of first tasting the initiate’s wine, the awareness of supreme unity that underlies the apparent variety of creation is so profound that you begin to exist in the primal state of metaphor. Metaphor ceases to be a literary device or a dramatic mode of expression; it is seen as the true nature of reality.

The heavenly wine also brings the awareness into stillness, free from inner dialog. — Silence — Yet, curiously, many mystics find that from that silence words flow freely. Or, more generally, you can say that your natural expression is unstopped. With some that natural expression comes through words, for others music, for others imagery. It is as if expression is no longer hindered by your own mind. From silence, expression flows generously.

This is how Sufis “find their prose and poetry on wine.”

Have a beautiful full-moon weekend!


PS – I hope you will join me in sending healing blessings to the region of Israel/Palestine. The current status quo is untenable so, sadly, further violence from all sides is unavoidable until a more livable balance is found. For that reason, the blessings I send are not so much to quell the immediate chaos as to comfort those who suffer and to inspire wisdom and empathy among those in positions to redirect the situation in order to create a more livable future for the region. All the people in this holy land are in my heart.

Umar Ibn al-Farid

Egypt (1181 – 1235) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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Jul 11 2014


There is a perverse sort of blessing
that comes from calamity:

You just might give yourself permission
to surrender.

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Jul 09 2014

Sarmad – My heart searched for your fragrance

Published by under Poetry

My heart searched for your fragrance
by Sarmad

English version by Isaac A. Ezekiel

My heart searched for your fragrance
      in the breeze moving at dawn,
      my eyes searched for the flower of your face
      in the garden of creation.
Neither could lead me to your abode —
      contemplation alone showed me the way.

— from Sarmad: Martyr to Love Divine, by Isaac A. Ezekiel

/ Photo by Courtney /

I know that the poem emails have been less frequent in recent weeks. I have been working on the upcoming anthology (I know, I’ve been talking about it for a while, but it is coming…), balancing my day job, and still dealing with ups and downs in health. Besides, a little uncertainty is a good thing; it helps us to bring fresh eyes to each new poem.

Reading this lovely poem by Sarmad, I can honestly embrace either side of its point. He is saying that, no matter how beautiful and uplifting the the world around us may be, the Eternal is only found within the inner space of deep contemplation. And that is such an important reminder for the human world that is perpetually hooked by the senses and the desire to comprehend everything in terms of material reality. Even the purest appreciation of the most stunning panorama does not hold God. Always, always, the Eternal is found within.

And yet– physical reality, especially the natural world in all its life and beauty, reveals something to us of the deeper Reality. In the sunrise, in a flower, we do not see the face of God… but, when we learn to look, we can see there a suggestion of a smile. Spirit playfully hides just behind the physical. Grasping at the physical world leads to failure and blindness, but recognizing its beauty can lead us to inner stillness and true seeing.

So, should we agree with Sarmad, or disagree? Both, I think.

PS- Sending blessings and good wishes to all of my Muslim friends celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.


Iran/Persia & India (? – 1659) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

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7 responses so far

Jul 09 2014

sift your life

Sift your life
until it becomes simply
what it is
and you become a thing unnamed

One response so far

Jun 30 2014

Basava – The eating bowl is not one bronze

Published by under Poetry

The eating bowl is not one bronze
by Basava

English version by A. K. Ramanujan

The eating bowl is not one bronze
and the looking glass another.

      Bowl and mirror are one metal
      Giving back light
      one becomes a mirror.

            Aware, one is the Lord’s;
            unaware, a mere human.

                  Worship the lord without forgetting,
                  the lord of the meeting rivers.

— from Speaking of Siva, by A K Ramanujan

/ Photo by Gaetan Lee /

Bronze is a soft metal, easily shaped. It can be hammered into a bowl or flattened and polished, forming a simple mirror.

Basava is playing with a traditional teaching metaphor in this poem: both the bowl and the mirror are made of bronze. Mentally we label them as being different, but fundamentally they are the same substance, “one metal.”

The bronze can be understood to represent God. All beings, all things are made of the same substance, though we mentally distinguish them by outer shape. The only substantial difference between the eating bowl and the mirror is the form they have taken on. We can say that the mirror has recognized its nature as a bronze object. The nature of bronze, when straight and polished, is to give back light.

We are all constructed of the same God-stuff. When we become aware of our nature and polish ourselves we give back light and become a mirror.

Basava, Basava poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Basava

India (1134 – 1196) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu : Shaivite (Shiva)

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3 responses so far

Jun 30 2014

perfection and stillness

Why strive for the perfect
thought or action?
The perfection you seek
is found in stillness.

No responses yet

Jun 25 2014

Santoka – Hailstones, too

Published by under Poetry

Hailstones, too
by Santoka (Santoka Taneda)

English version by John Stevens

Hailstones, too,
Enter my begging bowl.

— from Mountain Tasting: The Haiku and Journals of Santoka Taneda, by Santoka Teneda / Translated by John Stevens

/ Photo by Benny Lin /

Just two lines, just a few words, yet this poem suggests so much to me.

Santoka was a wandering Zen monk at the beginning of the 20th century, and whatever he received in his begging bowl was his food for the day. For such a monk, the begging bowl is both survival and the medium of connection to the wider world. It takes on archetypal significance. The begging bowl comes to represent the awareness itself: whatever the self is to receive must first enter the begging bowl.

Rice and coin and flowers come to Santoka through the medium of his begging bowl. But it is the monk’s discipline to hold out his begging bowl and receive whatever comes to him with equanimity, as the meditator receives with balance whatever is witnessed. Hailstones, too, enter the begging bowl. Everything that comes is a gift, food for the awareness, whether or not it feeds the body as well.

To me, this poem evokes that perfect receptivity in which surprise, disillusionment, delight, and new awareness all mix together as the mind opens to what is actually present in the present moment.

Santoka (Santoka Taneda), Santoka (Santoka Taneda) poetry, Buddhist poetry Santoka (Santoka Taneda)

Japan (1882 – 1940) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

More poetry by Santoka (Santoka Taneda)

5 responses so far

Jun 25 2014


Everything is an opportunity
for awareness.

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Jun 13 2014

Mary Oliver – Sunrise

Published by under Poetry

by Mary Oliver

You can
die for it–
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
an unforgettable
fury of light. But

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of China,
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter

— from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver

/ Photo by Zach Dischner /

We have a full moon. A little Friday the 13th energy to keep us on our toes. And the Summer Solstice is just a few days away. Time to unleash your wild side. Dance under the moonlight. Shout to greet the sunrise. Embarrass yourself and your neighbors. When will you have a better excuse?

Me, I am going to recite poetry with friends. Words are just words, but the breath they ride on, now that’s dangerous!

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us?

More than anything else, the bold act of a deep breath is a proclamation of being, of self, of presence, when so much conspires to sweep you into negation. Rebels breathe deeply. It is another way to enter fire.

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

US (1935 – )
Secular or Eclectic

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3 responses so far

Jun 13 2014


The joy is there
awaiting permission.

No responses yet

Jun 11 2014

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – Intimate Hymn

Published by under Poetry

Intimate Hymn
by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

English version by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi

From word to word I roam, from dawn to dusk.
Dream in, dream out — I pass myself and towns,
A human satellite.

I wait, am hopeful, as one who waits at the rock
For the spring to well forth and ever well on.
I feel as bright as if I tented somewhere in the Milky Way.
To urge the world to feel I walk through lonesome solitudes.

All around me lightning explodes sparks from my glance
To reveal all light, unveil faces everywhere.
Godward, onward to the final weighing
overcoming heavy weight with thirst.
Constantly, the longings of all born call out, “Is anyone around?”
I know each one is HE, but in my heart there writhes a tear;
When of men and rocks and trees I hear;
All plead “Feel us”
All beg “See us”
God! Lend me your eyes!

I came to be, to sow the seed of sight in the world,
To unmask the God who disguised Himself as world–
And yes, I wait to be the first to announce “The Dawn.”

– from “Human, God’s Ineffable Name,” by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, freely rendered by Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi. Available from the Reb Zalman Legacy Project

/ Photo by mildhand /

This poem speaks to me, especially to the person I was in my late teens and early 20s. It beautifully conveys the push and pull of the heart eager to break open, the soul eager to feel, the inner eye eager to truly see.

Relating to the world in this way can be disorienting, even frightening at first. Peering beneath the facades and behind the world’s competitive normalcy, the seeing eye can’t help but recognize a terrible ache everywhere present:

All plead “Feel us”
All beg “See us”

Everyone and everything yearns to be noticed, recognized, seen. There is a terrible spiritual hunger at the heart of reality: We all desperately want our existence to be validated in the eyes of another. Not just that we are, but who we are.

The seeker, the visionary, the artist, instinctively wants to be that witness. And so we make ourselves vulnerable in order to see and to feel honestly. But how are we not then overwhelmed by that pleading call coming at us from every direction? Rabbi Heschel gets right to the solution with his prayer–

God! Lend me your eyes!

The solution is to become an open conduit through which the boundaryless Divine can answer. We learn to see honestly, feel honestly, and step out of the way of the immensely honest response ready to pour through.

In this way, God unmasks God. Seeing through you God witnesses God. We complete the divine game of hide-and-seek in each other.

I came to be, to sow the seed of sight in the world,
To unmask the God who disguised Himself as world–
And yes, I wait to be the first to announce “The Dawn.”

Rabbi Heschel was an important figure in modern Hassidic Jewish spirituality, and he was also a key figure in the US civil rights movement and anti-war movement of the 1960s.

I chose this poem today just as much to honor its translator, Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman, as he is often called, is himself a much-beloved spiritual teacher, peace-worker, author, and leader in inter-religious dialog. Although I don’t know the details, I have heard that Reb Zalman is unwell. I hope you will join me in sending blessings and good wishes to this great soul.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel poetry, Jewish poetry Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Poland & US (1907 – 1972) Timeline

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Jun 11 2014

fierce eye

See everything
with a fierce eye
and a gentle heart.

One response so far

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