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Thoughts on Poem 712 by Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Over the past few months, I have been having virtual literature discussions with one of my closest friends, and we recently discussed this poem. I had read through it multiple times prior to our discussion and took many notes. Still, in talking about the nuances of this masterpiece, we discovered more hidden symbolism and meaning. So my goal in this post is to cover some of the themes we discovered in the text. It is by no means exhaustive, and if you have insights you would like to share, please do so in the comments section (available for 14 days after publication of this post).

The obvious theme is that the speaker is describing the afterlife by personifying Death and Immortality. As is implied in the first stanza, many of us hasten through our lives without giving much thought to our impending deaths. But eventually, Death does come for us all. It is also worth noting that Dickinson differentiates between Death and Immortality. One could conclude that dying does not necessarily mean that the soul will unite with the Eternal.

Something that my friend and I discussed was the possibility that the speaker is somehow wedded, either to Immortality or to Death. There are multiple images that support this interpretation. When couples get married, they would often leave together in a Carriage. In the third stanza, there is mention of a Ring and Children. And in the fourth stanza, we learn that she is wearing a Gown, and more importantly, a Tulle, which is a veil.

Now, one could argue that the Tulle might represent the veil between this world and the afterlife. This is also a valid interpretation and worth considering.

Finally, there is one other symbol that we discussed which may be of interest, and that is the biblical Scarlet Woman from Revelation. If you look closely at the sixth stanza, you can find the imagery there. The mention of “Centuries” implies the passing of a millennium, which feels shorter than “the Day.” The Day could be interpreted as the Judgement Day. The “Horses’ Heads” could then be viewed as a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All of these signs are pointing “toward Eternity,” manifested by the Second Coming of Christ. If one accepts this interpretation, then the conclusion of this poem takes on an ominous tone.

Again, these are just thoughts and impressions regarding this poem. I suspect there is even more going on than I am aware of. There are definitely layers of symbolism and hidden meaning in this text. I welcome you to share any thoughts you may have.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Upanishads” – Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester

I originally read The Upanishads when I was in college. In fact, the old paperback copy I still have was my old college text, complete with highlighting and marginalia. Sadly, the binding is coming undone so I think this may be my last reading of this particular book. But it has served me well. Anyway, it had been many years since I read this, and considering all the material I have read in between, I suspected that this reading would be on a different level than my prior readings.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the text:

The Upanishads are late Vedic Sanskrit texts of religious teachings which form the foundations of Hinduism. They are the most recent part of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, that deal with meditation, philosophy, and ontological knowledge; other parts of the Vedas deal with mantras, benedictions, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices. Among the most important literature in the history of Indian religions and culture, the Upanishads played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism to new ideas and institutions. Of all Vedic literature, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and their central ideas are at the spiritual core of Hinduism.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Much of the text discusses the Self, which is essentially that spark of the Divine that exists within each being.

The Self, whose symbol is OM, is the omniscient Lord. He is not born. He does not die. He is neither cause nor effect. This Ancient One is unborn, imperishable, eternal: though the body be destroyed, he is not killed.

(p. 18)

There is a belief held by many on the spiritual path that the goal is to renounce the world and focus only on the spiritual. The Upanishads teach that not only is this incorrect, it is actually detrimental to one’s spiritual growth. Balance is needed, and polarity of any sort leads to darkness.

To darkness are they doomed who devote themselves only to life in the world, and to a greater darkness they who devote themselves only to meditation.

Life in the world alone leads to one result, meditation alone leads to another. So have we heard from the wise.

They who devote themselves both to life in the world and to meditation, by life in the world overcome death and by meditation achieve immortality.

(pp. 27 – 28)

For me, one of the most intriguing passages from this reading was a description of how to realize, or “see,” the Divine presence, God, the Self.

To realize God, first control the outgoing senses and harness the mind. Then meditate upon the light in the heart of the fire—meditate, that is, upon pure consciousness as distinct from the ordinary consciousness of the intellect. Thus the Self, the Inner Reality, may be seen behind physical appearance.

Control your mind so that the Ultimate Reality, the self-luminous Lord, may be revealed. Strive earnestly for eternal bliss.

With the help of the mind and the intellect, keep the senses from attaching themselves to objects of pleasure. They will be purified by the light of the Inner Reality, and that light will be revealed.

(p. 120)

I have not even scratched the surface of this book. The wealth of wisdom and insight in this short text is staggering. I highly recommend that any of you who are on the spiritual path read and reread this text.

Thanks for stopping by. May you have a blessed journey.

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“A Man’s Book of the Spirit” by Bill Alexander

This book was given to me about 25 years ago by someone who was providing me with spiritual counsel at the time. Throughout the years, I have read through the daily meditations multiple times. Currently, I am taking a break from this one and reading another daily inspirational book (and I have yet another on order), but at some point, I will likely read through this again, since it provides such a wealth of insight and inspiration.

The book offers daily mindfulness passages with a men’s spirituality leaning. Each day you are presented with a quote, a brief elaboration on the passage, and sometimes an associated assignment or prompt to help reinforce the spiritual principle. What I like about the quotes is that they are not from any particular tradition, and come from poets, religious texts, actors, philosophers, etc. Often with self-help meditation books such as this, there is a “tradition” to which the book adheres. That’s not the case with this one, which is why I have used it for so many years.

I do not think this is in print anymore, but you can probably find a used copy online if you are so inclined. I have to say that my copy is beginning to show its age along the spine, and I am not sure how many more yearly journeys it will support. But I will keep it until it begins to come apart, which I will then take as a sign that it is time to explore other paths.

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Thoughts on “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman

In our current society, poets and poetry rarely get the broad recognition they deserve. An exception to this is The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman. When she read this poem to the nation as the Youth Poet Laureate at Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2021, I for one was floored. That a 22-year-old poet could compose such powerful and timely words, and present them with poise, dignity, and inspired optimism, renewed my belief in the power of words to foment change in our world. Regardless of which side of the political divide we may find ourselves, it is impossible to deny that Ms. Gorman’s words were able to bridge that divide and offer hope in what was a difficult time.

In her introduction to the printed version of the poem, Oprah Winfrey wrote:

Everyone who watched came away enhanced with hope and marveling at seeing the best of who we are and can be through the eyes and essence of a twenty-two-year-old, our country’s youngest presidential inaugural poet.

I am in complete agreement.

There are two short excerpts from this incredible poem that I would like to share.

And so we lift our gazes not
To what stands between us,
But to what stands before us.
We close the divide,
Because we know to put
Our future first, we must first
Put our differences aside.

The truth of this statement is self-evident. We cannot advance as a nation, or as a species, unless we learn to stop vilifying those who have differing opinions and beliefs. Focus needs to shift from differences to commonalities.

So while we once asked: How could we
possibly prevail over catastrophe?
We now assert: How could catastrophe
possibly prevail over us?

This past year has been hard for all of us, and our world continues to pose challenges. But challenges, while painful to work through, often provide the spark of heroic inspiration needed to “climb the hill.” Every journey has a point where the odds seem insurmountable. We stand at this threshold. But as Amanda Gorman shows us, we can take that next step and move toward ushering in a better world for all people.

I strongly encourage you to go out and buy a copy of Ms. Gorman’s poem. It is important that we support those creative individuals who inspire us to become the best that we can be.

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Thoughts on “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac

Recently, I was in Carmel and visited an indie bookstore. While browsing, I found this book on the shelf. Since I have been to Big Sur, and I liked On The Road, I figured I would pick it up and give it a read, even though Kerouac’s Dr. Sax was one of the worst books I have ever read.

Truman Capote hated Jack Kerouac’s work, saying: “That’s not writing, it’s typing” (Source: Wikipedia). And I have to say, Capote has a point. As I was reading the text, it was full of typos, Kerouac did not appear to spend any time editing, and usually he opted to skip superfluous stuff like punctuation. In fact, according to sources, Kerouac “typed up” this entire book in a mere 10 days (Source: Wikipedia). But that criticism aside, I kind of liked the book. The story was interesting and stylistically it was like a blend of impressionism and stream-of-consciousness.

The protagonist in the book, Jack Duluoz, who is clearly a representation of Kerouac himself, expresses that he is tired of the role of “king of the beatniks.”

Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all there lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I cant do anymore—My reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing—

(p. 109)

The issue that Duluoz soon discovers is that when you go someplace to escape your problems, you end up bringing your problems with you. And these problems edge the protagonist closer to a complete mental breakdown.

For me, the most powerful aspect of this book is Kerouac’s visceral description of the pain of addiction; in this case, addiction to alcohol. The sense of hopelessness and self-loathing permeates every word as he exposes his suffering to the reader.

—The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you’ve betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for “life,” you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness—You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick, your soul groans, you look at your helpless hands as tho they were on fire and you cant move to help, you look at the world with dead eyes, there’s on your face an expression of incalculable repining like a constipated angel on a cloud—In fact it’s actually a cancerous look you throw on the world, through browngray wool fuds over your eyes—

(p. 111)

While this is not the greatest work of literature, by any stretch, it is brutally honest, and that is what gives the book value. While this is probably not for everyone, if you like the beat writers, you will likely enjoy this book.

Thanks for stopping by.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 65” by Lao Tzu

In the old days, those who were well versed in the
practice of the Tao did not try to enlighten the
people, but rather to keep them in the state of simplicity.
For, why are the people hard to govern? Because they
are too clever! Therefore, he who governs his state
with cleverness is its malefactor; but he who governs
his state without resorting to cleverness is its
benefactor. To know these principles is to possess a
rule and a measure. To keep the rule and the measure
constantly in your mind is what we call Mystical
Virtue. Deep and far-reaching is Mystical Virtue! It
leads all things to return, till they come back to Great
Harmony!

First off, I have to say it feels a little strange to hear someone referring to “the old days” in a text that was written around 400 BC. But what this says to me is that people are always nostalgic about the way things used to be. I think that says something about human nature.

In this passage, Lau Tzu encourages leaders to govern through simplicity and with “Mystical Virtue.” Doing so will return a nation to a state of “Great Harmony.” Clearly, this is advice that many of our modern leaders could benefit from. When I look at the world, it seems to me to be the antithesis of a Great Harmony.

There is really nothing that I can add to this short passage. I hope you found it as insightful as I did. Thanks for stopping by, and keep on reading.

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“Sonnet 40: Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all” by William Shakespeare

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then, if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceives
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty:
And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

In this sonnet, we are presented with a love triangle that is interesting even by modern standards. The speaker is a man who is in love with a younger man. The younger man decides to have sex with the older man’s wife or mistress. The older man, so enamored by the younger man, seeks to reconcile his feelings of love with the pain of jealousy and betrayal, as he becomes aware that his love for the younger man is not enough to satisfy the younger man’s desires.

What strikes me the most about this poem is the pure honesty. Shakespeare cuts right to the heart of complex human emotion and in a mere 14 lines conveys layers of passion and suffering. You can actually sense the speaker’s feeling of being torn between love and hate, compassion and anger, trying desperately to reconcile the conflicting emotions within. And while we may not have personally experienced the same situation, I suspect we can all relate to the feeling of being torn between love and anger.

I hope you enjoyed this poem. Have a great day, and keep on reading.

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Thoughts on “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke

This is the first book that Susanna Clarke has published since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was published in 2004. I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, so I was eager to read Ms. Clarke’s latest, which although not as great as her first novel, it is still very good.

Piranesi is the story about a person living in an alternate reality, and the text is structured as journal entries. There are some interesting and creative aspects to the book, structurally, but I should say up front that my wife listened to the text as an audiobook and did not enjoy it. I can see how this text would not translate well to spoken word. So, if you are planning to read this book, you should read it and not listen to it.

That said, I figure we can look at a couple passages.

These are the Drowned Halls.

On the Periphery of this Region the Waters are shallow, tranquil, and covered with water lilies, but in the centre they are deep and treacherous, full of broken Masonry and drowned Statues. The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level.

(pp. 34 – 35)

The dimension where Piranesi exists is a kind of labyrinthine house, which contains animals and water and statues. What is interesting about this passage is the implication that the house, with its rooms of water, represents the subconscious, the aspects of the psyche which grant individuals glimpses of other dimensions. The deeper you go into the waters of the subconscious mind, the more treacherous it becomes. One runs the risk of “drowning” in this other realm. And the line “The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level” implies that most areas of the subconscious mind are not accessible to us, but some may be entered by exiting our normal state of awareness, or the Upper Level. Interestingly, certain words are capitalized, giving them a sense of being proper nouns, or names. Most intriguing is Masonry. While this might be coincidental, I could not help wondering whether it is an allusion to the secret rites of the Masonic order. Ritual is often used to evoke non-ordinary states of consciousness in individuals.

At one point in the story, Piranesi meets a “Prophet” who offers to tell Piranesi how his world came into existence.

He looked gratified by my interest. ‘Then I will tell you. It began when I was young, you see. I was always so much more brilliant than my peers. My first great insight happened when I realised how much humankind had lost. Once, men and women were able to turn themselves into eagles and fly immense distances. They communed with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the turning of the stars inside their own minds. My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology! But it seemed to me that the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It’s not actually possible. I pictured it as a sort of energy flowing out of the world and I thought that this energy must be going somewhere. That was when I realised that there must be other places, other worlds. And so I set myself to find them.’

(pp. 88 – 89)

This is an interesting concept, and it is one which I have pondered. If everything is energy, and the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form to another, and if thoughts and consciousness are forms of energy, then what happens to our collective consciousness? Does it take on new forms, or does it flow somewhere else? What is the effect of conscious energy on other forms of energy? If the energy patterns still exist, can the be “re-collected”? These are deep questions about the very fabric of our reality. I don’t claim to have any answers, but this is one of those cases where the answers are not as important as the questions.

Anyway, to close, I will say I enjoyed this book. I would recommend both of Susanna Clarke’s books.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.

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Thoughts on “Being Ram Dass” by Ram Dass

When I received an email from Sounds True announcing the publication of this book, I knew I would be reading it. I loved Be Here Now and could not pass up the opportunity to read a first-hand account of Ram Dass’s life, which ended on December 22, 2019.

Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert in 1932. The book covers his long and interesting life, from his childhood to his early days as an explorer of psychedelics with Timothy Leary, then his journey to India where he met Maharaj-ji and became a devotee, and finally, his later years following his debilitating stroke.

There are so many wonderful and insightful seeds of wisdom in this book, it seriously warrants reading by anyone who has even a sliver of interest in spirituality and service. I will share a couple quotes that stood out for me.

Service as a spiritual path lacks glamour. I liked moving in and out of planes of reality, esoteric teachings, secret mantras, meditation in caves, experiences of bliss. Those experiences of different planes originated in my use of psychedelics, and I’d grown attached to those experiences. It was another trap that I created for myself, another kind of spiritual ego.

I had romanticized and idealized my spiritual path—so much so that I distanced myself from the nitty-gritty of life. I wanted to transcend this earthly plane, with its imperfect humans caught in their greed and ambition and selfishness, including me. Serving God was an ideal. Serving God in the form of other people, with all their vagaries and flaws, politics and personality quirks, was a whole other kettle of fish.

(p. 280)

I confess, I am guilty of what Ram Dass describes. I know I have “spiritual ego.” In addition, I find myself constantly vexed by the attitudes and behaviors of my fellow humans. I make a conscious effort to practice empathy and acceptance, but it does not come easy for me. It is so much easier to “love and serve” those who I like, but those who anger me? That is hard. I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that I realize I still have a way to go along my path. There is hope for me yet.

This segues nicely into the next passage.

Gandhi said, “When you surrender completely to God as the only Truth worth having, you find yourself in the service of all that exists. It becomes your joy and recreation. You never tire of serving others.” Billions of acts create suffering in the world—acts of ignorance, greed, violence. But in the same way, each act of caring—the billion tiny ways that we offer compassion, wisdom, and joy to one another—serves to preserve and heal our world. When I help someone change their perspective on their individual problems, I also change society.

(p. 360)

I must confess, I have been seriously considering ending this blog. But it is the possibility that maybe something I share might help one person, the chance that I might help spread some small crumb of wisdom or insight or inspiration to another person, that brings me back to the keyboard to write yet another post.

If you are reading this, I hope you will consider the wise words of Ram Dass, and maybe pick up a copy of his book and read it. Thanks for stopping by, and may we all contribute to spreading some happiness in the world. The world desperately needs more happiness right now.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 64” by Lao Tzu

What is at rest is easy to hold.
What manifests no omens is easily forestalled.
What is fragile is easily shattered.
What is small is easily scattered.

Tackle things before they have appeared.
Cultivate peace and order before confusion and disorder have set in.

A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand leagues starts from where your feet stand.

He who fusses over anything spoils it.
He who grasps anything loses it.
The Sage fusses over nothing and therefore spoils nothing.
He grips at nothing and therefore loses nothing.

In handling affairs, people often spoil them just at the point of success.
With heedfulness in the beginning and patience at the end, nothing will be spoiled.

Therefore, the Sage desires to be desireless,
Sets no value on rare goods,
Learns to unlearn his learning,
And induces the masses to return from where they have overpassed.
He only helps all creatures to find their own nature,
But does not venture to lead them by the nose.

This passage reminds me of some simple tenets for leading a stress-free and productive life. Start out slow. Focus on the task and don’t worry about the outcome. Don’t procrastinate, but start things early and give yourself plenty of time to do what needs to be done. While these are simple, we so often fail to practice them, and as a result, we create unnecessary stress in our already hectic lives.

I have been making a conscious effort to simplify my life, focusing on single tasks instead of trying to multitask. Taking time for myself. Relaxing. Trusting that things will work out the way they are meant to, and not trying to force the results that I think are the best. As a result of these small changes, I feel happier and calmer, most of the time anyway.

Our world is stressful, and it is easy to get caught up in the turmoil. Lau Tzu teaches us the importance of slowing down and shifting our focus to what is really important. It is old wisdom, but certainly applicable to modern life.

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