Tag Archives: prayer

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

This has been on my list of mystical books to read for quite a long time. A couple years ago, I found a copy at a garage sale and bought it. Of course, I felt guilty every time I saw it unread upon the shelf. But I finally got around to reading it, and probably right when I needed to.

This particular copy includes a large amount of introductory text. Usually, I skip introductions, but the commentaries here were very enlightening and I’m glad I read them, particularly Carl Jung’s introduction to the text.

Before embarking upon the psychological commentary, I should like to say a few words about the text itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Bardo Thödol, is a book of instructions for the dead and dying. Like The Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is meant to be a guide for the dead man during the period of his Bardo existence, symbolically described as an intermediate state of forty-nine days’ duration between death and rebirth. The text falls into three parts. The first part, called Chikhai Bardo, describes the psychic happenings at the moment of death. The second part, or Chönyid Bardo, deals with the dream-state which supervenes immediately after death, and with what are called ‘karmic illusions’. The third part, or Sidpa Bardo, concerns the onset of the birth-instinct and of prenatal events.

 (p. xxxv – xxxvi)

Because the book deals primarily with what happens to one’s consciousness after death, the text is understandably highly symbolic. As Lama Govinda points out in his introductory section, whenever the subconscious is being explored, it must be approached through the use of symbols.

If, through some trick of nature, the gates of an individual’s subconsciousness were suddenly to spring open, the unprepared mind would be overwhelmed and crushed. Therefore, the gates of the subconscious are guarded, by all initiates, and hidden behind the veil of mysteries and symbols.

(p. liii)

Lama Govinda then points out a common misconception regarding the Bardo Thödol. Many people may assume that the text is a set of instructions solely intended for the dead or dying. But this is not the only purpose. For people pursuing a spiritual path, there comes a time when they must symbolically die, essentially killing their former selves so that they can be reborn as an enlightened being.

Such misunderstanding could only have arisen among those who do not know that it is one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.

(p. lix – lx)

During the 49-day period in which a person’s consciousness is in the Bardo, the individual experiences numerous visions. The text is very clear that these visions are nothing but illusion. The goal, then, is to recognize that what we perceive, in this reality as well as in the Bardo, is illusory by nature. Once we recognize that what we sense is illusion, our consciousness becomes free.

The whole aim of the Bardo Thödol teaching, as otherwise stated elsewhere, is to cause the Dreamer to awaken into Reality, freed from all the obscurations of karmic or sangsāric illusions, in a supramundane or Nirvānic state, beyond all phenomenal paradises, heavens, hells purgatories, or worlds of embodiment.

(p. 35)

The text offers a great prayer which should be used when facing the terrifying visions associated with the Bardo state.

Alas! when the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here,
With every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside,
May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;
May I know them to be of the nature of apparitions in the Bardo:
When at this all-important moment [of opportunity]of achieving a great end,
I may not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms.

(p. 103)

Fear is a manifestation of our thoughts. While some fears may be justified, the fact remains that fear is pure thought, which then triggers a physical response to the mental visions. This is something that is carried on with us to the next stage of existence. When our consciousness moves to the next plane, it brings with it the capacity to generate fearful images which can then paralyze the progress of the spirit.

O nobly-born, whatever fearful and terrifying visions thou mayst see, recognize them to be thine own thought-forms.

(p. 147)

I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of this symbolically rich and complex text. But hopefully I encouraged you to read it yourself and explore the wisdom woven into the book. I suspect that this is something I will read again in the future.

Cheers!

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“The Venal Muse” by Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire

Muse of my heart, lover of grand chateau,
When January unleashes storm and sleet,
Through the black dreary evenings when it snows,
Will you have coals to warm your violet feet?

With gleaming starlight that has pierced the blinds
Will you reanimate your shoulders’ cold
Marble? Your palate dry, your purse unlined,
From vaults of azure will you harvest gold?

To earn your evening bread you’ll have to swing
the censer like a choirboy, and sing
Te Deums of which you don’t believe a word,

Or, starving clown, show off your charms, your smile
Wet with tears that none see, to beguile
and cheer the sick spleen of the vulgar herd.

(Translation by C. F. MacIntyre)

I struggled with this poem, because I essentially see two interpretations, which I will explain below. But first, I want to provide the official definition of venal from Merriam-Webster: “capable of being bought or obtained for money or other valuable consideration.”

So the first impression I had of this poem was that Baudelaire was writing about a prostitute and his desire to find artistic inspiration through procured sex. The imagery of the muse being cold and poor certainly lends itself to this interpretation. But as I read it again, I became less confident about this was the only meaning of the poem.

I think it was the image of the incense censer and the singing of “Te Deum” which caused me to consider another possibility. I looked up the words to “Te Deum,” and thought the opening was relevant:

We praise thee, O God :
we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee :

As I read this, I began to envision Baudelaire supplicating to a fickle muse, making prayers and offerings in the hopes of gaining artistic inspiration. Sacrifices must be made in order to achieve artistic insight, and Baudelaire was willing to make those sacrifices to his muse as payment for the reward of inspiration.

In the end, I suspect both interpretations are valid. That’s the thing with symbols and metaphors; they lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

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“Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Paganism, Vampires, and the Supernatural

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

Those of you who know me know how much I love the romantic writers, and Coleridge is among my favorites. Although this is considered an “unfinished” poem, it is still too long to include in this post. But for those who need, here is a link to an online version. I recommend you read it if you are not familiar with the poem.

Poetry Foundation: Christabel

This poem is, in my opinion, one of the great literary expressions of the supernatural. Basically, it tells the story of a young maiden, Christabel, who meets a woman, Geraldine, who turns out to be a vampire. It is the subtlety of the imagery and the beauty of Coleridge’s verse that make this such a great poem.

Coleridge opens the poem by establishing the time, which appears to be just past midnight.

‘Tis the middle of night by the castle clock,
And the owls have awakened the crowing cock;
Tu—whit! Tu—whoo!
And hark, again! the crowing cock,
How drowsily it crew.

Christabel, a virgin maiden, goes off into the woods alone. She engages in a pagan ritual. She prays at an ancient oak tree, draped with moss and mistletoe.

She stole along, she nothing spoke,
The sighs she heaved were soft and low,
And naught was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe:
She kneels beneath the huge oak tree,
And in silence prayeth she.

As she is praying, she becomes aware of someone on the other side of the tree. When she looks to see who is there, she encounters a mysterious woman who is described as enchantingly beautiful.

There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck, and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandl’d were,
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess, ’twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

The woman tells Christabel her name is Geraldine and convinces her that she was the victim of rape. Christabel takes pity on her and invites her back to the hall where she lives with her father. When they arrive there, Geraldine is unable to cross the threshold. This could be because vampires are unable to enter a home without invitation from the master, or there may be some protective spell guarding against evil. It is only after Christabel helps her across the threshold that she regains her strength.

They crossed the moat, and Christabel
Took the key that fitted well;
A little door she opened straight,
All in the middle of the gate;
The gate that was ironed within and without,
Where an army in battle array had marched out.
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.

Once inside, Christabel offers prayers to the Virgin Mary. She encourages Geraldine to do the same, be she refuses.

So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.
And Christabel devoutly cried
To the lady by her side,
Praise we the Virgin all divine
Who hath rescued thee from thy distress!
Alas, alas! said Geraldine,
I cannot speak for weariness.
So free from danger, free from fear,
They crossed the court: right glad they were.

When Geraldine enters Christabel’s bedchamber, she senses a guardian spirit watching over her. The spirit appears to be that of Christabel’s deceased mother. Geraldine banishes the protective spirit, claiming her right to the maid.

But soon with altered voice, said she—
‘Off, wandering mother! Peak and pine!
I have power to bid thee flee.’
Alas! what ails poor Geraldine?
Why stares she with unsettled eye?
Can she the bodiless dead espy?
And why with hollow voice cries she,
‘Off, woman, off! this hour is mine—
Though thou her guardian spirit be,
Off, woman, off! ’tis given to me.’

As Geraldine undresses, Christabel sees the mark of the vampire upon her breast.

Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel!

It is then implied that Geraldine drank some of Christabel’s blood. Later, when Christabel awakens, she notices the change in Geraldine, who is now fed and strong.

And Christabel awoke and spied
The same who lay down by her side—
O rather say, the same whom she
Raised up beneath the old oak tree!
Nay, fairer yet! and yet more fair!
For she belike hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep!
And while she spake, her looks, her air
Such gentle thankfulness declare,
That (so it seemed) her girded vests
Grew tight beneath her heaving breasts.

When Christabel brings Geraldine to meet her father, Sir Leoline, he becomes entranced by her. She convinces him that she is the daughter of one of Leoline’s old friend, Roland, with whom he had a falling out. Leoline vows to avenge her for the sexual assault, and thereby reestablish the lost friendship with Roland.

Leoline asks Barcy the Bard to convey his message to Roland, but Barcy is reluctant to do so. He had a prophetic dream which led him to believe that there was evil in the hall. This is a long passage, but for me it was the most important in the poem, so I am including it here.

And Bracy replied, with faltering voice,
His gracious Hail on all bestowing!—
‘Thy words, thou sire of Christabel,
Are sweeter than my harp can tell;
Yet might I gain a boon of thee,
This day my journey should not be,
So strange a dream hath come to me,
That I had vowed with music loud
To clear yon wood from thing unblest.
Warned by a vision in my rest!
For in my sleep I saw that dove,
That gentle bird, whom thou dost love,
And call’st by thy own daughter’s name—
Sir Leoline! I saw the same
Fluttering, and uttering fearful moan,
Among the green herbs in the forest alone.
Which when I saw and when I heard,
I wonder’d what might ail the bird;
For nothing near it could I see
Save the grass and green herbs underneath the old tree.

‘And in my dream methought I went
To search out what might there be found;
And what the sweet bird’s trouble meant,
That thus lay fluttering on the ground.
I went and peered, and could descry
No cause for her distressful cry;
But yet for her dear lady’s sake
I stooped, methought, the dove to take,
When lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coiled around its wings and neck.
Green as the herbs on which it couched,
Close by the dove’s its head it crouched;
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!
I woke; it was the midnight hour,
The clock was echoing in the tower;
But though my slumber was gone by,
This dream it would not pass away—
It seems to live upon my eye!
And thence I vowed this self-same day
With music strong and saintly song
To wander through the forest bare,
Lest aught unholy loiter there.’

What strikes me about this passage is that the bard recognizes the mystical power of poetry. He offers to stay because he knows that the power of his spoken word can banish evil.

Although this is an unfinished poem, I think it ends well and the open ending allows the reader to project his or her own interpretation on what the outcome will be. Christabel, realizing Geraldine’s evil nature, entreats her father to banish her from the home. He turns on her, probably from a combination of pride and enchantment. He stubbornly insists on sending Barcy forth, and then departs with Geraldine.

He rolled his eye with stern regard
Upon the gentle minstrel bard,
And said in tones abrupt, austere—
‘Why, Bracy! Dost thou loiter here?
I bade thee hence!’ The bard obeyed;
And turning from his own sweet maid,
The agèd knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the lady Geraldine!

I couldn’t help seeing Leoline as an incarnation of King Lear. He turns away from the true, loving child and falls prey to the wicked. It is also the weakness of men to fall for the archetypal temptress. He has done what many a man has done before and since.

Coleridge, like his romantic contemporaries, was fascinated by the occult and the supernatural. He definitely draws on those influences in this poem. While it is an “unfinished” piece, it is still very good.

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“Hymn” by Edgar Allan Poe

Duccio di Buoninsegna

Duccio di Buoninsegna

It’s been a while since I read any Poe, so I got my Complete Tales and Poems and looked for a short poem which I had not read before. I came upon this one.

At morn — at noon — at twilight dim —
Maria! thou hast heard my hymn!
In joy and woe — in good and ill —
Mother of God, be with me still!
When the Hours flew brightly by,
And not a cloud obscured the sky,
My soul, lest it should truant be,
Thy grace did guide to thine and thee;
Now, when storms of Fate o’ercast
Darkly my Present and my Past,
Let my Future radiant shine
With sweet hopes of thee and thine!

The speaker here is a Catholic who is devoutly praying to the Virgin Mary. It seems that the speaker is currently in pain and is seeking solace through prayer. Although the gender of the speaker is not known, I am just going to refer to him as he, since Poe was male.

The lines imply that the man’s past was happy and that his previous prayers were offered in gratitude. But then something tragic occurred which not only cast a cloud over his present, but also his past. My impression is that it is the death of a loved one, either a spouse or a child. He is currently suffering the loss while his memories of past times, whether they be joyous ones or feelings of regret for things not done, are now rising to the surface.

In the time of crushing sorrow, he turns to the traditions which have providing grounding throughout his life, which is prayer. The fact that the word “Hours” is capitalized in line 5 implies that he is practicing the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, where he prays eight times a day at regular times. He has faith that by turning his pain over to the Virgin Mother, that his suffering will be eased. Mary suffered through the death of her child, so he is turning to her for support in his time of loss.

The death of a loved one is one of those events that often lead individuals to seek spiritual guidance and support. It is important to note that the person in this poem already has a firm spiritual foundation in his life, so it is easy for him to turn to his faith in his time of need. I guess the moral is that we should not wait until tragedy strikes to build our spiritual connections, we should begin doing so now.

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“A Prayer in Spring” by Robert Frost

Maypole: Source - Wikipedia

Maypole: Source – Wikipedia

It’s May 1, so for those of you who celebrate, I wish you a blessed Beltane.

I wanted to choose a poem that was appropriate for the day, and this one seems to express the essence of May Day.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

While Frost is communicating with the male deity, he clearly feels a connection to Nature and is in touch with the sacred act of regeneration and rebirth. Although it seems a little clichéd nowadays, he incorporates imagery of “the birds and the bees” to emphasize the sexual essence of spring. I personally really liked how he describes the hummingbird thrusting the phallic bill into the feminine blossom. That is by far the best metaphor in the poem.

What makes this poem work, though, is the fact that it is a celebration, and the feeling of joy, love, and elation really comes across when you read it. I could feel the poet’s passion which he sees mirrored in Nature. And rightfully so, Frost acknowledges that the love he is witnessing and feeling comes from a divine source and that the act of procreation is truly a holy act.

Thanks for stopping by and may your day be filled with blessings and happiness.

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“Night” by William Blake

NightBlake1This poem is fairly long, so for those who need, here is a link to read it online:

PoemHunter.com

Overall, this poem gave me the impression that it was inspired by the classic children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

But in addition to echoing the theme from the children’s prayer, Blake adds his own symbolism, building on the foundation and creating something that is uniquely his own.

In the first two stanzas, there are references to flowers and blossoms, which are symbolic of young girls’ virginity in most of Blake’s poems. Blake describes the angels pouring blessings and joy “On each bud and blossom, / And each sleeping bosom.” I get the impression that the angels are not only blessing the young virgins, but also protecting them from the abuse and assault that may occur at night.

In the third stanza, we see the angels comforting the birds in their nests and the beasts in their caves. It appears that sorrow and unrest haunt the animals, which leads me to interpret them as symbolic of the poor and homeless children of London, seeking shelter wherever they can.

The fourth stanza turns dark, as the wolves and tygers of the night begin to prey upon the unsuspecting innocents as they sleep. The angels try to protect them, but are often unable to do so. Instead, they “receive each mild spirit” and guide them to Heaven.

NightBlake2In the final two stanzas, Christ accepts the souls of the children. Here, Christ is symbolized by the lion whose eyes “flow with tears of gold” as a display of deep, holy sorrow at the loss of the innocent children. The poem concludes with the image of the lion lying down with the sheep, protecting the flock, which is comprised of the souls of the children who were taken from the world too, too early.

This is a perfect example of Blake’s poetic genius. He beautifully weaves his words together in a way that evokes conflicting emotions: joy and sadness; comfort and unease; love and anger; hope and despair. Right now, my feelings are so confused by this poem that it’s hard for me to nail down exactly how I feel. But that’s the goal of poetry, to stir emotion.

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“My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor

My wife read this book a while back and suggested I read it, so it has been on my list of books to read for a while. I finally got around to it. I’m glad that I did. I found it interesting from a scientific and a spiritual perspective.

The book is an autobiography written by a Harvard brain researcher who suffered a massive stroke that affected her left hemisphere, thereby disabling the analytical region of her brain. As a result, her consciousness shifted to right-brain dominance and she experienced enlightenment, for lack of a better term. Dr. Taylor analyzes her shift in consciousness and explains scientifically how the bio-chemical and neurological rewiring of her brain impacted her view of and connection to the world around her.

When Dr. Taylor describes what it was like to experience the stroke, I was amazed at the similarities between a stroke and a psychedelic drug experience (yes, I was around in the 70’s). She describes the feeling as waves of clarity and distortion. Here is how she expresses what it was like trying to read a phone number on a card to call for help: “My brain could no longer distinguish writing as writing, or symbols as symbols, or even background as background. Instead, the card looked like an abstract tapestry of pixels. The entire picture was a uniform blend of all its constituent pieces. The dots that formed the symbols of language blended in smoothly with the dots of the background. The distinctions of color and edge no longer registered to my brain.” (p. 59)

With the loss of her left-brain functionality, Dr. Taylor experienced spiritual bliss and a feeling of oneness, which she associates to the neurological function of the right hemisphere. This is consistent with the accounts of spiritual experiences and enlightenment resulting from prayer and meditation, the goal of which is to silence the brain chatter from the ego center of the left hemisphere. She is then faced with the dilemma that faces so many mystics who have experienced spiritual bliss: “Although I rejoiced in my perception of connection to all that is, I shuddered at the awareness that I was no longer a normal human being. How on earth would I exist as a member of the human race with this heightened perception that we are each a part of it all, and that the life force energy within each of us contains the power of the universe?” (p. 73)

The truly remarkable part of this woman’s story is that she recovered and is again teaching at the university level. She describes how she retrained her brain to function “normally” again, exercising her brain and training neurons to reconfigure their networks to that the left hemisphere could again process information. I found it fascinating and promising. We have been conditioned to accept that memory loss and decreased mental functioning is a normal part of the aging process, but now I think that this may be off. I think the key to keeping your mental ability is exercising your brain and training it to find new ways of retrieving information. I’m going to keep doing those puzzles in the paper every morning.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a quick read, very interesting, and spiritually uplifting.

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