Tag Archives: senses

“Catching the Lizard by the Tail” by Nissim Amon

buddhastatue

This morning, after meditating, I perused a magazine called Watkins Mind Body Spirit and read an inspiring article on Buddhist meditation. The article tells the story of a monk named Potila who lived at the time of the Buddha. The Buddha encouraged the well-respected monk to seek guidance on meditating from a younger monk, who provided the following sage advice on how to be attentive to one’s thoughts:

The young monk then gave the following example: “Suppose you want to catch a lizard hiding in an anthill that has six entrances. The lizard can escape through any of them. The best way to catch the lizard is to block off five holes and wait patiently outside the sixth. The five blocked holes are the five senses. When we sit motionless in meditation with our back straight, we are not engrossed in sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. Generally consciousness escapes through these openings.

“When the five openings are blocked, silence diffuses inside and it’s possible to hear the lizard running around. Then, when it tries to escape, we can catch it immediately.”

I love this analogy, and I can completely relate to the image of consciousness escaping through my senses. One of my biggest challenges when meditating is turning off the mind chatter, but during those rare moments when I do, and my senses are silenced, the experiences are profound.

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“Dejection: An Ode” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge

I had not read this poem since college and reading it this time I confess that I was completely blown away. Not only is the imagery and symbolism so powerful, but the language and musical cadence is nothing short of exhilarating. I feel like I have just come off an emotional rollercoaster after finishing this.

It is a fairly long poem, so I am not going to include all of the text in this post, but for those who need, here is a link to an online version.

Poetry Foundation

The poem is comprised of eight stanzas and I will look at each stanza separately. In addition to the eight stanzas, the poem is prefaced with a quote from the “Ballad of Sir Patrick Spence.”

Stanza I

In Stanza I, the emphasis is on dreams and inspiration. Coleridge is awake at night and his mind is wandering, thoughts drifting through and playing upon his mind like the wind upon the Aeolian lute. But he has a sense of foreboding; that a storm is coming.

 For lo! the New-moon winter-bright!
And overspread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o’erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread)
I see the old Moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming-on of rain and squally blast.
And oh! that even now the gust were swelling,
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast!

There is some very interesting imagery here, particularly the New-moon shining brightly. The New Moon does not shine; it is dark. So we get a sense that he is slipping into the realm of the unseen, a place of “phantom light.” I see this as symbolic of his inner self, the part of him that is not visible to the world.

Stanza II

In the second stanza, Coleridge expresses emotional grief. His pain runs deep and is preventing him from being able to express himself artistically.

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear—

He gives himself over to silent contemplation, observing the space around him. There is a strong emphasis on vision in this stanza. His attention is focused on the sensory as opposed to the emotional.

I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

Stanza III

Here Coleridge has a realization that the symbols and forms that populate the world around him are inadequate metaphors for what is inside him. It seems that he has been relying upon images from Nature to express his spiritual being.

I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

Stanza IV

As the realization sets in, Coleridge expounds upon the idea of inspiration and enlightenment coming from within, and not from without.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does Nature live:
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!
And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed

Artistic inspiration and spiritual enlightenment, which would have been similar in Coleridge’s view, is not bestowed upon us from Nature, but exist within us as the spark of divinity. Nature is but a reflection of the divine essence within us. It is the outward manifestation of the godlike soul that resides in our mortal shell.

Stanza V

In this stanza, Coleridge experiences a moment of spiritual rapture. He realizes that art and poetry is within him, and that poetry is the pure expression of his soul. This triggers a feeling of ecstasy. He realizes that by becoming pure of heart, he is able to connect with the muse that resides within himself, thereby becoming one with his creative side in a moment of sheer bliss.

O pure of heart! thou need’st not ask of me
What this strong music in the soul may be!
What, and wherein it doth exist,
This light, this glory, this fair luminous mist,
This beautiful and beauty-making power.
Joy, virtuous Lady! Joy that ne’er was given,

Stanza VI

Here Coleridge reflects back upon how he used to draw his inspiration from suffering.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:

He then elaborates how his physical illness has demonstrated that suffering is the wrong path to take in the pursuit of artistic inspiration. Coleridge commits to explore the pathway of joy instead. He affirms that one must seek to connect with one’s inner joy in order to truly become artistically inspired.

Stanza VII

This was my favorite stanza. Here we see the darker phantoms of the mind resurge. Coleridge experiences an inner struggle between the light and the darkness. As the conflicting emotions clash within, it seems like he is grappling with his sanity.

Hence, viper thoughts, that coil around my mind,
Reality’s dark dream!
I turn from you, and listen to the wind,
Which long has raved unnoticed. What a scream
Of agony by torture lengthened out
That lute sent forth! Thou Wind, that rav’st without,
Bare crag, or mountain-tairn, or blasted tree,
Or pine-grove whither woodman never clomb,
Or lonely house, long held the witches’ home,
Methinks were fitter instruments for thee,
Mad Lutanist! who in this month of showers,
Of dark-brown gardens, and of peeping flowers,
Mak’st Devils’ yule, with worse than wintry song,
The blossoms, buds, and timorous leaves among.

Stanza VIII

In the final stanza, we have an expression of resignation.

‘Tis midnight, but small thoughts have I of sleep:
Full seldom may my friend such vigils keep!
Visit her, gentle Sleep! with wings of healing,
And may this storm be but a mountain-birth,
May all the stars hang bright above her dwelling,
Silent as though they watched the sleeping Earth!

It is now midnight, a transitional time. Coleridge comes to a point of acceptance that although his muse sleeps, he will be kept awake by the storm of thoughts within his mind. But during this period, his muse will rest, and when she awakens, she will be refreshed and will bestow upon him new inspiration. And this inspiration will flow from within himself into the world around him, not the opposite way. Henceforth, his poetry will be an expression of the divine soul within.

I have always loved Coleridge’s poetry, but I guess I never gave this poem the consideration it deserves. I now feel that it is one of his finest works and I am certain that I will be reading it again. I never tire of great poetry and this is without a doubt great poetry.

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“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

TellTaleHeartThis is probably the quintessential short story by Edgar Allan Poe and the perfect conclusion to my macabre month of blog posts (I will be indulging in Halloween festivities tomorrow and hence will not post). Although this is a very, very short story, it packs a hell of a wallop and it never gets stale. The story pulls you in from the very first word—in fact; I am going to be as bold as to assert that this is arguably the best opening paragraph in all of literature.

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease that sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

There is a lot going on in this paragraph and it sets the tone for entire story. First, there is a frenzied rhythm to the text. When you read this aloud, paying attention to the punctuation, it is psychosis perfectly expressed. Reading this, one actually feels the tension and anxiety expressed by the protagonist. The paragraph also establishes the tension of opposites that permeates the story and builds to a climax at the end. The speaker describes himself as both nervous and calm in the same paragraph. This type of juxtaposition continues throughout the tale; for example, when he claims to have thrust his head into the old man’s room, and then immediately states how he slowly put his head through and that it took him nearly an hour to do so.

There are a couple other things worth noting about the opening paragraph. This tale for me symbolizes a struggle between the senses, a struggle between the auditory and the visual—the auditory represented by the speaker and the visual by the old man. When your senses battle each other and one triumphs, the result can be insanity. The second thing to point out is that the speaker claims he hears all things “in the earth,” not on the earth. This is a key distinction, because the things in the earth are dead. Our narrator is already haunted by a psychosis that causes him to believe he is hearing the dead as they lie beneath the ground.

Something that stood out for me on this reading was the concept of time. Time seems to morph in this tale, either speeding up or slowing down in conjunction with the beating of the heart, which is described in clock-like terms. I thought about how our emotional state affects our perception of time. The old adages of “Time flies when you’re having fun” and “Time seems to drag on while you are waiting” certainly come into play here. When the protagonist is excited, time seems to speed up, but when he is waiting, time seems to slow. Here’s an example of how time shifts, increasing with the narrator’s emotional state.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized methe sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come!

I never tire of this story. It is truly a masterpiece and no matter how many times I read it—and I have lost count over the years—it never ceases to thrill me.

I hope you enjoyed this month of creepy tales and poems, and may your Halloween be filled with chills and fright!!

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