Further shifts

Shifts are necessary now and again. Here are a some I am undergoing.

For example, readers of this blog will notice that the writer’s focus tends to move from interest to interest, month to month, year to year. And yet there’s poetry to consider, always. During the past year, I have read more non-fiction books than poetry books. More history. More memoir. More science. I have been pursuing the consciousness and neurology and physiology texts.

I have learned a great deal from all of this reading, and it is inspiring. I find, however, that it’s taken its toll on my writing poetry.

My shift now: Read more poetry.

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But what about my love for difficult books?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that poetry can be difficult. Difficult to write, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Time to go there, further and deeper.

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Another shift: in the spring semester, I will be teaching a more advanced course in writing comp and rhetoric, one that will be more challenging for the students and especially for me. One of the arguments I will be making to them is that they recognize the need for credibility in the sources they use as evidence.

Making that case runs rather counter to the way US society operates. We shall see how well I can make my argument to these young people.

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One further shift–certainly not the last. There’s my constant inquiry into consciousness…because sentience and human beings–and their brains, and their mind-body problems, and their relationships, and their stories and metaphors and art forms and pains–intrigue me endlessly, I turn to books and art for understanding. I do not expect to learn what consciousness is, where it originates, or how it came to be. But I ask because asking is interesting.

The reading has been enlightening. Philosophy, yes, and neurology and cultural anthropology. Oh, and evolution, religion, and medicine. Not to mention texts on death and dying (and the unanswerable “is that the end of consciousness?”).

My shift here lately has been to read less and to encounter more. I have been volunteering as a hospice companion/caregiver relief assistant, sometimes in the home but most often at the inpatient hospice unit at a nearby hospital.

quanyin

There are bodhisattvas among us, and I have met them on the ward floor. This particular shift does not mean I will never read another book on consciousness, but it has reminded me that kindness is a constant act and that kindness is conscious and aware. It does not reside in a book but in the daily world, which is all we have.

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I have to work on that in my own relationships, the ones that don’t take place on the hospice wing.

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May I prove resilient to these shifts. The days are incrementally longer now. Time to read poems.

 

 

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Empathy & compassion

quanyin
Quan Yin, bodhisattva or goddess of compassion; the Chinese interpretation of Avalokiteśvara

Sensitive. Or: oversensitive.

These are terms I hear bandied about to describe people who react deeply to anything from wool clothing or sock seams to sarcasm or “charged language.” When I was a child, people told me I was sensitive; initially, I thought that was a kind of compliment, and sometimes that was the intention. The teenager I once was believed that sensitivity made me empathetic and compassionate.

As I matured, however, the term sensitivity took on more negative connotations of the “can’t you take a joke?” sort. Worse yet, the charge of sensitivity came loaded with accusations of narcissism, as in “you take everything personally.” In today’s phraseology, “It’s not all about you.” Under those terms, sensitivity does not resemble empathy.

Empathy is a feeling-response, true. It appears to have a like-kind relationship to sensitivity–but a person must be sensitive to others’ experiences in order to feel empathy; so the similarity’s not as swappable as it first seems. I thought that my feeling-response signaled that I was a compassionate person. Indeed, fiction elicits empathy in me. A lifelong bookworm and early addict to novels, I definitely feel along with the characters of the stories I read. Is it really the experience of others that makes me weep or feel joy as the characters forge through lives such as I will never be able to encounter? Or is it a feeling response to damned good writing?

I ask myself these questions because, given my inquiries into what consciousness is and what poetry does, it seems I have not made clear to myself the differences between sensitivity, empathy, and compassion.

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My current thoughts on the differences have evolved through reading and writing poetry, not fiction, and through getting older. Nothing like life experience to knock a person’s youthful errors into strong relief.

Here goes:

Sensitivity is the strength of a person’s reaction. That reaction may be physical or emotional and will vary widely from one individual to another.

Empathy always means that one “feels within” another person (from Greek empatheia em- ‘in’ & pathos ‘feeling’); it is an inward response to external stimuli. As Daniel Goleman notes, there are several types of empathy psychologists have identified–here’s a brief article on that topic.

Compassion, while a noun, must be active. I think of it as behavior, as action, as verb in noun form. It is a response or reaction to suffering in others (empathy) that is accompanied by an urgent desire–the word desire isn’t strong enough to convey the feeling–to help alleviate the suffering.

That’s where the activity comes in. Until I feel a desire to act, I am “merely” empathetic and sensitive.

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Recently, I have begun to recognize that my desire to write poetry is partly compassion-based. Art of any kind is process as well as result, and process is action. Additionally, my career as an educator has compassionate action structured into the job description. There are other ways we–I–can be compassionate in the world. This matters to me.

We can learn from the practice of tonglen: “Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ~Pema Chödrön

And we can live in the world and begin to use our sensitivity to pain, and our sense of empathy, to activate compassion–as a verb.

 

 

 

 

 

Silence (John Cage, Zen, head-noise)

Slow Muse blogger Deborah Barlow–artist, critic–recommended Kay Larson’s recent book on John Cage, Where the Heart Beats. Silence was so significant in Cage’s work and thinking that, given my recent reflections on noise or lack thereof, this seemed the right time to pick up that text. Lo and behold, synchronicity of several kinds. The author, Kay Larson, thanks John Daido Loori, a rōshi of the Mountains and Rivers order of zen Buddhists and long-time abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, NY. She studied with him beginning in 1994.

In 1992 and 1993, I attended two weekend retreats there; the brief days remain vivid in my memory. Perhaps more on that another time. Haiku is involved…and silence.

Recently, given some irregular bumps along the walk of life that have led to excessive “head-noise” (my term for stress I can’t quite let go of), I have been returning to some zen-influenced texts and trying to remember to breathe and to be here now. Arne Naess’ writings on joy and environment and Buddhism–I’ve just finished reading a collection of his essays–dovetail very neatly into this reflective book on Cage’s life, work, and influences. Larson’s “Zen” approach to writing about Cage is so gentle and refreshing that reading this book soothes me. I find within myself a kind of inner silence, my breathing returning to its slower, quieter pace, as I read the brief selections of prose Larson uses to explore the life of the mind of this peculiar and innovative artist/composer/writer.

Very like philosophical analogies, Confucian fables, parables of many cultures, koans, meditations, prayer and other forms of contemplative practice.

What reduces head-noise? For me, the best strategy is calmness, but I am not an adept at meditation. I have sat zazen badly, and learned much from the practice of sitting zen badly, but I have never managed to make meditation a genuine practice in my life. Deep breathing and slow movement, such as tai chi or qi gong, seem to work better for me. In addition, the Quiet Place. I settle down better when I can detach from computer, phone, electric lights, appliances. Art reduces head-noise: art requires attentiveness. Poetry, yes. Gardening, walking out of doors–good choices. Music, sometimes.

Philosophy, not so much. (Alas.)

Politics? Weather reports? Analysis? ….as the Buddhist monks might say: mu. Translation into teen-speak from five years ago: “not.”

And also, compassion. The practice of compassion keeps a person attentive and also relaxed. It is a form of active prayerfulness, of acceptance of self through the acceptance of others. After the bruises and bashings of a presidential election year in 21st-century United States, a little compassion would reduce the malaise and anxiety we have had to endure intellectually, emotionally, and–in the wake of bad storms on the east coast–physically.

I give you Quan Yin, or Guanyin, or Kannon Bodhisatttva, known as Avalokitesvara  in Sanskrit and termed the goddess of mercy, a counterpart to the Christian Jesus or Mary. This being represents the compassionate, merciful, kind, non-judgmental, accepting aspect of the cosmos, the universe, or god. I realize that it seems I may have wandered a bit far afield of Cage at this point. But read Larson’s book; I haven’t drifted as far from my topic as it seems.

And just because it does seems as though I am rambling considerably in this post, I think I can close with a poem from my collection Water-Rites, and somehow make it fit with these topics:

Intervention

I am thinking about the cowbirds who fought
in my driveway this morning
and how they struggled, one overbearing the other,
pecking at its head, keeping it pinned
to gravel. I wonder, now, why I chose to stop
and free the losing bird from its aggressor,
lift its bloodied damp body in my hands,
rescue it even though
it was also a cowbird, a pest
that usurps the nests of thrushes—
although I respect the dominion of beak & claw,
I want to preserve the generation
of songbirds; there was no reason for me
to intervene, no logic but somehow I felt
surely there is a place,
in the battle that is this world,
for the mandate of compassion.

© 2012 Ann E. Michael