Tuesday, February 15, 2011



I’m tired of praising the dead
Tired of ghosts.
I am just sitting in my yard, watching
Thin clouds move above me,
And the grasses are bending in one direction.
This wind has no friend but me;
It is Spring,
And I am addressing you, Spirit,
Because the wheat ripens for no one,
Not for the sky,
Not even for you.
And you, who do not believe in words,
Care less for my life than for a broken comb you’ve left
In a movie theater, or in a bar.
Each day at noon
I used to close my eyes,
And lie alone in the dark, listening.
And you never spoke,
Never uttered the thin prayer that was me.
Or on the long bridges when I drove to work,
You would stare into the river
Until you made yourself think of nothing.
And when you found you could do it,
You were thrilled,
You were like a spider
Moving laboriously, and without thoughts, over a bead
Of water shining in its web.
You stayed out later, and later.
You loved knives, bars, drugs, music.
When you would turn on the radio
And dance alone, in the kitchen
Of the diner,
I kept sweeping.
You have become pure, finally.
You have become that silence just under the water
Where the river turns brown, and slows,
And a stillness rides alone
Over that place –
And I just drive past it, now.
If only I could reach in and pull you out,
Or if only you were a fish,
And then, if you did not speak to me,
As a fish did once, in a dream,
I would slice you up to the stomach and slap
Your head against stone.
And make you flesh,
Even while these flies dance on the rocks.
But I am a stranger, I will pass,
And always, when I bend to drink
From this place, I come up with nothing, with
Broken water, a fine
Trembling in my hands,
Which must be you.

~ Larry Levis, from The Dollmaker’s Ghost


For me, the poem starts here (pardon this workshop habit of saying: “The poem starts here”):

It is Spring,
And I am addressing you, Spirit,
Because the wheat ripens for no one . . .
And you, who do not believe in words,
Care less for my life than for a broken comb you’ve left
In a movie theater, or in a bar.
Each day at noon
I used to close my eyes,
And lie alone in the dark, listening.
And you never spoke,
Never uttered the thin prayer that was me.

~ This is a complaint. The transcendent part of the young man, maybe that “larger self” that Adam Zagajewski mentions in his poems, does not seem interested in its container, so to speak – the daily self of the poet. Eventually that part of him becomes “a silence just under the water,” and, later “a fine trembling” in the speaker’s hands. And yet this is not a negative poem, when you consider the beauty of it, especially the beauty of the last lines. The poem illustrates one of the paradoxes of poetry: the content may seem despairing, and yet the reader is left in a state of hushed awe, and nourished with beauty.


I can't help replying again, in reference to the self becoming bigger than one's self. Obviously not even Levis' ghost grew bigger than himself, and he ardently stays shut up (and down) in his own pity. Then, there is "Salmon Boy," who becomes caught up in his separate ego-self until his father spears him and his mother filets him- so that he is left out, exposed to the sun, to become the food for his people - to become one with them, or to become integrated, or to become larger than himself. This is the ancient act of initiation; this is the ancient act of the father, who must give the blow, in order for his son to become "bigger than himself" and his own self- infatuation or self-pity. Oh, I am a bit tired of the one who chooses to remain a stranger and not dip down into the river, not see his own "ghost spirit," not make of it a fish.

Salmon Boy, by David Wagoner

That boy was hungry. His mother gave him Dog Salmon,
Only the head. It was not enough,
And he carried it hungry to the river's mouth
And fell down hungry. Salt water came from his eyes,
And he turned over and over. He turned into it.

And that boy was swimming under the water
With his round eyes open. He could not close them.
He was breathing the river through his mouth.
The river's mouth was in his mouth. He saw stones
Shimmering under him. Now he was Salmon Boy.

He saw the Salmon People waiting. They said, "This water
Is our wind. We are tired of swimming against the wind.
Come to the deep, calm valley of the sea.
We are hungry too. We must find the Herring People."
And they turned their green tails. Salmon Boy followed.

He saw Shell-Walking-Backwards, Woman-Who-Is-Half-Stone.
He heard the long, high howling of Wolf Whale,
Seal Woman's laughter, the whistling of Sea Snake,
Saw Loon Mother flying through branches of seaweed,
Felt Changer turn over far down in his sleep.

He followed to the edge of the sky where it opens
And closes, where Moon opens and closes forever,
And the Herring People brought feasts of eggs,
As many as stars, and Salmon Boy ate the stars
As if he flew among them, saying Hungry, Hungry.

But the Post of Heaven shook, and the rain fell
Like pieces of Moon, and the Salmon People swam,
Tasting sweet, saltless wind under the water,
Opening their mouths again to the river's mouth,
And Salmon Boy followed, full-bellied, not afraid.

He swam fastest of all. He leaped in the air
And smacked his blue-green silvery side, crying, Eyo!
I jump! again and again. Oh, he was Salmon Boy!
He could breathe everything! He could see everything!
He could eat everything! And then his father speared him.

He lay on the riverbank with his eyes open,
Saying nothing while his father emptied his belly.
He said nothing when his mother opened him wide
To dry in the sun. He was full of the sun.
All day he dried on sticks, staring upriver.



Well, I am glad there is the "feeding the people" communal meaning that we can give to the Salmon Boy's final condition.

Larry Levis’s poem delights me with its marvelous lines, and frustrates me at the same time – and then delights me again when we get to the "fine trembling."

If not for the title, I could see this as an address to God – Kurt Vonnegut's God the Utterly Indifferent. It's possible that this kind of god loves humanity, but not on an individual basis. And perhaps the poem can be perceived as being addressed simultaneously to the speaker's spirit, a detached internal Witness and fearless dancer, and to God the Utterly Indifferent. It's not Teresa of Avila exclaiming, "If only we took care to remember what a Guest we have within  . . . "

But let us remember that the image knows more than the poet, and while the speaker seems dejected not to receive more ego satisfaction, to be only a temporary container, if that much, the images of water, shining, stillness, the "silence just under the water" and finally the "fine trembling" add up to beauty and mystery. Anyone who has had the experience of filling his hands with water from a stream and seeing the fine trembling knows how wonderful that looks and feels, that little bit of water dancing in your hands, shining and alive. I am in awe that Larry Levis identifies this beautiful trembling with his spirit. Even though before that he says, "I come up with nothing," that is eclipsed by the luminosity of the final image and the discovery. And the lyricism seduces me too.

Aside from the ending, the part about the spirit dancing in the diner kitchen while the young man keeps sweeping is also unforgettable. So we have this man doing a menial job, but his spirit – or the Spirit – celebrates himself. Later we get the flies dancing on the rocks – dancing, not just swarming. Come to think of it, the fine trembling could also be seen as a kind of dancing. It's an image combining fragility and a great, invincible vitality.

Alas, there is no human community here, and the greater wisdom that would come from relatedness. This could be read as a portrait of an isolated individual sulking that Something Greater does not deign to speak to him. Inside our mind is a cosmic mind, the Upanishads say. Presumably the cosmic mind is connected with everything, but we have to know how to tune in to it – maybe by losing the preoccupation of the self. Some believe there is an angel inside us, or walking near us – an immigrant who makes us long for another place. Or maybe, on the contrary, it’s an angel of this life, this world, not one of inaccessible angels in Rilke but the Stevensian Angel of Reality, one who says Look! Look now while there is a chance.

Because Levis does this looking at the world – he does not merely contemplate himself – there is a poem behind the poem here, a poem of images wiser than the poet. For me those images align along the lines of an amazing New York Times article called "Happy like God." Let me offer just one sentence of it:

To be like God is to be without time, or rather in time with no concern for time, free of the passions and troubles of the soul, experiencing something like calm in the face of things and of oneself.

And here is Levis:

You have become that silence just under the water

Where the river turns brown, and slows,
And a stillness rides alone
Over that place –

Levis says it better, because he uses the power of images, so he speaks beyond himself, in a larger fashion – even if he doesn't quite know it. He uses archetypal nature images such as water. As Jung said, "He who speaks through archetypes speaks with a thousand voices."


Oriana, an apology for what sounded a bit reactionary. I was very wrapped up with a student of mine – one who I adore, one who is really suffering, and this poem you sent really brought it up for me! This "being a stranger" – lost in the world even to oneself, was just too painful to face this last week. However, I am revisiting this poem, which I do love, and which is so very beautiful. 

This "you have become pure...where the river turns brown," and this ghost of oneself that is irretrievable and was, perhaps, never within grasp anyway, 
this "nothingness" which is the water of life itself –that which makes our body say to itself, 
"Yes, I am here in all of this brilliant wonder."



Your post is lovely, showing your sensitivity both on the human level – the suffering student – and on the cosmic level of union with nature. 

I was indeed somewhat confused by your initial reaction, but no problem. You did make it all the more clear for me that in many poems Larry Levis is indeed this perpetual isolated adolescent, though in his mature work he can write some magical lines, and the self-pity universalizes, transfers onto all of us.

Nevertheless, I think human life has a meaning chiefly within a social network, and very few can sustain communing with nature as a source of meaning. And Levis does have some excellent poems that center on others, be it his father or the Mexican grape pickers. He makes those people enter our psyche. I think one of the central tasks of a poet is to expand our empathy.

Going back to the poem, just the fact that Levis addresses his spirit/Spirit is already amazing. True, there is a poetic tradition of the poet speaking to his soul, but Larry's poem feels quite different.

I would like you to read Szymborska's poem on the soul because I think that it says some of the same things, though it says it very differently. Levis uses the power of the image, risking obscurity; Szymborska is plain and clear, and we admire her mainly because what she says is so unexpected. Both poets appear to say that the soul/spirit has its own agenda.

A Few Words on the Soul

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

~ Wisława Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh


After Levis's lush images, we may feel disappointed by this kind of witty, cerebral poem. Tough . . . It takes all kinds. I want to point out the similarities, though. Here too the soul is very elusive, and mostly absent from tasks that bore it. Note:

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

and note also this stanza:

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

I also love it that the soul settles

Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

~ or growing older. It's definitely astonishing. Don't we always feel younger -- much younger -- than we are? In dreams, don't we even look younger by far, not to mention that the dead are both dead and alive -- though in a dream, when we look in the mirror, we may see our hair suddenly gone white. Let us sit a while with this astonishment, let's offer it food and drink.

Actually the line that haunts me is the one about the soul's preferring clocks with pendulums. You don't see those very often anymore, and what a loss! There is a meditative quality about the pendulum's going back and forth, back and forth . . .

Even just the round dial and the march of the three hands, each at a different speed, those are evocative as well. Again, the power of the image. What is happening to our world as we go digital? What about that ad for a CD that will preserve your photos for 300 years?


On a more spiritual note . . . or are we always playing one spiritual note 
after another, even as we brush our damn teeth one more time and head 
off to work (smile - hopefully fresh and white), here is a response
to Salmon Boy from one of my music making, Kirtan playing, dear, dear 

Somehow, I think this is all of our fate . . . like the crucifixion... or
the death of the personal self. At some point, life is going to turn
us all back into itself... into God... into love. The Sufis believe
that the true idol to be destroyed is the self; and love, passionate
love, is the Divine's method of awakening us to that which is beyond
our self. Thus the lover may dissolve into love . . .

Kahlil Gibran says about love:

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred
bread for God's sacred feast.



My metaphor is giving blood rather than crucifixion. I'm still very uncomfortable with the last image in the Salmon Boy poem. But I do like Gibran's poem, and yes, life does that to us, to women in particular  . . . it teaches us that it's not about our little isolated self. Meaning lies in how we touch the lives of others.

Emily Dickinson put it well:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.


Note that kindness to animals certainly counts for Dickinson. Our connection is not limited only to human beings.

I do not remember the source, but somewhere I read the beautiful statement that if you plant a tree, that already means you have not lived in vain.

I love this fusion of mystical insight from all traditions. Anna Kamienska says

I don't believe in the other world
But I don't believe in this one either
unless it's pierced by light

My ideal is to live from greatness, from generosity. For many years, I lived – at least in private – from my wounds. People kept saying, "You have so much to give," but I felt there was no right outlet, no takers. What I had to give was not wanted, I thought. The riches of my psyche were of no interest to others, my poems too difficult, too full of ideas, and my ideas too complex. But about two years ago – better late than never – I saw that the notion that life isn't long enough to recover from one's wounds need not be true. It's not about healing or not healing one’s wounds. It's about transcending them through the daily practice of generosity. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011



At last we know Bernini deceived us
when he chiseled his name on this stone.
Seven years his calloused hands dreamed
against the burnished limbs, grew pliant

as beeswax in the sun, the artist unable
to confess the miracle he’d seen –
cool marble melting over the shoulders
of a seraph who, granted the gift

of incarnation, emerged from his airy cloak
like flame, wavered before the kneeling saint
and smiled, the feel of his lips a brief
distraction until he lifted her scapular, opened

the coarse wool of her dress to expose
a breast not unused to discipline,
nights she’d tear at her inconstant, flickering
heart which he pierced with his burning dart

to make concrete the abstraction of love,
the distance between earth and heaven
diminished with each descending arc,
her head thrown back as he shrugged off

his immortal form, feathers settling
like ash at her feet and him still smiling
when flesh was seared into stone
by a god who merely lifted his hand,

that gesture which left Lot’s wife white
and framed against burning sky. How else
can we explain such perfect forms,
saint and angel enthroned on a cloud

in the act of rising toward the chapel dome,
when flesh and spirit faltered, entwined
in the rapture of matter which refused
their swift ascent, which whispered,

touch me here and here.

~ Frank Paino, The Rapture of Matter 
(formerly Frankie Paino)



This is how Teresa of Avila describes her experience:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by intellectual vision. . .

He was not large, but small of stature and most beautiful — his face burning as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim. Their names they never tell me; but I see very well that there is in heaven so great a difference between one angel and another, and between these and the others, that I cannot explain it.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and, at the iron’s point, there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.

And here is how Dostoyevski describes the sensation that he experienced just before an epileptic seizure:

There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony . . . a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would gladly give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly . . .

Dostoyevsky’s “eternal harmony” sounds like the ecstasy described by advanced practitioners of Buddhist meditation. With mystics such as Teresa of Avila, however, we are back to the Sacred Romance. The erotic element is undeniable. So is the impact of the Judeo-Christian tradition. An Indian woman mystic would likely have visions of Krishna. Someone brought up in a secular household who begins the practice of meditation might experience a sense of timelessness and infinite space, and that might be sufficiently ecstatic.

Visions – or, risking controversy, we may also use the term hallucinations – can also be a result of starvation or high fever or a brain disorder. Some scholars have argued that St. Teresa had right temporal lobe epilepsy – hence the erotic coloration (the right temporal lobe has been called the “God area” – religious rapture and sexual rapture seem closely connected).

Some neuroscientists suggest that Moses and St. Paul also showed symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy. I don’t want to use terms such as “suffered from” or “were victims of,” since this form of epilepsy is known to produce mystical hallucinations that the “victim” finds magnificent and empowering. The mystics draw enormous strength from their visions, their moments of total belief.  Knowing how much Dostoyevsky treasured the five seconds of experiencing “eternal harmony,” can we doubt that, if treatment for his epilepsy had been available, he would not have accepted it?

It might be tempting to dismiss Saint Teresa’s ecstatic experience as a mere hallucination, with the inevitable remark about the power of word choice: saints have visions; mental patients have hallucinations. Yet there is no denying that Teresa of Avila was not just sane, but endowed with both intellect and keen practical intelligence, Mary and Martha in one. She managed to express herself in a careful way that kept her out of the hands of the Inquisition (in modern times, her challenge would be to keep out of the hands of psychiatry). She founded a new monastic order, an enterprise that shows an organizational talent and energy we would not expect from someone so used to solitary contemplation and its ecstasies. Like so many mystics, she showed an amazing vitality that continues to puzzle us, to make us shrink from simplistic dismissal. 


In the previous post on love as addiction and transcendence, Michael Peterson wrote, “Religious truth is autobiographical.” The famous essayist Emil Cioran (1911-1995; born in Romania, lived most of his adult life in Paris) would agree. The son of a Greek Orthodox priest, he became an atheist, but one who constantly wrote about saints and mystics in a way that hinted at a lover’s quarrel with Christianity and the seductions of religious faith in general. The essay that I discuss in this post comes from The Temptation to Exist, translated by Richard Howard (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

In “Rages and Resignations,” in the section on St. Paul, Cioran writes, “It is out of sloth that we personify our divinity and then appeal to Him. The Greeks awakened to philosophy the moment their gods were no longer adequate; ideas begin where Olympus leaves off. To think is to stop venerating, to rebel against the enigmas and proclaim its bankruptcy.”

To think is to stop venerating. And yet Cioran does not extol reason; he wants to experience “luminous annihilation beyond the limits of reason.” In his eyes, reason is a whore – it can be used to defend the most pernicious enterprises; it can erect systems justifying Hitler and Stalin. Cioran, an athlete of the intellect, is more interested in the place we can reach by suspending thought, where we “ascend to the abyss, we fall into heaven.”

Cioran wants his writings to be not systematic truth (or the delusion thereof, for which philosophers settle), but rather, as in Nietzsche, a liberation, an invigoration of the spirit. That’s why his passionate interest in the Christian mystics – their ecstasies had nothing to do with reason. Cioran envies not the philosophers, with their baroque systems of thought, but the mystics with their ecstasies. He does not want “the truth” (unattainable in any case); he wants rapture.

My method and madness in this post will be to quote from Cioran’s essay, “Dealing with the mystics,” and comment as the spirit moves me. Will that be fruitful? I leave that in god’s hands. By “god” I mean whatever powers we wish to subsume under the problematic name of what ultimately must remain nameless.


Cioran opposes the view of mystics as ascetics devoted to mortifying their flesh. On the contrary; he notes that mystics are sensualists, voluptuaries of a special sort. Their goal is not understanding, but ecstasy. The mystic, Cioran writes, “tends much more toward sensation than the poet, for it is by sensation that he verges upon God.” The first example that Cioran offers is Angelus Silesius (1624-1677), son of a Polish nobleman and a German mother. Raised as a Lutheran, in 1653 he converted to Catholicism and became a monk. His chief book is The Cherubic Wanderer, a collection of rhymed aphorisms which Cioran calls “a splendor of confusion . . .  to try to detect its unity is to spoil its capacities for seduction. Angelus Silesius is preoccupied less with God than with his own god . . . never completed and always imperfect and changing.”

Let me now expand beyond Cioran on Angelus Silesius. One of Silesius’s themes is this “heresy”: When the soul attains deepest quiet, it can experience God directly. What striking similarity to the Buddhist tradition.

Here is another heresy expressed by Silesius: God cannot love anything inferior to himself; man and God are essentially one. Again, to anyone familiar with India’s religious tradition, this is very familiar: “What is god? You are it.”

And this is an aphorism I particularly love: “The rose blooms without a why; it blooms because it blooms.”(Die Rose ist ohne warum; sie blühet weil sie blühet.) I have gone through years of torments over the question of vocation: is poetry my primary vocation, and if so, who, aside from a handful of friends, is going to read these poems? Finally it occurred to me that the only way I can write and not go insane is to stop asking “why.” It’s only one of the questions that became off limits as I understood more about recovery from depression. Above all, what the Silesian angel says gives me a beautiful image: the rose blooms without a why.

Another couplet seems to work in its rhymed version:

Friend, whatever you are, you must not stand still:
One must from one light into the other spill.

~ “We have to keep on evolving” is the best sense I make of it. But to put it this way destroys the poetry of spilling from light into light.

I must, transcending God, into the desert flee.  ~ I assume the desert is a meditative state of pure being without thinking.

You need not cry to God,
The spring wells up in thee.

Don’t stop its fountain head:
It flows eternally.

Caught in a blizzard of crises and uncertainties, only last night I was thinking of how comforting it would be to call to some invisible but powerful protector whenever distress strikes. After the promise of an afterlife, this ability to call for help is precisely the chief seduction of religion.

Yet is this call to a parent in the sky not an attempt to remain a child forever? We could call upon what is best and strongest in ourselves – our highest self, the human spirit? But we don’t quite have the right labels, the right rituals and tradition for such summoning of the inner strength – which we’ve been taught is meager, is nothing. You need grace, the Church says. You need drugs, psychiatry says.

Or we could call to our friends to come support us, but we hesitate, not wanting to bother them, or to appear weak. Besides, in modern society people are less available to others; everyone is busy with his own crises. Thus, unless we imagine an invisible protector, we often suffer, feeling helpless and alone.

But the mystics points to a “god within.” Saint Teresa of Avila writes, “If only we took care to remember what a Guest we have within, we would not abandon ourselves to the things of the world.” Or be distressed by the big and small crises. Cioran notes that the mystics are amazingly strong and resilient. Though they may be physically ill, they overflow with vitality. Cioran asserts, “Piety is inseparable from energy and from vigor.” Piety is a vocation; any clear vocation means a "purpose-driven life": it fills its practitioner with a sense of purpose and emotional strength. 


Mystics tend to turn away from the concept of an angry, vengeful god. In all mystical traditions we encounter god as a lover, god as a friend, a god “who loves us even more when we are asleep” (Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower). Mystical ecstasy tends toward the feeling of blissful peace, utter serenity.

Here is “The Lord’s Prayer” by Angelus Silesius (my own translation) 

We pray: Thy will be done.
And yet he has no will.
He is eternal stillness.

~ again, considering that no Eastern texts were known in Europe at the time, this is an astonishingly Eastern concept of the divine as “eternal stillness.” Even without contact, mystical traditions converge, pointing to the same neural mechanism governing mystical experiences.

Cioran also takes a look at Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) as a precursor of the German reformation. Best known for these maxims: "If the only prayer we ever said was Thank you that would be sufficient" and "The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me,” he also said, “To be full of things is to be empty of God. To be empty of things is to be full of God.”

And speaking of familiarity: “There exists only the present instant... a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.” Yes, the mystics of East and West have said all the things that have become the mottoes of the New Age movement, a strange name considering that it draws on nothing new. We can be selective about those ancient traditions and choose only that which works for us. The striking thing is the “eternal return” of the same call to stop tormenting ourselves with overthinking; the solution is to “turn it over” to something outside our own consciousness: call it god, call it higher power, the universe, the unconscious. Call it even the right hemisphere as opposed to the left, more “intellectual” hemisphere.

It is a pity that Cioran does not discuss Simone Weil, a modern mystic, who defined prayer as “complete attention.” She also said, “The highest ecstasy is the attention to its fullest.” All instruction in meditation stresses the importance of full attention. It is also too bad that Cioran was not familiar with the conversion experience of the Polish poet Aleksander Wat (1900 – 1967). Imprisoned in the Soviet Union, emaciated and running a high fever, Wat had a vision of the world given over to the reign of Satan (note the parallel to the story of Job). Above the sphere of Satan, however, was the sphere of God, who existed in perfect serenity. In that sphere, all evil was transcended, all questions and contradictions resolved. It’s interesting that while Christian churches thrust at the believer the image of a suffering deity, mystics of all traditions tend to experience a serene one. 

Wat recovered and never had any more visions, but the vivid memory of the prison vision was enough to make him convert to Catholicism (Why Catholicism rather than Judaism? He said his nanny used to take him to Vespers; he loved the beauty of the face of Jesus, the candles; the flowers – the seductive poetics of it). He never again experienced that absolute certainty of God’s existence, but the fact that he experienced it once, even if only for one feverish night, was evidence enough for him, a long-time fearless atheist.

The serene deity of the mystics is contrary to the raging, vengeful god of the Old Testament, or to Christ as the “suffering god.” Cioran exclaims about the mystics, “With what skill they plagiarize God, pillage Him, strip Him of His attributes with which they arm themselves in order to  . . . remake Him!”

Again, I am reminded both of Rilke’s “We are building God,” and of Michael Peterson’s statement, “Religious truth is autobiographical.” A sustaining belief does not stem from an intellectual system; it is something grasped through deep emotional experience. After a mystical experience he had while celebrating mass for the last time, Thomas Aquinas dismissed all his voluminous writings as “so much straw.” Faith – that amazing trust that ultimately all is for the good – rests on feeling, not on reason
As Rilke said, “The important thing is not to believe in God, but to experience God.” For “God,” some meditators may substitute a sense of timelessness and infinity.


Cioran delights the reader with his blasphemies. Modeling himself after Nietzsche, he does not aspire to being an academic philosopher, but a provocateur – a liberator, an invigorator. This is particularly obvious in the brief section on fasting. Cioran notes the “incompatibility of ecstasy and digestion. A well-fed humanity produces skeptics, never saints. The absolute? A matter of diet.”

This brings to my mind the spiritual awakening of Emanuel Swedenborg. At fifty-six (Swedenborg was a very late bloomer, as mystics go), Swedenborg was dining at a London inn when he heard a stern voice: “Don’t eat so much!” He immediately quit eating and returned to his room, where he received the first of his revelations.

While this story is delightful, reading about the fasts kept by medieval women saints can be unnerving, especially to someone familiar with Rudolph Bell’s famous book Holy Anorexia. Catherine of Siena, for instance, was not only an anorexic, but also a bulimic. Clare of Assissi, Angela of Foligno, Margaret of Cortona (Bell narrowed his focus to Italian saints, but the phenomenon was widespread in the Middle Ages until the Church banned extreme fasting, suggesting it can be diabolically inspired) – these were all “holy anorexics” who used fasting to bring about a delirious state, including ecstasy, out of body experiences, and the sense of union with the divine. As is typical for those who have (or had even once) mystical experiences, these women also showed great energy and fearless enterprise. Among modern mystics, Simone Weil comes to mind.

The current view is that even without mystical experiences, regular prayer or meditation lead to increased energy and improved cognition. In Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila writes, “We will understand, when beginning to pray, that the bees are approaching and entering the beehive to make honey.” One meaning of this “honey” could be increased energy, self-confidence, and ability to deal with the world.

 Batoni Pompeo:The Ecstasy of Saint Catherine of Siena


It’s interesting that the Catholic Church moved against extreme asceticism. Fasting can cause visions, and the Church was never thrilled with mystics, whose ecstatic vision of God was anything but orthodox. A loving deity, embracing all, was not suited to the clerical practice of keeping the faithful in check through intimidation. Hellfire was the essential weapon of organized Christianity. Julian of Norwich's belief that "all will be well, and all manner of things will be well" is not compatible with fear. (Julian experienced her visions as a result of severe illness.)

Julian is even more heretical, denying that God can be angry: For I saw no wrath except on man's side, and He forgives that in us. Even worse, she saw God as a mother: “The fair and lovely word "mother" is so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone nor to anyone except of him and to him who is the true Mother of life and of all things. To the property of motherhood belong nature, love, wisdom, and knowledge, and this is God.” (quoted by Carol Lee Flinders in Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics)

Julian of Norwich, an immured anchoress, was allowed to keep a cat.


Perhaps the most provocative statement comes at the end of Cioran’s essay: “Once we have ceased linking our secret life to God, we can ascend to ecstasies as effective as those of the mystics and conquer the world without recourse to the Beyond. . .  It will be enough for us to constrain reason to a long silence.”

Yet when I think of “our secret life,” most often I imagine it as the fantasies of the ideal lover. The secret waiting for “the One,” even when married and/or old, is by no means confined to women, as Rilke’s “You who never arrived / in my arms, beloved” testifies (though this is not my sole evidence). Most of us seem to long for a twin soul, an equal, rather than for an infinitely superior God (except as a protector). (But here I think again of the idea of equality between man and god as stated by Angelus Silesius -- true love is between equals.)

Both longings may coexist, but it is the mystics who long for God as a lover. Still, the point is ecstasy: can we experience it outside of religion? I hear a chorus of readers shouting, “Of course!” The most common ecstasy is erotic, but there are other kinds as well, when we have no sensation of effort, only of bliss. In fact, it’s not that difficult to induce a feeling of bliss at will. If we practiced doing it, we might extend the time we are able to feel completely relaxed, sunk in the sensation of well-being. Yet our “will to bliss” does not seem as strong as the whip of the to-do list. Cioran, who, like Nietzsche, is always called a philosopher and not a mystic, strongly hints that we should become more interested in bliss than in self-flagellation and/or the construction of intellectual systems inevitably doomed to crumble.


Why has it taken me so long to discover that it’s possible to cultivate the will to bliss? Everyone understands the will to power, the will to meaning, the will to belong to a supportive human network, our “soul group,” our true family. Alas, in spite of the fame of Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss,” the will to bliss sounds frivolous and selfish. It does not seem to be much of an improvement over “pursuit of happiness,” which does not appeal to the idealist in us either. We nod our heads, yet we don’t dare to come too close to bliss, as if any pleasure were immoral. And yet the mystics, whom we regard as great ascetics, had a will to bliss and the courage to enter bliss.

I suspect that yet another factor is important if we are to understand mystics (and perhaps other “high achievers”). Cioran does not mention it, and it’s only speculation on my part. I wonder if the insufficiency of human love could lead to mysticism. We know it can lead to various other outcomes, but mysticism is generally never mentioned. And yet, before my intellect developed enough to reject the Catholic dogmas, why was it even possible – and not frightening – to imagine myself utterly alone, walking for millions of miles toward a light that shone like a goal that would not fail? People normally walk in groups – a recent film makes me think of Polish refugees walking from the Soviet gulags across Siberia all the way to India or Iran. Of course we belong in groups, ultimately accepting even those who are different, just because they have become family. Affection develops, loyalty develops. Yet even one being, one loving companion, will do, real or imaginary.

Thus, if for some reason no welcoming group exists, making each person feel precious, who else to turn to than an imaginary Magical Other? Who else is there to love? And if no visible love comes back in return, our flexible mind will manufacture any proof that’s needed. Without love we die, and, like a prisoner in a solitary cell who tames a rat and makes the animal his pet, the psyche can defend itself against this annihilation by constructing a love object, a focus for the will to bliss.

It seems true enough that the limbic system, our “emotional brain,” can’t endure the knowledge of death, and thus the human brain had to develop a means to disarm that survival-threatening anxiety. That is why neurotheologists argue that “God won’t go away.” We can go into no-thought – into the right hemisphere – into non-doing. But summoning the image of the Beloved may still be the easiest way.

Let me end with the famous Canticle of the Soul by St. John of the Cross – again, the fusion of the erotic and spiritual ecstasy (not that these two can be easily distinguished):

Stanzas of the Soul

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
-- ah, the sheer grace! --
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
-- ah, the sheer grace! --
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
-- him I knew so well --
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.


Very interesting as usual, thanks, Oriana. Dawkins and Sacks – among others – also say that our brains are god-oriented,  i.e.this is the way our cells work. The conclusion is that all phenomena are products of our minds: gods, poems, music etc. Mysticism as a kind of neurosis – yes, certainly. I love your idea that we long for a twin soul rather than god, it agrees with my "autobiographical truth":)


I am planning a series of posts on the cultivation of bliss, what I call “the will to bliss.” Not for the undisciplined – it takes consistent practice. Love and mystical rapture are certainly products of our brain, just as perception and memory. When it comes to love, we know that certain areas in the brain have to be activated and the neurochemistry shifts to “reward” (dopamine and certain amphetamine-like chemicals). But just because the brain “produces” love does not make love any less real.
With depression, I got so practiced that I could enter depression at will, and continue to descend to the level that did not interfere too much with my daily activities (the stupor stage was not an option). I know someone (a male poet) who also admitted to being able to enter depression instantly; at 52, he made a decision to quit. I too made this decision about two years ago, and have not had a single relapse (which continues to astonish me: I didn’t think it would be so easy). However, I miss not having a way to withdraw from the world, a little vacation from daily demands, some floating in just being; an inner heaven/haven (depression was an inner hell/haven). True, I have classical music, and that is a voluptuous pleasure that is very healing to the brain. But I want to explore bliss in greater variety and depth. At this point I can induce a feeling of bliss at will, but it does not last very long. I need practice. Delightful work stretches ahead of me. Please watch for future posts.


You write you can enter or quit depression at will: I believe we can do everything at will, also fall in and out of love, get healed etc. Everything is in my head. Imagine I am just writing a project called The Last Supper, the 12 apostles ' monologues for boys from reformatory school as a therapeutic play and my friend, who is in charge of them, persuades me that I am a deeply religious and believing person, because she finds the poems so persuasive. Well, I am not, but I can write as if I were. Because everything is in my head, that's all.


Your Last Supper/reform school project sounds fascinating. True, we can enter bliss or depression at will, but usually there are eliciting stimuli in the environment – so it’s an interplay. I wasn’t really able give myself the order to quit depression, to declare that it’s no longer an option, until the motivation ripened – again, an interplay (what in poetry I call an interweave). As for falling in love, I think the most intense experience is when we feel “swept away.” Even then, however, there is a significant volitional element – people don’t like to admit it, since that means we are accountable, rather than “love made me do it” à la Francesca da Rimini.

Linda Nemec:

St. Teresa of Avila is one of my heroes/heroines.  I've seen Bernini's magnificent sculpture of her in Rome and I've traveled to Spain on a pilgrimage to study her work and writing.  Trust me, that was a trip that combined the sacred and profane.  Loved it.

Anyway, here's the poem:

Woman Suffering from Seizures of Ecstasy

It started with her hands
fluttering out of her lap
with a mind of their own

like gray sparrows on a hot
June day.  Then the jagged
arms wreaking havoc on the air.

Striking it dumb, striking it mute
while her hair assessed the damage.
Her torso twisted into a variety

of geometric grins (as if smug
about masturbating undetected
in a crowded church) and then

became fluid, became another
body, closing in on the walls.
Next, the dangling legs dancing

to nowhere.  The shuffle-shuffle
stomp of the invisible recital.
The feet grateful, the toes curling

out and in, out and in:  perfect
exercise for the remedial bride.
Every part of her scoring on the Richter

scale.  Except her face:  quite still.
And her neck, the white arc
exposed to God or no one in particular.

~ Linda Nemec Foster, published in Parting Gifts


Lucrezia (from sensual Florida)
Am by nature an analytical person and like a car that needs to be realigned, have to constantly steer myself in the other direction to avoid a collision course with asceticism, even if some mystics seem far from ascetic – actually, there is no reason to conclude that mysticism=asceticism.  These nuns had time on their hands (interesting expression) and the farmer's wife had to collect eggs, give birth or feed the cat.  And if sex is evil and you're alone, then God's the ultimate dream date. 

Emphasis on dream.

You've heard this one before:

In the forest God met the Stag-beetle. "Hold! Worship me!" quoth God. "For I am All-Great, All-Good, All Wise .... The stars are but sparks from the forges of My smiths....”

"Yea, verily and Amen," said the Stag-beetle, "all this do I believe, and that devoutly."

"Then why do you not worship Me?"

"Because I am real and you are only imaginary."

But the leaves of the forest rustled with the laughter of the wind.
Said Wind and Wood: "They neither of them know anything!"

~ A Crowley


A post this fabulous can only be answered with a poem. In this case the dream date is the state of Florida, personified as an imaginary lover:


A few things for themselves,
Convolvulus and coral,
Buzzards and live-moss,
Tiestas from the keys,
A few things for themselves,
Florida, venereal soil,
Disclose to the lover.

The dreadful sundry of this world,
The Cuban, Polodowsky,
The Mexican women,
The Negro undertaker
Killing the time between corpses
Fishing for crayfish . . .
Virgin of boorish births,

Swiftly in the nights,
In the porches of Key West,
Behind the bougainvilleas,
After the guitar is asleep,
Lasciviously as the wind,
You come tormenting,

When you might sit,
A scholar of darkness,
Sequestered over the sea,
Wearing a clear tiara
Of red and blue and red,
Sparkling, solitary, still,
In the high sea-shadow.

Donna, donna, dark,
Stooping in indigo gown
And cloudy constellations,
Conceal yourself or disclose
Fewest things to the lover –
A hand that bears a thick-leaved fruit,
A pungent bloom against your shade.

~ Wallace Stevens


Michael (from Guatemala, after his trip to the famous Lake Atitlan):

The following probably doesn't have anything to do with your post. I think I'm venting.   But I've been thinking about bliss.

A Mayan village on the west end of Lake Atitlan is deep in trash, the bushes trap all the detritus of the plastic revolution. The village looks bad and smells bad. My translator asked a villager about the mess. He shrugged and replied, "That's because we don't have a river."
And so I wonder about bliss.

And then the lady from Iran living in that same village in a very dumpy home--who owns two homes in La Jolla (yes, San Diego) and claims she likes this one better. I saw her two days in a row, wearing the same stained dress. I think she may be a closet philanthropist (her family is worth millions) and helps the villagers where she can. 

What does bliss look like?

Or the trucker from America who picked up a hitchhiker in AZ who was trying to get to a family reunion in the Carolinas. It was August, the airline wouldn't fly her dog, so she hitched with her dog from Guatemala. The trucker and this girl hit it off, he attended the family reunion, then she rode shotgun for a year before they both moved to Guatemala. She hasn't left her house on the lake in the last 18 months, she doesn't like meeting people. He takes the lancha into Panajachel to sing with a band on weekends.

Is that bliss?

Four American women were robbed a week ago on a trail I just hiked. The thieves made off with several thousand dollars, cameras, passports, and purses. In a village where a man gets $117 a month for working 7am-4pm six days a week, this was quite a haul. 

I wonder if the thieves are bliss filled?

And the 19 year old woman who uses a back-strap loom for weaving traditional Mayan clothing. It takes her four months to complete a three-piece blouse and she is paid $46. Her mother and 14 year old sister aren't as fast, they work together for seven months on a three-piece blouse. Same pay.

Do they know the word bliss?

I don't know, Oriana. Today, the world I'm visiting seems far removed from our discussions. Hard to think about bliss when the stomach growls, or the air is so polluted one can't see, never mind breathe. I imagine it is hard to think about bliss when one must patch the only piece of clothing one owns, or when one doesn't have food to feed the dog, or never heard of a vet, or been to a doctor. Maybe the fact others don't have a shot at bliss has nothing to do with our desire for it. Or maybe it does. I'm wondering.

[Mayan weavers. Photo: Michael Peterson]

 [Mayan women. Photo: Michael Peterson]


Thank you, Michael, for a thought-provoking post.

There are those who like to point out that everyone warned them about the poverty in India, but they weren’t prepared for the joy and laughter, the colorful beauty of the saris, the people’s ability to be happy in spite of what we call a low standard of living. Looking of Michael’s pictures, I can imagine readers’ exclaiming, “Look at those wonderful colors!”

Some might also say that ecstasy means “standing outside of oneself” – and that it is enough to drop preoccupation with the self to be serene. Or that the law of the universe is that grief and bliss are side by side: here are the ecstatic lovers, sunk in each other; not far away, someone is dying a slow and painful death.

Nevertheless, these may be just our defenses against the overwhelming amount of misery in the world. Take the “simple” matter of cleanliness. It does not help to remember that some of the medieval saints had ecstatic experiences even though they never took a bath. After walking on a dusty trail, it’s bliss to be able to wash up. We do assume that a monk’s cell, no matter how “impoverished” it may look, is also immaculately clean. A church has to be clean, unlittered. A dirty place of worship just doesn’t work. Maybe because I was thinking of the beauty of the lake, the image of the village suffocating on its garbage was particularly disturbing.

Of course I have no answer to the problem of poverty. No one does – though some simple steps can be taken, and a few enterprises seem to be making a difference. By the way, it could be noted here that some mystics were very active in charity work (Catherine of Siena, for instance, took care of the sick). They were known for being tireless. Some argue that it was precisely the daily practice of prayer or meditation that gave the contemplatives their extraordinary energy.

To my knowledge, Jack Gilbert is the only famous poet to have addressed the issue. “That’s what God wants” may be “translated” as “that’s the order of things.” Gilbert's answer seems to be that "we must risk delight" and "we must admit there will be music despite everything." 

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants,
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end has magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

            ~ Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven