Last week I wrote about borrowing A Year With Rilke (2009), edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows. It being springtime, and being on a cleanse, I feel intensely attuned to the natural world. Thus I was particularly drawn to two paragraphs of the introduction.
Rilke’s grasp of the transient nature of all things is critical to his capacity to praise and to cherish. The vibrant acuity of his perception of detail—the pacing of the caged panther the way a gazelle moves, the gesture of a beggar in the street—is ever informed by the poet’s understanding of impermanence. He points out that we cannot be “used” by what is eternal if we are ourselves everlasting. Our very embodiment and the evanescent, cyclical character of all that surrounds us allow for what is infinite to express itself. Were it not so, there would be nothing but primal unity rather than the abundance that Rilke describes over and over and names “the things.”
In the face of impermanence and death, it takes courage to love the things of this world and to believe that praising them is our noblest calling. Rilke’s is not a conditional courage, dependent on an afterlife. Nor is it a stoic courage, keeping a stiff upper lip when shattered by loss. It is a courage born of the ever-unexpected discovery that acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being. In naming what is doomed to disappear, naming the way it keeps streaming through our hands, we can hear the song that streaming makes.
Already the forsythia, which gave me so much hope two weeks ago, is all but greened out. Last Thursday, as I sat working in the cafeteria at one of my campuses, “petal rain,” so evocative for me of my reading of Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic (2003), flew from the trees. As it is particularly windy here today, especially along the coast, those trees will be green, soon, too. Nature has long since carried away the remains of the rabbit that had probably once nibbled the tender things in my yard. The blossoms of the bridal veil in the front yard, now full, delicate, and white, will soon be brown. My daughter, the younger of my two children, is graduating from high school.
It does seem to me to be imperative and part of the practice to pause to “observe, appreciate and enjoy” what is now, for “this, too, shall pass.”
In addition, this orientation toward limitation that Rilke embraces, bolsters some honest answers to honest questions I had raised in the course of my participation in a “Build Your Own Theology” group at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Andover. How do I think we go on after death? Am I a pantheist or perhaps a panentheist?
Lastly, I can’t help reading a sentence like “Our very embodiment and the evanescent, cyclical character of all that surrounds us allow for what is infinite to express itself,” without thinking about the Tantric philosophy upon which Anusara™ is based.
To be a sociologist requires one to be a cultural relativist, to suspend judgement of others to allow for a deeper inquiry into their “way of life.” If Rilke can inspire this great love of the diversity of “things,” how much more so for the great diversity of people with whom we share this big blue-green ball? I find it curious that Rilke was a contemporary of the great German sociologist Max Weber, who advocated for verstehen in social inquiry. This notion is to entertain the subjective orientations of individual actors, to interpret what they intend by their actions. Perhaps because of his concern with the increasing rationalization of modern society, and portents of a coming “Iron Cage of Bureaucracy,” Weber was depressed for periods of his life, sometimes even unable to teach or write. Still he bequeaths us this great humanistic concern.
During this cleanse I have felt and cultivated deep needs to be out in nature, to walk and to be in solitude. These are only the most superficial reasons to feel an affinity with Rilke as he is described in the introduction by Macy and Barrows. If we but walk, name the blessings of nature, make peace with the impermanent, and cultivate solitude, can we help but cultivate an even deeper appreciation of each other?
May we be inspired to make this our inquiry and our practice.