“For here there is no place that does not see you.
You must change your life.”
–– Rainer Maria Rilke,
“The Archaic Torso of Apollo”
The insight in the last two lines of this poem is meant to wake us up. When he was a young man, Rilke became the personal secretary for the French sculptor Rodin. This already world-famous artist suggested to Rilke that he could sharpen his ability to “see clearly,” and thereby improve his writing, by going to a museum, sitting still, and looking at art.
This spring, I took a six-week course on the five aggregates of clinging, an early dharma teaching through which the Buddha clarified what he meant by dukkha, the very human predicament in which we all find ourselves. Our conditioned existence is, by its very nature, unpredictable, changing always, and not completely under our control. We often add to the stress of this situation by taking it personally and fighting with the way things are––or grasping and clinging to what used to be and is now slipping away. Whether in our personal lives, our relationships, or our shared political arena, this basic, existential discontent (or perhaps fear) has led to the development of a set of fixed views, which we might call our personality. It is at the root of the unwise and dangerous perception that there is an unchanging self.
One of the five aggregates of clinging is the mental function of perception. We have habitual ways of seeing the world, which are highly conditioned by the dilemma of dukkha. In his advice to Rilke, Rodin directs him to break through this limited way of understanding the world by exercising, training, and liberating his sense of perception. Rilke’s efforts did open up his way of seeing––both internally and externally. His subsequent work has an immediacy, an aliveness that makes outer objects real, even as it exposes a powerful inner knowing. Joanna Macy, a Buddhist teacher and a translator of many of Rilke’s poems, praises “his recognition of our reciprocal relationship with . . . life” (preface, The Book of Hours).
In the week that my course focused on perception, an assigned dharma talk offered the suggestion that we take an ordinary object into our hands and make the choice to perceive it as if it were alive. Walking along a favorite in-town trail and listening to the talk through AirPods, I paused on a bridge high above the Mascoma River to do this exercise. It was around seven on a bright, clear, early spring evening. The sun was at a low angle. In my pocket was an old green handkerchief with hand-crocheted edging. I took it out and followed the teacher’s guidance. I felt and stroked it. It had a temperature––cool––and a somewhat rough and wrinkled shape. There was a hole in it. I remembered that it had been my mother’s and that she had gotten it from an older woman, a friend in her neighborhood who was cleaning out in anticipation of moving in with her daughter. It had a story, a history. The fabric moved with the breeze. It was coming alive in my hands! There was a bubbling up of awe in my chest. As I looked up and out beyond the handkerchief, I saw that the whole world had come alive: the light on the fresh green trees; the sparkling new leaves; the reflection of the boundless sky above in the water far below; the fencing on the bridge; the grasses; the bird song. All of it. Alive.
The experience has lasted, it ebbs and flows. As I walked home that night, I was wide awake and very happy––feeling connected to and supported by “the motions of tenderness all around me, the buoyancy” (Rumi). Now, several weeks later, the feeling is less immediately vibrant, but I can still call it forth because it is a choice. It is not truth or untruth, but it is, I think, a skillful way to see and to be in relationship with this planet, upon which my own life depends––and to know it as a kalyanamitta, a spiritual friend.
The fruit of our dharma study and our meditation practice is transformation. Are we becoming kinder, less reactive? Do we cause less harm to ourselves and others? Is our clinging to and fighting with reality lessening? Do we ever pause? What is our impact on those around us? Is it changing? Are we happy? Are we friendly?
A few days after I had this profound, delightful experience with the perception of wakeful aliveness in all things, I realized that I too am alive. This simple understanding was startling, amazing, terrifying, liberating, and oh-so joyful––all at the same time. I am a person, not some static, inflexible being who was named Doreen at birth and has never changed at all, who is always the same––consistently the same. No––I am alive and barely governable at times; open and closed; kind and unkind; wise and unwise; subject to aging, injury, illness, and dying. This way of knowing myself, as a living and vulnerable friend, is a much more challenging perception to rest in, but every now and then, I get it. And when I do, I know: I must change my life.
That I will die is certain.
The time and circumstance of my death is unknown.
What shall I do?