Brian George, Figure with Bow and Lightning Arrow
Descending into Vortex, oil pastel, 2004
Too much mystical poetry is what I would characterize as "devotional." It
flatters those beings whom we see as our superiors—too often with the hope of having some wish granted—and it expresses yearning for states
that we believe to be beyond us. Yearning is, indeed, essential. There are beings who may choose to take some interest in our growth, and there are
states beyond the grasp of even the eldest of the gods. There is also a guiding presence—neither young nor old, neither hidden nor
apparent—who may prove to be as close as our own breath. The challenge is to get from here to there, to speak and know we will be heard, to speak
in a language that we do not know we know, to get from where we are to a place we may never have left. Unlike Rumi in the Mathnawi or Rilke in the Duino Elegies, however, the average mystic does not invite us to go
with him on a journey. If he tells us to remember, he does not, necessarily, help us to remember. He refers to states and experiences he claims to be
important but that are nowhere embodied in the actual language of the poem. The results may be quite effective if seen as a "finger pointing to the
moon," but he has not yet discovered the "skillful means" for bringing the reader along with him. Even worse, once having arrived at a place beyond
the placeless, certain mystics will tend to gloat.
Sri Chinmoy, for example, writes,
A realm of Bliss bare, ultimate;
Beyond both knower and known:
A rest immense I enjoy at last;
I face the One alone.
The reader is left to look on in wonder or disinterest. "Wouldn't it be grand to have such experiences?" he thinks. Or "Why should I listen to the
proclamations of this fraud?" The point is not that the mystic fails. Language will, inevitably, bump up against its limits. The point is that the
mystic will often give up in advance, that he will too easily resort to vague abstractions and cliches. Rumi, on the other hand, writes,
At break of dawn a single moon appeared,
Descended from the sky, and gazed at me.
Like a falcon swooping in for the catch
It snatched me up and soared across the sky.
In reading this—even through the verbal screen of a translation—I can see
the subtle light of early dawn. I am astonished at the appearance of the moon, and I wonder at why it is mobile, and I can feel it looking both at
Rumi and at me. Do I know this moon? We are sharing many secrets, but then, from out of nowhere: fear. This moon is "a falcon swooping in for the
catch." I am yanked up, violently. This moon is not polite! Spaces open in my stomach as it lifts me through the sky.
Sri Chinmoy's energy may have been enormous, but only for those who knew him, only for those in his physical space. It is not there in his words,
which are spoken from "on high." His poems are scraps of bread dispensed to hungry mortals. For Rumi, however, speech was the protean vehicle for
the mystery of charisma. His language was not separate from the energy it embodied. By speaking, Rumi dances, one arm lifted towards the sky, the
other lowered towards the Earth, and in between, the whirling vortex of the heart. If he was able to teach, it was because he also listened, and he
was eager to express and share what he had learned. He overflows into his poems. He speaks as one friend to another. In this excerpt from his poem
"The Absolute," Sri Chinmoy has described his stay at the Upanishad Royal Arms in Biarritz. In this excerpt from the Mathnawi, Rumi has said simply
"Come." Certain poems are journeys in and of themselves, others are like maps, and still others are promotional advertisements. A poem that does
not take us by surprise will probably not take the cosmos by surprise. It will probably not help much to wake us up.
Brian George, Eye of the Vortex, pencil, 2003
There are two ideas that are very often, and perhaps deliberately, confused
. The first is that language cannot encompass the depth and breadth of the Infinite. The second is that it is impossible to use language to express one's
experience of the subtle realms. This description of difficulty then turns into a prohibition. "You cannot" is somehow transformed into "THOU
SHALT NOT," and there is often a weird emotional force to the command. The mystic pretends that the Beyond is virginal. The poet knows better. He
and the Beyond have had relations. The poet is foolish enough to believe that the light can take a joke. He suspects that the ocean is not easily offended.
After crossing to the "other shore," the poet finds that the moon is but one
stage-prop out of many, all of which are syllables that have never left his mouth. But again, he must return out of the depths, with pen in hand. He
must re-cross the ocean with no vehicle but his body. To do otherwise would be to violate an oath, to not respond with orgiastic laughter to a
dare. Convinced of the superiority of his one-directional transcendence, the mystic comments on the poet's youth, he whose near-death
experiences were once the life's blood of the lineage. For the poet refuses to exterminate his "ego."
"At the Gates to the Beyond," we are told, "where the music of the spheres can cause one to go mad, where the light does not distinguish between the
living and the dead, there is no room left for the poet's personal expression." Having once inhaled, it is unacceptable to exhale; a different actor must
be chosen to do each. Having heard the silence, and been terrified, and been broken, one is not allowed to sit on a branch outside the first house of
one's childhood, and sing when the sun comes up, and translate one's new birdsongs into English. "Nonsense," says the poet, "I will go where I want and speak to whom I choose."
Brian George, Memory Theatre, photogram, 2002
I have often felt that this split between the planes of consciousness was perhaps a recent development, if the actual length and breadth of human
history were to be kept in mind. It does not seem to have been there for the poets of the Rig Veda or the Mahabharata. In Homer's time, during which
according to Plato, the art of memory was already in decline, the skillful poet still seemed able to perform his context-juxtaposing role. The poet
was a messenger, yes, but his job was not to carry any one set of instructions. His body was an echo chamber, in which thousands of voices all competed to be heard.
There was no accident that could not be interpreted as a sign. Place names were eight-directional crossroads. Stories were living serpents that
uncoiled into the depths of the unconscious. Nouns were weapons. Verbs were calls that waited for a response. Each object was an "invitation to the
voyage," and there was no event or action "here" that did not lead "there" to its counterpart. Trained to navigate each turn of the Memory Theatre in
a blindfold, before their eyes were taken out at birth, few poets would be so reckless as to not know where to go.
Vishnu, in His Incarnation as a Fish
Trailing light from an alternate sun that had existed before the Deluge, the authors of the Rig Veda did not separate speech from action. To speak was
to act, to act was to know, and to know was to potentially take part in the re-centering of the cosmos. The cosmos was not static. It was forever
threatened with chaotic forces at its edges. As a work of art, the cosmos needed the collaboration of artists to sustain it. In the Sadhanada, or
contest of poet-seers, which was also sometimes referred to in the Vedas as a "chariot race" or a "battle," contestants would attempt to outdo each other in the interpretation of a brahman, or effective utterance. This verse
form, the one thought to be the most commonly used in the Sadhanada, was one that simultaneously hid and revealed the speaker's breadth of
vision. The goal was not to give eloquent expression to a certain set of laws; it was to deconstruct one's certainty so that speech could hover above
chaos, so that a cracked wheel could be fixed and then refitted onto its axle.
As Soma loosened their tongues and the contest heated up, the contestants would challenge each other to respond to ever more inscrutable
improvisations on what may or may not have been the theme. William K. Mahony writes,
Since the force holding the universe together was itself a riddle of
sorts, the verbal expressions by which those visionary poets
represented their understandings of that force often took the form of riddles and enigmas put to verse.
Such a challenge was thus both spiritual and linguistic. Questions were posed that did not have correct answers; answers were posed that led to
stranger questions. Mahony writes,
Those contestants in the Sadhanada who could not discern the meaning of a brahman and then respond to that challenge in insightful
and equally or even more enigmatic verses of their own must necessarily have remained silent. They lost the contest.
To lose the contest was perhaps to withdraw to the realm of the mystic, to
the realm of the saint who is enclosed, like a snail, within his ecstasy, to the realm of the yogi who is content to float upon his breath.
The name of the verse-form itself, the brahman, was derived from a root
which means "to grow from a seed, to increase, to expand, to swell." More than anything else, a brahman was expected to possess this quality of
expansiveness. In his posing of impossible questions, the poet-seer was not only attempting to taunt and frustrate his competitors, he was also,
perhaps, attempting to push his own imagination to the breaking point, and then beyond. Mahony writes,
The poet who could not 'see' the brahman was eliminated from the competition. This was not an insignificant banishment. The person who
could not see the brahman would not understand the unseen and unstated connections between seemingly unrelated events or images,
and one who could not see such connections could not be expected to see those that held the world together in general.
No metaphor was nonsensical in and of itself. It was the poet-seer's job to spontaneously connect, to demonstrate that he possessed some similarity
to the gods. His victory in the contest was not a personal accomplishment; rather, it was the victory of hidden order over sleep, of playfulness over
chaos, and of action over the forces of inertia.
In Mandala 10, Hymn 71 of the Rig Veda, "The Origins of Sacred Speech," we read,
Brhaspati! When they set in motion the first beginning of speech, giving names, their most pure and perfectly guarded secret was
revealed through love…One who looked did not see speech, and another who listens does not hear it. It reveals itself to someone as a
loving wife, beautifully dressed, reveals her body to her husband.
As the words flew, Shakti activated what Shiva had kept hidden from himself, with each poet yearning for the body of the cosmos, yearning to
see what hostile forces had prevented him from seeing, to touch what none could touch. Love's expression could take many forms, including that of
stylized warfare. Not every form of vision is pacific. Certain types of stillness must be found within a storm, through the release of the energy trapped in the four elements.
Thus far in this essay, I have positioned myself in the role of agent provocateur, as if I had set myself in opposition to the active powers of
creation, as if I held their faithful messengers in contempt, and as if I did not accept the validity of the mystic's critique of language. Such conflict
should not be taken at face value. This pose was no more than a means of dramatizing a certain tension in the scheme of things, a lie that reveals a deeper truth. Soma, the elixir of vision, does not drop from a clear sky.
Ritual actors must cause clouds to swell up from the emptiness. If Soma is to flow, the elixir must be pressed.
Just as poets would face each other as opponents in the Sadhanada to renew the cosmos through conflict, sharpening their powers and
deepening their knowledge, humans and subtle beings had been set in opposition to reinterpret the too-fixed meanings of each brahman. Eros
coiled. Death uncoiled. To the victor: a temptation to tear through all constraints, to tell himself he had "won." To the loser: a seed to be tended
in the dark. Space was the bride generous enough to flirt with each competitor.
Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, oil, 1943
Those who move neither near nor far, who are not real Brahmins nor pressers of Soma; using speech in a bad way, they weave on a weft of
rags, without understanding.—The Rig Veda, Mandala 10, Hymn 71,
"The Origins of Sacred Speech"
Much confusion arises from our understanding of the "ego," that observable reality which may not be an "object," that measurable field
which may have no fixed boundaries. If a knot is tight, should we not be able to cut it? Why should a bubble be so maddeningly difficult to pop? As
a matter of principle, I go out of my way to come up with alternatives for the term. Simply saying the word "ego" brings with it a whole chain of
unconscious associations. Our obsessive-compulsive repetition of this word is like a wound that we try to heal by constantly picking the scar open. The
ego may very well be an accretion of social programs, psychological reflexes, unacknowledged traumas, and dead habits, as certain spiritual
traditions claim, but it is also more than that. It is the means that we employ to ritually cut ourselves from the whole, the stone with which we sharpen our creative cutting edge.
In our daily state of mind, we do exist in a state of alienation from the
whole; this much is true, but speech is not the impediment that mystics all too often pretend. It would really be so much easier for us if it were. We
could simply shut our mouths. Rather, we have allowed its secondary functions to metastasize while we refuse to direct it towards its primary
ends. Our sense of disconnection may be due less to our "egos" than to defects in our vision. We should not depend on our eyes. If we saw as we
were first designed to see, we would see our ego as one center out of many, and what we took to be the impediment of our speech we could simultaneously read as an injunction.
Who is speaking, and for whom? Have we aimed our words towards the edge of our awareness, towards the heart of creation, towards the ears of
our subtler counterparts? If our words have proved inadequate, it is seldom because we have tried and then failed to express the inexpressible.
More often, it is because our words are rooted in the logic of addiction, because we are the behaviorally-modified playthings of our algorithms. To
follow the archetypal model would be to use our words to reveal. All too often, though, we now use them to obstruct. Speech is not a belated addition to the cosmos.
In Mandala 10, Hymn 125 of the Rig Veda, "Speech Praises Itself," we read,
I move with the Rudras, with the Vasus, with the Ä€dityas and all the gods. I carry both Mitra and Varuna, both Indra and Agni, and both of
the AÅ›vins. I carry the swelling Soma, and Tvastr, and PÅ«san and Bhaga. I bestow wealth on the pious sacrificer who presses the Soma
and offers the oblation. I am the queen, the confluence of riches, the skillful one who is first among those worthy of sacrifice. The gods
divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places and enter into many forms.
When the signs that clutter our vision's foreground are swept off, we may once again converse directly with the elements. The collapse of
superstructures will expose the outlines underneath. Less light will make the stars more visible. From what breaks, we will take the pieces that we
need. We will cleanse our nouns and verbs. At the far edge of a desert from which blackened girders twist, where a solar flare has struck, where a wave
has come and gone, where only ghosts can access the internet and the shell of a nuclear power plant is as luminous as the moon, the ego will have no
particular importance; at the same time, there will be no need to destroy it. Use of "I" and "We" will be optional, the strategic alteration of a pronoun, a
question of convenience. We will have seen creation from the outside in as well as from the inside out. We will not be forced to speak from any one location.
Brian George, Fish Mummy with Vimanas, pen and ink, 1991
The time: one of forced austerities. Some may find that they have been standing on one leg for a year. "Who is standing," they may ask, "and on
what does it stand?" There will be others—many billions—who have chosen to go elsewhere. Our numbers will be small. Food will be scarce, thus it will
not prove a distraction for the senses. Soma will be the drink that fuels the fetal culture. As in the Sadhanada, the Vedic contest between poets, it may
be hard to tell if we speak or if some other speaks us, and yet, as we listen, we will keep our creative edge. We will grow from a seed. We will expand.
We will swell. Rooting our tongues in silence, as we did when the age was young, we will there show how speech can do more than describe.