Speaking of concentric patterns, I have been – no, not meditating, more like ruminating – on how things always come back, on how everything is linked to everything. On ripple effects. On chakras. Cycle. Eternal return. And how you can glimpse the whole wheel sometimes and other times you just can’t.
While driving (in a circle; I’d forgotten something and had to go back) to dinner with a friend of mine recently, I asked him to translate the Sanskrit phrase inked across his forearm. He was maddeningly vague about it. “It’s Sanskrit.”
“I can see that. I don’t read Sanskrit. What does it say?”
His answer was not a translation – it was practically a koan, actually – but I managed to extract that it was a passage from the Bhagavad Gita and concerned meditation.Which made sense; I’d just been having a conversation with another poet about Charles Martin’s new translation of the Bhagavad Gita, which was about to be released. And I’m finding that whatever you are preoccupied with will present itself absolutely everywhere you look.
Sadly, meditation and I don’t get along very well (are you surprised? No?). I have a very chatty superego that keeps telescoping out to inquire “Am I meditating yet? Is my mind clear yet?” It’s a disaster. I’m still trying. But.
Now, I am not an expert in the interpretation of mandalas, but I know they are sacred art in both Hindu and Buddhist cultures, and that they are cosmograms, visual metaphors for the universe, depictions of pathways to enlightenment, and focus objects for meditation. They can be fairly simple or unbelievably complex, with intricate interlinked geometric figures (which makes sense; I mean you’d probably have a better chance at mental clarity if you stun everything else out of there with a great blast of impossibly complex abstractions rendered in eye-watering colors.). Anyway, at the center of many mandalas is a complex flower-like figure representing Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred lotus. Presumably because of the way it rises from the mud and seems to float above the surface of the water, the lotus represents divine purity, detachment from earthly desires, freedom from illusion. Hindu deities are usually depicted sitting on a lotus. It is the flower of the enlightened mind.
Once I wandered into a yoga class in (of all places) Easton, Pennsylvania, and discovered that the studio was hosting a group of Tibetan monks who happened to be in town the same week I happened to be in town. They had constructed a raised dais in the front part of the studio, and were in the beginning phases of creating a mandala from colored sand. The work was incredibly slow and intricate, and to my total astonishment, it was done with no verbal communication among the monks. A circular form emerged, and over the next six days was filled in with a mind-bogglingly complicated, totally symmetrical system of interlocking geometric figures and symbols that, like the Sanskrit verse on my friend’s arm, I didn’t have the ability to decipher -- but that it was a tiny universe of its own, a labyrinth with preferction at its center, a whole both bigger and smaller than the sum of its parts, was clear. The blazing colors didn’t blur together at all, not a speck, though a single careless breath could have marred the pattern. It was almost literally unbelievable. I thought I would never see anything so astonishing again in my life.
Until they swept it off the platform and left.
Okay, yeah: we’re poets. We understand symbol. Metaphor is the coin of our realm. The symbols within the mandala might be arcane to the uninitiated, but we can all get the point the monks were making about the intricate business of living and thinking and developing and its utter ultimate impermanence. Of course. But… but… all that work, the intense focus, the precision, the dazzling beauty of it. How could you just calmly destroy it?
People sometimes say they write only for themselves, but I never believe them. I think we all write for someone, and I think we all hope we are writing for our own posterity, for a shred of permanence. I’ve destroyed poems zillions of times. When they didn’t work. When they failed. When I looked back at them and felt embarrassed that they’d come from my pen. But this sand painting was perfect. I knew then, and still understand, that there is a level at which that lesson is one I will never learn. I love the idea, of being genuinely focused on the process and not the result -- this is the essence of Keats's oft-quoted remark about achievement being tied to "negative capability," which I suppose he meant in the electrical sense, the negative pole being the one in the receptive state. In the end, whether we are focused on process, or result -- it's a guarantee that both of them have their Third Eye trained on us. Detachment from worldly desire, grasping, "irritable reaching after fact," -- it's all the same thing, and if the Tibetan Tantrics' calm sweeping away of their own work is a paticularly dramatic expression of the committment to detachment, it's certainly an idea present thoughout time and in cultures all over the world. I'm sure it's radically freeing if you can really do it. But part of me actually finds it profoundly sad at the same time.
But little matter: it's an ideal you reach only with death -- if then -- and there are things to be said for attachment too. Look, even the lotus isn't really "detached," it just looks that way. It has roots just like the rest of us; it’s tied to things that would kill it if they became untied.
But let’s not end on that note! I give you, for your meditational pleasure, James Merrill’s poem “Mandala,” a response to a letter advising him “to meditate upon the Third Eye". If it doesn’t make you laugh, you need to read it again. You know: circle back. Meanwhile -- thanks for letting me bend your ears again -- it's been a pleasure.
OK. I see a whirlpool
Yawning at the Heart of things.
In grave procession seasons, elements, creatures, kings
Ride the slowly sinking carousel
From which they will never, not in ten million
Years, nor in any form, return. Thy are about to merge
With Nothing mirrored as a demiurge
Outside that circus, trivia.
Everyone else must redo his clumsy exercise
Life after life. No wonder the third eye’s
Lid grows heavier.
All the same, I am setting my cat
Sights on two or three
More flings here in the dark. A certain ingenuity
Goes into meriting that.
One wants, to plot the boomerang curve
That brings one back,
Beyond the proper coordinates of Have and Lack,
A flair for when to swerve
Off into utter pointlessness –
Issues that burn like babies, furrows of grief and sloth
Sown with sperm, no talent glinting forth
Except for how to dress
At those last brunches on the yacht
While the pearly trough kept pace and the Martini pitcher
Sweated and swirled, becoming second nature
-- And oh yes, not
To return as a slug or a mayfly, plus one’s GI pair
Shortsighted brown, should carry, as I do,
A peasant “eye” of blue
Glass daubed with yellow. Turkish work. So there,
Your point’s made, I’m an infidel.
But who needs friends
To remind him that nothing either lasts or ends?
Garrulous as you, dear, time will tell.