The gift

I got sidetracked from my poetry today by an article in the newsletter from Brain pickings this morning, that brought a smile to my face in assimilating a memory long past, yet touched a chord, a nerve. It reminded me of some pre pandemic times, as the author of the blog wrote of Marcus Aurelius and his contributions to Stoic philosophy. It progressed to an avalanche of thought perhaps as I wondered about the poetry I should write today in relation to this.

The author of Brain pickings elucidated in her article his Stoic remedy [1] for when people let you down. On what Marcus Aurelius suggested we do in such times, inorder to keep mental composure and emotional equanimity, he says … You should keep the same thought readily available for when you’re faced with devious and untrustworthy people, and people who are flawed in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible for such people not to exist, you’ll be kinder to each and every one of them. It’s also helpful immediately to consider what virtue nature has granted us human beings to deal with any given offense — gentleness, for instance, to counter discourteous people … (source: brain pickings, 18th April, 2021)

Stoicism is a difficult philosophy [2] to subscribe to but I adhere to its immediate definition really well only in times of physical distress, as in if I have chopped off a fingertip, fallen down the stairs or there is an earthquake, like the time I was the only person in our family to remember the keys to our apartment before running down several flights of stairs, during some terrifying tremors … I mean, the door used to auto lock and just in case we survived you know …

Humour aside, the philosophy raises some pertinent questions. If genuinely intuitive and evocative poetry is a manifestation of the landscape of an artist’s interiority and inner resonance, then can a stoic ever be a poet? I am not referring to forms of confessional poetry here but the work of an inspired artist. I wonder about this as I try to submit my thoughts to writing and feel writer’s block on occasion. Here I find inspiring such like, August Kekulé, [3] who dreamed up so poetically (intuitively maybe), the benzene ring, much to the contemptuous amusement of his logical colleagues who didn’t . In fact, substitute the word poetry with life and one is led to imagine, how swallowing discontent in a stoic response could be a way to personal authenticity (which is distinctive from performative authenticity). Such a conundrum if one were to consider the implications of not owning to ones own consciousness, of anything that’s amiss, a denial that could manifest in a passive aggression towards others or a lack of empathy.

This is something to think about, (for another day, another poem perhaps), even as technology aims to be more intelligent and/or sentient in the AI of the future and humans struggle to become more mechanical and standardized. If, as Aurelius suggests, it’s the way we frame the narrative of situations or behaviours that aggrieve and diminish us, then will we not be smug in our own moral superiority? Will we not be distancing ourselves from that which we refuse to acknowledge? Is there really a locus of evil within people ? Not according to Hannah Arendt, who maintains there are no evil people, only unthinking ones. I am taken in at times by Stoicism but like in life, there are many ways up that mountain.

I believe we meet people at different stages of evolution, ours and theirs. To call a person devious or evil is a judgement and stamps permanence in character. In the same vein, no one can always be a kind hearted saint.

What we encounter in others is sometimes an imbalance, in a wounded masculine that can manifest as dishonesty, contempt, dismissiveness, disrespect, aggression, deflection, denial or in a victimized feminine [4] it can allow for disrespect, it attacks, suffers in maintaining a status quo, is vindictive, adapts to it or manipulates. This imbalance engenders a dysfunctional personal, social, political dynamic that we notice in our environment.  We all have elements within us that illustrate both principles in their positive and negative expressions, if you ignore the gendered definitions of masculine or feminine. It isn’t easy to honour them at all times but to honour them requires introspection and a personal magnanimity of thought and spirit.

Though useful in times while facing overt or covert personal attacks from those you trust, I find the Stoic sayings a bit dispassionate, similar but not the same as the Buddha’s approach, which I find more compassionate, in that it allows you to centre yourself in no judgement of another. It does not render you a saint but it gives you the space to honour yourself as you individuate to a balanced wholeness. At least in this context, (I am not in any way attempting to encapsulate the philosophy or the religion in their entirety in a few quotes here), I remember two stories, attributed to the Boddhisatva. I have written them in poems, I think they are self explanatory.

The gift                        The Buddha walks cloaked in silence and he follows Him, a man accosted by demons hooked onto his linens that were brocaded in anger, creweled in contempt and he held a staff of vitriol. Such acerbic syllables  he uttered at the one with a gracious mien, insults that would have melted any lesser being. So the one haloed radiantly in the sun asked the one suffering in the hideousness of the demoniacal,"If you were to buy a gift and offer it to someone who wished not to accept it, who would the gift belong to?" "Of course, it would still belong to me", hissed the rage slithering within the man. Then, said He, with utmost grace, "How then do you force upon me a gift I wish not to accept. It remains yours still."

It’s common today to speak of boundaries, I simply think of the Buddha’s idea of an unacceptable gift. Boundaries are hard to define or maintain in situations that demand vulnerability but learning to rise above what you do not wish to accept helps safeguard precious vulnerability and yet provides  distance from a diminishing and irredeemable circumstance. This I believe, a lot of us struggle with and this story has served as a mantra of sorts, at least for me.

Another lovely story that was attributed to either the Buddha or Mahavira Jain, but thought provoking nevertheless, is as below ~

The appeal                    The gracious one stopped by a lake / where a lotus bloomed like morning itself / fragrant, bejeweled in dew / Those days, fresh water wasn't a pun / and flowers weren't metaphors / Water Gods existed and the world revolved around parables / He stopped to moisten his parched lips / and his heart raced at the beauty of the flower / that he wished to possess it / Reaching out, he was assailed by the rebuke of the Water God, who admonished him for laying claim to His flower/ The gracious one  recoiled at the error of his way and withdrew from the waters edge / In time a brute stopped by for a drink / hastened from his horse and glanced at the beauty of the naked lotus / that quivered at dawn / He pulled it off it's long stalk and deflowered it / That's where the term came from / this rough shod trudge on vulnerability / He went about his merry way with nary a thought / while the God remained silent / The gracious one asked the water deity forthwith, "why did you not rebuke the man so?" / The God simply offered, "It is an appeal I could make only to those that would understand".

Today I simply felt like creating poetry out of these two stories that have stayed with me for ages, a reminder of how to be, a personal philosophy. We always need reminding and Stoic thought this morning was a great way to trigger a poetic construction in memory of something that lay dormant for a while.

It’s been a busy Sunday, a delayed blog post, more philosophy than poetry … tomorrow, other stories, other poems … Thank you for reading.

Background Authorities: (I try avoiding too many hyperlinks and external links to my posts in case it renders them spammy. I have to check though, if it actually makes a difference )

[1]The Stoic Antidote to Frustration: Marcus Aurelius on How to Keep Your Mental Composure and Emotional Equanimity When People Let You Down~https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/04/13/marcus-aurelius-meditations-robin-waterfield/(retrieved 18/apr/21)

[2]Stoicism~https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/(retrieved 18/apr/21

[3]The Net Advance of Physics RETRO: Weblog KEKULÉ’S DREAMS ~http://web.mit.edu/redingtn/www/netadv/SP20151130.html (retrieved 18/apr/21)

[4]https://ommanicenter.com/feminine-principle-a-wake-up-call/(retrieved 18/apr/21)