Spiritual Affinities

We’re taking a short break from our 2013 Journal, Seeing It Otherwise.  This year, as many of you know, we’re exploring perceptions, assumptions, and reactions via journal-like entries every other Friday morning here in SunnyRoomStudio.

  • Today, however, I’m pleased to introduce my Studio Guest, Richard Gilbert.  His guest post also touches on how we might see things otherwise.

The author of a forthcoming memoir of farming in Appalachia, he teaches at Otterbein University and blogs about writing at Narrative — but Richard also digs into important spiritual topics with wonderful creativity and enthusiasm.  I think you will greatly appreciate the insights offered in his guest post.

  • Weaving together thoughtful impressions of Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Rilke, and Virginia Woolf, Richard tackles some intriguing spiritual themes.  Perfect for a  doubting and skeptical world.  Thanks so much, Richard, for visiting this sunny space for kindred spirits.  You are my 33rd Studio Guest.  Welcome.  

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 Spiritual Affinities in Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Rilke & Virginia Woolf

by Richard Gilbert

 “As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.”
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

I surely wouldn’t have responded as strongly to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet had I not first read Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. 

Just before she got sick six years ago, my Mom mailed me Tolle’s gaudy orange paperback, a spiritual synthesis with a Zen gestalt. I would’ve never bought such a New-Agey bestseller myself. Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement on its cover provoked my disdain, and I threw it aside on the dining room table the day it came. Back in my recliner, grading freshman papers—I was teaching a composition class—I picked up a girl’s essay in which she began to discuss A New Earth. Jess was an art major, sensitive and smart, and was taken with Tolle’s insights into how the ethereal beauty of flowers, birds, and precious stones can awake people to their own inner essence.

I lowered my La-Z-Boy with a thunk, got Tolle’s book, and started reading.

Richard Gilbert

A New Earth struck me as a masterpiece, and I’ve read it repeatedly since Mom’s illness and death. Tolle writes of the “pain-body” each human carries—baggage: familial, racial, sexual, national—and how inability to let go of it cripples one’s ability to live fully in the present. He also answers the question of what, in you, is irked by the malodorous egos of others: your ego. He defines the ego simply, as that in human nature which “wants and fears.”

With his faith in a changing global consciousness, Tolle reinforced my innate, progressive view of history. Humans are getting better. This has buttressed my growing faith in some sort of greater power working through us in history.

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Just as reading Buddhism and evolutionary psychology prepared me to grasp Tolle’s insights, so Tolle led me back to the Bible and caused Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet to become instantly precious to me. I could see that Rilke—another German poet!—was working on the same problem of how to be human. Of what to do about human nature, which as Sigmund Freud noted includes pervasive anxiety, hyper-sexuality, and guilt.

But humans refuse to be reduced to mere reactions and biological urges. Witness Carl Jung’s grand counter-vision of the collective unconscious. Or even the obvious and pervasive yearnings for transcendence from the merely personal, from ego, that have made A New Earth a bestseller kept Letters to a Young Poet forever in print.

Going far deeper than how to make and how to consider art, Letters to a Young Poet is stoked by an ancient issue, this dilemma of having an animal’s body shackled to a mind with something immortal in it. In barely forty pages, a series of letters written beginning in 1903 to an aspiring poet, Rilke, only twenty-seven at the start, reveals hints of his profound, ongoing spiritual work.

I was struck by his growing but subtly expressed metaphor of the artist as someone pregnant with judgments who, in the fullness of time, brings forth a new clarity. Great writers, it seems to me, eventually dive beneath gender’s hard surface into the ocean of common humanity beneath. Certainly one of Tolle’s points is the superficiality and irrelevance of gender. Both sexes share the same task and fate.

  • Rilke develops his androgynous pregnancy metaphor in a stunning passage:

“Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.”

Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with outward form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”

  • Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, and by that name, though, in a most Tolle-like way, as arising not from knowledge but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:

“And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him? . . .

As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.”

In childhood I felt closest to nature as well, saw it and felt it most keenly. In terms that Tolle mirrors, Rilke expresses his reverence for nature’s essence:

“[A]ll beauty in animals and plants is a quiet enduring form of love and longing, and he can see the animal, as he sees the plant, patiently and willingly uniting and propagating itself and growing, not from physical lust, not from physical pain, but bowing to necessities which are greater than lust and pain and more powerful than will and opposition. O that man might be more humble in accepting this secret of which the earth is full even in its tiniest creatures, and more sincere in bearing, enduring and feeling how frightfully serious it is, instead of taking it lightly.”

  • Though I haven’t researched it, except to note that Rilke isn’t mentioned in Tolle’s bestsellers, surely Tolle read and was influenced by Rilke—the affinities are too great. Then again, writers forever traffic in the same issues, finding similar answers that they express in their own ways.

I’ve been thrilled, for instance, by Virginia Woolf’s essay “Moments of Being,” in A Sketch of the Past, which describes her instances of existing briefly, from childhood onward, outside of time in a very Tolle-like “now,” and by her Rilke-like concept of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own. And not even Tolle has written a more damning condemnation of ego than Woolf in “A Sketch of the Past,” about her relationship with her overbearing father:

“From it all I gathered one obstinate and enduring conception. That nothing is to be so much dreaded as egotism. Nothing so cruelly hurts the person himself; nothing so wounds those who are forced into contact with it.”

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T.S. Eliot captured the way I feel about Tolle, Rilke, and Woolf when in his poem “The Waste Land” he wrote, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” What can we do except add to our shards of existing knowledge? And we extract from literature what resonates with something even deeper in us. Perhaps, as Tolle and Rilke and Woolf would have it, with a sense and with sensations half-remembered from childhood. Surely many of us can recall experiencing the world more vibrantly then. Children, and another vulnerable group, the aged, also seem, perhaps for this reason, closer to God.

  • God?

We don’t have an easy or shared way to discuss this yet. But I’m sure we will, one day. I know that most of Europe’s great cathedrals, after wars and Holocaust, stand empty. I sense that most Americans don’t believe anymore in our species, let alone in its ways of worship. But as a species we’ve clearly selected against brutes, and we’ve nurtured goodness in us as well.

I suspect that my faith in Homo sapiens is becoming a minority position, though under their hardened exteriors surely most humans believe in values that stem from our ancestors’ spiritual knowledge. Love thy neighbor; forgive trespasses. Difficult tasks, but unless people try, are reminded they should try, I wonder. What’s left? It doesn’t seem viable to me that humans can count on mass disillusionment in place of spiritual insight and discipline. Can count on our unknown, unloved neighbors to teach their children to tolerate us as we totter into their paths.

We’re such a young species. We arose only 200,000 years ago, something new under the sun,  blessed and burdened and blazing with ego. Was ego our Fall? Tolle seems to think so. Or did it come, as the Bible suggests, only 10,000 years ago with our discovery of agriculture? Farming fueled the risen glory of human civilization but permitted the selfish accumulation of vast wealth, which in turn led to the usurpation of God by tyrant Pharaohs and egoist dictators of every stripe. And we’ve seen what death results when our urge to dominate, a residue from our lowest simian substrate, unites with the blinkered ego.

And yet we’ve fought, and many are still fighting worldwide, for freedom, for morality, for goodness.

  • So can we agree there’s something else in us, too?

After Tolle, Rilke, and Woolf, I’m sure that it’s any adult’s task to define, for himself, the God he believes in—or doesn’t. Maybe then we can talk. For myself, I believe there’s something divine within us, a shared will we don’t yet understand. This indwelling force, this impulse toward goodness, is what I call God. When Buddha or Jesus or Mohammed enters history, when people write and assemble sacred documents like the Bible and the Koran and the U.S. Constitution, when Lincoln delivers his Second Inaugural Address, there it is, a manifestation of God working through us in time.

Whenever and however people gather to worship goodness and praise its existence, that is God.

Some, believing far less of God, or so much more, will find my definition grandiose or paltry. So be it—I find my own ignorance offensive. When I write, I’m fueled by pain and hope, moving forward, toward light, in a helpless search for the divine. And for all of us who are out there working out our own pieces of this puzzle, in Letters to a Young Poet Rilke offers immortal advice on how to test the worth of our testimony:

“A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.”

Richard Gilbert worked in newspapers and university press book publishing, each for more than a decade, was a Kiplinger fellow in journalism at Ohio State, and earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College. He has taught writing at Ohio State, Indiana University, Ohio University, and Otterbein University.  He currently teaches English and journalism at Otterbein, on the banks of Alum Creek in Westerville, Ohio.  You can find Richard on Facebook or via his excellent blog, Narrative.

  • Please feel free to leave a comment below for Richard.  Thank you! 
  • Next blog post is May 12, 2013.  Journal Entry 6, Seeing It Otherwise. 
  • View all Studio Guests in SunnyRoomStudio.

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