I am in the middle of a fascinating conversation with a close friend that I feel needs to be shared with a wider audience. You can find her argument here.
Read it first – it’s exceptionally good. Here is my reply:
It’s difficult to find an entry point into Emma’s argument, because I agree with so much of it. However, there are a few points which I think need to be disputed, if only for the value of argument and how it furthers thought, not because they are necessarily false. I think it perhaps best to start with Eckhart Tolle, because he seems to have influenced much of what Emma claims.
There was a brilliant argument laid out about Upworthy recently (http://flavorwire.com/447533/you-dont-have-to-be-cynical-to-worry-about-upworthy/) and it describes accurately what I think can also be applied to Tolle. I don’t want to disagree with him, because much of what he says is valid and all of it has a noble sentiment running beneath it. However, like Upworthy, this sentiment does not change the fact that there are some serious problems worth considering when thinking about his writing and ideas. The Power of Now is essentially an argument about mindfulness dressed up to seem more magical, mystical and insightful than it really is. In order to do this, Tolle overstates his case and, in so doing, is able to claim nonsensical things like the title of his first chapter. You are very much your mind, as well as your body, and to deny either is to cut off an important aspect of self. What I hope Tolle is really getting at is not the ‘Evil’ mind, but the relationship we have with our thoughts and perceptions.
And, even here, I disagree with the way he presents his argument. It’s an important aspect of the ‘flow state’, now slowly being understood by science through fMRI’s and other such neat tools, that the neocortex shuts down, so Tolle is right about being the ‘silent watcher’ of our thoughts, as the neocortex is the seat of that judgemental inner voice which the good doctor talks about keeping quiet. So, when working (especially on creative projects), it’s important to follow Tolle’s advice. However, ‘flow states’ are temporary – we cannot live our whole life in a state of flow, nor should we wish to.
The truth (or, at least, the version I subscribe to) is that one of the most defining aspects of being human is the ability to imagine a multitude of future possibilities, pick the best one, and pull the present forward to meet it. The ability to imagine future possibilities is one of the primary functions of the neocortex, and one we should value highly, as it is also a path to happiness, both synthesised and real. The neocortex also happens to be the seat of complex language, so Tolle wouldn’t have even been able to articulate his argument if what he claims is entirely true.
Yes, we need to learn to live in the present, and passively observe SOME thoughts without being over-critical of their worth or aptness of expression, but we also need to be critical of our general thought patterns in order to make sure that they are as accurate and close to our own truths as possible. One of the tricks of the artist is knowing when to do which, for art does not simply come from appreciating beauty, but also from a careful process of self-examination and critique that is the unique ability of the human animal.
The first paragraph of Emma’s argument reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s closing words in A Room of One’s Own: “Do not dream of influencing others. Think of things in themselves”. Tolle seems to be trying too hard to influence others and so loses sight of the thing itself that he is trying to get at (and a noble and a good thing it is, too). This inarticulable thing has been known, in varying formats and descriptions, across the world for millennia, from India to China to Japan and back again and so to present it as a mind-altering ‘discovery’ is, frankly, to be dishonest.
So, what does this have to do with poetry? If all one had to do was try and reach for the divine in order to produce something perfect and graceful, then there would be a great many more classics and masterpieces out there. Again, I like the sentiment, but practical reality is much harsher. The attempt might always be graceful, but the result will not be. In order to make it so, one requires much more than mere effort, one requires (again) a process of self-examination and contextual awareness, mixed with innate talent, an understanding of the other (both within you and those actually reading your work) and a great deal of luck and opportunity.
And timing. Timing is key.
The ability to see beauty is not always good enough, what is required is a reflexive awareness of why one finds an object or emotion to be beautiful and an ability to express that in words capable of transmitting such awareness. Words capable of taking your particular truth and making it general (to paraphrase Andre Gide). Clumsy expression does not detract from experience, but to despair about clumsy expression is a feeling known to all writers and one which can be extremely useful, when constructively applied to the process of writing and editing.
Creativity, to me, is more than merely being present. It is the ability to see connection where others see only randomness and chaos. Yes, you need to live firmly in the present in order to have a base from which to do this, but you require a great deal of mind, and mindfulness, to be able to extend the present, through your unique connections, to something more general which we might lable a piece of art.
I agree that the poetry we create is not us, per se (see C. S. Lewis’ The Personal Heresy for a brilliant and erudite discussion of this) but there still remains some part of me within what I write. Yes, I would continue to exist if my poetry were lost, but that existence would be substantively different to the one that I lead now. Good poetry comes from both me and (Jung’s) general unconscious of which I am a part, from an awareness and acknowledgement of mind and body, and it resists the all-too-easy dichotomies which Tolle is prone to reducing his argument to.
To me, ‘I AM’ only satisfies the ‘what’ of existence – one of poetry’s primary functions is to examine the ‘why’ of our being as best it can. This why is far more complicated than the mere ‘simplicity of being’ and, for that reason, far harder to enunciate in generalised and pretty words. Therefore, such an examination is, in my opinion, far more likely to lead to good poetry (and perhaps even artwork) than merely accepting that we are and recycling fake insights about our innermost selves and living in the now.
Ultimately, who I am is more than here and now. I am as a result of innumerable contexts, people, experiences, memories (real and imagined), thoughts and feelings which extend to both the past and future, linked by (and grounded in) the present.
Increasingly in this technologised world, I am because I share. I share moments, memories, thoughts, links, love, experience and, in so doing, come to know more of myself and my place in a random and chaotic existence.
I am because I acknowledge that this existence is random and chaotic and cannot be conquered by a simplified internal journey of discovery, but that such journeys allow for the possibility to create our own happiness and sense of purpose.
I am, in short, possibility. Random, chaotic, creative, awesome possibility.