Thursday, September 20, 2012


 “When you argue with reality, you lose. But only 100 per cent of the time.”

                                                                                          --Byron Katie
I have a poet friend who taught poetry and creative writing in a university for about  40 years and then, after he retired from the English Department, began to teach courses in the Philosophy Department. The transition makes sense, because poets, like philosophers and psychologists and other thinkers, are interested in such things as wisdom, moral values, and how to be happy (or at least not unhappy). Whenever poetry is involved, however, it’s not just the philosophical or psychological ideas that matter, but the particular way in which those ideas are expressed.  

Look at this brief and seemingly unsophisticated Mother Goose poem:  

Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep,
And can't tell where to find them;
Leave them alone, and they'll come home
And bring their tails behind them.

Notice that the first two lines suggest a potential problem: lost sheep. Yes, life certainly does have its difficulties and challenges. But there’s a shift that begins with the third line. This short poem—using images of a little girl and her sheep, and rimes (even an internal rime in the first line)—speaks to the importance of patience. Instead of worrying about this or that—for instance, what happened to all of those sheep? and calling up so many negative what if scenarios . . . the poem implies that it’s best to relax, step back, leave things alone, and see what happens. Or, to put it another way: the poem says, in effect: Here is the reality: Little Bo Peep’s sheep have been lost and she doesn’t know, at least right now, how she’ll find them. It’s interesting that when we just stay with the facts and don’t allow our thoughts to stray (like Bo Peep’s sheep) beyond the facts, we feel clear-headed. That’s because we aren’t arguing with reality; instead, we’re in synch with it. On the other hand, when we argue with reality, we can easily become frustrated. The Buddhists and other Eastern thinkers, as well as many Western psychotherapists and thinkers, say that suffering happens when we want—or expect—things to be different from what they are. When I’m in a worrying state, I sometimes recall an old song from my youth, whose refrain was: “Don’t worry, be happy.” 

There’s a poem by the ancient Persian poet, Rumi, with a similar theme to the Mother Goose poem above. In “A Small Green Island,” translated by Coleman Barks, Rumi describes a white cow living alone on an island. In the daytime she grazes on the grass, which is abundant and waist-high, and by evening it’s “clipped short.” But every night, after having become “full of strength and energy” from eating the good grass, the cow panics, and grows “abnormally thin.” Rumi tells us that the island represents “the world,” and the cow represents “the bodily soul.” He says that the cow “never thinks, This meadow has never failed/to grow back” so why should she “be afraid every night/that it won’t?” Here’s the last stanza: 

White cow, don't make yourself miserable
with what's to come, or not to come.

What Rumi and Mother Goose say is true: we tend to make ourselves miserable by obsessing over what has happened in the past and/ or what we think may—or may not—happen in the future. We manufacture disturbing stories (or, perhaps more accurately, they manufacture themselves spontaneously in our mind). Rumi’s poem says the same thing that sages of philosophy and psychology have been saying for thousands of years: Live in the moment (which is the only time we’re alive anyway); trust yourself; accept what can’t be changed to suit you—even if you don’t happen to like what can’t be changed. The sages say that it’s best to face what is, rather than denying or resisting it. Byron Katie, in her book, LOVING WHAT IS, says that arguing with reality is like trying to teach a cat to bark. No matter how long and hard you work at it, the cat will look up at you and say “meeow.” 

Poems—like the ones from Mother Goose and Rumi—often tell us valuable and useful things about our lives. In fact, poems can be life-enhancing, and life-altering. It should not be surprising that there is a field of clinical psychology called Poetry Therapy, which involves a specific degree for certification, and therapists who encourage their clients to read and write poetry, a practice that can aid healing from difficult life situations. Most of us who love poetry can recall a poem that helped us in some way get through a crisis, or to deal with a sad event.

Unlike philosophers and other thinkers, who tend to speak in abstract terms, poets say what they say with images. For instance: sheep, a little girl tending them, an island meadow, a white cow growing fat; but then—because it allows itself to argue with reality—growing lean and sickly. 
I have in my memory—as well as near my desk pinned to cork boards—many quotes from various thinkers and writers, past and present. I tend to call on  these quotes whenever I’m wishing for things to be different from what they are (a common human habit). 

For instance, like most people, I’m not at all enchanted with the reality of aging. I appreciate Tennyson’s line in a poem about Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides.” And I also like what Robert Browning said about aging in a poem that many of us are familiar with:  “Grow old with me! /The best is yet to be./The last of life, for which the first was made . . .” Then he advises us that age is the time to:  “ . . . take and use thy work:  Amend what flaws may lurk . . .” and then, most importantly of all: “Look not thou down but up!” These are comforting words for anyone over 60 or so.                   
One of my close-by quotes is from the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (I also carry it in my billfold): “Do not seek to have everything that happens as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.” And here’s another quote, which is a paraphrase of the Epictetus quote. It’s by Sharon Bakewell, who recently wrote a fist-rate biography of the French philosopher, Montaigne, a contemporary of Shakespeare: “One should be able to accept everything just as it is, willingly, without giving into the futile longing to change it.”   

Here’s another quote by Epictetus that I consider indispensible: “What disturbs our minds is not events but our judgments on events.” So true: it’s not what happens to us (which we often have no control over) that matters nearly as much as our attitude toward it—in other words, as I mentioned above: the problems often are the result of clinging to the thoughts, stories, and scenarios in our mind, which tend to have a life of their own and take us far beyond the bounds of reason and reality—and clear-headed thinking that recognizes reality for what it is. As the cliché goes, we make mountains out of mole hills. Instead, Epictetus and Rumi and others admonish us to accept reality, and to trust it, just as it is. Otherwise, we’re fighting a battle that we can’t win.