The Old Poets of China
By Mary Oliver
Wherever I am the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.
Mary Oliver in her new essay, Of Power and Time, explains the phenomena of solitude in relation to our creative endeavors. The form of the endeavor can be varied: yoga, writing, painting or anything else that quiets the mind. She says,
“Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to a certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.”
I was thinking about the yoga practice, and how Swatmarama, in the Yoga Pradipika, informs the yogi that our practice place should be small, situated in a solitary place… free from stones, fire, water, and disturbances of all kinds…
Each day, I rise early to be alone, write, draw and paint. In Sanskrit this time is called Brahma Muhurtha, which literally translates as the creators hour. This hour begins in the dark and as one works our world is formed. The sky becomes striped in red and the greenest blue. Silent orange yellow sun stains the atmosphere. The land, water, and boats in the harbor are touched by a bit of fire. This is the time for me, when the world is quiet and the morning sun is begins to rise.
Oliver continues, “Privacy, then. A place apart - a place to chew pencils, to scribble and erase, and scribble again…Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among the easements and comforts and pleasures, it (creativity) is seldom seen.”
Often we go to our mat in community, we see our friends, find pleasure and pain in class together. But our deep creative work happens alone. It can happen in a moment of silence during class. It can happen when we close our eyes and find the inner world. It can happen when we are home alone, stretching and pointing our face to the moon.
But both texts remind us what's next, distractions inevitably arrive. External and internal obstacles arise when we sit down to focus. This is the nature of the task. In Indian mythology, Ganesh is a symbolic remover of obstacles. A big elephant-headed being that uses his girth to sweep our path clear. But the funny thing is, Ganesh soon becomes an obstacle himself. This symbolism teaches us that the obstacles cannot be avoided; they must be met and worshipped as part of the creative process. The process then becomes the yoga. We can wrestle with Ganesh but he is too powerful. We can try to out-maneuver him but he is too smart. Instead we embrace the distraction and keep our butt in the chair or our body on the mat or our brush on the canvas, no matter the pull. We persist, endure and the work itself becomes a satisfying and illuminating endeavor.
Today, I am late to my desk, and the construction outside is already banging. The light reveals things to be done, remembered and acted upon. How I crave a bit more of the darkness, the cave of in-between day and in-between night.
Oliver continues, “The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self, and does - is a darker, more curious matter.”
What is it that draws us out of engagement with our work? Continuing with our reference to the Pradipika, Swatmarama speaks of 6 obstacles to success in the yoga practice:
1. Overeating: too much of anything creates a problem. Overeating in particular can lead to health issues related to disease and destruction of the body. We need the body to do our work.
2. Exertion: strain or pushing leads to attachment. When we are so busy trying hard, we lose sight of the present moment. The breath and mind become distorted. We need a clear mind to work well.
3. Talkativeness: the inner world is a silent world. My teacher always reminded us to begin the practice by quieting the language function. Verbal chitchatting is a distraction. So is inner talk that distracts the mind from actually feeling.
4. Adhering to rules: Yogis are not fundamentalists. The inherent belief that if I do something the “right way” the result will be “holy” is an obstacle on the path. In yoga and art, the rules must eventually be broken. Understanding this takes integrity because in the beginning disciplined study is required. Once the habit has been set, yoga and art only occur after the form is blown away by the wind, like Tibetan sand paintings.
5. Company of men: if I accept every invitation and fill every spare moment with friends, I have no time for solitude. No space for me. Without solitude there will be no success in the practice. We need to be alone to listen, feel, and allow.
6. Unsteadiness: this refers to extremes in the practice. Often times we come to yoga to increase flexibility. But too much is not good. Though we need alone time in our practice, this time must be grounded in connection. Though we should not eat too much, eating too little will also make us sick. Yogis call this balance grounding. Grounding leads to steadiness and steadiness leads to success.
These obstacles, which are the impediments to yoga, writing, and all art making, are to be met with any variety of tools. The sole aim is to steady the mind for sustained concentration.
Agnes Martin, one of my favorite painters, thinks of “nothing” to calm her mind. Mary Oliver offers a loyalty as an antidote…“a complete loyalty, as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity”. The Pradipika says, by whom the breathing has been controlled, by him the activities of the mind have been overcome.
Calming the mind reinstates concentration that will help one stay on the mat, at the keyboard or easel. The aim of our practice has nothing to do with achieving a specific form. For example, the path does not say that every writer must produce a novel, every painter a large format work, or that every yogi must accomplish handstand. These notions seem silly indeed, but how many times do we confuse the form for the task? For me, this is where the art of practice comes in. Practice is a mystery. It forgoes form to the invisible, and it facilitates magic in our lives.
Agnes Martin says of the work, “in your work, in the way you do your work and in the results of your work, yourself is expressed. Behind and before self-expression is a developing awareness in the mind that affects the work. This developing awareness I will also call the work. It is the most important part of the work. There is the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work is a result.”
I don’t stay up late to write, I am too tired. Dreams call me to the total stillness of sleep. But 3am, 4am, and 5am I’m up and at the keyboard with a cup of coffee, alone. I engage discipline to stay away from Facebook, Instagram, and the news. Instead turning to the “news” of the book I read the night before, or taught in class on the previous day, I see what is inside me. The inner world offers content for understanding, study, and art. Somehow, I am swept away. Before I know it, the coffee is gone, I need to stretch my back, and there are words on the page.
Martin continues, “My interest and yours is artwork, works of art, every smallish work and every kind of art work. We are very interested, dedicated in fact. There is no halfway with art. We wake up thinking about it and we go to sleep thinking about it.
We go everywhere looking for it, both artists and non-artists.
It is very mysterious the fast hold that it has upon us considering how little we know about it. We do not even understand our own response to our own work.”
It is extraordinary that we heed the call.
Mary Oliver says, “In creative work, creative work of all kinds, those who are the artists are not helping the world go round, but forward. This is something altogether different from the ordinary… Certainly there is, within each of us, a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity...The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work- who is thus responsible to the work.”
Making time to be alone allows me to create. Sometimes, I travel half way around the world for this time and daily, I crawl out of bed deep into the night to find it. Sometimes I think my body breaks down and I get sick, insisting on this time when I push it aside. Sometimes I think I am crazy to spend so much time alone and be perfectly content. I, like all people, require connection, but for me alone does not mean separate. In fact, when I honor the time I need to concentrate, make art or write, I can love more fully, listen better, and be there for the people I love.
Oliver concludes with a powerful statement, a sort of love letter to those in her life this need for alone time has impacted,
“ The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time… My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”