Walt Whitman, Agnes Martin, and Thomas Merton on What You Shall Do.

No one can tell you what you shall do. There are many paths and I have seen clearly that my path is not the only path, the best path, or the right path for anyone but me.

On the other hand, I am forever inspired by teachers, writers, and artists who are trying, through variety of languages, mediums, and disciplines to help us find our way.

Walt Whitman, Agnes Martin, and Thomas Merton are three artists that I turn to again and again when I do not know what to do.

Walt Whitman, a social activist, a bit of a revolutionary who fought for average workers rights, and a ultimately a supporter of the abolishment of slavery, celebrates solitude. He  knows that the subtle action is as valuable as the great action. His language and cadence make me feel companioned in my desire for stillness. I am freed by Song to Myself.

“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”

 

I  like to spend a lot of time leaning and loafing and sometimes feel guilty about it.  Permission to observe a spear of grass has been so very helpful in my life. I am given permission to dwell in the invisible.

This next passage was posted on Brain Pickings Weekly; Maria Popova finds all the good stuff!

Whitman, in a commencement address, does not hesitate in giving firm fisted advice to the graduating class: 

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” Walt Whitman

Agnes Martin, who writes on perfection and the dragon left the New York Art world to live and paint in the desert of New Mexico. She speaks in a confident, clear, manner when she tells us the difference between right & wrong intention in our actions and our work:

“My interest and yours is art work, works of art, every smallish work of art and every kind of art work. We are very interested, dedicated in fact. There is no half way 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.
Why do we go everywhere searching out works of art and why do we make works of art. The answer is that we are inspired to do so.”

 

Each morning I am faced with the choice to write, practice yoga, check email chitty-chat with my husband, connect, be nice... or not.

The fact that my choice may turn out well or it may not turn out well is arbitrary. Martin's understanding that all of it is inspired is hopeful to me. Martin is forgiving and understands the ebb and flow that is life. Her articulation gives me courage to go on.

Agnes Martin continues, “When we wake up in the morning we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well, or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired.” 

I often practice restraint and discipline in the mornings knowing it is my best time to write. I always have a piece of paper out, in case the writing is not going well, then I draw. And if for some reason, my mind is distracted and I cannot find peace, then I check my email, answer questions, and connect to others. How I begin each day is so precious. It is so indicative of the hours that follow. Often I forgive myself and begin again. 

According to Daniel Berriganon on the Thomas Merton Website,  Merton was “the conscience” of the peace movement of the 1960's.

The Christian monk, author, and teacher, Merton referred to race and peace as the two most urgent issues of our time. He was a strong supporter of the non-violent civil rights movement, which the empowered monk called "certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States." Merton was an advocate of east-west dialogue and was both praised and criticized for his monumental works.

I love how Thomas Merton uses the metaphor of the mountain as a place for refuge and ultimate awakening. He tells us how to travel on this terrain and I often think of him when times are rough:

The Other Side of the Mountain. “The contemplative life must provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices “ beyond routine choices” become manifest. It should create a new experience of time, not as a stopgap stillness, but as “Temps Vierge”, not a blank to be filled, or an untouched space to be conquered or violated, but a space which can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes, and its own presence to itself. One’s own time, but not dominated by the ego and it’s demands. Hence open to others - compassionate time.”

 

My teacher says that yoga has three branches of government. These branches include the community, the texts, and the teacher. Guiding lights like, Merton, Whitman, and Martin have been text, teacher, and community to me. I cannot absorb and integrate everything they say all the time; but I find, if I go back to their writings again and again the practice leads me into the mystery…I find tonic and know exactly what I shall do.

 

Whitman also says:

"Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in
books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self."

Two additional favorite pieces of advice:

Richard Tuttle, “Spend your time thinking about the art of making art.”
Dharma Mitra, “ Every spare minute, turn your mind to God”

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