Discussion of Impermanence and Analysis of the poem “The Quest”

Poetry is an art form that not everyone appreciates. Poems take leave of everyday consciousness and strive to convey something deeper. In that sense, they are like dreams. Dreams are just as truthful as everyday life, if not more so. But the language is distinct. The language consists of symbols, images, and emotions, not logic. Words and logic often cover up what’s really going on inside of us. Words and logic allow us to lie to ourselves and overlook our own destructive patterns. But when we close our eyes and dream, go into meditation, or write a poem, the truth comes to the surface – a truth that is difficult, impossible, or simply too painful to convey in normal parlance.

 

The following poem spoke to me because, in the course of 44 words and 2 paragraphs, it depicts the pain of Impermanence, the fruitless pursuit of worldly happiness, and the inevitability of death. The poem presents the haunting image of a ghost-like speaker who represents all of us:

 

The Quest

by Georgia Douglas Johnson

 

The phantom happiness I sought

O’er every crag and moor;

I paused at every postern gate,

And knocked at every door;

 

In vain I searched the land and sea,

E’en to the inmost core,

The curtains of eternal night

Descend – my search is o’er.

 

Happiness is indeed a “phantom” when we search for it outside of ourselves. There is nothing and no one that will never disappoint, or die, or change. That is the nature of existence. Buddhism describes it succinctly as “suffering.” Everything is subject to the law of Impermanence. Refusing to accept that is the root of all suffering. Embracing it is the beginning of wisdom and true happiness.

 

“Pausing at every postern gate” and “knocking on every door” describes the average person’s life before accepting Impermanence. We are convinced that the next set of achievements, acquisitions, or associations will be the key to lasting happiness. We think that once we graduate and move out of our parents’ house, once we get that perfect job, once we get married, once we have kids, once the kids move out, once the kids have kids, once we retire – then we will be happy and content. We repeatedly pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off when each person, each thing, disappoints us in some way. When the perfect job ends or becomes a bore; when the perfect spouse – “our rock and best friend” – betrays us or becomes a bore; when the kids turn their backs on us, embarrass us, or disappoint us, we then feel cheated by life. We convince ourselves that everyone else is happier than we are. All those glowing Facebook posts and grinning selfies can’t be wrong. Why can’t we find “it,” whatever “it” is?

 

The poem’s speaker realizes at life’s end, when the “curtains of eternal night/descend” at death, that the pursuit was “in vain,” pointless, a fruitless set-up. This does not have to be our fate, however. We do not have to wait until we’re on our deathbeds to realize that happiness is within, not “out there.”  Once we accept that life contains suffering, and that the suffering is caused by Impermanence, we can love life for what it is, rather than for what we want it to be.

 

Knowing that the people, things, and circumstances around us are impermanent allows us to appreciate them in the Now. They are precious because we have no idea how long we will have them. The sad things take on a less painful charge because we know that negative circumstances pass; they do not remain forever. This is how we achieve non-attachment.

 

Non-attachment does not mean that we don’t care. It means we look at life the way we watch a movie. Our emotions are real for the 2 hours we’re in the theater, but the whole time we know that it is a movie; it will end. When the lights come on, we stand up and move on to other things. The painful scenes in the movie pass away, and the happy or funny parts also pass. Yet we still enjoy it. We are fully invested for the 2 hours we are there. We can do this with life.

 

Life is a movie of every genre, and we are the lead actors. Let’s play our parts well, knowing that the great Oscar in the sky is the knowledge that the Love we leave behind is the only thing that’s real.

 

Peace and love,

Raven

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The Power of the Monologue: In Movies and in Real Life

Movies are great. We watch them for all sorts of reasons, mostly to escape our own world for a while and experience someone else’s. Ironically, we have the opportunity to enter foreign worlds all the time if we simply listen – really listen – to the people around us.

Listening is a skill that is in short supply. If you eavesdrop on the average conversation, you will often hear people talking at, or past, each other. People are simply waiting for their chance to talk. They are not letting the words of the other person sink into their consciousness. They do not ask follow-up questions, nor do they allow an ounce of silence to leave the impression that silence often does.

Or you might hear one person dominating a conversation while the other person struggles to cram in a few words here and there, desperate to complete a thought. When there is no listening going on, an opportunity is missed. We fail to gain understanding, to indulge the perspectives of those we claim to care about. We forsake the opportunity to experience, and provide, genuine connection.

That’s one service movies provide. A movie is like one long monologue. You are not expected to talk. You are supposed to listen and pay attention – rest your jaws long enough to be told a story, to learn something, to connect to an entirely different perspective. The beauty of the actor’s monologue is that it’s a monologue within the monologue of the movie. It’s a chance to learn something not only about the character speaking, but about the other characters as they react. It is a chance to connect with other humans in a situation you will likely never experience in real life.

The above clip of Tangina’s monologue in Poltergeist (1982) is a perfect example. She is a tiny person with a soft, high-pitched voice, a southern accent, and the power and inner strength of a warrior. She literally has the rest of the cast on their knees as they (and we) hang onto her every word. On the surface, she is educating them about an entirely different world – the world of spirits, a world they know nothing about. Underneath the surface, she is establishing a hierarchy. This tiny, soft-spoken woman is “bigger” than they initially imagine. She’s in charge. They had judged her by appearances when she first walked in. She is proving them wrong. She is teaching them, and us, that we shouldn’t judge by appearances.

Carol Anne, in her naiveté, is also judging by appearances. She sees “The Beast” as a child, like her. On the surface, he speaks to her like a child, “he says things only a child can understand.” Beneath the surface, he is using her to prevent the other spirits from achieving spiritual liberation and joy. He is tricking them with the artificial light of Carol Anne’s youth and innocence, distracting them from the true Light that represents their Final Freedom – a freedom which The Beast cannot and will not ever experience.

The movie is teaching us that there are false lights and true Lights. We see this with the boss, Mr. Teague, in that he fell for the false light of money and greed, distracted from basic human decency. “They’re just people,” he says about the human remains he plans to build on top of, too cheap and callous do anything more than move their headstones. Similarly, Carol Anne’s dad, Steve, as he stood with Teague on the hill that overlooked his neighborhood, wondered how anything bad could happen in such a beautiful neighborhood, on such a perfect sunny day. Underneath all the money, comfort, and normalcy was a secret that had literally been buried years prior. A secret that would violently rise to the surface and make itself known.

Secrets, in movies and in life, are often revealed by watching, listening, paying attention. Tangina’s monologue, and all monologues – in movies and in life – are an opportunity to learn something. Movies, through entertainment, compel us to listen. People in our lives, however, will not force us to listen. We can choose to listen, or we can choose to interrupt, wrestle the conversation back to ourselves, cut the other person off, or judge them for whatever they were trying to say. That is our choice.

But if we resist that urge, if we pay attention to each other as closely as we pay attention to movies, we might just learn our loved ones’ secrets. Then we won’t be blindsided when their secrets can no longer remain buried, when they finally do force us to listen through actions that shock us and disrupt everything we thought we knew. Monologues – in movies and in life – are golden moments of connection if we listen, really listen.

So, be aware of the monologues all around you. Allow them to happen. See how many worlds you can explore. The people around us are trying to make a connection. We are wise if we hear them and learn something.

Have a beautiful weekend. And remember – things are not always what they seem.

Raven

Writer Spotlight: Henry James

My favorite literary time period is the Victorian era (1814-1895, UK) and the late 19th century in general. I haven’t read everything from that era, of course, but my favorite authors and books come from that time period: Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Bram Stoker  (Dracula is considered Gothic, not Victorian, but it was written in the late 19th century, 1897).

 

Henry James is not Victorian either – he’s an American and a Naturalist – but I am attracted to his work. Much of his writing was produced in the late 19th century. My attraction to that time period is probably due to its pessimism about society, criticism of class divides, defiance of certain social conventions, and an attitude of self-determination rather than relying on supernatural solutions to human problems. Naturalism, though, tends to believe that environment creates destiny, which I disagree with. Victorian literature responds to its disappointment with society by attempting to provide hope; it is essentially optimistic. Exploring the predicaments that arise from confronting the power of Custom is engaging and timeless. So, I’ve decided to celebrate 19th century literature periodically in this blog by spotlighting certain authors.

 

Today, it’s Henry James. There are several things that stood out to me about James’ life. One, is that he grew up fairly privileged. Both of his parents came from money. This afforded James the opportunity to travel extensively at a young age. Certainly, his experiences in Europe influenced his writing. Many of his stories are about clashes between American and European culture when Americans are on European soil. He knew about this first hand, choosing to eventually give up American citizenship to become a Brit.

 

In Europe, he also associated with other writers.  Association is crucial. Charles Dickens and George Eliot were two of James’ acquaintances, along with other artists and intellectuals. I often forget how important association is. Most successful creatives throughout history have had other creatives to associate with, and gain inspiration from. Birds of a feather…

 

My favorite fact about Henry James is that he continued to have success later in life. The piece that is considered by many to be his first real masterpiece is Portrait of a Lady (1881), which came out in his 38th year. And one of his most famous works, Wings of the Dove, came out when he was fifty-nine. The good news about writing is that it’s not like modeling. As long as you keep at it, you can get better with age!

 

Following is a list of some his most notable novels and novellas. I know summer is unofficially over, but I hope you haven’t put away your summer reading list yet!

 

  • Portrait of a Lady (1881)
  • Washington Square (1881)
  • The Bostonians (1886)
  • The Princess Casamassima (1886)
  • The Aspern Papers (1888)
  • The Tragic Muse (1890)
  • The American (1891)
  • What Maisie Knew (1897)
  • The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  • The Ambassadors (1903)
  • The Wings of the Dove (1902)
  • The Golden Bowl (1904)

 

Happy reading and have a beautiful weekend,

Raven