David Whyte on Courage as a Measure of Our Heartfelt Participation with Life
There are maybe a handful to times in your life where you discover a book, that you want to keep by your bedside for the rest of your life. And for me that book is David’s ‘Consolations’. It ratcheted open my mind to a whole new perspective on the definitions of words like Ambition, Courage and Heartbreak, that I thought I previously understood.
I’m not sure how to even begin to describe exactly what it is that David does. On paper he’s an acclaimed poet, a writer and a philosopher. But to my mind, after having recently spent a magical week with him on the Irish Atlantic coastline, I feel like he’s a true elder, with a deep philosophical curiosity and gift for weaving together our inner and outer worlds in what he calls ‘the conversational nature of reality’.
We recorded this conversation, in David’s cottage by a roaring fire. You can probably hear how nervous I felt, especially early in the first few minutes. But what I really hope comes across, is the way that David’s voice casts a spell of sorts that puts those listening (myself included) into a state of reverie and complete undiluted attention.
It’s a wide-ranging conversation and towards the end we cover some really interesting ground on the questions he believes we’re living our way into as a society, and how Trump is a representation of everything that is wrong with the masculine picture of an immature boy that has never grown fully into the world.
JONNY: I’m sitting here with the poet and philosopher David Whyte here in Bally Vaughan and I’d like to begin this conversation by saying a heartfelt thank you for this meticulously crafted pilgrimage through the Irish coastline. I think just the look in in people’s eyes says how rich this week has been so I just want to say thank you. The question that I like to begin conversations with is to ask you to cast your mind back just a few years to when you were a child — do you feel like you were intensely curious growing up and if so what were you curious about about growing up in the Yorkshire Dales?
DAVID: I was intensely curious and always looking both to the horizon of the geography around me which was actually West Yorkshire rather than the Yorkshire Dales. The West riding, as it was called then, and it’s actually a grit stone country and moorlands and deep valleys. Whereas the Dales are limestone much lighter country and the Dales were settled by Norse and ours was settled by the Danes.
But there was another parallel landscape at the same time which was my mother’s Ireland that was very much alive in my imagination. I always remembers a card that was in a drawer that I looked at for years which had hands across the water written on it. And two hands shaking from Britain to Ireland.
I always loved to just the shape of Ireland actually on the map was very evocative to me it seemed almost like a person.
And so those two landscapes lived in parallel was the present Yorkshire one and then my mother’s Ireland and the arrival of Irish relatives at frequent intervals but also the Irish linguistic inheritance of my mother and my auntie Anne, and my O’Sullivan uncles, was very powerful. I used to move actually a morph from my mother’s diction to Yorkshire dialect and everything in between. So to this day my accent moves quite a bit according to where I am geographically.
JONNY: I get the sense and one of this these phrases that you’ve used I even again on this trip has been a genius loci which you said means the spirit of a place and I wondered if you could just elaborate a little bit on that and kind of what that what that means for you.
DAVID: Well we didn’t we tend to think of geniuses as human beings but in the ancient world a genius was also a place and the essential spirit of the place genius loci as in locus as in place location. And so it’s very merciful actually to think about human beings in the same way as a meeting place of everything that’s made you from your DNA to your family inheritance. To the struggles of your family to the local dialect where you grew up and whether it’s in California or in or in West Yorkshire and to the Meteorology of the place you know the light. And you know you’re shaped into a very different speaking representation of humanity growing up in Yorkshire than you are in many other places in the world and you’re shaped in the West of Ireland in a very different way too.
So there are two different edges which I felt I wasn’t supposed to choose between actually when from when I was quite young I remember when I was 7 or 8 years old. Realising that these two worlds collided in our house and I also realised at the same time that I wasn’t supposed to choose between them.
“That I was actually supposed to live in both and I suppose that’s the unspoken origin of what I call beautiful questions that we’re never going to get the entirely beautiful answer but we can always ask really beautiful questions. And always enlarge your horizon and your sense of things in your context and your understanding.”
JONNY: Yeah, which is something I’d actually I’d love to kind of come back to you a little bit later in the conversation. And one of my one of my favourite lines in I think it’s what to remember when waking is what you can plan is too small for you to live and it feels to me very relevant. I’ve got a cousin who’s graduating from University in a couple of weeks and I think when you’re kind of standing on that threshold as you say and kind of about to go into the world there’s that temptation to try and make fixed plans and to know exactly who you’re going to be and what you’re going to be doing. And I just wondered if you had any thoughts or maybe advice for people like her or the other millions of other students around the world who are kind of about to step over that threshold into the real world as we say yes.
DAVID: Well, I think one thing you have to realise is the student is how much your educational system is actually is actually narrowing and even destroying the richness of your personality.
You’re getting rewarded within a very narrow field of human inquiry and that’s around intellect naming and guessing what your professors or teachers are thinking when they ask you a question and so you actually to begin with what become work what is a strategy for a child becomes their identity.
And that’s one of the tragedies of our education system and so just to understand how constrained you are and to want something else in your life is a, isn’t it it’s an enormous necessity especially as our education systems of our run they’re rit really. There’s no scenario in an adult life where you get told to go into a room and work by yourself for two-and-a-half hours and not consult any other source of your life and yet this is what you’re tested on. And so just to understand how the falsity of our education systems here and there’s a kind of controlled folly that you have to work with in order to come out with the degree that gets you credibility in the world but not to mistake it for anything real that you might have learned actually and I had this very powerfully when I emerged with my degree in marine zoology and got to the Galapagos Islands.
And that place just overwhelmed any form of Linnaean classification that I’d learned about the world and overwhelmed me from the point of view of the tidal seasonal nature of reality. But also the presence of mortality and death in the natural world and the way I was implicated in it. And so I left Galapagos actually with a conscious sense that I was beginning to traverse back into my early love of poetry because I instinctively felt that poetry was a more precise language than science for actually understanding the phenomenology of existence.
Whereas science necessarily so that eliminates the I or tries to eliminate the I or creates ritual circumstances whereby you are under the illusion you’ve eliminated the I. You know good poetry tries to include both what you are witnessing and the witnesser and then create a conversation in which both are transformed which is actually quite close to the edge of postmodern physics the way that elements and electrons you know behave differently according to whether you’re actually looking at them or not.
JONNY: And they’re in two places simultaneously.
DAVID: So the way we shape our world you know it’s a much more sort of entrancing and transporting and transfiguring experience than your educational system can actually describe. So we’re constantly getting our experience of reality step down into these boxes.
So you start to think the box is our reality itself and you wonder why you’ve lost your sense of joy you wonder why you’ve lost your sense of enthusiasm for something that first drew you in. And I was first drawn into marine zoology because I saw Jack Cousteau’s following the life of the dolphin aboard the good ship Calypso and I wanted that life.
I wanted that blue horizon in my life and there are so many people who were drawn into disciplines you know where they get the life beaten out of them and if you want to kill your love of poetry then do a post graduate English literature at a good University. When you think of the number of Hoops you have to go through and the amount of money you have to pay in order to study what you want to study you’d be much better if you were disciplined spending that time yourself.
2. SELF KNOWLEDGE
JONNY: Yeah I completely agree and I’ve been thinking about this idea of kind of creating almost a self-guided curriculum for people in these in these periods of transition but one of the questions that I wanted to kind of shifting gears slightly is just to talk about this constellations which has been by my bedside for the last six months. And in this book you’ve written these intriguing and nourishing definitions of everyday words and I just wanted to bring up the four words really that were really striking to me. And the first is touching on what you’ve just been talking about and it’s this idea of self-knowledge and I just wanted to read a quote from here. It’s the hope that a human being can achieve complete honesty and self-knowledge with regard to themselves is a fiction and that to me was really, it was really intriguing and quite surprising and I just wondered if you could elaborate a bit on what you meant by that?
DAVID: It should be liberating too because we carry the need to know as a as a burden and the need to have absolute clarity and to understand that we’re always this frontier if you pull in any knowledge you know and you’re just moving along the frontier and there’s an equal amount of dark horizon which moves in into your line of sight in a sense your light of un sight.
Your line of not seeing yet we’re always at this edge between knowing and not knowing so of course you can increase your sense of context and understanding and maturity. But it just still puts you in to another conversation with a greater horizon and I have an essay on denial in there and I say even the Dalai Lama is in denial.
You know there’s a circle around which you enclose human identity in order to be able to hold a conversation. And the level of denial that the Dalai Lama is holding his way further out than most people there’s only so much a human frame can actually contain and hold it within a linguistic field that another person can hold.
And of course when the Dalai Lama’s in deep meditation and not in conversation with other human beings then I’d say the circle is even further out but the necessary ability of a human being to let things flower and mature of their own to deny the need to describe everything to earlier, to name too earlier have another essay and I’m naming the way human beings are always naming processes too early and maturing processes. If you look at the Rose which is growing outside the door of this cottage and if you try and open it even one day before its time it will fall apart and we’re constantly trying to open parts of ourselves that haven’t fully flower yet.
And not ready to come into the light so there’s an actual merciful process of denial and yet a faithful remaining with what is actually maturing and coming to light inside you at the same time. So this is different than the cynicism of denying everything that’s pulling you out of your enclosed imprisoned identity.
JONNY: It’s beautiful and the second word is towards the end and again I just I’d love to read a line and its vulnerability is not a weakness a passing in disposition or something that we can arrange to do without. And this is something that I think particularly as men, most of us really I mean we run for the hills and we spend a lot of our lives worrying about what other people think of us and are we going to be perceived as being weak if we show our vulnerability. So my question is how can we hug we inhabit that robust vulnerability in this world that you know is where it’s perceived as weakness and for half the population.
DAVID: Yes and but it’s interesting to think of vulnerability from its original Latin meaning wound meaning simply the place where you’re open to the world whether you want to be or not you know that’s what you care about you were made to care that way or you learn to care that way.
And so it’s interesting to think of it actually as a faculty we tend to think of vulnerability as a weakness and we tend to think of it in self-indulgent terms which is me telling everyone about everything that scares me or everything I’m not happy about.
And instead of thinking of it as a kind of gravitational field an edge between what you know about yourself and what you don’t what you know about your world and what you don’t know. And it’s living on that frontier edge knowing that there are larger things in the world that can take you out. You know it’s like I’m walking in the African bush I’ve done quite a bit of walking Safari and it’s a totally different animal to use the correct metaphor than being in a Land Rover you know or any kind of vehicle.
There are quite a few animals in the local environment that can take you out and a couple of them just by accident you know if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. So when you have that vulnerability you actually pay a scintillating kind of attention to your environment that you wouldn’t if you had constructed an identity where you’re under the illusion that you felt safe.
There is a fellow walking at the end of the line with the rifle over his shoulder which to begin with gives you the illusion that you’re safe but actually I’ve been in many situations where the fellow hasn’t even been able to get the rifle off his shoulder before something has happened to me. That’s life threatening and so to know that life will give you everything you want and nourish you and look after you and give you shelter and it will also kill you as soon as look at you and that you don’t have to choose between these two qualities this is a proper apprehension of reality.
You’re living in Florida before a hurricane sweeps in your living in California for an earthquake occurs. You know or you’re happily you know by your fireside at home before the phone rings and gives you news that someone close to you is passed away.
You can be under the illusion that you’re safe but the sense of robust vulnerability gives you the possibility of real joy and privilege.
Because you realise how astonishing it is for instance just to be healthy just to be healthy just to be able to be able to stand up from this chair and walk across the room there are many people in this world who’d give every penny they have to be able to do that and they can’t. Just to be able to see your daughter’s face just to be able to look out in the window these are actually astonishing things to perceive the colour grey even on a rainy day and the privilege of blue on a sunny day.
So we tend to close down the edges of our perceptions into a blend middle shoes. So that you hold back from feeling joy because it helps you to prevent you from feeling real grief so the ability to feel real vulnerability and try and hold it in the body from where we’ve often tried to escape as children in order to feel that we had power of over pain you know that we didn’t know how to handle or our adult world didn’t show us how to handle. For a lot of the adult processes walking back into the body into the wounded body that the child walked out of you know in growing into the world.
So you could say that childhood is the act of growing older and adulthood is the act of growing younger back into body back into our birthright visionary experience of the world. You know the child is fated to grow older into the world but as adults we have the possibility of growing younger.
JONNY: The third word which I think is intimately connected to vulnerability and what you’ve just been talking about is courage and if it’s all right with you I’d love to ask you to read and just the short highlighted passage there.
DAVID: Courage is a measure of our heartfelt courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life with another, with the community a work a future.
Courage is a measure of our heartfelt participation with life with another with the community a work a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or to do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.
To be courageous is to see to our feelings deeply in the body and in the world to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist with things we find we already care deeply about with a person a future a possibility in society or with an unknown that begs us on and always has beg us on. To be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made, to be courageous is to stay close to the way we are made.
JONNY: The final word that I wanted to touch you on was right at beginning the book and this one hit me really hard when I first read it and it’s ambition. The line is no matter the self-conceited importance of our Labor’s we are all compost for worlds that we cannot yet imagine yes and that’s for me that’s just such a powerful image and I think back to my time in my 20s when I felt like I was driven by ambition this urge to kind of make a dent in what I was doing. But I think more recently I’ve been I guess suspicious of that ambition and where it’s coming from and what drives it. So I just I’d love to hear from you how your relationship with ambition has changed and what this mean to you.
DAVID: I think the central dynamic underneath ambition is the wish to be seen and heard but the way we use ambition we then put layers and layers of conditions on the way we should be seen and the way we should be rewarded for being seen and head and appreciated but they the central longing of a young man or a young woman to meet goals has to do with this necessity to have the interior become the exterior to become part of the world of which we’re apart.
So there’s nothing wrong in the early stages of maturity and using the word ambition so long as you’re willing to let it go once you really understand what’s occurring your work and will take you places that you didn’t want to go and didn’t think you had to go. And you will have to let go of what you thought your ambitions would bring you and be humbled and be apprenticed to something much larger there’s many a person who’s run a business for years and they wanted to make a million and they did make the million.
But years later they realised that their needs are actually very few if they’ve matured. If they haven’t matured then their needs may not be very few if they’ve matured they realise they only have one pair of eyes one place they can be one stomach you know for eating and they have actually a lot more than they actually need in order to live their life. And they also realised that having employed so many people in having witnessed how many lives that they’ve transformed through employing people that the business may not have been about them at all.
You know when you’ve witnessed as I have with my little and I never went into poetry to begin an enterprise but an enterprise accreted around me and it’s provided their living and allowed three four or five families you know to raise children to provide shelter and to live really, really good lives while doing good work. And I often stand back and say perhaps this wasn’t about me at all perhaps it was these other people could actually join in something that they were enthusiastic and intrigued about and make a good living at the same time so you would never know who your works serves and the old Grail myth.
The question you had to ask and which possible didn’t ask when he first got into the Grail castle was whom does the Grail serve you know that’s the question whom does the Grail serve and it’s usually not the you that entered into the castle. It’s someone much larger that’s kind of eventually a no self and it’s not so difficult about I think for older men especially women don’t seem to, women find much easier and woman have a much easy ability to find freedom in later life yeah.
And we have this meme of the Merry Widow you know throughout history because the men had gone and they could actually enjoy themselves you know. And there’s something about the misery and anger of an older man you know which is quite common and quite depressing at the same time and the ability of a man to actually walk into the generous, no self beyond midlife is one of the great disciplines of a life here and of a male life you know that has been so concentrated around this me.
This I that’s going to do all of these things you know that I am going to be seen for what I am and my gift and what’s disturbing is it takes a kind of spiritual discipline an eldership in order to get through that threshold. And in midlife you need a lot of silence as often think it’s why men get grumpier and angrier as they get older. Is they actually need silence it’s in all of our great traditions and in order to become more fully themselves and there does seem to be there does seem to be a sexual dimorphism around this.
That women don’t need it in the same way in order to become more fully themselves but a man needs space and silence and time in which to become generous to others. Women seem these are all generalities of course but in general women seem to be able to shape that generous identity while in the company of others of course women need time by themselves to and they need silence also yeah.
But they’ve got more of an ability to shape that general in conversation with others a man needs to step down into place of silence spaciousness yeah and unto another kind of ground in order to find that generosity inside himself.
JONNY: So just before we wrap up and I can almost smell the dinner being cooked next door for the eager listeners who are keen to learn more about your work and potentially learn more about these tours that you’ve been running I know you’ve got some upcoming in Italy and New Zealand could you speak a little about why you started these tours and just describe briefly what they are for people who you haven’t seen your websites already.
DAVID: There are extensions of my work really in poetry of if I ever run workshops I never speak all day because I don’t think it’s good for the human soul to sit for so long so maybe a morning and then then we walk in the afternoon and maybe I’d talk on the walk maybe I wouldn’t maybe perhaps there’s plenty to work with from the morning.
So even when I’m just doing a day lecture I will try and try and lead people outside if I can and give people a bit of physical experience of the world so I do love traveling a lot I love getting to know places and so I tried to put together a tour that I would want to go on and where I’m treated as an adult not as a child here where I’m allowed to make mistakes I’ll get lost. You know and there’s not someone with a speaker shouting instructions at me so and there’s a bit of adventure.
You know you’re able to invite the right kind of peril so usually walking in mountains or rough terrain will take care of a lot of that you know and so it’s a very heavy combination to work with the intellect and the imagination in the morning with beauty with poetry and then to work with physical beauty in the afternoon in the walks and then to eat and drink and and be compatible in the evenings this is a heavy combination. Do it for seven days or 10 days and it’s really cumulatively very powerful.
JONNY: So I can technically vouch for that so just to wrap up the question that I usually end with which is kind of shamelessly borrowed from Rilke is what are the questions that you feel like you’re living but I wanted to actually deviate slightly and to ask a question which I opposed to Krista Tippett who I know his interviewed you before and that’s what do you think that the questions that we as humans in the Western world are asking and trying to live our way into the answers to at the moment or perhaps which questions should we be asking that we’re currently not?
DAVID: Yes I think we’re in the process of letting go of the dark side of our inheritance in the West colonialism power over religious systems that were reflected hierarchies of our military systems. And we’re both trying to reincarnate our rich artistic inheritance and take it into the future.
Because the West has so much to offer and in our political systems at the moment especially with Donald Trump who’s their representation of everything that is wrong with a masculine psyche of an immature boy that has never grown fully into the world
And I think he’s there for us to see all of our sins writ large and I have a lines a poem sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you.
Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside you. We’re having all of our sins writ large and especially were coming to the end of a certain form of masculine dispensation and Trump is the crystallised of version many of the things that have been wrong with the Western masculine and at the same time I think he’s useful in breaking up the old system which was doing no one any good.
So he’s like the miscreant child breaking and everything in sight and it’s very difficult to witness. It’s also unnecessary an awful reflection of us here but sometimes you know when you see animals moult they go through this really ugly period and sometimes you have to become ugly in order to become something else.
We’re going sometimes we make ourselves ugly you know to get out of a relationship so the other person will go away and we need to get away from our old selves so we’re going through I think a period of moulting and uglification in order to be able to let it go and ask for something else.
JONNY: I think that’s a perfect place to wrap up and I wondered if we could disclose with you saying the poem sweet darkness.
An invitation to the other horizon when your eyes are tired the world is tired also when your vision is gone no part of the world can find you it’s time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognise its own.
There you can be sure you are not beyond love the dark will be your home tonight the night will give you a horizon further than you can see.
You must learn one thing must learn one thing the world was made to be free and give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness, to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive it’s too small for you.
Anything or anyone that does not bring your alive is too small for you.
That last line cuts both ways because sometimes we’ve made the world too small for us by the way we’re holding the conversation we’ve made our children too small for us. We’ve made our spouse too small for us we’ve made our political systems too small for us… how do you hold the conversation and enlarge the world.
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