A poem with a very special place in my history, because it is the first I’ve written without thought of whether others would like it.
A quote from The Fountainhead. This book has three main characters: Howard Roark and Peter Keating, architects. Peter is “the self defined by others”, commonly called ego, and Howard is “the self defined by its values”. The third major character, Dominique, is a being who is torn between these two, unable to fully accept either – and what happens to such a person.
Here is a description of Peter, and of the ego who is only what others name it to be:
Keating let himself be carried by the torment [of popular acceptance]. He needed the people and the clamour around him. There were no questions and no doubts when he stood on a platform looking over a sea of faces; the air was heavy, compact, saturated with a single solvent – admiration; there was no room for anything else. He was great; great as the number of people who told him so. He was right; right as the number of people who believed it. He looked at the faces, at the eyes; he saw himself born in them, he saw himself being granted the gift of life. That was Peter Keating, that, the reflection in those staring pupils, and his body was only its reflection.
A poem to a bust in the Uffizi gallery, the most beautiful object I have seen in all of Florence.
The pen I have been using has been of such quality, it deserves its own mention. It is a Pelikan M805, the whole pen serving as a reservoir for the ink. It can write a full day before running dry. During active periods, I fill it each morning before leaving the hotel. The ink is Aurora black, a rich black that flows well – exceptionally well after the pen has been cleaned of residue. I clean it every third or fourth day, and completely disassemble it for cleaning a couple times a month. The nib of the pen is gold, with a hard rubidium tip.
It bends itself to your writing style after about a month, and thereafter requires almost no pressure when things are flowing smoothly. If maintained, it never skips, or blots, or produces anything other than a consistent line of strong black. When the ink does not flow instantly, the moment the nib touches the paper, I know that it needs to be cleaned out. The ink contains sediments that I believe are collecting in the channels under the nib.
The pen itself is fairly large, but this prevents fatigue; it is black and silver, with a dark green window to show the level of the ink. The cap screws on, and the nib screws in also, making it easy to take apart, and having only three separate parts. You can see a picture of it .
I have been thinking more about a recent discussion with a friend, and something occurred to me which has never before: Life (living) is not an opportunity for happiness, as I had been thinking – it is happiness.
What is it that we feel as unhappiness? I think it is when the for-itself believes it belongs in the in-itself, and forgets its own being. This is what happens to us in youth, by the words and example of society.
This longing causes us to tear a hole in our being, into which the essence of our life is lost, and this is what I think we experience as unhappiness. From that point on, the desperation of our longing for the Other, while projected upon the in-itself, is our sorrow at the loss of this essence. While a person may long for a house, for example, there is a deeper longing to return to their youth, when the house of their parents was a permanent feature of their world. The object associates with what they truly want: the fullness of life they knew before they started to lose it.
What is the shape of this hole? It is the shape of what we are trying to build in the in-itself. The hole is asking if someone else will like something I’ve written – as if that had anything to do with why it should be written. The formula for good writing is simple: Write what you want to read; if you can’t satisfy yourself, improve your knowledge and skill until you can.
Because others can’t see us, the for-itself. There is writing, which they cannot see, and there is what is written, which they can. The first is an activity of the for-itself, part of life, it reveals to us the beauty of our own mind and imagination; the second is an object of the in-itself, it is a reality of the past, unalive: it can remind others of what is possible within themselves, but this is the limit of its value: it has no richness by itself, except as a token to inspire the for-itself.
If we admit the written into writing, we tear a hole in a living thing in order to grant it the attributes of a dead thing: permanence, visibility, a name. The written is dead, and no longer relates to the writer. Writing is life, it is happiness in the act of enjoying itself; it need satisfy only itself, because writing is nothing more than the writer realizing his values.
The hole in life that causes us to leak away, and ourselves to feel that we are disappearing into time, is not real, has never been real. It is we who are choosing to be unhappy, because it seems that society asks this of us in return for its acceptance.
But there is nothing such acceptance has to offer. Society has created a trap: “Tear a hole in yourself that we might fill it.” And when they cannot: “Try harder, do more, be better.” Society is simply demanding that hole exist inside you for whatever reason. This hole is our unhappiness. Maybe because it follows the crowd, or makes for a good consumer? I can think of no good reason.
And then… in a moment of discovery… the hole is gone. How was it ever possible not to be happy just by being? Our being is of God, it is not defective, it does not have holes that need to be filled. We are lying on a rack that we’ve built, climbed onto, and are operating by voice control. Let’s get off the rack! If you like the music you make, it is enough; if I like a particular poem, it is enough.
I still find in myself a “habit” of making the hole, maybe because I’m so used to its being there. It doesn’t offer much. It’s very easy to see when I’m working on it. Those are the moments when I lose touch with the present. Because the present is the being of the for-itself, and thus it is the present that we lose by constructing the hole. It still amazes me that we ever believed in the necessity for such a hole in the first place.
When the hole vanishes, being itself is all that being needs to be. That sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
Being is all that being needs to be.
You can stress every separate word of that sentence, and each inflection will stand equally true. It is so fundamental it should never need to be said. It is inherent to the definition of “being”. The only reason for this letter is that, in fact, we do feel we need something in order to be complete, in order not to feel lonely and apart from life. The hole is loneliness, separation, unhappiness.
Thoughts on writing
When writing, if we ask, “What do I want to see?”, it is a moral question because it can be answered only according to what we think is right and good. The question, “What will others like?” only they can answer, just as they cannot tell us what we will like.
By extension, the only way to live is to ask, “What do I want to see?” Which are the actions leading to a life I want to be part of? Our lives reflect our values if we choose according to this desire, and our values will reflect whichever morality we believe represents the good.
There are no “others” to consider in this decision, for writing or living, because knowing what is good is a separate knowledge for each person and cannot be consulted. If we try, those “others” we imagine are puppets made from the stuffing of our own mind – and taken from it to make them – and absurdly we dialog between fragments of our self, wanting in the end only to put a stop to the question, “What do I want to see?” because it has become too painful. This is why people are able to write things, and live lives, they do not like.
A poem to cool off with, after a very hot day:
Another, a momentary escape from summer:
For the Bahá’ís in the audience, another essay, giving an introduction of my favorite text using some of the terminology of recent thinking.
Introducing the Seven Valleys
The happiness of the individual, indicate the Bahá’í Writings, depends on his nearness to God. Nor is He a remote God, or removed by immeasurable distances. The very meaning of “God”, of the concepts of proximity and remoteness, and the discovery of a happiness resulting from nearness to the Divine: these are the elements of the wayfarer’s quest described in The Seven Valleys of Bahá’u’lláh.
Written in 1852(?) in response to questions from a noted member of the Sufi community, this brief volume encompasses themes that have filled libraries in the past. It is at once the description of a journey, a guide, and a proof to those who read its pages with understanding.
Its subject is human development, which in terms of moral integrity, virtue, and heroic overcoming of the attitudes of one’s culture, has been of interest to thinkers throughout the ages. It is by no means the special domain of religion to contemplate how man may achieve those qualities of justice and perspicacity that lead to a perpetual veneration.
If we suggest that man is a being with the freedom to choose, and that he must make his choices according to his moral values, it remains to understand what values he will honor, and which morality can lead to the most perfect virtue. If religious scripture is viewed as the voice of God to man, it would indicate the actions he must prefer to direct his soul’s development toward God. In this sense, The Seven Valleys is a spiritual manual, “a guide for human conduct”[quote from `Abdu’l-Bahá in PUP], and both describes the soul who can succeed in his quest, as well as the nature of the quest itself.
There is much argument about the meaning of “God”, and whether such definitions as are believed in exist. The Seven Valleys does not attempt to define God. It is a book addressed to its human reader, and concerns his progress in this world – it ignores the unachievable concepts of theology.
“God” may be taken, for the sake of a beginning, as the ultimate object of all aspiration. Everyone who longs to discover the good, the real, the true meaning of happiness, has naturally based their behavior on a standard of values leading to that end. This is the inevitable response of a thinking being to the mystery of existence: How do we fulfill our existence and find happiness?
It has been the aim of every philosophy to answer this fundamental question of consciousness; it has been the purpose of each religion to define the terms involved: That humans seek reunion with their Creator, and approach him through faith and virtue. But due to the confusion of terminology, and differing ideas as to the meaning of “self”, “God” and “faith”, people are left with a bewildering number of explanations, all purporting to tell them who they are and how to achieve what they secretly long to be.
If we discard for a moment these historical debates, we are left with very few real elements: The reader; the interest that leads him to read this introduction; and his hope to satisfy that interest. Let us review The Seven Valleys in those terms alone.
Each person sees the world through his own eyes, and what he sees will depend on who he is. The fact that his capacity for vision can change through time is the first thing to realize.
When a person sees something, he acts in response to it, whether actively or by not acting at all. That is, he is capable of interacting with the environment he perceives.
Following this interaction, the individual is either pleased or displeased with the result he experiences. Because he is alive, he takes a personal stake in this resulting life. That is, the life one sees and interacts with has an effect on his inward state.
Everyone has an instinctive impression that a better life is possible. After a bad choice is made this is obvious, because the life before that choice was better than afterwards. Whatever we see that is good implies something that is better, and so on, beyond the best we have ever seen. The individual has an intrinsic longing for the most perfect life he can imagine, and seeks it out whatever way he can (with the exception of those who have given up on finding it).
These attributes are shared universally; they are the properties of being conscious in a changing and changeable universe. They imply that we possess the capacity to judge the quality of our lives, and the ability to improve that quality by making the best choices possible. It implies that our appreciation of this quality is an internal factor, and that as we grow and mature, our preferences will broaden and deepen. In other words, the development of the individual, both inwardly and by his actions in life, leads him to that better life he is seeking.
The key, then, is development. What does it mean to develop, and how does it happen? Education is involved, practice, trials, patience, recognizing success and learning from failures. But how does a human being consciously direct his development to make the most of his time on Earth?
This is the theme of The Seven Valleys: To direct the development of every interested individual toward his greatest happiness, which is coequal to realizing the fulfillment of his own creation. Bahá’u’lláh describes at each stage the qualities and the tasks that can open the way to changing one’s life for the better.
Nor are these descriptions a mystic’s escape from the responsibilities of living. They are, rather, of the essence of practicality, and one will find in them correspondences to many of the common sense wisdoms present in human affairs – such as the highly underpracticed, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The notion that spirituality is disconnected from life can arise only from a misunderstanding of “spirit”. The Seven Valleys is essentially concerned with how we approach life, and the attitudes that will either blind us or help us see more clearly.
And so the first of these seven valleys, the beginning of the quest for fulfillment, is to achieve a view of things that is unbiased and independently critical. Then one can know for himself whether a thing is good or not, apart from what others may say is good or bad, regardless of the popular voice and the most moving of criticisms.
Once one has developed a clear vision, he can know himself, instantly, what he truly likes – the same way we know if we like a particular smell or a certain food. Self-deception is hard with regard to the senses, but all too easy when the subject is subtle. It requires sincere and profound intent on the part of the seeker to achieve such clarity, but once he does he becomes his own standard for judging what is good.
How does one know what is good? We can say it is what the soul, or the individual, prizes most; or inversely, that what one loves most is an indication that it is good – if that love is freed from external influences. We cannot define, but all of us know, the basic quality that our favorite music, food, or sight in nature, all have in common. It is this quality that causes the ailing soul to love life again whenever he encounters it. Everyone seeks it, but not everyone knows how to find it, or even to recognize it when they do. History is filled with such examples.
The Valley of Search aims to equip the individual with this capacity, that he might continue in his search for the perfect good. When he is able to seek it on his own, and finds it, he will immediately fall in love with it. It is the goal of his existence to discover and commune with such a good. The more the good is manifest, the greater his appreciation and absorption in it. It is the same for the atheist afficianado of fine music, as it is for the religionist seeking the purity of prayer. The quality of the good is universal, and relates to a universal human aspiration.
Once he falls in love, the seeker cannot imagine a world without this quality. Its presence defines for him the meaning of “life” – not the health of his body. If he were condemned never to discover this quality again, what would be the purpose of living? All his standards shift, placing the presence of the good at the top and its absence at the bottom. The arrangement of his life changes in response to this inward reorientation. We see this whenever someone discovers something they truly love and has the courage to pursue it. By such changes the degree of that quality in the seeker’s life will increase, and his life will being to change in its perceived character.
But do all things manifest the good equally or as strongly? Are there finer, more sublime avenues of approach? The seeker who is biased may think so, but cares little; while the one whose real aim is the light – and not the place from which it shines – will undertake to intensify his search, fired by his love of that underlying, essential beauty, wanting only an ever more complete experience of it and losing attachment to all particular forms.
Bahá’u’lláh tells there is a pain associated with this love. What is that pain? Why must one “escape from the claws of the eagle of love” to progress in his search? These questions must be left for the reader to discover. One aspect of the arrangement of The Seven Valleys is that each valley is addressed to those who understand it: it unfolds in meaning apace with the reader’s development. It is not intended to be read from cover to cover by someone who understands only the import of the beginning.
It can be inferred from this that the journey is progressive and sequential in nature. In the language of Sufism – where these Valleys are also described, though in somewhat different terms, in Faridu’d-Din Attar’s book The Conference of the Birds – there are two modes of spiritual progress: the momentary states (hal) of clarity that a person achieves when they focus intently on something, and the irreversible stages (maqam) of one’s progress, in the form of personal growth. The former is like a sudden, untested insight; while the latter is a seasoned wisdom, proceeding from one’s perspective on world.
In applying one’s self to this journey, there will be momentary insights that briefly change one’s experience of life. These give a sense of hope and a glimpse of the life ahead. But progress through these Valleys is describe, in the original language, using the terminology of progressive stages, and as such depict worlds of experience one comes to inhabit as a resident during the course of his inward travels.
Beyond this the text may not described further: it can only be attempted. There is no profit in analyzing the various stages, since the development of consciousness is a thing of experiment and individual effort – not to be sought in the words or opinions of others.
Nor is it necessary for another to tell if there is value to the ideas in this “most mystical text”. If one applies himself and discovers the gems of its meaning, the proofs will stand evident in the quality of his life. In the same way that a person may seek all his life to find love – and never have a single experience of it – yet the moment he find it he will know absolutely, without any previous knowledge and free of other’s opinions. This is the nature of the soul’s relationship to good, which religion describes as God or Spirit. The analogy of a lover and his beloved is used frequently in these texts for a reason.
If one finds himself wandering these ways, there will no longer be any need for introductions, and the seeker’s appetite for words will lessen and lessen, until his satisfaction comes only from Him, Whose presence is the very meaning of his search and longing.