The Art of Inwardness: Rilke on The Benefits of Solitude for Creative Work

 

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Rainer Maria Rilke. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Solitude seems central as a prerequisite for creative mastery, especially for some of the greatest minds in the world. When the insanely talented Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, was asked for a piece of advice for young people, he said that they should  learn to cherish solitude and enjoy their own company. He said, “…people who grow bored in their company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.” Besides Tarkovsky, Charles Dickens lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude–a state that enabled him to produce his everlasting books. During ideation, he would take three-hour walks every afternoon alone, and what he observed during those walks would give ideas for his writing.

Another writer who had tasted the sweetness of solitude for his creativity was a poet named Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). In one of his letters that was published in a book called Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote back a letter to an amateur poet and an avid fan of his named Franz Xaver Kappus in response to a request for poetry advice and of course, life advice.

Franz Xaver Kappus, showing through the many descriptions that Rilke drew in this letter, was a restless but a passionate aspiring poet. He had sent his poems to magazines and only to find them terribly rejected. Feeling shattered about his shaky future of becoming a poet, he knew that only his idol, Rilke, was the only person capable of elevating his broken spirit and giving constructive feedback for his poems. Rilke wrote back to Kappus urging him to create “a moment of stillness” to answer some of the most pressing issues in his life, especially whether he should become a poet. This letter was not only a letter of encouragement and kindness, but it’s a work of art filled with strong metaphors and poetic sensibilities.
Rilke writes:

“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.”

It’s easy to think of solitude as being alone. However, Rilke doesn’t define solitude as merely just being alone, but solitude to his mind is concentrating to what one feels, in oneself, and in the midst of the crowd. It’s also being unafraid to slow down and ask ourselves what are the things that matter and don’t.

He continues:

“Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.”

He re-emphasizes the value of “going into oneself” in the last few paragraphs of the letter:

“After all I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.”

There are other more soul-stirring letters in this book. Letter to a Young Poet is truly one of the most spectacular books I have read so far.

Understanding the Flame of Anger: Three Contemporary Philosophers on Anger

 

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Intersection. Photograph by Several Seconds. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Growing up, I knew two different forms of anger: my mom’s anger and my dad’s anger. My mom’s anger is vocal. Her anger was very reactive. Sometimes she would use a physical aggression to extend her rage. On the other hand, my dad, expressed his anger very quietly. His face would look very upset but he knew how to prevent himself from being engulfed by his anger wholly.

Even when anger was a common experience of my childhood, and often it fuels my acts and thoughts, I believe that it is more than just the obscenities of our language to communicate our feelings. I know it’s more than that because people just don’t flare up in fury abruptly. There has to be something that drives them to strike out, to punch, and to curse.

Here are some problems that we have in our society about anger: once we see anger displayed in public, we step away from it. We dismiss and judge it because it’s too terrifying to go near it, and we believe there is nothing good that comes out of it. It’s hard to pause and reflect on what anger wants or what anger truly means when we are too often caught up in its “flame.”

Therefore, to help us to understand what anger wants and means, here I gathered three of my favorite contemporary philosophers:

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Martha Nussbaum, a professor of Law and ethics at The University of Chicago, in her essay Beyond Anger, argued that anger contains a sort of strike back tendency. This is an idea that she drew from Aristotle. Nussbaum writes:

“Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values/circles or cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that, this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.”

This wish for payback is deeply human but it doesn’t always make sense according to Nussbaum. The example that she brings in her essay is if we saw someone who has been raped, we focus our attention on the wrongdoer, hoping he gets a “deserving” payback from what he’s done. We want the wrongdoer to be instantly punished and jailed. Though punishing the wrongdoer is a necessary step to do, especially if there’s a law for it, Nussbaum believes that there are other necessary solutions that we need to talk about such as how we can prevent future rapes or how we can restore the victim’s life. This concept of  payback or “blood for blood” will not solve the root problem, and is a short-sighted way of looking at problems. At the end of the essay, she says, “the arguments proposed by anger will be clearly seen to be pathetic and weak, while the voice of generosity and forward looking reason will be strong as well as beautiful.”

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Alain de Botton. Photograph by Charlotte de Botton. Via: (alaindebotton.com)

 

If Nussbaum understands the desire for “pay-back” in anger, another philosopher that we need to look at is Alain de Botton. In his short but powerful essay titled On Anger, he realizes that the root cause of anger is optimism. We get angry when we are excessively optimistic with our plans and then suddenly they are not working. This is when anger starts to leak out and control our behaviors.

de Botton writes succinctly:

“Anger begins with the many imperfections of existence: the internet connection has failed, the plane is delayed again, someone is driving too slowly. It is fair enough to take a negative view of these things. But in order for them to make us angry–rather than merely sad–there is something else at work: we break, kick, slam, and accelerate because we are, at some level, horribly optimistic. Though the angry may seem negatively predisposed to life, they are in their hearts recklessly hopeful. Recklessly because how badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We may be irritated that it is raining, but our pessimistic accommodation to the likelihood of showers means we are unlikely ever to respond to one by screaming. Our annoyance is tempered by what we understand we can expect from the climate, by our melancholy experience of what it is normal to hope for from the skies. We are not overwhelmed by anger whenever we don’t get something we want; we do so only when we first believed ourselves fundamentally entitled to secure it–and then oddly did not. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.”

What de Botton says is reminding me of Daniel Kahneman’s assertion of the danger of overconfidence. He says, “Overconfidence is associated with a failure of imagination.” When what we believe to be true turns out to be false, sometimes anger becomes the expression of our dissatisfaction.

In his essay, de Botton looks beyond the root of anger. He finds that if we can look at the angry thoughtfully, we can learn something from them. He writes:

“Behind their outburst, the angry are trying to teach the world things: how to run an airline, how to drive, how to make decent dinner-time conversation… However, they are exceptionally bad teachers because too much is at stake for them. They lack the basic psychological resource of good teachers: a relative indifference to the success or failure of their lessons.”
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David Whyte. Photograph by Christopher Michel. Via: (FLICKR)

 

In addition to Martha Nussbaum and Alain De Botton, another thoughtful philosopher that we need to discuss is David Whyte. In his book titled Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, with his poetic and philosophical eyes, Whyte is able to see the most tender part of anger that we don’t always see. He believes that anger is coming from a place of deep compassion. People who are angry, if we can reframe our point of view, they are profoundly compassionate and working to protect the things they care about. This sense of compassion is sometimes too intense and they cannot contain it within themselves. Then anger becomes a way for them to reduce its intensity.

Whyte writes beautifully:

“ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.”

It’s important to refuse to internalize anger as what it displays in our lives. The language and the physical aggression of anger give us nothing but its extreme cruelty and its chaos. When we resist its superficiality and chose to find its meaning beyond what is visible, we can start to understand that anger is more complex and more fluid than what we always see. To see anger beyond what is visible is the beginning of wisdom.

Chronos and Kairos: Two Meanings of Time Explained by a Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr

 

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Image by Darkness. Via: (Unsplash)

 

I love discovering new words, especially words that we don’t normally use, words on the margin, words that hold so much truth and aliveness. Those are words that can speak directly to our experiences when we run out of things to articulate.

In a podcast that I recently listened to, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, unleashes his reflection on two different meanings of time: chronological time and deep time. These concepts of time are rooted from Greek words, chronos and kairos.

Chronological time (chronos), as he argues, is the time that ticks. It’s, for instance, when a bored student stares at the watch in his class, wishing the class would end faster. Chronological time is the short and structured time we inhabit. Unlike chronological time, deep time (kairos) is grand and audacious. Living in deep time means looking at a longer view of time with an unflinching optimism, believing that every moment in our culture is a blink that will pass. As Rohr succinctly says, deep time is, “where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect.”

The transcript of the interview:

Krista Tippett: “A phrase that you use a lot that I’d like you to just flesh out is an aspect of this progression towards meaning, towards spiritual fullness, is ‘living in deep time.’ Just say what you’re saying there.”

Richard Rohr: “OK, well, let me say, first of all, I’m not sure what I mean by that. [laughs] But a phrase was used in medieval Catholic spirituality was ‘the eternal now.’ ‘When time comes to its fullness,’ is the biblical phrase. I’m sure you’ve been told that in the Greek, in the New Testament, there’s two words for time. Chronos is chronological time, time as duration, one moment after another, and that’s what most of us think of as time.

But there was another word in Greek, kairos. And kairos was deep time. It was when you have those moments where you say, ‘Oh my God, this is it. I get it,’ or, ‘This is as perfect as it can be,’ or, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,’ or, ‘This moment is summing up the last five years of my life,’ things like that where time comes to a fullness, and the dots connect, when we can learn how to more easily go back to those kind of moments or to live in that kind of space.

Now, I think that’s what the tradition means by the word ‘contemplation,’ that to be a contemplative is to learn to trust deep time and to learn how to rest there and not be wrapped up in chronological time. Because what you’ve learned, especially by my age, is that all of it passes away. The things that you’re so impassioned about when you’re 22 or 42 don’t even mean anything anymore, and yet, you got so angry about it or so invested in it.

So already, the desert fathers and mothers discovered this word ‘contemplation’ because I believe they found the word that most believers use, the word ‘prayer,’ to be so trivialized, so cheapened by misuse. Prayer was sort of a functional thing you did to make announcements to God or tell God things, which God already knew, of course. And they created another word to give us access to this deep time, and that word that kept recurring throughout the 2,000-year history of Christianity was the contemplative mind. It’s a different form of consciousness. It’s a different form of time.

Let me add one thing. We used to, in Latin, use this phrase sub specie aeternitatis, and the old professor used to say, ‘Sub specie aeternitatis.’ And what it means — ‘in the light of eternity.’ In the light of eternity, this thing that you’re so worried about right now — is it really going to mean anything on your deathbed? [laughs] And for some reason, that had the power to relativize the things that a young man would get so impassioned about, positively or negatively. And those were various ways of directing us toward deep time.”

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Love is a stronger than death. Image by Peter Tandlund. 2012. Via: (Flickr)

 

To enjoy the full podcast: