ancient chinese poetry and forgetting the linear

The Sun Magazine, like the On Being radio podcasts,  has become part of my hodge-podge “take-what-you-like-and-leave-the-rest” spirituality. The January 2015 issue of The Sun features an interview by Leath Tonino with David Hinton, a great translator of ancient Chinese poets. Titled The Egret Lifting from the Riverthe interview has been speaking to me on several different levels.

“We think of time in linear terms, whereas in ancient China they thought of existence as a burgeoning forth, an ongoing generative present in which things appear and disappear in the process of change. And this constant birthing goes on both in the physical world and in human consciousness, for consciousness is as much a part of that process as surf or a rainstorm or blossoms opening in an almond orchard.”

When I read (and then re-read) this passage, I began reflecting on all the ways I envision the world and my life in straight lines. Years ago when I began immersing myself in American Indian literature and poetry, I experienced a similar sudden distancing from the way I saw reality. In a parallel way, reading this quote of David Hinton’s, I tried to picture what it would mean to embody this way of seeing the world. Is it possible, given how powerful mainstream linear pop culture is? The first thought I had was that to attempt to do so would be swimming upstream, against the current–and so it seems fitting that the piece has the word “river” in the title. Linear “straight-line” thinking goes along with the idea of progress, of evolution, and very quickly dips dangerously into the concept of cultural evolution (think primitive versus civilized and other such problematic dualities).

What if we thought of life as circles? As spirals? As abstract art, not geometry? Would it reflect reality more? Would that be better? I don’t know. I certainly do like the idea of a “constant birthing” as a way of describing impermanence. And I think with that comes constant inner death–the inevitable cyclic nature of things.

Hinton offers an exercise that I would like to share here, because it has brought me some peace of mind and relief during these dark cold winter days, and I hope it can bring you some as well:

“Here’s a thought experiment: If you want to know what’s fundamentally true about the world, walk out into an open field and close your eyes. Then start forgetting. Forget everything you know and believe, all the knowledge our culture has accumulated, all our assumptions about the world and ourselves. Completely empty your mind. Then open your eyes and see what you encounter. The first thing you see is this physical stuff all around you. And if you’ve wholly emptied your mind, it is a wondrous revelation: existence, the material universe vast and deep, everything and everywhere, when there might just as easily be nothing at all.” 

Here’s to forgetting all we know and opening our eyes to a new world.

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