Like most 18-year-olds, I never got Shakespearean sonnets. He had so many stressed syllables, I thought they were going to suffer a nervous breakdown before the poem even finished.
But really, I didn’t get Shakespeare. Kind of like how people don’t get Bob Dylan and his raspy poetic music. (I also happen to be one of those people. Does that make me so uncultured?)
And so, after completing an analysis of one of the sonnets in Coach G’s English class, an analysis that featured a lot of cobbled together bullshit that I borrowed from Wedding Crashers on love being the ‘soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another’ - seriously I used that - my teacher, ignoring the reference, wrote in her B+ assessment of my paper:
“You need to get a girlfriend. It’ll help you understand sonnets better.”
This comment did not stay private for long. Before I knew it, everyone in class knew that Coach G - an eccentric, fifty-something - had just offered me (and only me) - unsolicited love advice. As you might imagine, this tickled the hazing triggers of my entire class.
Somehow, I didn’t feel any of that fiery, youthful resentment towards her for exposing me like that. Deep down, I knew I didn’t know a damn thing about love. I could recite poems by Rumi - by poems, I mean one poem - but I had no idea what it meant to surrender and risk it all for another human being. Love was nothing more than an aesthetic experience, something I could only consume through indulgent endings of Judd Apatow romcoms in which even the deadbeat hipsters like Seth Rogen could woo the likes of Katherine Heigl.
In what world does this^ happen???
Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if I really loved anyone (other than myself).
But the idea of love has always been intoxicating to me. Love has always held this position as the peak life experience, the promise to lose one’s self and never have to return to my tiny skull-sized kingdom that I’m pretty sure has had more coups than Thailand. (BOOM!)
Maybe that's why I got all into the literature on mysticism in college. Augustine, Plotinus, Dogen, Chogyam Trungpa, Rumi, Hafiz...all of these writers spoke about a 'love' so BIG.
as an indissoluble union with the ultimate,
the return to the source,
the recognition of what already is - as all things interwoven in some giant room of mirrors that just reflects back at each other
so BIG that it's unsayable, it transcends all concepts and punches the ego straight between the eyes but has a fist so big that it just bruises the whole face
A love that wouldn't involve so much drama that's a result of playing to small, two-person love game (🖕 Shakespeare).
A love that meant I no longer had to think.
Moved by this notion of boundless love, I began to mold myself into an orb that emitted more rays of love than firecrackers on Diwali.
I enrolled myself into all these public service courses, because public service is the only place love can happen, right?
I did my honor’s thesis on this programme that taught kids meditation, because that basically means they were being marched on the path to enlightenment.
I entered the 'caring' professions, because bankers, consultants, engineers, doctors, and lawyers (especially lawyers) can't be vessels for love.
(Sarcasm, guys - I come from a family of engineers and doctors)
And yet, after all of this, I just felt so burnt out. Whenever I showed up to volunteer, all I could think about was how I just wanted to get this all over with. To put on the smile, pretend like I loved everybody, and just go home, shut myself off from the world, and play Pro Evolution.
I still didn’t love anyone in the way that I thought I should love. And I sure as hell didn’t know a damn thing about sonnets. And I didn’t know why.
A little over a century before my English teacher pointed out my passionless life, a nineteen-year-old Austrian cadet by the name of Franz Kappus began writing to one of Germany’s literary giants, Rainer Maria Rilke.
A student at the Theresian Military Academy, Kappus was a writer disguised in a military uniform. Insecure about whether his writing was good enough to take up the life of a poet, he sought the advice of Rilke, who, at 27, was then an indie poet known for his new age-y poetry that decoupled mysticism from religion and won him a small, hipster-like following. With poems like:
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Rilke, still a nobody in his own mind, wrote just as he had been trying to locate his own footing within Auguste Rodin’s in Paris. Rodin, then a lionized master in his sixties, had enchanted Rilke as the ideal of how an artist should live - but also as an ideal that felt so distant from himself. He had gone to Paris not just to write about Rodin but to figure out how to live. As Rachel Corbett writes,
If Rodin was a mountain, Rilke was the mist encircling it.
Rilke (left) had a religious devotion to Auguste Rodin, whom he covered as an art critic - but saw as a master
But Kappus’ call for help awoke Rilke from his own inhibitions. It was almost like getting a call from a younger version of himself. Like Kappus, Rilke had also gone to a military academy that didn’t really suit his artistic sensibilities, had felt the indignation of forever feeling like a misfit until he found something he could crush - poetry - and be like ‘what now, bitches?’ Both Kappus and Rilke had stood on the same soil, worn the same uniform and shared the same dream.
Kappus wanted answers. He wanted someone to tell him, ‘Your poetry is lit bro! And you’ll be famous!’ He wanted to see himself in the reflection of his master’s eye. Like Pinocchio.
Rilke knew this whole external validation game doesn’t really work.
"Nobody can advise you and help you," wrote Rilke, "nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” He knew that the best judge of Kappus’ poetry would not be anyone other than Kappus. In returning one of Kappus’ poems that Kappus had sent, Rilke re-wrote the poem in his own handwriting, advising him to
“Read the poem as if you had never seen it before, and you will feel in your innermost being how very much it is your own.”
Instead of advising Kappus on the profession of poetry, he opted to guide him on poetic life - about love, solitude, and this mindset of living the questions:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
(You can find the letters in Rilke’s Letter’s to a Young Poet, which were posthumously published by Kappus.)
“You’re impatient,” one of my coaches told me in a recent feedback session.
“Impatient?” I asked, puzzled. “Impatient for what?”
“Impatient in the sense that you speed-read everything. And when you’re done, you say ‘yes, I’ve got it,’ then you try to put it into practice before you’re even ready to. You don’t let these insights that you receive from others sit with you so that you’re not just regurgitating it without fully owning it.”
And it hit me. After all these years, I'm always the first to reach for movie reviews after seeing the movie, to read the commentary after reading the root text. I don't let things sit with me - mostly because I don't want to have to figure it out for myself. Maybe it's because I've allowed Google's processing power to replace my own.
Ironically, one of these received insights that I’ve been sitting with has been Rilke’s point on “living the questions.” What does it really mean to live a life through questions, through that strange ambiguous space between knowing something to be true versus really feeling it to be true, such that you’d be able to effortlessly defend it even in a drunken stupor?
One of the wondrous things about truths is how you can share the same, exact truth to people. But what they hear can be entirely divorced from what you were certain it meant.
Take Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”:
Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be alright.
Singing' Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be alright!
Three people might listen to Bob spit wisdom and hear it in three entirely different ways.
The first person who hears this might be like:
"Oh my god. That hits me perfectly right now at this point in my life when I’m facing all this stress. That's what I needed, because I'm going through this and I wasn't sure. And this gives me perfect clarity. Ah, I was putting importance on the wrong things."
The second person who hears this might be like:
"That makes sense..."
And then five years down the line, after entering the workforce, getting married, and then losing a job might be like:
“Wow! That’s what Bob Marley meant - the wisdom of simplicity!”
The third person who hears this might be like:
“This is slow and dumb - I think I’ll just go listen to Steve Aoki and those EDM fiends instead.” (No one calls them ‘EDM fiends’, I know)
Neither of these people’s experiences is ‘wrong’ - it’s kind of just how the transmission of wisdom works. The truth can’t be heard by ears that aren’t ready to accept it.
And now I think I really get what Coach G had been telling me all those years ago - I needed to get myself out there in the world if I really wanted to gain some kind of understanding of love (and maybe decipher Shakespearean sonnets). Because there really is no substitute for personal experience in the path to becoming wise. The Buddha understood this very well.
Taking risks at work, experimenting with love, and reflecting all have made me more receptive to these truths about self, time, love, impermanence and death. And that’s really why I’ve started this blog - to document my journey to becoming more wise and loving.
But, as my man Willy Shakes says, gotta take it slow: