Acceptance By Heart Coping strategies Existential knots Kindness Meaning Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart) Problems Strategies and tools Worry worry

On Making Room (via Rumi’s The Guest House)


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


This old chestnut, right?

I am often surprised when someone tells me they don’t know Rumi’s Guest House as it often appears to be as ubiquitous as all the other chestnuts from the mindfulness creed that has become so dominant in our culture over the last two decades.

If you’ve ever done an 8 week mindfulness course, your abiding memory of that course, other than the meditation exercises, will probably consist of these three things::

1/ Rumi’s Guest House
2/ Examining a raisin for a substantially long period of of time
3/ John Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulnessness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

As with mindfulness which came out of a chiefly oral religious tradition (Buddhism), this poem was not “written” by Rumi. Coleman Barks wrote this poem in the 60s, animated and inspired by the poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.

Rumi never actually wrote a poem called The Guest House. What he wrote was a whole bunch of stuff, including the Masnavi, a 50,000 line “Quran in Persian” from which Coleman Barks cherry-picked a few lines and images to make his American Buddhist flavoured poems.

The section from the Masnavi that this poem comes from is probably this one:

“Every day, too, at every moment a thought comes, like an honoured guest, into your bosom. O soul, regard thought as a person, since a person derives his worth from both thought and spirit. If the thought of sorrow is waylaying joy, it could also be considered as making preparations for joy. It violently sweeps your house clear of everything else, in order that new joy from the source of good may enter in. It scatters the yellow leaves from the bough of the heart, in order that incessant green leaves may grow. It uproots the old joy, in order that new delight may march in from the Beyond.”

Not quite as snappy and quotable, is it?

That said, let us not look a gift poem in the mouth. I have learnt that this is especially true when it comes to poetry. Because a poem is often a portrait of a fleeting moment or mind-state, even a religious fundamentalist (Hopkins) or an imperialist (Kipling) are able to write the occasional humane, universally wise and true poem.

It is universal because it expresses a fundamental psychological truth: most of the thoughts, feelings, situations, and bodily sensations that irk and discomfort us, we have scant, or even no control over. And for this reason, would be better served by not doing what we normally, neurobiologically (i.e. by default) are inclined to do when upset or irked: avoid, control, problem solve. Avoidance and control can at times be really helpful, but when they don’t work as strategies, time to consider a few other options?

It’s hard to put aside our default strategies. I even ended up using one of them (controlling/changing) on this poem. Because there’s a line in this poem that doesn’t sit well with me.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Meet them at the door laughing?

Can this even be done through free-will and choice, or does it need to be bolstered by a religious doctrine, which in the original Rumi poem, it is? I think we’re all capable, with a bit of practice in meeting these difficult internal states/guests with kindness, curiosity, even acceptance, but laughter?

Rumi’s exhortation to meet the unwelcome guests in a more modulated fashion comes earlier on in the poem in the dual meaning of the word “entertain”, both in terms of providing entertainment as well as giving attention or consideration to (an idea or feeling). I prefer this version of the poem (my controlled/changed version!), which is the one I’ve also learnt by heart and recite on an almost daily basis:


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door with kindness,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Whichever version you decide to learn by heart, I would really encourage you to learn this poem if it speaks to you. This poem is powerful poetic medicine for when the shit hits the fan, but I also find it forcing its way out from my lips when dealing with those things in our experience that fall short of expectation. Which is to say, for some of us, almost everything, almost all the time. Sometimes the old chestnuts are genuinely the most useful reminders.

Existential knots Feel Better Meaning

Finding Meaning in An Absurd World

To what extent would you say you are “open” the following ideas. You may even want to give them a rating from 1-10 as you read through them in terms of how open you feel to each one at the moment. 

  1. I am open to the idea that I am free to choose my attitude toward everything that happens to me. 
  2. I am open to the idea that I can manifest meaning in my life by making a conscious, authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals.
  3. I am open to the idea that I can find meaning in all of my life’s moments and events. 
  4. I am open to the idea that I can learn to see how I work against myself and can learn to avoid thwarting my best intentions. 
  5. I am open to the idea that I can learn to look at myself from a distance to gain insight and perspective as well as to laugh at myself. 
  6. I am open to the idea that I can shifty my focus of attention when we I am facing difficult situations in order to help me cope with what I’m going through. 
  7. I am open to the idea that I can reach out beyond myself and find meaning not just in my own accomplishments and pleasures, but in the not-me-ness of others and the world.

These principles lie at the heart of an existential form of therapy created by Victor Frankl which asserts that finding and making meaning in our lives trumps our focus on and desire for power or pleasure (which we sometimes refer to as “happiness”). 

The latter two “drives” (power and pleasure) were postulated by Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud respectively, but let’s not be essentialists here, it’s probably a combination of all three that drives us. Frankl might argue however that we often lose sight of meaning when we are either trying to avoid pain and discomfort in our lives, or gain some traction with other people and our environment. In a sense we supplant meaning with power-pleasure goals and then wonder why we feel unfulfilled even after experiencing the rewards of those pursuits. 

I don’t think anyone would argue with this realisation, but as with any insight, how do we shift into more meaning-focused ways of doing and being? 

Here’s one radical exercise/thought-experiments you might want to try. As you read through it though, be aware of the kind of resistance your mind puts up to giving it a go. When I am struggling with an experience inside myself (painful thoughts or emotions) or one outside of myself (a difficult situation) I find my mind becoming even more resistant than usual to this stuff – you too?. But maybe that’s a sign of needing to do something different, like the practice described below? Maybe the medicine needs to taste just a tad bitter for us to know it has the potential to do any good?

So see if you can, just for a minute or two, put that resistant/closed part of the mind (a part that often fears having some of its provisional meanings and beliefs shaken, even if those beliefs are no longer serving us as they once did) to one side, and try out each experiment as just that: a try-on or tryout, a little fling with doing something different or other than the norm.


To begin with, think of a situation in your personal life or at work that is or was especially stressful, negative, or challenging for you. Now take a deep breath, and write down ten positive things that could result – or did result – from this situation.

Again, even as you embark on the exercise, notice any resistance you might have to doing this. (Sometimes it’s more interesting or even “meaningful” to some extent, to stay angry, self-righteous, or “right”.) But just let your mind loosen and entertain the possibilities. Write down whatever comes to mind first. Continue to stretch your imagination and suspend judgment, listing whatever comes into consciousness, no matter how silly, far out, or unrealistic your thoughts appear to be. Feel completely free to determine or define what positive means to you.

Frankl might give as a reason for trying this experiment is that  the way we accept our fate – those things beyond our control – and start trying to make some sense or meaning from it, the easier it will be for us to recover from situations that didn’t go well for us. 

Writing in Psychotherapy and Existentialism Frankl reminds us that we are condition-dependent creatures, which means that our freedom is a finite one. 

“We are not free from conditions. But we are free to take a stand in regard to them. The conditions do not completely condition us. Within limits it is up to us whether or not we succumb and surrenders to the conditions. We may as well rise above them and by so doing open up and enter the human dimension. . . . [We are] not subject to the conditions that confront us; rather, these conditions are subject to our decision. Wittingly or unwittingly, we decides whether we will face up or give in, whether or not we will let ourself be determined by these conditions.” 

So this is not to say that our reactions to these events (confusion, and some form of dismay) are not valid, but rather once we have “felt the fuck out of our feelings”, as Dan Savage often memorably puts it in his podcast and advice column, how do we pivot and get a handle on what we’re struggling with? 

I like Frankl’s somewhat long-suffering use of “we may as well” in the above quote. We may as well choose to make some meaning of our often absurd human animal conditions. Or even: until you can come up with a better plan for how to tackle this painful stuff other than feeling crushed and tyrannised by it, let’s walk the path of meaning! 


Buddhism Coping strategies Defusion Emotion Regulation Existential knots Feel Better Impermanence Mindfulness Obsessive thinking worry Worry

This Too Shall Pass?

“…and here’s a secret for you – everything beautiful is sad…gilded with impermanence…”
John Geddes

The Sufi tradition tells the story of a king who was surrounded by wise men. One morning, as they talked, the king was quieter than usual.
“What is wrong, Your Highness?” – asked one of the wise men.
“I’m confused,” replied the king. “At times I am overcome by melancholy, and feel powerless to fulfill my duties. At others, I am dizzy with all power I have. I’d like a talisman to help me be at peace with myself.”
The wise men – surprised by such a request – spent long months in discussion. In the end, they went to the king with a gift.
“We have engraved magic words on the talisman. Read them out loud whenever you are too confident, or very sad,” they said.
The king looked at the object he had ordered. It was a simple silver and gold ring, but with an inscription. Can you guess what was written on that silver and gold ring?

Sometimes, the most irritating thing we can hear from another person when we share our mental or physical distress with them is some variant on the intrinsic impermanence of all phenomena.

Although we all understand this concept philosophically, having it spelt out to us by another person can sometimes feel invalidating. As if to indicate that the genuine here-and-now feelings, body sensations, or thoughts I’m having are somehow illusory or inconsequential by dint of their transience. Sometimes with a client, but also with myself, I feel like the coach who shouts out to the boxer in the ring getting painfully pummelled: “Hang in there, Rocky! You may be having the stuffing knocked out of you now, but once you’re patched up and healed, you’ll be as good as new!”

It’s a different matter however when we bring this way of thinking to our own internal world with the hope of liberating us from some of the less helpful forms of suffering and entrapment that our language-facilitated psyches often land us with.

The main way language traps us is by cementing, consolidating, and solidifying a mood, emotional state, thought, or body sensation. For example, while writing this, I notice that I am feeling tired and a little bit queasy. If I put this into words (“I’m feeling tired and a little bit queasy”), until I update that “reading” of my interoceptive environment, it acts like a dualistic off-on switch. What I mean by this is that my mind starts believing that I am either “tired” or “not tired”, “queasy” or “not queasy”. It loses all sense of gradation and perspective. As far as my mind is concerned, tired and queasy become the “last word” on my experience. That inner-reading, delivered through language should really come with a time and date stamp attached to it (“Hey Steve, two seconds ago you registered tired and queasy feelings in your body, but how about now?”), but it doesn’t. The mind gives us these readings as if they were timeless truths about ourselves and the world.

When we get an email or text message from someone else however, we take into account the potential for change in that person between the act of committing a reading of their body sensations, thoughts, emotions to that written communication, and how they might be feeling now. Reading it a few hours later, we may recognise that this person could be in a different place altogether, either due to some form of self-care they embarked on (a nap, a walk, some peppermint tea), or just as a natural outcome of the fundamental impermanence of all phenomena, including tiredness and queasiness as bodily states.

Unfortunately, when the above reading gets served up by our minds, rather than a transient text message, it can sometimes appear in a way that a printed sign on a solid wooden post might catch our attention with its seemingly unarguable entreaty : “PATH HAZARDOUS DUE TO ICE – TAKE ALTERNATE ROUTE”.

The sign is maybe only appropriate for the day on which the suggestion was made, maybe even the month, or the whole winter of that year. But at some point, it will no longer act as a helpful indicator because the path will no longer be slippery and icy. And yet the sign doesn’t reflect when this happens, in the same way that our minds often fail to keep track of the moment-by-moment changes within us, noticing only significant peaks and troughs.

My tiredness and queasiness, like all phenomena, is continually changing, even in the space of the time it took me to write this paragraph: sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes noticeable and even oppressive, other times practically unnoticeable, negligible. But the mind, and language freezes or suspends these states in whatever reading was made at the point of noticing the sensation at first, and unless we factor into our reading the notion of impermanence, we might make a prison for ourselves of this thought, especially if the thing we’re focused on (thought, feeling, sensation) has some suffering attached to it.

Prison, my lord!

Denmark’s a prison.

Then is the world one.

A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.

We are all Hamlets in this regard. I get imprisoned by my thoughts a dozen times a day, how about you? Whenever I lose sight of the fact that thoughts are just thoughts, I’m cast into a bleak and airless cell. A kind of living death perhaps?

“To Taoism,” writes Alan Watts, “that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect [i.e. rendered in language as a permanent fact] is absolutely dead. For without the possibility of growth and change there can be no Tao [i.e. the unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality]. For there is nothing in the universe which is completely perfect or completely still; it is only in our minds that such concepts exist.”

I think when we take this on board in an experiential, “lived” way, this impermanence, this ever-changing, fluctuating nature of all phenomena inside us and outside us, can be incredibly liberating.

Let’s say someone you were counting on lets you down? Or it could be an experience you enjoyed the last time you had it, but not this time. Of course we’re disappointed. But if every phenomenon in our experience, material and immaterial, is fundamentally inconstant, impermanent, transient, why are we holding out for our fool’s paradise?

Well, that goes without saying: because the illusion of permanence and stability feels safer and more comforting. But it can also be devitalizing, ensnaring, and rife with suffering.

Maybe it would be good, like the king in the Sufi fable, to have a magic spell of sorts, a talisman, something that unhooks or unchains us from the inflexibility of our own, and others’ linguistic formulations, returning us to the light-and-shade flux of our lived experience?

Sometimes it might be enough to just use this reflection of transience in something like a this-too-shall pass mantra. Or if those words have lost their power by becoming over-memified and commodified (another good example of this: keep calm, and carry on) we may need to recite a small poem or prayer, like this verse recited at buddhist funerals, but also by monastics on a daily basis:

All things are impermanent.
They arise and then they pass away.
Having arisen they come to an end.
May we find peace by remembering this.

I also like these doleful lines from Dogen:

Your body is like a dew-drop on the morning grass,
your life is as brief as a flash of lightning.
Momentary and vain, it is lost in a moment.

I find it interesting that Siddhartha’s last words according to the Mahāparinibbāna sutra are reported to be a variant of this teaching: “”Disciples, I tell you this: All conditioned things are subject to disintegration – strive on untiringly for your liberation.” This is not an encouragement to withdraw to a timeless, mystical now, but rather, as Stephen Batchelor explains “an unflinching encounter with the contingent world as it unravels moment to moment” and so “embark on a new relationship with the impermanence and temporality of life.”

In our Western tradition, we find a very similar message in Pyrrho’s Aristocles Passage. Wise men and women in all our recorded culture have focused on impermanence as being a very important door through which we need to pass to find peace in ourselves and the world. If we can only, even for a moment, take on the fact of our own impermanent sojourn in the timeframe of this one life allotted to us, take this on viscerally, as a lived experience, rather than as an idea (“Death whispers in my ear,”  Virgil reminds us, “Live now, for I am coming.”) then who knows what kind of living we might be able to squeeze out of the lives we’ve won in the sperm-egg lottery.

The poet Ron Padgett comes at this truth from a Christian perspective in his poem The Joke:


When Jesus found himself
nailed to the cross,
crushed with despair,
crying out
“Why hast thou forsaken me?”
he enacted the story
of every person who suddenly realizes
not that he or she has been forsaken
but that there never was
a forsaker,
for the idea of immortality
that is the birthright of every human being
gradually vanishes
until it is gone
and we cry out.

Sometimes though, this self-imposed reflection isn’t enough, and we might need to do some more intensive defusing and unhooking.

Here are a couple of visualisations to play around with, using fairground rides to help us unhook from impermanent/conditional thoughts-emotions-sensations that entrap us through language, language rendering them as unconditional, immutable and imperishable. Don’t feel you have to do them exactly as I’ve envisaged. Once you’ve got the idea, make one of them work in a way that suits your imagination.

1/ This Too Shall Pass as a MERRY-GO-ROUND:

On the merry-go-round of the mind there is a problem with speed as much as anything else: the whirring thoughts and feelings, the jarring, jangling music. So first of all, cut the power switch the merry go round off for a moment. Stop it. Imagine all the lights expunged, the music silenced, the painted wooden horses in shadow.

Now walk around it and see if you can find the one that’s tormenting you. It might be horse-shaped, or it might look like something else. See if it can reveal itself to you.

When you find it, notice it’s colour, shape, texture, how large or small it is. Notice where you might position yourself on it or next to it if you were to go on this ride.

Now deliberately imagine yourself stepping off the platform.

Find a place a good 10 or 15 metres away where you can still see the merry-go-round or carousel, but it doesn’t take up your whole view. Notice what else is there in the park, see if maybe there’s a ride you might even want to go on.

Take a few deep breaths and get your bearings.

When you’re ready, throw the switch and let the carousel begin to spin again, you may even imagine it spinning really fast so that it becomes a kind of spinning top and takes off into space.

Or you may start feeling queasy just at the spin on it right now, and so after glimpsing your bugbear every few seconds whirling around and around and around. See if you can watch it until you start to feel a little bored with the sight, and are ready for a refreshment or some other distraction.

2/ This Too Shall Pass as a FERRIS WHEEL:

Again, see if you can identify your bundle of feelings and thoughts that have got you “locked into” the seat or cage of the ferris wheel: “Oh, there’s shame, and hurt, and frustration. Oh there’s why-can’t-they-respond-as-I-wish-them-too?” etc.

Get a sense of how fast the wheel is turning. It may be moving very, v…e…r…y slowly. You may want to join yourself for a moment on the ride and let your shamed/hurt/frustrated self hear some words it needs to hear from a more soothing, reassuring part of you.

Breathe. See if you can surrender to the pod, or seat, something that symbolises your upset: a photograph, a screenshot of a text message, an object.

Then claiming your hurt and upset self, perhaps holding its hand the way you might a scared or sad child or small animal, watch as the wheel begins to inch its way upwards and the pain inside “your” seat or pod, like everyone else’s pain in their seats, begins to “pass”.

Not disappearing but slowly, maybe v…e…r…y slowly increasing its distance between you and this thought-feeling-situation bundled up as a vexing hurt.

When the wheel reaches its apex, a hundred metres up or more, invite a bird or some other winged creature to fly into the pod and take the item you’ve left there away with it.

Imagine what the bird might do with this object. Perhaps line its nest, or bury it, or eat it (birds like text messages and photographs, they feed off them like sunflower seeds). Maybe even imagine the item passing through the bird’s intestines, this hurt of yours transformed into excrement and eradicated over trees and hills and fields full of wheat ready for harvest.

3) This Too Shall Pass as a BUS, TUBE, TRAIN or AIRPLANE:

Unlike merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels, tubes and trains usually have destinations associated with them. Consider where the cluster of thoughts and feelings and sensations you are currently experiencing may lead if you hop on the bus, or train, or plane and fly with them. Maybe even imagine that destination written on the front of the train or the plane.

Perhaps today’s train is destined for a place of ABANDONMENT or NON-RECIPROCATION (either receiving or giving). Often the destination, the final stop on the line is one of too-much or too-little.

Too much of a certain type of interaction with another human animal, or our environment, and thus a feeling of overwhelm, or too little which then results in a feeling of deprivation, a foresaken emptiness, loneliness and alienation.

Take a moment to consider whether you want to ride this train all the way to its final stop. If not, especially if you’ve made this journey before and found it a fruitless one, you may decide to let the train pull into the station, load it up with all your hurt thoughts and feelings, and then let it depart.

Watch it go, check the platform, are there still thoughts and feelings amassing in quantities that threaten to arrest your next meaningful action? You may have to stay on the platform and let those passengers fill the carriage of the next train into the station.

Identify each one as they climb aboard, like Noah counting and tagging every creature that climbed aboard the ark. “OK, here’s a thought that [this person/situation] is X. Here the feeling of […] again. Here’s the desire to do x, y, z, which probably wouldn’t help matters but…” Repeat until the platform has a bunch of hangers-on who don’t want to pass, don’t want to go. Let them if need be accompany you as you step away from the platform and focus on something meaningful and interesting calling for your attention.

Thanks for reading. Oh, and if you’re struggling with thoughts, feelings, body sensations, or situations that seem to your mind particularly oppressive and imprisoning, other than some of the suggestions presented above, you might also want to consider learning by heart one of these poems and reciting it as a more extended mantra when feeling trapped. That’s something I do, and I find it helps.

Acceptance Adam Phillips Contingent Self-Esteem Control Creation Existential knots Experiential avoidance Frustration Hope Life maps Narrative Identity Structure Worry

Tyrannical Narratives

Why is it that Pastor Rick Warren’s (2002) book The Purpose-Driven Life is the bestselling hardcover non-fiction book in history, apart from the Bible? In a similar vein, but from a different background, Viktor Frankl’s (1962) Man’s Search for Meaning continues to sell strongly to this day. Perhaps because books like this remind us of our aching desire to shape our lives to trajectories that seem consequential (to us, and thus to our tribe, our culture) evaluated on how fulfilled we feel with our lot.

We are story-telling creatures, and our stories need to contain some narrative arc, some cognitive structure, some “meaning”.  The psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that “it is through narrative that we create and recreate selfhood, self is a product of our telling and not some essence to be delved for in the recesses of subjectivity.”

Our sense of meaning and purpose, our values and motivations are based on the narratives we tell about ourselves and our world. Charles Taylor tells us that stories about self and society are how humans construct the “horizons of meaning” which then form the critical background for social relations and life choices. Narratives always represent a kind of movement in moral space. They are our way of constructing coherence and continuity in our lives.

The most important stories that we tell, retell, and reframe are the ones that we do not generally recognise as stories at all. We could call these “metanarratives.” These master stories are the stuff of ideologies, religions, nationalisms, and cultures. We do not recognise them as “stories” in the sense of events unfolding in a temporal frame but rather tend to take them as an unarticulated background, the taken-for-granted “truth” of the way things really are.

What is striking about these metanarratives is how closely their plots parallel and mimic the Christian chronicle. Just below the surface, we find the common threads of a secularized theology: a fall or awakening into sin, the redemptive quest, conversion and transformation, temptations to backslide, persevering in salvation, and an expectant hope for final happiness and fulfillment. 

Tim Smith writes in his book Moral Believing Animals: “So deep did Christianity’s wagon wheels wear into the ground of Western culture and consciousness, that nearly every secular wagon that has followed—no matter how determined to travel a different road—has found it nearly impossible not to ride in the same tracks of the faith of old. Such is the power of moral order in deeply forming culture and story.”

What interests me in all of this is what we do when certain narratives and life-rules (often stated as small chains of narrative) start to dominate our lives in ways that cause us suffering. Here’s a narrative that dominates mine: if I am not writing everyday and publishing frequently then my life is worth naught. I might still be caring for others, and myself, learning and developing as a human being, enjoying many of the pleasures of being alive and conscious, but if this narrative is not being adhered to, even slightly, it’s all over. 

I call this a ruthless and totalitarian narrative, a tyrannical narrative, because there is no space in it for slippage or imperfection. You may not share my specific totalitarian narrative, but I bet you’ve got some version of this which you follow. Whatever its focus, it is a narratives driven by a burning desire that will only settle for complete satisfaction, and it often chooses to do this in a life sphere where complete satisfaction is unattainable. Which to be fair, is pretty much every sphere of life.

“The perfectionist,” which is perhaps another name for someone ruled by ruthless and totalitarian narratives “is always an ever-failing god, never merely a struggling animal,” writes Adam Phillips in On Balance, hinting here at the implicit narcissism of our striving. Perfection is when the satisfaction demanded by our narratives is achieved; perfection is when there is no gap between desire and consummation. The only problem with desire is that it involves frustration; and frustration, whatever else it is, is an acknowledgement of incapacity. 

So rather than the ruthless and totalitarian narratives, what we ultimately need is a capacity for incapacity, for being animals (Great Apes) rather than gods.

But how satisfying is this as a narrative? Not especially. Non-human animals lack narratives, which is why we denigrate them, and feel superior to them. And yet, they are satisfied more often than us living as they do without the pressures of narrative: no future goals to complete, no past failures to mourn. Incomplete satisfaction is our human animal fate, but this is not a project that is going to sell self-development books or make us feel any more at peace with our aspirations.

By Heart Existential knots My koans Stanley Kunitz

By Hearting King of The River by Stanley Kunitz

Sometimes the words just won’t go in.

I am stuck on the third stanza of ‘King of The River‘.

If the power were granted you
to break out of your cells,
but the imagination fails
and the doors of the senses close
on the child within,
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.
A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor.
You have become a ship for parasites.

I read a couple of lines. Repeat them again and again. Think I have them. But as soon as I go back to the first two stanzas which are almost “there” (in my head), the third slips away again like that “yard of muscle” we call “fish”, thrashing its way out of my memory’s grasp.

Perhaps the third stanza won’t stick because I’m not sure what Kunitz is trying to say in it. I get the biological-driven quest of the first two, the force of the libido driving through the niceties of thought.

The mind would like things to be just-so before it acts, but things are never just-so. Well, hardly ever.

If the water were clear enough,
if the water were still,
but the water is not clear,
the water is not still…

But what’s happening in the 3rd stanza, Stanley?

It starts with another biological-denying fantasy: “If the power were granted you/to break out of your cells…”. These being the cells as in the structural and functional units of our organismic life. But equally, other enclosures: the alcoves, sanctuaries and garrets where we think, read, pray and write poems.  The mausoleums, vaults, catacombs where we bury ourselves away to live or die.  The dungeons, ghettos, stockades, where others put us out of the way.

Looking for an image of some cells to use with this post, the ones I find reminds me of that incredibly bleak illustration by Robert Crumb ‘No Way Out’. How lonely, in some way, the human cell! Each one hived off from the other. How lonely the salmon in its bruised and battered quest. Yes, there is union “in the orgiastic pool”, but for the most part, the life journey of this creature is a solo one.

And what do cells at their most basic level do? Metabolic processes, division, biosynthesis.

To put it simply: stuff is consumed, stuff is processed, stuff is produced. A bit like a blog, or a poem, or a novel. It seems we just can’t help ourselves.

But we also can’t break out of our cells, ourselves, can’t escape the biological hoopla that drives us down rivers studded with hope-dashing rocks, painted “with our belly’s blood”.

And yet. And yet. The suggestion stands that imagination might offer some respite. Unless, and isn’t this the most crushing of recognitions, imagination itself “fails”. What does that failure of the imagination entail? Or rather what does the success of that cell-escaping imagination need? Kunitz seems to be suggesting that imagination requires a sensitivity and wonder to the world around us akin to that of the child, albeit perhaps a mythical child, the inner-infant that plays and screams when it’s excited or sad.

But then he throws in this line about “daring to be changed”, implying that some fork-in-the-river choice need to be made at a certain point. And yet no choice need be made either because we are already “changing now/into the shape you dread/beyond the merely human”.

I take the “merely human” to mean that deluded, immortal sense of ourselves we have, that sense that the cup of tea I’m just about to make will be one of a neverending series of cups, for how could this mere, day-to-day human ritual change?

Until we age, perhaps, sickening, wear out, die. Or experience the death and entropy around us.

A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor.
You have become a ship for parasites.

The “right” poem (right being right for you, your distinctive antidote, your self-cure) will often take you places you might not want to go.

I did not want to spend over a month committing Kunitz’s poem to memory. I wanted my by-heart “possession” of the poem to be swift, fluent, uncomplicated. I would apply effort, link-begetting intelligence, creative-visualisations, whatever it took to get the poem into the spawn pool of my heart where it might swim around with all the others I’ve caught so far in this way.

Hear that?

That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz chuckling. That is the sound of Stanley Kunitz saying: “The Sockeye salmon from central Idaho travels over 900 miles, climbing nearly 7,000 feet in order to return from the Pacific Ocean to the freshwater lakes of its birth, so that it may reproduce, and you want to consume this journey like you might consume a chunk of flesh hacked off the body of this creature? In what? An hour, a day, a week? Instantaneously?!”

I’m not sure if Kunitz was a cusser, but if he had been, I imagine him finishing his hard-nosed but good-humoured observation with “…for chrissakes, Steve, is that really the deal here? Jesus Christ!”

Each section of Kunitz’s poem is built around an uncomfortable truth, a truth we all struggle with: that things are not as they should be, that life bears no responsibility in providing us with the ideal. If A were clear enough, if B were still; if C was given to me; if D was granted; if E were pure enough.

But (alas): A is not clear, B is not still, C is not given, D fails us; E is not pure.

What do we do with all these (k)nots?

The poem was one giant (k)not: no matter how hard I tried, it just didn’t want to swim into my head. I would spend hours memorising – even just ten or twelve lines, a few hundred slippery word fish, which before I knew it, had slapped and thrashed and tumbled their way out of my memory again.  The process felt like snakes and ladders, but all snakes, no ladders. I worked hard at getting stuck into the poem, but all I did was get stuck in the poem. I couldn’t move forward at the pace I wanted, I needed, I’d hoped for.


I don’t know. Maybe just “because”.

Because this by-hearting process is not clear, not still, not given, often fails us; not pure. No, that’s not true, purity it has: the purity of utter bewilderment and incapacity.

So what did I do?

I continued.

In the words of Frank O’Hara:

the only thing to do is simply continue
is that simple
yes, it is simple because it is the only thing to do
can you do it
yes, you can because it is the only thing to do.

We know this, but then the next question is maybe why does one continue?

The answer to that question is I think deeply embedded in this poem. It has something to do with following one’s vital impulses, with passionate struggle, with  Csíkszentmihályian “flow“.

And a kind of faith too.

I knew I’d crack the poem if I just kept on returning to it again, and again, and again. Again (obdurately), again (tenderly), again (patiently).

The faith was also about knowing that the journey would be worth it.

It has been.