Never lie. Never say that something moved you if you are still in the same place. You can pick up a book but a book can throw you across the room. A book can move you from a comfortable armchair to a rocky place where the sea is. A book can separate you from your husband, your wife, your children, all that you are. Books are kinetic, and like all huge forces, need to be handled with care.
But they do need to be handled. The pleasure in a book is, or should be, sensuous as well as aesthetic, visceral as well as intellectual. *
I cannot lie. Joan Ruvinsky’s new book, The Recognition of Our Own Heart – an interpretive translation of the Pratyabhijñahrdayam – moved me. When it arrived I experienced the kinetic power Jeanette Winterson writes about. It didn’t throw me across the room, but for some inexplicable reason it would not permit me to open its covers. I walked around for some time clutching it to my heart. Then I sat down with it in my lap for an hour or more. It demanded deep stillness and undivided attention. Eventually I could open it, handle it and bathe in its sensuous beauty, its visceral wisdom.
For the Tantric masters of the medieval period, who were not only great yogis but also great writers, poets, musicians, and artists, the vast emptiness of Being is inseparable from the flourish of freely, divinely inspired expression. Their means (upayas) included the body, the senses, and the mind not as obstacles to eliminate but as pathways to what Is. **
As someone who appreciates “the flourish of freely, divinely inspired expression” for its sheer poetic beauty, this book has been a sensuous delight for me. I was (and still am) illiterate in regard to the tradition and texts of Kashmiri Shaivism, so I had the same sense of wonderment at what I’d been missing out on as when I discovered the writing of Peter Kingsley on the revelatory poems of our own pre-Socratic Western philosophers – Parmenides and Empedocles. Rather than attempt to write a scholastic review of it – which I am entirely unqualified to do – I’ve decided to simply share what I appreciate about the poem and the way it speaks to my experience.
For a taste of what lies in store in the text, we only need to consider the implications of the exquisitely worded title: Recognition of Our Own Heart.
Recognition. Not attainment, not enlightenment, not discovery or salvation. Recognition of something we have always known, yet apparently lost sight of behind the veils of our accumulated knowledge. Something we’ve been looking for – perhaps without being conscious of it, perhaps thinking it could be found in people, places, things, activities, if we just “got it right”; something that turns out to be inseparable from our aliveness, our beingness – and therefore inescapable.
Our. Own. Not something belonging to any deity, Buddha, Christ, Godhead or some figment of someone’s imagination. Not conceptual, abstract, philosophical. Our own. As entirely our own as is our blood, our breath, our DNA.
Heart. As in, “the heart of the matter”. Anatomically our heart performs a core function – when it stops pumping blood around our body with its contract-release action, we die. However, the Heart of the matter is not the physical heart, it’s the creative capacity that makes a heartbeat possible. It’s the primordial energy that beats the cosmos into being, and is identical to our own creative capacity.
Perhaps that’s all I need to say. Yet I want to add this:
When you read a book for the first time there’s often a standout phrase that grabs you, and in some mysterious way becomes its touchstone. In Joan’s book, this didn’t happen when I was reading the actual poem or the ponderings thereon, rich and luminous as they are.
It popped out in the heart-felt acknowledgement she made to her colleague and friend Kathleen Knipp, “…whose unending love and support provided this opportunity for the creativity of the universe to describe itself.”
for the creativity of the universe to describe itself
Since the evolution of language humans have been trying to describe what’s going on here. We haven’t a clue, and our minds hate not knowing. So we make up stories: creation stories flavoured with our unique cultural, geographic and temporal experience. Sometimes we forget they are just our stories embroidered on the blank vastness of being, and we believe them to be “received Truth.” That’s when they morph into organised religions. One notices that when this occurs there’s usually an element of control and coercion involved. There are lists of ways to behave, commandments to be followed, promises of salvation, bliss and eternal life … if one is obedient.
This creation story – the Pratyabhijñahrdayam – isn’t in that category. What strikes me is that rather than being some abstract conceptual mapping of this “happening” called life, it’s more like a summary of the dynamics of our own human experience, writ large, and projected onto the unfathomable mystery called cosmos. And this means you don’t need to have any knowledge of the history and philosophy of Kashmiri Shaivism (although I found the introduction of interest), and you don’t need to know anything about the creative outpouring of texts and poetry that occurred during its Golden Age in order to appreciate what you’re reading.
Coming upon this poem, which distils centuries of dialogue into just 20 short verses, is like discovering a contemporary terma for yourself: a capsule of memory-prompts hidden by ancients for discovery in later centuries. You open the book and find the creativity of the universe describing itself to you, as if speaking to itself. Which of course, it is.
While I confess a preference for cosmologies that are free from anthropomorphic projection, I understand why Joan chose to use the feminine voice in this case (rather than the traditional male voice of Shiva). Why? Because in our life experience it’s the females who birth new life; simple as that. Yet there’s no gender-divide, because the dualistic concept of gender hasn’t been thought-up yet. There are no hierarchies either, nor heavens, nor hells. No wrath, no rules. “She” doesn’t demand goddess stature, nor does she ask to be worshipped. We just have a plain and uncomplicated explanation of how creativity works, and how the game of forgetting our core creativity – our Heart – and recognising it again, is set up.
Creation creates because that’s what creation does. There are no almighty divine agendas, no maps for salvation or escape. Magical thinking is not required. An all-inclusive movement dances on throughout the time and space it creates; an inescapable self-luminous Light shines on through every being, regardless. No one, no thing is excluded from this ultimate non-dual creation story, a story that aligns to perfection with the experience of one’s daily life: the wondrous experience of – just this.
Joan and her colleagues Kathleen Knipp, Tina Koskelo and Susheela Bouthillier are to be congratulated for their collective endeavour in translating the original poem. Like icing on the cake, Joan’s wisdom shines lucidly in today’s language as she offers her “ponderings” on the verses. The work poured into this beautiful publication has been immense – we’ll never know the half of it. And Peter Bowers’s photography is a pitch-perfect partner for the poem – often enigmatic, always beautiful.
Yet for the original inspiration and motivation to bring this text into contemporary form we must honour Joan. She was compelled to do so from her own experience, observation and understanding, and my sense is that she has accomplished, with her colleagues, what Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska referred to when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.”
A simple walk on the beach becomes an experience of cosmic joy and at the same time, remains just a simple walk on the beach.
I’m just little me, and yet also I am the beach and the shells and the ocean and the horizon.
Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. I am walking through me.
“I” has been assimilated by the totality and I have assimilated the totality and it’s just very amazing and yet totally ordinary.
Consciousness is walking through consciousness.
It’s so obvious. How could I have missed it before?
– Verse 15 Pondering, p 113 [My formatting]
* Jeanette Winterson, The Psychometry of Books, in Art Objects
** From the front cover flap
To order a copy of Joan’s book, please visit the pathless yoga website.
If, like myself, you live at the other end of the planet and balk at high shipment fees, you can order a copy with free delivery from the Book Depository
See more of Peter Bowers‘s photography on FLICKR, here
Be sure to visit Tina Koskelo‘s stunning blog being silently drawn
For information about Kathleen Knipp‘s work, see her page at pathless yoga
Footnote: I can’t express my quiet joy at having one of my poems included in this book. When Joan asked for my permission, the seed of this project was just starting to sprout and her death was some way off. I had no idea what the book was really about, but knowing Joan, I was only too happy to say yes. To think that my 2014 poem this shines on regardless found its home in such an exquisite and wise context is both astonishing and deeply gratifying.