Archive for June, 2011

That art thou

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Reading Joseph O Leary

I came across one of those tantalising pieces of information that spark off a whole series of thoughts. Beethoven apparently had the phrase tat tvam asi above his desk. I wouldn’t have thought that knowledge of the Upanishads was very prevalent in Europe in his time, but there you are. It is not altogether surprising though, when you consider his music (especially the 6th and the 9th symphonies), that B was so struck by this idea that he had it before him as he worked. The Chandogya Upanishad tells story of Uddâlaka and how he gently leads his son Svetaketu to the realisation that Ultimate Reality, that whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere, is within. Life is not about acquiring that which one does not have, or becoming that which one is not, or not yet. Life is a journey of discovery, the discovery of what one is and always has been. Tat tvam asi – That art thou.

This goes right to the heart of the problem of subjective experience. Of what value are our lives? There are (rare?) days when we seem to touch the heights. There are days when the crushing weight of existence itself stifles the will to live. Most days, however, are the uneventful round of daily living, ordinary, banal even and, for the most part, unmemorable. Of what use are these lives, these days, hours of routine existence? Time passes. It seeps away like water into sand, as in a Beckett play.

Even more to the point, what about those days that are full of pain, lives that are filled with suffering? The mystery of suffering and evil is one of those factors that abrades the sense of well being and turns the gaze inward. Pain inhibits every thought but the desire that the suffering should cease. All the more shocking then, to come across these lines of Rilke

How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner ear–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.*


Squander? Wish them gone? How can one accept suffering as part of the normal scheme of things, built in to the fabric of our existence and as much part of reality as happiness, or health, or joy? Rilke’s words shock. They are a reality check which forces us to stand back and look again, forces us to hold up our unquestioned assumptions and examine them. Happiness/unhappiness, health/sickness, joy/sadness, pleasure/pain – these are the coinage of our lives. The present moment, and only this present moment, is where we touch reality.

* The Duino Elegies, No. 10