the centre cannot hold

The transformational conversations and workshops I lead often come to a place where each of the thought partners participating with me realize they're at a loss for anything more that seems worth saying. Everyone's said what they know to say, shared it in important, open ways, and yet, nonetheless, are becalmed; not yet done but with nothing more to say. Overtime, I've found that these "plateaus" can be moments when the right poem will open a new space, nudge a new doorway so that someone is moved to speak something unexpected.

I remember a time like this several months ago. I was working with some war veterans, talking with them about the ways in which the wars we'd fought years ago were, decades later, still creating unwanted ripples. An hour or so into my first meeting with these vets it seemed like the seven of us had come to that moment when no one had anything more to say, but didn't want to say "goodnight." After several silent minutes, Wendell Berry's poem, The Real Work, came to me and, a bit awkwardly, I said as much and ask if anyone would mind if I read it aloud to see if it might spark anything meaningful. Hearing no objections, this is what I read: 

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

After I finished there was silence, some movement to the back of the room to get coffee, and more silence. Then, after about 15 minutes, we said "goodnight" and adjourned.

The following week, we were together again and, after some desultory "let's catch up" banter, one of the vets said, "I've been thinking about that poem. It got to me 'cause last month I...."

As he shared his story, I was reminded of W. B. Yeats' poem, The Second Coming. The first stanza reads:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tides loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. 


For weeks after our first "I've been thinking" session, this vets group, in a variety of ways, talked about the ways in which the doubts and uncertainties that came with the dangers we'd survived in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq had too often undermined the confidence and determination we needed to muster for the new stateside opportunities we faced once we got home. During these discussions, some of us shared old, long-standing recriminations and others shared fresh anxieties, while some had nothing to say but were willing to simply "stand in witness" to a friend's tentative exploration of wounds that had never had much of a voice until now.

The 21st Century's Crucial Threats and Demands

These days, the space that poems like The Real Work and The Second Coming stir in me is always tinged with anxiety and a feeling of apprehension. Beneath both, there's a glimmer of anticipation: Behind me are bitter memories that long ago I tucked safely away; ahead is unknown, unfinished, with so many uncertain new paths yet to be walked. I had these feelings during the weeks that my war buddies and I were confronting the "ripples" that the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraqi wars had left us with. Now, when I'm working with new Thought Partners or leading a new dialogue session with others who, with me, are struggling with the uncertainties and anxieties that today's 21st Century threats are bringing into our lives, these same feelings remain with me.

These days, it seems to me as if a good number of us are lost in an in-between wilderness that we've never been in before  Most of us, no matter how well educated, experienced, or enlightened we might be, nonetheless feel like we're struggling through the 21st Century's version of the poppy fields that entranced Dorthy just outside the Emerald City.

Put plainly, I think a goodly number of us are finding ourselves suspended between needing to cling to a 20th Century worldview that insists we live in a "real" world, while simultaneously trying hard to understand the 21st Century's new worldview that tells us the world we live in is something we ourselves have constructed. In other words, right now, at this particular point in history, we're caught in a paradox that's nearly impossible to decipher, especially while we're still using our old 20th Century worldview's ways of thinking.

This conundrum leaves us both overwhelmed by this century's mind-numbing array of new discoveries, inventions, and technologies and, as well, threatened by both a variety of ethnic and racial conflicts around the globe and an amazing array of scary new political and socio-economic trends. For the most part, few of us are equipped with the "post-modern modes of thinking and feeling" we need to decipher all this. 

Three decades ago, Robert Kegan, while describing the first whispers of a deep-seated "mismatch" between our intellectual abilities and an emerging "post-modern" world, told us that we all were "in over our heads." Today, in this blog, I'm both confirming and extending his "mismatch" metaphor, suggesting that all too many of us are simply "Lost in the 21st Century." Regardless of whether we're "in over our heads" or simply lost in the complex array of threats and challenges that this new century is bringing us, it does seem indisputable that many of us struggle with the challenge of understanding the meaning of the demands and threats that are driving today's new world -- things like the world's newest ethnic, gender, terrorist, climate change, and/or globalization phenomena. 

This is something I've just started writing and blogging about, beginning with my September 2017 blog, Lost in the 21st Century, and then in TLO's Circles of Awareness  & Concern, Playing In TLO's Three Circles of Awareness & Concern  (see TLO's Circles of Awareness and Concern Thought Papers). These blogs are worth reading, and I am commending them to you here in this blog for three reasons:

  • First, because Lost in the 21st Century offers a useful list of all the important new threats that each of us faces, whether or not we know it;
  • Second, because TLO's Circles of Awareness & Concern and Playing In TLO's Three Circles of Awareness & Concern offer an interesting way to better understand what the threats on this list might mean to you; and
  • Third, because this month's blog, The Centre Cannot Hold, offers the suggestion that poetry, especially the right kind of poetry, can be an extraordinarily good entryway into meaningful explorations and conversations about all this. 

Doors to Nudge -- Pathways to Walk

Jane Hirshfield is one of America's most accomplished poets and, In the context this blog is framing, is worth knowing because she knows something useful about how to cope with and respond to all these threats and challenges. In her book of essays titled Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, she comments:

Poems do not make appointments with their subject – they stalk them.... And when at last the leap comes, it is most often... from the side, the rear, an overhead perch, from some word-blind woven of brush or shadow or fire.... There is a shyness at the core of existence.... There are things we can possess only by following them into the realm of disguise.

It seems to me that, with this observation, Hirschfield is suggesting two important possibilities for those of us who are interested in helping either ourselves or others step into a much-needed transformational journey. First, we must understand that every life contains some situations that we will be able to apprehend only after we've followed them "into the realm of disguise." Second, those situations hidden in these realms of disguise will open themselves to us only when we're both willing and able to let them "leap" into our awareness, ignited by the magic of something like a "just right" poem discovered at "just the right moment." At the end of this blog, you'll find examples of poems that have proven to be perfect ways to spark an unexpected conversation.

More than was true in the 20th Century's more certain and stable time, something unknowable is now in the air. Palpable – almost sensate in feel and shape – there seems these days to be a quality about our 21st Century lives that's solid but not, almost touchable yet ineffable, a tip-of-the-tongue reality deserving words that before now have been unavailable. This quality of “something unknowable in the air” surfaces occasionally during the Thought Partner conversations I've led about transformational learning, or in the middle of a TLO workshop, when the partners involved discover they've talked so much they don't have anything more that seems worth saying. In 1924, Antonio Machado published a small chap book titled, I Never Wanted Fame. In it, he offered this poem:

Mankind owns four things
That are no good at sea:
Rudder, anchor, oars,
And the fear of going down.

I think this poem nicely sums up how a good poem can give life when ordinary conversations run dry. Just below are a few poems that have found their way into some of the transformational conversations and workshops I've been a part of. They're offered here as a sample of the kind of poems that I've learned can, at the right time and in the right place, spark something ineffable yet worthy of a voice.

TLO's Transformational Poems

Walking Through a Wall

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, 'Say, I want to try that.'

Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences.

The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

-- Louis Jenkins

Sense of Something Coming

I am like a flag in the center of open space.

I sense ahead the wind which is coming,
and must live it through,
while the things of the world still do not move; 
the doors still close softly, and the chimneys
are full of silence.

The windows do not rattle yet, and the dust
still lies down.
I already know the storm, and I am as troubled
as the sea.
I leap out, and fall back,
and throw myself out, and am absolutely alone
in the great storm.
-- Rilke

A Torn Heart

Lost in the forest, I broke off
a dark twig and lifted its
whisper to my thirsty lips,
maybe it was the voice of the
rain crying, a cracked bell,
or a torn heart.
-- Pablo Neruda

Wild Mallard Thought

...it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild mallard thought, which 'mid falling dews' wings its way above the fens. 

A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild-flower discovered on the prairies of the West or in the jungles of the East. Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning's flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself -- and not a taper lighted at the hearthstone of the race, which pales before the light of common day.

-- Henry David Thoreau

The Storm

Now through the white orchard my little dog
     romps, breaking the new snow
     with wild feet.
Running here running there, excited
     hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins,
     in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
     the pleasure of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better

- Mary Oliver

Against Certainty

There is something out in the dark
that wants to correct us.
Each time I think "this," it answers "that."
Answers hard, in the heart-grammar's strictness.

If I then say "that," it too is taken away.

Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.
When the cat waits in the path-hedge
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.

I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.

To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
one shadow fully at ease inside another.

- Jane Hirshfield

Never Wanting Fame


Mankind owns four things
That are no good at sea:
Rudder, anchor, oars,
And the fear of going down.

- Antonio Machado


Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.

-- Rumi

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.
He 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 whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Rumi

The Real Work

Real Work.jpeg

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

-- Wendell Berry

Diving In

Sometimes you want
to wade slowly in.
First, tender feet on a rough beach,
sharp stones and pebbles,
making your hesitant way
to ankles, knees, thighs.
You're breathing faster,
getting used to it
a little at a time.

That's one way.

But this is a hot, sleepless night
with strong dreams from a past
you had long forgot, and indeed
your unknown future is out there.
The surface of the lake glitters
under moonlight.
It is cool and silky.

But the deep, dark water
holds secrets unknown:
dangerous boulders
or felled logs.

You cannot predict this.

Or the terrible chance
that you will instead skim
the surface of your life,
or worse, dangle your feet
from the safe seat of the dock.

If you can imagine the shock.
The first sensation, the realization
that you have let go
of the solid ground
beneath your feet,
the ground you grew to trust
and take for granted,
you can catch your full breath,
now, bursting in your lungs.

Then this weightless, buoyant
body of yours, baptized
by longing and desire,
will rise up, shimmering
trailing luminescent moonlight
from your fingertips,
breathless and bold.

-- Libby Wagner 

Talking To Grief

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

- Denise Levertov

What was your word?


I love Jesus, who said to us:
Heaven and earth will pass away.
When heaven and earth have passed away
My word will remain.

What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were
One word: Wakeup.

- Antonio Machado


The important thing to understand are the ways
in which people together follow grammars, 
and how their own social worlds are created
through this following.
Most forms of conflict are played out within some frame, a grammar that provides options and moves from which to choose. Following this path is fraught with complications.

One person’s moves are always governed by the grammatical rules that they’re governed by. But these moves only make sense, can only make sense, when the contingent responses of the other are created by and governed by the same grammar.
-- W. Barnett Pearce

Moral Proverb #12

image-to die.jpeg

To die. . . To fall like a drop of water into the big ocean? Or to be what I've never been: a man without a shadow, without a dream, a man all alone walking, without a mirror, and with no road?

-- Antonio Machado

The Decision

There is a moment before a shape
hardens, a color sets.
Before the fixative or heat of kiln.
The letter might still be taken
from the mailbox.
The hand held back by the elbow,
the word kept between the larynx pulse
and the amplifyinging drum-skin of the room's air. The thorax of an ant is not as narrow.
The green coat on old copper weighs more.
Yet something slips thought it --
looks around,
sets out in the new direction, for other lands.
Not into exile, not into hope. Simply changed.
As a sandy track-rut changes when called a
Silk Road: it cannot be after turned back from.

-- Jane Hirshfield

The Olive Grove

Olive Grove.jpg

...Why do you want me to say you exist
when I no longer find you myself?

I cannot find you any more. Not within me.
Not in others. Not in these stones. 
I find you no longer. I am alone.

I am alone with everyone's sorrow,
the sorrow I tried to relieve through you,
you who do not exist. O unspeakable shame.
Later they would say an angel come.

-- Rilke

I Am Not I


I am not I.
                          I am this one
Walking beside me whom I do not see,
Whom at times I manage to visit,
And at other times I forget.
The one who remains silent when I talk,
The one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
The one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
The one who will remain standing when I die.

- Juan Ramon Jimenez


Wherever you choose to stand in this world,
that place, firm as it feels,
is a place of falling.

In my own house I fell. A dark thing,
forgotten, struck my ankle
and I fell.

Some falls are so slow, you don't know
you're falling till years later. And may be
falling still.

- Leonard Nathan

Losing Too Is Still Ours

Losing too is still ours; and even forgetting
still has a shape in the kingdom of transformation.

When something's let go of, it circles;
and though we are
rarely the center of the circle,
it draws around us its unbroken, marvelous curve.


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

- William Butler Yeats

Dialogue Sessions.jpg