The Blessings of
Many years ago I read a biography of the 19th century
British aesthete Violet Paget, who wrote under the pen name
Violet's life seemed to have been blessed by the gods.
When still a young woman, she decided to live out her
life in Italy, where she could study great art, commune
with other aesthetic souls, and enjoy dolce far niente. This is
pretty much how she spent the remainder of her
days: studying aesthetics, writing books, and
finding beauty every time she turned around. Violet was
able to live this kind of life thanks to an annuity from
her industrialist grandfather, which kept her fed and
housed as long as she lived. She always had enough time,
space, and freedom to do exactly what she pleased, and
what she was pleased to do was surround herself with
beauty every moment of her existence.
Well, this was one of the few times in my life when
I turned absolutely pea green with envy. What a way to
live! What a flawless state of being! To escape your
drab provincial town, relocate to Florence or Venice, and spend
your whole existence in contact with some of the sublimest works
of art ever created. Even better: you would get to discuss art
and poetry with kindred souls every day. No time clock, no
deadlines, no stress, no bills, no processing invoices or
designing spreadsheets, not when you could spend your hours
contemplating Caravaggio or Bellini. How lucky could anyone get?
everywhere there would be beauty. In Florence or Venice you
wouldn't be assaulted by the light of the golden arches, utility
wires, used car lots, shopping malls, Budweiser signs, crushed
plastic bottles, and all the other grand and glorious sights of
a contemporary American town. Scream... fury... murder... Why
couldn't I live a life surrounded by beauty? Why couldn't one of
my idiot relatives have left me enough money so I could settle
down in Italy and surrender my soul to the splendor of the
Quattrocento? Why was I stuck in a world covered with asphalt?
Where could beauty be found in my humdrum Midwestern town?
Why--everywhere, of course. As I grew older,
I began to realize that the greatest artists and poets
didn't need some kind of special environment to find
meaning and beauty: they could find anywhere on earth,
even in an Illinois town. If you opened your eyes and
just started to look at the world around you, you could
find something beautiful every blessed moment of your
existence. After all, Walt
Whitman only needed leaves of grass to find meaning and
beauty in his life. He even tells us that all you
really need out of life is simply to be ... alive:
ocean fill'd with joy--the atmosphere all joy!
Joy! joy! in freedom, worship, love! joy in the ecstasy of
Enough to merely be! enough to breathe!
Joy! joy! all over joy!
was one of the breakthrough moments of my life. Until this
instant I had never realized that the universe was showering
incredible beauty, wonder and splendor down upon me every moment
of my life. All I had to do was start paying attention. What
more could I possibly want than what I already had? I had
birds and trees and breezes and butterflies, I had roses in the
spring and sunflowers in midsummer, I had the wide open sky with
its ever-changing pageant of clouds, I had rain and mist and
snow, I had the boundless prairie's ever-receding horizon, I had
hawks soaring through the skies at dawn and sunlight sparkling
on the dew. I had the richness of the summer moon in a black
velvet sky and the thrilling pageant of the stars every night.
When you have got magnificence like this every day of your life,
who needs Florence?
The more I started to pay
attention to all the natural forms and forces which
surrounded me, the more I realized that I could also learn
certain basic spiritual or metaphysical truths from what I
was seeing and hearing. After all, this was how ancient
Chinese philosophers came to an understanding of the Dao: they knew that the
natural world which surrounded them was radiant with a
spiritual significance which could be conveyed and
understood. When they wanted to understand existence
itself, they didn't go to books or to a spiritual
leader--they went out into the world of nature to learn
what they could.
spent the next few years trying to follow in their footsteps. I
started to pay attention the movements of the sun, the moon and
the stars, I tried to feel the energies of the winds and the
waters, and I carefully watched seasonal changes and weather
patterns. Did I learn anything? Probably not much, except the
unoriginal notion that everything about our universe is in
constant movement and flow, and that when you let yourself get
stuck in something you end up completely dead. But I do like to
think that I did discover one very important metaphysical truth
from the natural forces which surrounded me. Maybe this is only
vanity or delusion, but this discovery made sense to me and
ended up making a great deal of difference in my life.
I discovered was there were special places of intensity in the
natural world where the energies were always very concentrated
and vivid. In these places it actually seemed like some kind of
spiritual or metaphysical revelation was possible. I am talking
about boundaries or thresholds, the kind of frontier which
separates one physical reality from another. The doorway of a
house is this kind of boundary, a place which is neither inside
nor out. Crossing a threshold was always of great importance in
the old fairy tales, since when you cross a boundary, you can
escape your normal day-to-day reality and enter into a different
I started to realize that these kind of
thresholds were all around me in the natural world. For
example, any place where earth met water was this kind of
threshold, a place of quite forceful and vital power.
Earth and water, of course, are two of the four primal elements which constitute our universe, and when they
come together some kind of special energy is generated.
Beaches, lake shores, riverbanks... all these are
places of special power. I have read that medieval Irish
bards would always go to the bank of a river or to the
edge of the sea when searching for inspiration,
divination, or wisdom--they must have realized the the
energies of these special places would fill them with
the kind of stimulation that they needed.
I also discovered that there were special thresholds of time as
well, and in many ways these thresholds were even more potent
than what you could find in the physical world. These thresholds
are shift moments like new or full moons, the start of a new
season, or solstices and equinoxes. When I started paying
attention to these kinds of moments, I began to realize that
something mysterious always seemed to happen whenever they
occur. If you pay close enough attention to the energies of a
time threshold, you will discover that during these special
moments the physical universe almost seems to drop away, leaving
the world of the spirit visible.
I quickly learned that there was one particularly intense
threshold moment, when these kind of energies were at their
strongest. This moment came to us every single day of our
lives. It was the threshold of twilight. Discovering
the importance of twilight was another of the breakthrough
moments of my life. I realized that the twilight which we
experience every twenty-four hours of our lives can be one of
the most intense thresholds we can know. Twilight is a dramatic
moment between the familiar and the unknown, between the prosaic
reality we are accustomed to and the spiritual reality which
exists beyond. Twilight is both a time out of time and a place
out of place. All of which means that it can give us some of the
most important spiritual lessons we can ever experience.
will probably be a difficult statement for people to accept, at
least initially. I am aware that the vast majority of people in
this world would actually prefer to watch television in the
evening instead of paying attention to the twilight. Poor dear
fools--they don't know what they are missing. The twilight which
comes over the earth at the end of each day happens to be a
precious gift which can shift us into a completely new way of
* * *
this point, my reader is probably wondering if there is any
common sense behind what I'm saying, or whether it is all just
mindless babble. Well, bear with me a little longer.
begin with, twilights are always moments of perfect tranquility
and repose. When the shades of evening start to rise out of the
earth, if you simply stop whatever you are doing and allow their
calming energies to affect your being, this alone is enough to
move you into a different kind of consciousness. This is perhaps
the key secret to twilight: it dissolves everything, up to
and including your problems, your burdens, and your
psychodramas. They all simply float away into the darkening
twilights are always moments of great beauty. For all that I've
just said about finding beauty in your ordinary humdrum town,
this isn't always the easiest thing to do, not when your eyes
are constantly assaulted by by the spectacle of dumpsters, dog
poop, smashed plastic bottles, messy houses, rusty Buicks--I
could go on forever, couldn't I? What you need to remember is
that nothing is ever ugly in the twilight. When the
light starts to fade, all that is harsh or vulgar in our lives
simply dissolves away, and everything takes on a new and
otherworldly splendor. The old Scottish word glamour always
had connotations of twilight, when beauty could always be found
while roaming in the gloaming. You want some glamour in your
life? Forget about aping your average Hollywood bimbo,
instead start cultivating the twilight.
Twilight also engenders a sense of balance. After
all, it is a moment which is in perfect equilibrium
between day and night. You sense that two different kinds
of time are coming together in perfect harmony. In other
words twilight is itself a kind of centering.
And this is one kind of centering which doesn't require
that you work at it, nor practice it: all you have
to do is just lean back and enjoy...
if you're a poet (or at least someone who aspires to be one),
you will also discover that twilight is a time when you need to
grow ever more alert. In the gathering dusk, everything which
surrounds us loses its familiarity. On the one hand, objects and
forms become blurred and unrecognizable, but on the other sound,
fragrance, and breezes grow ever more miraculously intense. I
have learned that this kind of disorientation can frequently be
accompanied by creative reverie. The mind is never fixed at
shift moments like these--it wanders at will into fertile space
where new inspiration can be found. There is no time like the
twilight for new words, forms, or ideas to appear in your mind.
I always have pen and paper ready so I can start scribbling down
the thoughts that inevitably come when the light is
fading. Sometimes I keep writing until it is too dark to
see. The words and concepts that come to me during the twilights
frequently have an extraordinary vividness and are poetic in and
of themselves, even if I can't always arrange them into rhythmic
Here I must offer up one of my pet theories about
artistic creation. I have long been convinced that the
greatest poets, artists, and visionaries have always had
one thing in common, namely an ability to surrender their
egos and enter into some kind of communion with
something outside of themselves. This is what happened
when John Keats, for example,
blended his own consciousness with a nightingale, and Vincent
Van Gogh became one with sunflowers. You do not need any
kind of special genius to do this--you simply need to
find a way to let go of your self-conscious ego and
become pure awareness. Well, there is no time like the
twilight to help us release our conscious personality.
As the darkness increases, the physical boundaries which
separate you from the world vanish into nothingness. If
you want to experience the world with the kind of rapt
intensity that a great poet experienced it, all you need
is a twilight.
are also special moments of psychic intensity. You are always
able to divine things better in a threshold moment. I have
written elsewhere about the things you can to do increase your
psychic skills and won't repeat myself here. But if you really
want to practice effective divination, do it in the twilight.
There are oracles, but then there are also twilight oracles, and
there is no oracle like a twilight oracle.
are also special moments when we can start to sense the inner
spiritual reality of everything that surrounds us. If ever there
is a perfect moment which can give us an inkling of spiritual
truth or mystical vision, it must surely come at twilight, when
form dissolves into shadow and darkness. In the Homeric poems,
the gods would frequently appear at dusk, in that special moment
when the physical world no longer seems to exist. Innumerable
mystics both East and West have also found that the most intense
spiritual illumination can come in these special moments. In a
long, lingering twilight, the unseen can become as real as the
seen, time becomes timeless, and it actually seems as though the
world of the spirit becomes visible.
of which means that if you start making time and space for
twilights in your life, something will shift within your
existence. The world of the spirit will grow much more real. You
will be able to attain a feeling of mystical connectedness to
the physical manifestations of the world. You will start to feel
as though you can indeed escape time and space any time you
wish. If nothing else, the simple act of experiencing a betwixt
and between is guaranteed to engender reverie and dreams.
Then what? Can I guarantee that you will enter
into the world of faerie? Or that you will be able to sing
like Taliesin? Of course
not. But just try a twilight sometime.
Absorb its grace and beauty into your being. You
might just be surprised.
* * *
Now for some quotations. I will start off
with the one poet who was absolutely bewitched by the
Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Yeats was very much aware that
there is more to our world than what we see and hear in
our ordinary physical reality, and he was a master at
surrendering his self-conscious ego to something outside
himself. His talent for finding spiritual revelation in
the physical world which surrounds us is possibly a
direct result of the lessons he learned in his rural
Not surprisingly, as a young man he wrote an
entire book about twilight: The
Celtic Twilight (1893), which is
still very much worth reading. I must confess I find the
folklore sections of this book to be tedious, but on the
whole the book is redeemed by many passages of great
beauty. In particular, Yeats gives us what is probably the
greatest definition of twilight ever penned: "that great Celtic twilight, in
which heaven and earth so mingle that each seems to have taken
upon itself some shadow of the other's beauty. Well, there you
have it all in a nutshell: twilights can give us wonder,
spirituality, revelation, and a mystic threshold into the unseen
world every day of our lives.
ends The Celtic Twilight with one of his
greatest poems: Into the Twilight. Of all the
twilight poems ever written, this is the great one, the one to
be memorized, the one whose words you need to treasure in your
soul for the rest of your life...
Into The Twilight
Out-worn heart, in
a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Your mother Eire is
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.
Come, heart, where
hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;
And God stands
winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.
* * *
But Yeats is not the only poet who found magic in
the twilight. The following poems have been selected from A Lute
of Jade (1911) by L.
Cranmer-Byng, 300 Tang Poems translated
by Witter Bynner, and R. H. Blyth's Haiku (4 volumes
Inscribed in the Temple of the Wandering Genie
I face, high over
this enchanted lodge, the Court of the Five Cities of Heaven,
And I see a countryside blue and still, after the long rain.
The distant peaks and trees of Qin merge into twilight,
And Had Palace washing-stones make their autumnal echoes.
Thin pine-shadows brush the outdoor pulpit,
And grasses blow their fragrance into my little cave.
...Who needs be craving a world beyond this one?
Here, among men, are the Purple Hills
Inscribed in the Inn at Tong Gate
on an Autumn Trip to the Capital
Red leaves are
fluttering down the twilight
Past this arbour where I take my wine;
Cloud-rifts are blowing toward Great Flower Mountain,
And a shower is crossing the Middle Ridge.
I can see trees colouring a distant wall.
I can hear the river seeking the sea,
As I the Imperial City tomorrow --
But I dream of woodsmen and fishermen.
Harmonizing a Poem by Palace-Attendant Guo
High beyond the
thick wall a tower shines with sunset
Where peach and plum are blooming and the willow cotton flies.
You have heard in your office the court-bell of twilight;
Birds find perches, officials head for home.
Your morning-jade will tinkle as you thread the golden palace;
You will bring the word of Heaven from the closing gates at
And I should serve there with you; but being full of years,
I have taken off official robes and am resting from my troubles.
Wang Wei (698-761)
Bound Home to Mount Song
The limpid river,
past its bushes
Running slowly as my chariot,
Becomes a fellow voyager
Returning home with the evening birds.
A ruined city-wall overtops an old ferry,
Autumn sunset floods the peaks.
...Far away, beside Mount Song,
I shall close my door and be at peace.
Toward the Temple of Heaped Fragrance
Not knowing the way
to the Temple of Heaped Fragrance,
Under miles of mountain-cloud I have wandered
Through ancient woods without a human track;
But now on the height I hear a bell.
A rillet sings over winding rocks,
The sun is tempered by green pines....
And at twilight, close to an emptying pool,
Thought can conquer the Passion-Dragon.
Wang Wei (698-761)
The Island of Pines
willow-lake a temple shines,
Pale, through the lotus-girdled isle of pines,
And twilight listens to the drip of oars --
The coming of dark boats with scented stores
Of orange seed; the mist leans from the hill,
While palm leaves sway 'twixt wind and water chill,
And waves of smoke like phantoms rise and fade
Into a trembling tangle of green jade.
I dream strange dreams within my tower room,
Dreams from the glimmering realms of even gloom;
Until each princely guest doth, landing, raise
His eyes, upon the full-orbed moon to gaze --
The old moon-palace that in ocean stands
Mid clouds of thistle-down and jeweled strands.
Po Chü-i (772-847)
Playing the Lute in the Cool of the Evening
The moon has
arisen, the birds are all in their nests;
I sit quietly among the trees, alone.
Now my heart is at rest.
And good it is to play the lute of white wood.
Cool-, clear-sounding, according to its nature,
Thin and quiet, it follows the human heart
The mind is filled with the spirit of peace,
As it responds to the ancient mode of Seishi.
The sounds linger on, and trembling, cease.
The melody is finished, autumn night profound.
The True Sound echoes the Primal Changes;
Heaven and Earth deepen serene.
Po Chü-i (772-847)
Early cicadas stop
Points of light, new fireflies, pass to and fro.
The taper burns clear and smokeless;
Beads of bright dew hang on the bamboo mat.
Not yet will I enter the house to sleep.
But walk awhile beneath the eaves.
The rays of the moon slant into the low verandah;
The cool breeze fills the tall trees.
Letting loose the feelings, life flows on easily;
The scene entered deep into my heart.
What is the secret of this state?
To have nothing small in one's mind.
Po Chü-i (772-847)
North Among Green Vines
Where the sun has
entered the western hills,
I look for a monk in his little straw hut;
But only the fallen leaves are at home,
And I turn through chilling levels of cloud
I hear a stone gong in the dusk,
I lean full-weight on my slender staff
How within this world, within this grain of dust,
Can there be any room for the passions of men?
* * *
These poems come from R. H. Blyth's Haiku (4 volumes
published 1949-1952) and A
History of Haiku (2 volumes
Not yet evening,
But with the rain,
It is a window of autumn.
Looking as if
I have nothing on my mind.
An autumn evening.
Den Sute-jo (1633-1698)
I burned some incense:
An evening of spring.
In a short life,
An hour of leisure,
This autumn evening.
An autumn eve;
There is a joy too,
It is overcast;
The plum trees are covered
With the dust of evening.
A day of spring;
Wherever there is water.
I have nothing at
But this tranquillity!
* * *
The following selections from A
Philosophy of Solitude (1933) come from my cosmic
ecstasy hero John
Here he is at his visionary best when he describes the
powers of twilight:
Among the elemental
presences of Nature is there anything more potent than what we
name Twilight? What a thing it is, when you come seriously to
note it, when you allow its magic to work upon you, this daily
sinking down of darkness upon the face of the earth! Many, ere
now, have sung hymns to the Sun; but it is only when twilight
begins to fall that a certain largeness of the atmosphere,
obliterating the transitory and ephemeral, flows around us, and
lifts us up, and out and away, upon its full-brimmed tide.
Who can deny that
by the feelings released in the twilight, so common, so simple,
so universal, all the tenderer, wiser, gentler second-thoughts
of our race are nourished and sustained?
From the populous
pavements of our cities, from the bleak desolations of all those
strange no-man's lands between city and country, from
mountain-ridges and umbrageous valleys, from pebbled shores and
tossing waters, Twilight, this faint recurrent sigh of our
familiar landscape as it sinks into its diurnal sleep takes away
something hard and opaque: something that separates us from the
Yes! It rolls back
for us, each mortal evening, whether the weather be foul or
fair, those clanging brazen gates that separate us from the
calm, cool, restorative wells of life. Over our forlornest human
thresholds, across the sills of our wretchedest human windows,
flows this ocean of release. And under its power everything
grows larger, more ethereal, more transparent. The harsh
outlines recede, the crude colours withdraw, the raucous noises
die down: and out of the vaporous grey upon grey an
indescribable luminousness--not light, but, as it were, the
spirit of light --like the blueness of fathoms of deep water,
floods the exhausted world.
And the thoughts of
men and women return to the moments when there has been no
screen between them and the Unspeakable; no barrier between them
and the withdrawingness of Matter. Like flying birds gathering
homeward in the dusk, their thoughts follow long, dim, moss-cool
vistas of obscure feeling, avenues of emotion far too tremulous,
far too vague, to be put into words.
And whence do these
feelings Come? From the mystery of the Inanimate; from that vast
volume of the dim body of Matter against which the idealists
tell us the Spirit must ceaselessly contend!
And Twilight is not
only the mother of healing thoughts; it is the grand releaser
from the prison of vulgarity, the great liberator from the
pressure of the crowd. With whatever hot, feverish constriction
the crowd-consciousness shuts us in, Twilight enables us to slip
out upon the cool balconies of our own mind.
Not a solitary soul
alive growing aware of that strange blueness at the window, of
that undulating sea of spaciousness into which all opacities
melt and lose themselves but can flee away to the ocean-banks of
its own widest horizons, and keep its vigil there, listening to
the breaking of the great tides. And while the eternal Twilight
thus separates souls that the world has joined, it unites those
that the world has separated!
This is the hour
when all divided lovers send their spirits forth, each to each,
across land and sea.
The man leaning
against the door-post, that girl standing at the window, what
has broken the laws of space and time for these two, that their
souls may rush together and be at rest? Has humanity done it?
Has Christ done it? Has Spinoza done it? Not one of these! The
Inanimate has done it. Matter, the old antagonist of the Spirit,
the old aboriginal, elemental Titan, has come to the rescue of
these lovers. What the world has joined, the Inanimate has
separated. What the world has separated the Inanimate has
through this world of illusion
in free and easy wandering.
--The Lotus Sutra