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Renowned Poet Rainer Rilke’s Advice? Live in the Question



Crazy can feel like the new normal in the modern era with so much change upon us, inevitably causing us to realize that we don’t have much control over anything – out there. With constant bad news circulating, it can feel as if we are perpetually waiting for the other shoe to fall, but rest easy my friends, Rainer Maria Rilke, the lyrically intense, German-born poet and author of the epic Letters to a Young Poet has some surprising encouragement for us.

Change, like ripples on the surface of a lake, is infinite.

Change, like ripples on the surface of a lake, is infinite.

Rilke’s family emboldened him toward a career in the military, but it soon became evident that he was meant for a more creative life. Surely, in his transition from a military school to the flourishing writer he became, he had to experience a few burning questions of the heart. Was he doing the right thing? Could he succeed at his craft? Would the world recognize his mastery of verse and accept him?

At the time of Rilke’s death, he was revered by many European artists, but most of the rest of the world was ignorant of his genius. This has changed over time.  His poems have been read and re-read in quiet homes, and in front of thousands at institutions of higher learning.

One of the singularly perfect tidbits of advice he gives is offered in Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of ten letters (which could have been written to his own developing psyche) meant to be absorbed by any young poet who wants to connect with and nurture their own creative soul.

The book explores many themes, and has come to be accepted as a sort of guide for life. It touches on the importance of solitude, the relationship between creativity and nature, and advises us all on how we can live a fuller life.

This one sentence of Rilke’s is replete with creative consciousness:

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. . .live in the question.” 

How many of us struggle to let go and embrace a state of not-knowing? That. Feels. Like. Crazy. Yet others, like John Allen Paulos, attest that uncertainty is all there is, and knowing how to live with the insecurity is the only security.

Here’s the thing, though. Our egos cling desperately to an anchor in reality, yet all permanence is an illusion. Jobs change. Relationships change. People change. Even you change – constantly. We usually look to the future as if it has all the secrets to our happiness, but we pin the “future” on false assumptions about now.

It’s as if we are waiting for some Deus ex machina – a big break: our soul mates to arrive, a huge endowment from a relative, a final law passed by the government, etc. – to wrap up the story of our lives so we can stop thinking about what will come next.

Anything would be better than not knowing.

Or, we could take Rilke’s advice.

We can realize that a flower won’t grow and blossom if it clings to its roots. We could lean on the teachings developed by the Buddha over 2000 years ago on impermanence. Franz Kafka got it. He said, “The decisively characteristic thing about this world is its transience. In this sense, centuries have no advantage over the present moment. Thus the continuity of transience cannot give any consolation; the fact that life blossoms among ruins proves not so much the tenacity of life as that of death.” Bhikkhu Ñanamoli once offered, “whatever IS will be WAS.”

This means that not only pleasant circumstances and experiences will pass away, and should be enjoyed fully knowing this, but that the anger, frustration, jealousy, confusion, and other emotions that are arising at the end of this Technology Age will pass, too.

The Buddha also advised that we should see our bodies like the four elements: wind, fire, earth, and water. These elements of nature are constantly changing, yet when we observe them, we don’t struggle to try to make them remain stable. Water turns to ice. Fire burns earth to ash. Once a pebble is thrown into a lake, the reverberations on the surface are possibly endless.

You’ve heard that expression, “the winds of change” used to describe some geopolitical event, right? Well the winds of change apply to ourselves and our lives on an every-day basis, just as poignantly as to powerful people describing monetary moves, or a growing social sentiment.

Try replacing expectations with plans. Have goals and move toward them, but expect that things won’t go as you expect them to. Prepare for a varied list of possibilities in important situations. It is better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. But even the best preparation for life won’t eliminate the questions – as Rilke so profoundly suggested. Finally, observe your thoughts and feelings, and instead of placing your focus on the future – on some uncertain outcome – learn to live fully, happily in the now. Every second there will be a new one, so you’ll have lots of practice.

Living in the question means we all get to give ourselves a break. We get to acknowledge and embrace that we are growing, expanding, evolving spiritual beings fumbling along in a skin suit. Nothing will ever be chiseled in stone, so the more we can accept the “huh?” the better. When we develop the observer attitude, not knowing doesn’t seem so crazy after all.

Featured image: Rainer Rilke, source

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