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The Bell and the Blackbird

Nikon D7100, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G, 1/400 f8, iso200

A couple of weeks ago Clemency and I drove to Queenstown to hear the poet David Whyte. I think that people resonate with writers when they articulate for us the doings of our soul, and David Whyte has done that for me several times, as I have mentioned here and here and here and here.  I had seen that he was in New Zealand to conduct one of his famous, week long walking tours, which I would dearly love to have joined, but my budget didn't stretch to the $US5,000 a head ticket price. But I saw  A Day With David Whyte advertised and decided that whatever the cost, I was going. Turns out it was only $95 a head, so Clemency, despite the fact that she was only vaguely aware of who he was,  came too.

We left home in the dark and arrived in plenty of time for the 10.00 am start. The venue was a kind of back packer type place on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. About 60 or so people were there, mostly women, all of them looking like the kinds of people who would give up a day to see David Whyte, ie well heeled, late middle aged hippies. Like me. We met in a kind of garage, with rows of church hall chairs set just a bit too close together and a microphone and a barstool and an old wine barrel at the the front' by way of a lectern . There was a large desk at the back with piles of books which quickly sold out - these people were serious fans. Like me.

David Whyte arrived on time looking reassuringly scruffy. Well crumpled black pants tucked into unbuckled beatle boots. A high quality though slightly dishevelled striped shirt and a corduroy vest. Black hair greying at the temples. Dark brown eyes. Yep. A poet. We had a lengthy lunch break with the food, surprisingly, already paid for in the cost of the ticket, but apart from that he spoke all day until 4 pm. The chairs were hard. It was a cold day and the venue was uninsulated, but who cared? I know a good public speaker when I hear one, and he was as good as it gets. By turns funny, erudite, surprising, provocative and witty he spoke with an impossible to place accent, in a wonderfully modulated, beautifully paced voice, quoting his own poems and those of others, pausing sometimes in complete silence to gather his thoughts, and drawing us all into his unselfconscious and assured stillness. And all this without notes, for about four and a half hours. The audience jammed into that uncomfortable little space didn't stir for all that time - not the true believers nor the novices, like Clemency. Spellbound. Charmed. Inspired. And once more, he articulated for me the doings of my soul.

Sometime in the first hour he retold an old Irish folk tale. One day a monk was sitting in his cell when he heard the sound of the chapel bell. He said to himself, that is the sweetest sound in all the world, calling me as it does to stillness and depth and time with my Lord. Before he had time to rise and make his way to the chapel, he heard the sound of a blackbird, calling from beyond the cloister wall. He said to himself that is the sweetest sound in the world, calling me as it does to the world and all its majesty and beauty. The story ends there. No one knows which call the monk followed. 

After 18 months away from paid employment I find myself in a strange place of blessedness. Life is unstructured but there are two things which are becoming increasingly important, and to each of which I try to devote at least an hour a day. One is to sit on my prayer stool in silence; to be present to the one who calls me there and to my own elusive being. The other is to take my camera and go outside and seek to find a beautiful image, not because I particularly need or want to show it to anyone, but because the act of doing so draws me into contact with this elegant, intricate, awe-some universe which lies everywhere at hand about me. It is these two things around which, increasingly, all the rest of my life arranges itself; which sometimes seem to pull me in opposite directions, but, lead, invariably, to the same place.

If I'd had to leave after that first hour I knew I'd had more than my money's worth. But there was much more to come. Much more. Then, at when he was tired and drained from giving and we from receiving, we queued for him to sign our books, and he wrote in the front of my copy of  The Bell and the Blackbird, "Kelvin. For the birdsong in your life." In my old Pentecostal days I’d have called that a prophetic word.

Clemency drove home. We stopped for fish and chips in Alexandra. It began to rain somewhere about Lawrence. We didn't listen to music but instead talked about the day, about what we'd heard and what it had meant to us. We arrived home in the dark.


The sound
of a bell
still reverberating,
or a blackbird
from a corner
of a
Asking you
to wake
into this life
or inviting you
to one that waits.
Either way
takes courage,
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing
The approach
that is also
the meeting itself,
without any
at all.
That radiance
you have always
carried with you
as you walk
both alone
and completely
in friendship
by every corner
of the world

-David Whyte


Alden Smith said…
In his poem ‘The Bell and the Blackbird’ David Whyte presents the choices (Echoing the Monks choices in the Irish folk tale) as Either / Or choices :

“Asking you to wake into this life OR inviting you deeper”…… and again : “EITHER way takes courage”… etc.

The poem presents, lets call it “The Way” as a duality (which it is) as something that you choose between. I feel and think (in my humble opinion) that if the Monk in the old Irish folk tale was wise he would chose to integrate both paths. The paths are not mutually exclusive.

In fact they represent what C.J. Jung would call “The union of opposites”. That is, Up and Down, In and Out, Dark and Light, Good and Bad as being parts of the Whole and are necessary for an understanding of the nature of things - We wouldn’t fully understand Heat if we hadn’t experienced Cold.

We belong to both the Spiritual path and the Worldly path. Combining the two both amplifies and completes the other. Getting closer to the One who sustains the cosmos allows us to see a fuller World; As It Is; free from our clinging, cloying egos of selfishness.

Spiritual practise, whatever form it takes (Be it meditation or whatever) is not an end in itself, it is only a transformative catalyst that allows us to experience the completed ‘self’ (or whatever the “no self at all” jargon means) and the world in all its fullness and completeness.

The World is the context for the expression of our Spiritual progress. Love, kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation are fulfilled in this worldly context as we progress along The Way. Both paths are inextricably interwoven - that, for what it’s worth is how I see it.
Kelvin Wright said…
I think Whyte is saying something a bit different. He's not asking us to choose, but to recognise the choice as false. or at least, as irrelevant. This story functioned as a koan for Whyte in his Zen days and he is well versed in the ideas of being/non being, of codependent arising and of non duality. Whyte doesn't identify as Zen anymore, and leans more to Christian mysticism, especially Meister Eckhart, and the poem reflects that worldview.
The monk is presented with his choice, and in the telling of the story, so is the listener (and I guess the teller). My take on it is that both calls lead to the same place, which is the abandonment of the false sense of self, which is the origin of the monk's dilemma and the consequent discovery of
"that self that
is no self at all,"

And there is the unspoken dimension of where the monk is now, that is, his cell, which is a metaphor for the small enclosed psychic space which either path is inviting us to leave. In fact even following the path is a kind of false dichotomy as the destination and the journey are the same thing.

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