David Whyte is in perpetual conversation—with his readers, with the world around him, and with his inner self. He is in fact well known for exploring what he calls the conversational nature of reality.
Whyte grew up between Yorkshire and Ireland, the son of an English father and an Irish mother, and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. After earning a degree in marine zoology, he roamed the globe as a young naturalist, leading anthropological and natural history tours to the Andes, the Amazon, and the Himalayas.
Now much of his travels focus on giving poetry readings and doing corporate consulting that focuses on creativity. Part scholar, part psychologist, and part philosopher, Whyte approaches poetry as a sacred pilgrimage. Here, he discusses the sense of presence that makes that possible with Unity Magazine editor Katy Koontz.
Katy Koontz: Can you define “conversational nature of reality”?
David Whyte: The root of the word conversation originally meant a deep form of intimacy. Right in the middle of the word we also see the word converse, which essentially means “inside out.” So the conversational nature of reality is the intimate, inside-outness of reality. The way, in deep listening, birdsong is heard inside and outside the body. Or the way our intimate vulnerabilities are suddenly worn on our sleeves, often against our will, within the intimacy of marriage.
The conversational nature of our human identity is that intimate exchange, a kind of frontier between what seems to be me and what seems to be other than me.
KK: I love the story behind your writing the poem “Faith,” where the central image is the waning of the moon. You said you were working with a “beautiful question,” wondering what it would be like to have equal faith in the part of you that was fading away as the part of you that was growing. Can you elaborate?
DW: There’s no part of the natural world that doesn’t go through the full cycle of existence—everything firstly hidden, then just emerging, then coming to fullness, followed by decay, and often, disappearance. This has long been embedded in our psyches by the cycle of the moon.
Half of the Conversation of Life Is Always About Disappearance
This is also represented in our everyday experience where things slowly come into being, take on a kind of fullness, and then before we’ve even fully celebrated their gifts, they are already on their way out, relegated to memory.
One half of the conversation of life is always about disappearance, about what you must give away and let go of. Refusing to have that conversation means being at war with reality almost 50 percent of the time. So having equal faith in the part of you that is fading away might involve feeling just as much alive, just as much yourself, when things are being taken from you as when they are being given to you—the challenge of no longer holding on to people and dynamics beyond the time in which they were gifted to you.
“Faith” is also representative of a very delicate time when I had decided to work as a poet full-time, for which you get very little emotional or financial support in the wider world. I wrote that piece as a testament to what was emerging in my new life, which was not yet fully born, and perhaps most especially to my old, fading-away life, which couldn’t conceive of this new possibility.
KK: That’s reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of impermanence. I’ve heard you describe yourself as an Irish-Catholic Buddhist—an intriguing combination.
DW: I never see life as a Buddhist or a Catholic or as an atheist, anything with a name in that way—although I love to be a Catholic for short periods gazing at a beautiful Italian church, and I love to take a Buddhist’s life-like approach to reality, and I even enjoy pretending to be Japanese and sitting in Zen sometimes.
KK: I think honoring what we’ve giving up also celebrates where we are now.
DW: Yes, exactly. The crux of my poem “Santiago” is the line, “And you were more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach.” A lot of this requires having compassion for exactly the way that you hold the conversation of life. Don’t follow someone else’s heroics.
There’s a lovely moment in the Pali texts, one of the earliest representations of Buddha’s talks, where one of Buddha’s followers, who’s a bit of a rascal, says, “This is all very well and good for you—you’re so pure and so integrated. But I’m a big drinker and I like to play around, and whenever I try to take a step in the right direction I fall down.”
Buddha’s simple reply was, “Well, just make sure you fall in the right direction.”
KK: Are you a poet because of your ability to be fully present, or are you able to be fully present because you’re a poet?
Always Just One Step Away from Home
DW: You could say I’m a poet because I didn’t make a choice between them. The deep states of attention and intentionality you arrive at in the writing of poetry are an invitation into an experience independent of writing. If I’m a little off-kilter and away from myself, just reading a good poem or attempting to write a line can recreate or create a transfigurative experience underneath all the struggle. It can even remind me of things I may have forgotten.
One of the marvelous things about poetry is that you can travel a thousand miles in one line. You can come home to yourself if it’s the right line. In all our great spiritual traditions, you are always just one step away from home, although it may take your whole life to take that one step!
KK: What’s the most intoxicating aspect of being fully present for you?
DW: Presence can be intoxicating, certainly, but it can also be deeply sobering. Being present to the natural world right now means not only the beauty of morning birdsong but the way we are unravelling the fabric of the planet. Presence does not make a false choice between them—it magnifies all the qualities that we normally feel. One of the reasons we’re not more present is because life can be so painful, so full of loss, and so raw.
To my mind, human beings have every right not to want to have the conversation because, as we noted already, half of that conversation has to do with disappearance and death and pain. Every human being has the right to say, “Listen, God, if this is the conversation you want me to have, I’m not having it. I’m going to create my own little bubble, or my own little video game where I control what’s going on. And in order to do that, I have to create an insulatory dynamic—like an invisibility cloak that guarantees I cannot be found, cannot be touched, cannot be heard.” If you are present, of course, you have no such insulation.
“One of the marvelous things about poetry is that you can travel a thousand miles in one line. You can come home to yourself if it’s the right line.”
Invisible Help: Intercession from Other Parallels
KK: You refer to helping hands quite a bit. Can you say more about that?
DW: It is extraordinary how difficult it is for us to ask for help, even a readily visible source of help that will make a practical difference in our lives. It’s even more difficult for us to ask for invisible help, normally seen as intersession from other parallels—from angelic realms, from on high, from the gods in the ancient world. Thinking about invisible help in a very practical way, it’s the help that you do not as yet know you need.
If you’re not fully present, not paying attention to what’s happening around you, you will walk right past the hand that is offered.
All of us can look back in our younger lives and remember times where we were offered help or advice, and in the unassailable wisdom of youth, we said, “No, I can do it. I know what I’m doing,” when of course it was exactly the help or advice we needed. Which leads to the question: What invisible help might I be walking past right now in my life? Invisible help is the help that’s waiting for you. It’s right here. You’ve just got to ask the right beautiful and disturbing question.
KK: Why beautiful and disturbing?
DW: I always think of a beautiful question as one that enlarges you and your understanding of life. It’s also disturbing because you had well-nurtured opinions about the way the world is made and about the way things were, and those notions have been atomized and broken apart by a dynamic that you suddenly understood in a deeper way.
KK: What do you see as the difference between a mystic and a philosopher?
DW: There wasn’t very much of a difference in the past. Philosopher means “lover of wisdom,” and the way philosophy has gone in the universities, it’s definitely become strategized and disconnected from the invisible. The word mystic tends to mean someone who’s working with the invisible, but it can have a pejorative sense, where that invisible is never made visible in words or actions.
So I might essentially see them as being very close together, but I think the way the words are used is quite digressive at the moment. I always call myself a poet and philosopher, because putting poetry with philosopher immediately gives you both sides, the visible and the invisible, but I would never say I’m a poet and a mystic just because of the way mainstream society marginalizes the word mystic.
KK: In your travels, what place has felt the most holy to you?
DW: There are so many extraordinary places. The west of Ireland certainly carries a special resonance, a wild kind of holiness. And the hills, fells, and mountains of the north of England are very, very holy to me because I grew up there and they helped to shape me. And then I’d say one of the places where you feel a contagious sense of holiness is in the Himalayas. I don’t think I’ve ever been in another place like it, where you feel as if something extraordinary could happen in the next hour or even the next minute, day after day after day. There’s something about the meteorology, the geology, the cultural inheritance, and the inherited mythos of the place. There’s a sense of imminence—of something still about to occur that is going to break you open—that is very powerful in the higher reaches of the Himalayas.
Let Your Experience Turn Upside Down
KK: You often say the answer we seek is in the exact opposite of where we’re looking. Can you elaborate?
DW: There’s a lovely term in Irish, trína chéile, which means everything’s been turned upside down. The ability to let your experience turn upside down, to let yourself not know, to be trína chéile for a while, is very, very important.
KK: You began your professional life as a marine zoologist, but now that you’re a poet do you still think of yourself as a scientist? Do those mindsets intersect for you?
DW: They do actually, yes. One of the things science taught me was the way that minute emanations can have enormous consequences on larger patterns. Measuring the effect on the world of a tiny change in electrical charge or in a wave form or in a chemical reaction was such a revelation.
Similarly, the way we affect others by how we walk around and hold a conversation, even just by the way we look at other people, has enormous consequences.
One of the things I had to learn as a scientist when I first reached the Galapagos Islands was that my identity didn’t depend upon what I had been taught about it, nor on my inherited understandings about that world. My identity depended on how much attention I was paying to things other than myself. Once you had that dynamic going, then the world started speaking back to you in its own voice rather than with the names you had placed upon it. But first, you had to get beyond the Latin nomenclature and the Linnaean way of dividing up the world. It doesn’t necessarily get to the heart of an ecological, conversational understanding of reality.
“Better to join the dance, no matter how awkwardly; sing the song, no matter how far out of tune you are at first; write the line, no matter that it doesn’t say what you want it to say in its first difficult draft, rather than sit in abstraction around the edges.”
The Invisible Pocket of Stones
KK: Can you give an example?
DW: A great example in Galapagos is the Darwin’s finches, which were a nightmare for a young immortal boy-god scientist to identify. The species changes according to the island they’re on, their beak size, or whether they’re cactus finches or tree finches or ground finches.
If your identity as a scientist was based upon being able to conjure the Latin name of a particular finch, you were in deep trouble. They were always an invitation to humiliation. As a guide, you would actually distract people from them so that you wouldn’t be humiliated by being unable to identify them.
One colleague would carry around a pocketful of stones. As a guide, he would always be in front and if he noticed a finch, when no one was looking he would hurl a stone toward the bird. It would fly off, so no bird, no question, no humiliation! We all walk around with an invisible pocketful of stones that we throw at things we can’t recognize and don’t want to have a conversation with.
KK: I suppose that’s one way of dealing with it!
DW: But not of dealing with reality … Those birds are evolving so quickly, almost from generation to generation. The grandmother of a large beak ground finch could be a medium beak ground finch with a different Latin name, depending on the way the rains are falling, the seed sizes, and so on. So the real answer to the question, “What’s that little brown bird over there?” is “That’s a beautiful question. Do you really want to know what’s going on? Or would you just like a Latin name, which will probably be inaccurate but give you the illusion you know what you are looking at?”
People are always tempted to say, “Oh, just give me the Latin name that’s probably inaccurate,” because what’s actually going on takes some imagination. It takes getting out beyond yourself and joining the movable dance-like nature of reality.
Better to join the dance, no matter how awkwardly; sing the song, no matter how far out of tune you are at first; write the line, no matter that it doesn’t say what you want it to say in its first difficult draft, rather than sit in abstraction around the edges.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.