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A lyrical bridge between past, present and future | David Whyte

A lyrical bridge between past, present and future | David Whyte


The youthful perspective on the future, the present perspective on the future and the future, mature
perspective on the future — I’d like to try and bring
all those three tenses together in one identity tonight. And you could say
that the poet, in many ways, looks at what I call
“the conversational nature of reality.” And you ask yourself: What is the conversational
nature of reality? The conversational nature
of reality is the fact that whatever you desire of the world — whatever you desire of your partner
in a marriage or a love relationship, whatever you desire of your children, whatever you desire of the people
who work for you or with you, or your world — will not happen exactly
as you would like it to happen. But equally, whatever the world desires of us — whatever our partner,
our child, our colleague, our industry, our future demands of us, will also not happen. And what actually happens is this frontier
between what you think is you and what you think is not you. And this frontier of actual meeting between what we call a self
and what we call the world is the only place, actually,
where things are real. But it’s quite astonishing, how little time we spend
at this conversational frontier, and not abstracted away from it
in one strategy or another. I was coming through immigration, which is quite a dramatic
border at the moment, into the US last year, and, you know, you get off
an international flight across the Atlantic, and you’re not in the best place; you’re not at your most
spiritually mature. You’re quite impatient
with the rest of humanity, in fact. So when you get up to immigration
with your shirt collar out and a day’s growth of beard, and you have very little patience, and the immigration officer
looked at my passport and said, “What do you do, Mr. Whyte?” I said, “I work with the conversational
nature of reality.” (Laughter) And he leaned forward over his podium and he said, “I needed you last night.” (Laughter) (Applause) And I said, “I’m sorry, my powers as a poet
and philosopher only go so far. I’m not sure I can –” But before we knew it, we were into a conversation
about his marriage. Here he was in his uniform, and the interesting thing was, he was looking up and down
the row of officers to make sure his supervisor didn’t see that we was having a real conversation. But all of us live
at this conversational frontier with the future. I’d like to put you in the shoes
of my Irish niece, Marlene McCormack, standing on a cliff edge
on the western coast of Spain, overlooking the broad Atlantic. Twenty-three years old,
she’s just walked 500 miles from Saint Jean Pied de Port
on the French side of the Pyrenees, all the way across Northern Spain, on this very famous,
old and contemporary pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago
de Compostela — the Path to Santiago of Compostela. And when you get to Santiago, actually, it can be something of an anticlimax, because there are 100,000
people living there who are not necessarily applauding you
as you’re coming into town. (Laughter) And 10,000 of them are trying to sell you
a memento of your journey. But you do have the possibility
of going on for three more days to this place where Marlene stood,
called, in Spanish, Finisterre, in English, Finisterre, from the Latin,
meaning “the ends of the earth,” the place where ground turns to ocean; the place where your present
turns into the future. And Marlene had walked this way — she just graduated as a 23-year-old
from the University of Sligo with a degree in Irish drama. And she said to me, “I don’t think
the major corporations of the world will be knocking on my door.” I said, “Listen, I’ve worked
in corporations all over the world for decades; a degree in drama is what would most
prepare you for the adult — (Laughter) corporate world.” (Applause) But she said, “I’m not
interested in that, anyway. I don’t want to teach drama,
I want to become a dramatist. I want to write plays. So I walked the Camino
in order to give myself some courage, in order to walk into my future.” And I said, “What was the most powerful
moment you had on the whole Camino, the very most powerful moment?” She said, “I had many powerful moments, but you know, the most powerful
moment was post-Camino, was the three days you go on from Santiago
and come to this cliff edge. And you go through three rituals. The first ritual is to eat
a tapas plate of scallops” — or if you’re vegetarian, to contemplate the scallop shell. (Laughter) Because the scallop shell has been
the icon and badge of your walk, and every arrow
that you have seen along that way has been pointing underneath
a scallop shell. So really, this first ritual is saying: How did you get to this place? How did you follow the path to get here? How do you hold the conversation of life
when you feel unbesieged, when you’re unbullied, when you’re left to yourself? How do you hold the conversation of life
that brings you to this place? And the second ritual is that you burn
something that you’ve brought. I said, “What did you burn, Marlene?” She said, “I burned a letter
and two postcards.” I said, “Astonishing. Twenty-three years old and you have paper. I can’t believe it.” (Laughter) I’m sure there’s a Camino app where you can just delete
a traumatic text, you know? (Laughter) It will engage the flashlight, imbue it with color and disappear in a firework of flames. But you either bring a letter
or you write one there, and you burn it. And of course we know intuitively
what is on those letters and postcards. It’s a form of affection and love
that is now no longer extant, yeah? And then the third ritual: between all these fires
are large piles of clothes. And you leave an item of clothing that has helped you to get to this place. And I said to Marlene,
“What did you leave at the cliff edge?” She said, “I left my boots — the very things
that I walked in, actually. They were beautiful boots,
I loved those boots, but they were finished
after seven weeks of walking. So I walked away in my trainers, but I left my boots there.” She said, “It was really incredible. The most powerful moment was,
the sun was going down, but the full moon was coming up behind me. And the full moon was illuminated
by the dying sun in such a powerful way that even after the sun
had dropped below the horizon, the moon could still see that sun. And I had a moon shadow, and I was looking at my moon shadow
walking across the Atlantic, across this ocean. And I thought, ‘Oh! That’s my new self
going into the future.’ But suddenly I realized
the sun was falling further. The moon was losing its reflection, and my shadow was disappearing. The most powerful moment
I had on the whole Camino was when I realized I myself
had to walk across that unknown sea into my future.” Well, I was so taken by this story, I wrote this piece for her. We were driving at the time; we got home, I sat on the couch, I wrote until two in the morning — everyone had gone to bed — and I gave it to Marlene
at breakfast time. It’s called, “Finisterre,”
for Marlene McCormack. “The road in the end the road in the end
taking the path the sun had taken the road in the end
taking the path the sun had taken into the western sea the road in the end
taking the path the sun had taken into the western sea and the moon the moon rising behind you as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way to your future now no way to your future now except the way your shadow could take, walking before you across water,
going where shadows go, no way to make sense of a world
that wouldn’t let you pass except to call an end
to the way you had come, to take out each letter you had brought and light their illumined corners; and to read them as they drifted
on the late western light; to empty your bags to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that to sort this and to leave that; to promise what you needed
to promise all along to promise what you needed
to promise all along, and to abandon the shoes
that brought you here right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up not because you had given up but because now, you would find a different way to tread, and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on, no matter how, over the waves.” “Finisterre.” For Marlene McCormack — (Applause) who has already had
her third play performed in off-off-off-off-Broadway — in Dublin. (Laughter) But she’s on her way. This is the last piece. This is about the supposed arrival
at the sum of all of our endeavors. In Santiago itself — it could be Santiago, it could be Mecca, it could be Varanasi, it could be Kyoto, it could be that threshold
you’ve set for yourself, the disturbing approach
to the consummation of all your goals. And one of the difficulties
about walking into your life, about coming into this body, into this world fully, is you start to realize that you have manufactured
three abiding illusions that the rest of humanity has shared
with you since the beginning of time. And the first illusion
is that you can somehow construct a life in which you are not vulnerable. You can somehow be immune
to all of the difficulties and ill health and losses that humanity has been subject to
since the beginning of time. If we look out at the natural world, there’s no part of that world that doesn’t go through cycles
of, first, incipience, or hiddenness, but then growth, fullness, but then a beautiful,
to begin with, disappearance, and then a very austere,
full disappearance. We look at that, we say,
“That’s beautiful, but can I just have the first half
of the equation, please? And when the disappearance is happening, I’ll close my eyes and wait
for the new cycle to come around.” Which means most human beings
are at war with reality 50 percent of the time. The mature identity is able to live in the full cycle. The second illusion is, I can construct a life
in which I will not have my heart broken. Romance is the first place
we start to do it. When you’re at the beginning
of a new romance or a new marriage, you say, “I have found the person
who will not break my heart.” I’m sorry; you have chosen them out unconsciously
for that exact core competency. (Laughter) They will break your heart. Why? Because you care about them. You look at parenting, yeah? Parenting: “I will be
the perfect mother and father.” Your children will break your heart. And they don’t even have to do
anything spectacular or dramatic. But usually, they do do something
spectacular or dramatic — (Laughter) to break your heart. And then they live with you
as spies and saboteurs for years, watching your every psychological move, and spotting your every weakness. And one day, when they’re about 14 years old, with your back turned to them, in the kitchen, while you’re making something for them — (Laughter) the psychological stiletto goes in. (Laughter) (Applause) And you say, “How did you know
exactly where to place it?” (Laughter) And they say, “I’ve been watching you for — (Laughter) a good few years.” And then we hope that our armored,
professional personalities will prevent us from having our
heart broken in work. But if you’re sincere about your work, it should break your heart. You should get to thresholds where you do not know how to proceed. You do not know how to get
from here to there. What does that do? It puts you into a proper
relationship with reality. Why? Because you have to ask for help. Heartbreak. We don’t have a choice about heartbreak, we only have a choice
of having our hearts broken over people and things and projects
that we deeply care about. And the last illusion is, I can somehow plan enough
and arrange things that I will be able to see
the path to the end right from where I’m standing, right to the horizon. But when you think about it, the only environment
in which that would be true would be a flat desert, empty of any other life. But even in a flat desert, the curvature of the earth
would take the path away from you. So, no; you see the path, and then you don’t and then you see it again. So this is “Santiago,” the supposed arrival, which is a kind of return
to the beginning all at the same time. We have this experience of the journey, which is in all of our great
spiritual traditions, of pilgrimage. But just by actually standing
in the ground of your life fully, not trying to abstract yourself
into a strategic future that’s actually just an escape
from present heartbreak; the ability to stand
in the ground of your life and to look at the horizon
that is pulling you — in that moment, you are the whole journey. You are the whole conversation. “Santiago.” “The road seen, then not seen the road seen, then not seen the hillside hiding then revealing
the way you should take the road seen, then not seen the hillside hiding then revealing
the way you should take, the road dropping away from you as if leaving you to walk on thin air, then catching you, catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall, catching you, holding you up,
when you thought you would fall, and the way forward the way forward always in the end the way that you came, the way forward always in the end the way that you came, the way that you followed,
the way that carried you into your future, that brought you to this place, that brought you to this place, no matter that it sometimes
had to take your promise from you, no matter that it always
had to break your heart along the way: the sense the sense of having walked
from deep inside yourself out into the revelation, to have risked yourself for something that seemed to stand
both inside you and far beyond you, and that called you back in the end to the only road you could follow, walking as you did, in your rags of love walking as you did, in your rags of love and speaking in the voice that by night
became a prayer for safe arrival, so that one day one day you realized that what you wanted
had actually already happened one day you realized that what you wanted
had actually already happened and long ago and in the dwelling place
in which you lived before you began, and that and that every step along the way, every step along the way, you had carried the heart
and the mind and the promise that first set you off
and then drew you on, and that and that you were more marvelous in your simple wish to find a way you were more marvelous
in your simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs
of any destination you could reach you were more marvelous
in that simple wish to find a way than the gilded roofs
of any destination you could reach: as if, all along, you had thought the end point
might be a city with golden domes, and cheering crowds, and turning the corner at what you thought
was the end of the road, you found just a simple reflection, and a clear revelation
beneath the face looking back and beneath it another invitation, all in one glimpse all in one glimpse: like a person like a person or a place
you had sought forever like a person or a place
you had sought forever, like a bold field of freedom
that beckoned you beyond; like another life like another life, and the road the road still stretching on.” (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Thank you very much. Thank you. You’re very kind. Thank you. (Applause)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. We should be at war with reality.
    He's an idiot. People aren't at war with reality, people are pretending there isn't a war going on. They're in denial of reality as he so clearly implies, but you can't be in denial of something you're at war with at the same time. You have to see your enemy clearly if you're going to fight it.

  2. why should we listen to a tall white male when so many underprivileged voices struggle to be heard?!1 you should apologize

  3. I actually like this video, yeah. It was full of poetry and passion, yeah. The way he repeats phrases lets me know how what he's on about, yeah. I think his opinions on the nature of reality is good, yeah.

  4. Exactly what I needed to hear. I'm so glad that I clicked on this one today. I regained strength to keep going despite the hard times.

  5. Ahhh thank you David … you take us on a journey beyond our own experiences and open it to beautiful possibilities; an invitation to the ones who have not the courage to explore what we see as not possible but innately feel our heart moved toward something yearned for and you introduce to us the nature of the conversational reality of ourselves our lives, to begin to deepen our presence to explore more in depth our relationship to others who may sense the predigested words we have assimilated as you generously offer up to we ,the hungry birds finding nutrients to digest, assimilating new possibilities to offer up to ourselves and to those we meet along our way.

  6. The Camino is very personal. Everyone has their own experience which renders a Ted Talk rather silly. What you will never see is a video describing a bad experience on the Camino…which I suspect many of them are. Poorly fitted shoes being the number one culprit.

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