The Things

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke offered a challenge to anyone concerned about why we are here, why we exist. He says in “The Ninth Elegy” of his collection called The Duino Elegies,

Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window…
But to say them you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.

Rilke was deeply fascinated about Things which he wrote about almost as if they were conscious beings. Stephen Mitchell’s translation capitalizes “Things” to give that emphasis. Rilke goes on

And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them;
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.

So just by saying their names, we praise them. In fact the Things would not have names without us. Perhaps human beings are here to give the Things names. And by naming them we are praising them. What if this could be our reason for rising each morning and living each day? Could we find enough meaning in this to justify our existence? We are needed simply to speak the names of the Things. Rilke again:

…truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

I was thinking about these lines recently, reflecting on the fact that each of us experiences the Things in our own unique way. Of course we share some common understanding of Things. But as each thing takes shape in our imaginations, my “thing” may not be exactly your “thing.” I know a tree in my own way, based on my own experiences. You know a tree based on yours. Each unique individual has his or her own understanding to add to the great cauldron of meaning that is being created by our existence. I wonder if that too is what existence is about: the creation of a great cauldron of meaning that could only come into being because each one of us has a life of our own to live and explore and develop as we try to understand the universe. We may underestimate the importance of each unique voice speaking the names of the Things. Although the names may sound alike and be spelled alike, no two words are identical. When I say “oak” it is not you saying “oak.”

If this is true, how much deeper are the names when we encounter the Things in shamanic journeying? Shamanism deepens human existence by providing an alternative perspective not found in ordinary states of consciousness. The names a shaman gives to the Things may sound like the names that non-shamans give the Things, but they are different. Shamans experience the Things in their spirit form, in the shape they carry in the invisible worlds accessible only through journeying in an altered state of consciousness.

In earlier River Currents (3-2-09 and 6-15-09) I wrote about the shaman’s language being twisted poetically or oddly shaped because the realities he or she describes are not the solid shapes and forms of the visible world. Shamans may have songs or poems that no one else understands because no one else has had the unique experience of the Otherworld that a particular shaman has. And each shaman has a unique and odd perspective and may come up with a strange and peculiar name for some thing. To paraphrase Rilke, we are here to experience and understand the Things more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of being experienced and understood. Black Elk comments that all things are conscious and want to communicate, so shamans help to fulfill the Things’ reasons for being by giving them a chance to communicate in ways that only people trained shamanicly can appreciate. Everyone—everything—wants to be understood and appreciated on the deepest possible level.

Rilke suggests that the earth

forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy.

I like to think that this is one of the reasons shamans exist. To enter into an intimate relationship, a loving relationship, with the earth, with the Things, so that in the boundless understanding that results, all Things, including the shaman, may shudder with joy. I’m reminded of the Inuit shaman Aua’s song of power that was only one word: Joy! So if the Things look to us for deliverance, we ought to provide it. If Rilke is right, anyone can do this simply by uttering their names. For only humans can do that. And if through shamanism we can deepen our understanding of the Things, then we have an added reason to speak their names. And to hold our understanding of them in our hearts, in the cauldrons of our hearts that will someday—or even now—become part of the great cauldron being created by existence itself.

Rilke didn’t think we could speak about this to God whom he refers to as the “unsayable one.”

…you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice.

So he suggests we say this to an angel who doesn’t experience the physical world as we do.

Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished.

There are levels of astonishment—human, angelic, divine—just as there are levels of joy and levels of understanding when we speak the names of Things. In our shamanic practice we don’t always need to be journeying for information or advice on how to live our lives. Sometimes we should journey simply to encounter the Things, listen to them for they want to communicate, deepen our understanding of them which we may not be able to put into words, but afterwards we return with the feeling that we have shuddered with joy. Maybe this is why we are here, why we exist: to shudder with joy.