Dig through the lies that lay beneath pain

—  Faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain

John Keats made this drawing of an engraving of the Sosibios Vase in about 1819. It is currently displayed at the Louvre.

April is National Poetry Month. For some rhymed souls it is a time to dig out their Mary Oliver and scan a line or two while others sit quietly in their dens hoping the Muse will come and fill their pen with delight.

While such activities are most appropriate during the month when “Lilacs [are breeding] out of the dead land,” as T. S. Eliot says, that is not the purpose of its observance. It’s more complex.

National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to goad each person in its country to accept responsibility for engaging poetry at an intimate level and to recognize that poetic consciousness is key to spiritual growth and development.

In a way, the month must be seen as one of the 30-day retreats the Jesuits run when people gather unto themselves to assess to what extent they’ve dedicated their lives to the proposition that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  

Those words appear in the second to last line of John Keats’s classic “Ode to a Grecian Urn” written in 1819. And the last line of the poem says, and I’ll paraphrase it here, that that axiom is all a person needs to know in life: beauty is truth and truth beauty.

It is quite a bold assertion and one wonders whether, for example, the mandates of the New Testament might fit into that. But that’s a no-brainer because the New Testament in its own metaphorical terms says the same thing.

The great T. S. Eliot found the Keatsian proposition troubling. In an essay on Dante he veered from his subject for a minute to note, “The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless.” Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth “is grammatically meaningless” he said. But for a guy who considered himself smart, it’s surprising that Thomas Stearns took such a reactionary road.

He’s not alone. If you go to the Internet and ask for an analysis of the second-last line of “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” you’ll find a lot of other people similarly irked.

Of course we can turn to Buddhism for an explanation — and a case can easily be made — but I’ll offer Carl Rogers, that great-20th-Century-full-of-insight-beyond-innovative psychotherapist who hit the nail on the head in his 1957 essay “To Be That Self Which One Truly Is.” The title is found in Søren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”

In that essay and elsewhere, Rogers describes what takes place when a person goes through the therapeutic process. He says, first of all, that, when a person comes to him suffering from unknown reasons, their inner conflicts have progressed to the point of disablement. The sufferers find themselves being eaten from within.

He says that in their own terms the sufferers reveal that they had tried every possible mode of denial and deceit to smother the truth but all failed and now they were at a dead end.

Rogers goes on to say that, when his patients come into the office, sitting right beside (or more correctly in front of) them is a façade, a wall they’d built to hide their true state of being, from others as well as themselves. But they unable to lay their weapons down.

He said he noticed that such folks also tend to view the world in black and white. Reality is this or it’s that. Transgendered people, for example, have no standing in that denier’s universe. It is far too complex a matter to juggle behind the façade.

But Rogers says that, once the patient feels at home, he begins to dig through the lies that lay beneath his pain. And in doing so he begins to experience a whole range of feelings and thoughts he never knew he had.

Understandably during their sessions the patient weeps, rages, even falls into a stupor of silence because what he said out loud took their breath away. The truth at first is dumbfounding.

But once the patient confronts fear (the word “ugly” can be traced to fear) and acknowledges the truths revealed, he incorporates the new dimensions to make himself whole.

The patient experiences great relief, and often joy, because he is no longer living a lie. As truths about the self are discovered he begins to dismantle the façade a brick at a time.

Rogers also saw, and his patients soon see it too, that hiding behind untruth requires the expense of great energy. Masquerading costs. Plus the patients admit that while undercover they viewed themselves as despicable and ugly because they were treasonous. They had equated not beauty but mask with truth.

Read Rogers’ essays, he alludes to the disdain people feel for themselves when they constrict themselves to living behind a pharisaical wall. His 1961 classic, “On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy,” is a great place to start.

But what’s heartening about the process of unveiling, of opening one’s heart to the truth of is, to the thing in and of itself, is that a person begins to see a radiant beauty in himself. “Then the body of the Enlightened One,” as Anagarika Govinda reports in his “Foundations of Tibetan Buddhism,” “becomes luminous in appearance, convincing and inspiring by its mere presence.” Truth is Beauty.

Indeed, looking upon, experiencing, the wondrous creation of the radiant self, the peregrinator laughs with gratitude because he cannot figure out why he ever agreed to live a life of abstraction.

He sees that experiencing a thing — one’s person — in and of itself, without modification for political economic or other self-enhancing reasons, is beauty.

And when the person begins to recite this experience to the world he dons the mantle of the poet. In spiritual terms the person enlightened begins upon the path of sainthood, the realm of overflowing silence.

Keats was no idiot. He knew what he was saying. That is why we are grateful for Poetry Month, to remind ourselves that we need to put our house in order, the house of Truth, the house of Beauty. No more needs to be said.