By Rev. Master Seikai
Desiderata is a prose poem written a century ago by Max Ehrmann, an American from Terre Haute, Indiana. He copyrighted his poem in 1927, and it became popular in the 1960s as the result of it being widely published, and also rendered into a popular song released in 1971. It was believed to have been written by an unknown author and discovered in Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, which dates to the 1690s, but that story was been disproven.
The word desiderata comes from Latin, meaning “things desired.” Max Ehrmann lived at a time when Buddhism was virtually unknown in America, and his poem is clearly not Buddhist, but nevertheless has some profound truths which many people have found inspirational, and hence the poem’s popularity. As a contemplation on the theme that the world is a difficult place, and that we experience unsatisfactoriness—a restating of the Buddhist teaching of dukkha—but that within those challenges there is nevertheless joy and contentment to be found, it is a very useful manuscript:
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let not this blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
However genuine the advice was a century ago to go placidly amidst the noise and haste of the busy world, today it is all the more relevant given that the world now hums at a much faster pace than it did then. Every time people invent some new technology that will in theory make life easier, the end result is usually that it makes life faster paced and more complicated. In terms of the overall quality of life in the 20th century, we didn’t really need to invent the cell phone, making it possible to carry on a phone conversation anywhere in the world where there is a cellular tower within striking distance. But we did it anyway. Now it is just another indispensable gadget which everyone takes for granted, and the fact that most people cannot even walk down the street without talking on their phone is something no one seems to question. So now we have to make a special effort to cultivate the peace that exists in silence, and many people find it virtually impossible. To do so requires a “wholesome discipline” which society as a whole does not encourage; we have to create it and nurture it for ourselves against all the forces arrayed to make life distracting.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. The age of social media in which we now find ourselves gives a whole new meaning to these two sentences. Sifting through all the “truths” and/or opinions with which we are bombarded has never been easy, but now it’s a real challenge. Dull and ignorant people have their story to be sure, but should we listen to them? Can we even tell whether a person is simply ignorant or whether they have some kind of agenda which makes it necessary for them to deliberately falsify or twist the truth to suit their purposes? Avoiding loud and aggressive people who are vexations to the spirit is a teaching found in Buddhism, going back even to the Buddha himself, but in this world there are so many such people that they can’t really be avoided; instead, we have to learn to sidestep them as best we can. Meanwhile capitalism, our economic system, is loud and aggressive. Advertising is really a loud and aggressive means of getting people to spend money on stuff that, for the most part, they do not need. One of the great challenges for those who, like myself, are attempting to teach people how to find the inner peace that this poem is pointing to is getting people to recognize we are surrounded by noisy, loud and aggressive stimuli every day, and that we have to find a way to tune it out and devote part of each day to turning it off altogether.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. This is another bit of advice to be found in the Buddhist tradition, and in our current age of individualism and outright selfishness there is all the more reason to take it to heart. Why do we create celebrities and want to know all about their lives? Why do we glamorize the rich and famous and want to be like them? Why do we try so hard to keep up with the Joneses? Comparing and judging are, in themselves, quite uncomfortable, but we find it very hard not to think that way—there is force of habit at work. What we are talking about here is what I describe as the adequacy/inadequacy dichotomy; we easily slip into thinking we are better than other people or that we are lacking in some crucial way. I’ve made it a life-long undertaking to not be too quick to judge people who are really just struggling with their own set of challenges, and to “love myself when I criticize myself.” My Zen teacher gave me this latter piece of advice, and it has served me well my entire adult life, being essential to maintaining sanity in a world ignorant of true spirituality.
. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let not this blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. The changing fortunes of time are such that the average person typically goes through several career changes in the course of their life, unlike a century ago when it was still possible to choose a career and expect to stick with it for your entire working life. This pace of change is difficult to accommodate, but most people don’t have any real choice in the matter; being laid off is just one stock market dive away. And the world is indeed full of trickery: today we call it scamming. One way to look at all of this is to conclude that, as the Buddha pointed out, “the world is ill-natured.” We all live in the proverbial jungle, meaning that there are dangers everywhere, particularly wherever there is money involved. What we can do is develop an awareness of potential dangers without slipping all the way into paranoia, which is to obsess over the possibility of being hurt. How do we develop that level of fearlessness? The only way I’ve found for myself is to patiently observe the arising of fear within myself and to sit still with it. We all have a fight-or-flight instinct hard-wired into us, which might be the result, on an evolutionary level, of literally living in the jungle for many thousands of years. But in our modern, complex society, we have the luxury at least of being able to calmy appraise the threats rather than having to immediately run from them. Being still in the face of fear is a practice; you can only really become good at it by doing it. Responding from that place of acceptance and stillness is a safe refuge from being constantly stressed out.
It’s true that many people strive for high ideals and that there is an abundance of heroism exhibited by ordinary people. Without them the world would truly be a colossal mess, and even with them it is easy to come to that conclusion anyway. But the point Max Ehrmann is making repeatedly is that we have the choice to look at things positively, and see that within all the chaos and bad behavior, this world is still, as is taught in Buddhism, the most fortunate realm of existence for ennobling ourselves spiritually. I sometimes think of this as being like someone walking a tightrope, holding in their hands a balancing pole. That we tip from side to side is part of the deal of being human and walking the tightrope, but we do have the balancing pole which makes it possible to not fall off into the void of despair. There is so much good all around us.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Why is it so hard to be a genuine human being, not putting on some kind of show to make other people like us? All of us have both a public and a private persona: in public we need to at least try to exhibit good behavior and avoid people getting mad at us, while in private there are fewer constraints in that regard. Bringing those two personae into harmony is the real challenge. It probably isn’t necessary, or even desirable, to do so 100%, but it is definitely a sign of personal integrity if we can narrow the gap.
Given that there are so many meanings of the word love, it isn’t entirely clear which one the author was pointing at in advising people not to be cynical about it. Presumably it is a reference to romantic love, how fickle it is, and how easily we can become disenchanted to the point of thinking that we cannot ever have it. I certainly grew up thinking that, and some years later it came as somewhat of a shock to realize that it was indeed as perennial as the grass. But that, of course, is only half the story; the rest is about how to make the sacrifices necessary to keep the love you have for someone alive and well—which is one of life’s big challenges. Once again, it is a matter of personal integrity: carrying the balancing pole to correct yourself when you’ve lost your balance.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. This manuscript jumps from one idea to the next with each sentence. I’ve reached the age where I’m having to surrender the things of youth: an energetic and resilient body; a reservoir of endurance; a sharp mind that can remember stuff. But because I have nurtured strength of spirit throughout my life, I’m able to embrace my declining years with a measure of grace. On the bright side, the urgency and ambition of youth is gone, making it that much easier to enjoy life as it is without a long list of expectations of myself. Exactly how you go about nurturing strength of spirit is, in itself, a very large consideration. Just look at the hundreds of self-help books you find when browsing through a Barnes & Noble store. If we are going to indulge in taking a complicated subject and boiling it down to a kernel of truth that we can hope to carry with us, then I would say that strength of spirit is nourished by exercise of the body and mind. Returning again and again to a perspective which reinforces a few basic truths about life in the human realm; one such perspective in Buddhism is called the Five Remembrances. They are:
1. I am of a nature to grow old (if I’m fortunate enough to live a long life). There is no way to escape growing old. Despite all our attempts to put off aging in American society, and to try to achieve some kind of eternal youth, aging is nevertheless unavoidable.
2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. Despite all our attempts to beat back illnesses, at which we’ve made a lot of headway, we still have epidemics, pandemics, cancer and hundreds of other illnesses.
3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. Despite all our attempts to avoid death, and on a subconscious level to think that we are going to live forever, we are all going to die anyway.
4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. Everything changes—anicca—and this is a law of human existence that cannot be changed.
5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand. This is the law of cause-and-effect, or karma.
These remembrances are not dark imaginings, they are simply the way things are. And if we truly embrace them as the way things are, they aren’t even dark. Darkness is a tone that we cast upon life’s inevitabilities; we can just as easily throw light on them and be happy within them.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. In my experience, fatigue is primarily the result of trying too hard. Trying too hard contains within it a desire that things be a certain way, and then pouring energy into trying to make it happen. Loneliness is primarily the result of isolating yourself from people, usually because we’ve been hurt and don’t want to experience any more pain. Fear can be the result of fatigue and loneliness, but more likely it is the underlying cause, and frustration is the result. Because I’ve tended to push myself hard all my life, I experience fatigue and frustration as the twin effects of a more subtle underlying cause. That underlying cause, if nothing else, lacks gentleness: it is motivation that comes from a good place but needs a wholesome discipline and wisdom. Once again we need our balancing pole to find a path between too-idealistic motivations on the one hand, and a lack of motivation on the other. A wholesome discipline comes from knowing yourself well enough not to overdo it, but at the same time to apply a steady effort that you are able to maintain over the long run.
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. In the popular song from 1971, at this point in the poem, which had been spoken to that point, a chorus breaks out to sing these words. They undoubtedly struck a chord with many people since they are words of affirmation, helping to give our lives meaning in a world where meaning is hard to find. We view ourselves as separate from the universe, which is unimaginably large, and into which we are born and play no significant role whatsoever. So to think that we are a child of the universe and have a right to be here can require a big leap of the imagination. Really? I have a right to be here and I’m not just a worthless statistic? In other words, we aren’t actually separate from the universe, we are a worthwhile part of it and have a role to play, however unnoticeable that role might be. Our lives have meaning; we can relax in the knowledge that even though we make mistakes and have a lot to learn as human beings, all of this is part of the unfolding of the universe. It is a comforting and uplifting thought and, as always, requires that we make some kind of effort to contribute what good we can to this unfolding.
Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams; it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
It is to Max Ehrmann’s credit that when bringing the subject of God into his poem he had the grace to say whatever you conceive Him to be. People assume that when they use the word God, they know what they’re talking about, and so does everyone they’re talking to. That assumption makes a distinction between God and all created things: people, trees, stars, dogs, the mountains, the oceans, the moon, and everything in between. But even theistic religions will tell you that God is within all things, God is everywhere, God is infinite. That should be our clue to looking past an explanation of God as the guy up in heaven who governs the universe. What it truly means is that understanding God requires putting aside all such distinctions and not viewing Him—or should it be Her, or It?—as separate from your own life and experience. This means that you don’t need to look for God anywhere other than right in front of your nose, or for that matter, right within your own mind. All of our labors and aspirations in the noisy confusion we call human life are part of the unfolding of the universe, not separate from anything else. The main challenge is to live in harmony with everything else, and thus keep peace in our souls. Buddhism even goes so far as to say that you don’t even have a soul, as separate from other souls, or the soul that makes up the entire universe. That level of non-duality, of universal oneness, is hard to grasp.
When people cannot comprehend even the idea of a non-dual universe, then they set up God as basically an all-powerful human being who takes sides in human affairs. This has led to the observation that human beings create God in their own image—the reverse of what is said in the book of Genesis in the Bible. But the Bible had it right: human beings actually have the capacity to realize their undivided, real nature and thus to not get involved in power struggles, fighting, being better or worse, being damned or saved. God may well have created us in His own image, so to speak, but awakening to this realization requires a long journey, a journey mostly of giving up whatever we hold on to. It requires the humility to accept that we don’t really understand very much about the universe or our place in it, and that most of the noise and confusion is about nothing—it’s a big sham.
Keep peace in your soul; be cheerful. Some people have changed the last word to ‘careful’, which is equally valid, but wasn’t the intent of the author. He wanted people to glimpse the joy and beauty of the world just as it is, right within its drudgery and broken dreams. I once had a dream in which a beautiful woman appeared, and I proceeded to complain to her about how hard it was to stay in touch with that vision of universal purity and oneness because I lived in such a noisy monastery. When I finally finished my complaint she said simply, “Look for it within the noise.” This may be counter-intuitive, or go against habit energy with respect to how we typically think about life. But I’ve put it into practice, and it actually works. It really is, as always, a matter of deep acceptance of things as they are, of dipping down into a well of compassion and pouring water over everything that appears in your own mind.