"And I . . . on a swiftly tilting planet"

By Gene Bone

Recently, I came upon this quotation from Albert Einstein: "The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. The cosmic religious experience is the strongest and noblest mainspring of scientific research."

This set me to thinking of how casually we meander through life, often not taking time to consider the deeper verities, the wider implications, stemming even from our most day-to-day activities. How great and how wonderful are these readings toward Truth, which we tend to neglect in our heedlessness!
Musing over these subjects, I stared at my reflection in the mirror, while shaving. just who is this entity, this "I," looking back at me, this being to whom I'm a stranger, by and large? How did "I" get here? What am "I" doing? To what or to whom am "I" related? Suddenly I thought of Conrad Aiken's haunting lines from his Senlin: A Biography:

And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie.

What a thrilling sense of time and place, of "otherness" as well as I-ness," these words evoke! Aiken was a master of juxtaposition, and his craftsmanship expressed, not a nonsensical union of disparate parts, but a feeling of the relatedness of all things and all beings. Rethinking his ideas, I became aware that my "I" is also a "you" — that all parts of me and everyone else, as well as of all things, are related and combined in one indissoluble Whole. Then, doesn't this fact oblige me, in some way? Isn't there some dedicatory step that I must take?

More of the poem's lines came quickly to my recall:

It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
Should I not pause in the light to remember god?
Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,
He is immense and lonely as a cloud.
I will dedicate this moment before my mirror
To him alone, for him I will comb my hair.
Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence!
I will think of you as I descend the stair.

Now it seemed to me that there is a way we all can follow, as we go through the mundane affairs of life — shaving, grooming, cooking, going to business, whatever — a way suggested by the poet's subtle naivete: in order to be worthy of our place on this marvelous, tilting planet, we could dedicate all our everyday actions to Him, of whose immensity we are all parts! In so doing, we would at once raise our consciousness and lengthen our roots; every act of life would be ennobled, whether commonplace or creative, whether in philosophic speculation, musical composition or scientific research.
As every musician knows, all tones in the scale are related, and each has its harmonic, or series of harmonics, which add to the richness and complexity of a tonal structure. In composing, one can start almost literally anywhere and go anywhere. It's a matter of choice coupled with imagination. So it is in all phases of life, if we would only believe it. We can start anywhere and go anywhere, using choice and imagination; and we can do it now, this very moment.
And so, as I stood in front of the shaving mirror, with Conrad Aiken's song ringing in my head, I thought of Einstein and Emerson and Whitman and Beethoven and Brahms — all those great men who demonstrated in their lives and works a sense of "cosmic consciousness." Science being defined as "originally, state or fact of knowing . . . systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied . . . " these men were true scientists, in that they took everyday materials and worked them, albeit with genius, into structures which forever would benefit mankind. Now I began to have a greater understanding of "who" it was staring back at me — this entity, this "I"-dentity — and of what it could become, with a little more awareness, a little more dedication, a little more sheer joy in accomplishment.

I thought of Emerson's description of the cosmic religious experience:

The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end. The extent to which this generation of circles, wheel without wheel, will go, depends on the force of truth of the individual soul. For it is the inert effort of each thought, having formed itself into a circular wave of circumstance. . . . to heap itself on that ridge and to solidify and hem in the life. But if the soul is quick and strong it bursts over that boundary on all sides and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses it already tends outward with a vast force and to immense and innumerable expansions. Here am I, I thought, standing on this small planet, looking at the Face in the Mirror, which might be All Faces — a part, even if a tiny one, of an immense and expanding Universe!

I turned out the light, and the darkness brought back more of Aiken's lines, with a nudge of recognition:

. . . It is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness
And depart on the winds of space for I know not where,
My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,
And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.
There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,
And a god among the stars; and I will go
Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak
And humming a tune I know.

 (From Sunrise magazine, March, 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)


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