When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman is acknowledged as one of America’s most influential and admired poets. Born in 1819, he was witness to almost the entire nineteenth century and its profound impact on life in the emerging industrial world.
‘I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ was completed in 1865. In straightforward language, Whitman describes his difficulty listening to a numbers-oriented description of the universe. His instinctive aversion to the lecture brings on physical discomfort to the point where he can no longer continue to sit still. He retreats from the confines of the lecture hall, to be outside, present with the wider world of nature.
The lecture was received with enthusiasm by the audience, but not by Whitman who becomes ill listening to the technical analysis: the data, the logic, the graphs and pictures. I don’t think it likely that his poem resonated with many people of his day, as technology experienced an explosive growth in personal lives of 19th century America, increasing the acceptance of scientific and logical explanations. The telephone, the telegraph, the typewriter, the railroad, the cash register, the fountain pen, the sewing machine, the washing machine, photography, antiseptics and anesthesia were just a few of the advances that improved lives of ordinary people and influenced attitudes.
Like the canary in the coal mine, Whitman’s poem signals the possible ill effects of using science and logic as techniques to understand nature. We need, he says, to have immediate, intimate experience of the world we live in rather than an explanation of it.
We humans gain intelligence and obtain knowledge about the physical, material dimensions of life through thinking, studying, reading, and sharing ideas with each other. The scientific methodology of our modern world has been invaluable in saving lives, curing illness, and in improving and advancing living conditions as well as providing opportunities in daily life. But it is not useful in revealing the truth of our spiritual world. Intelligence and technology provide great benefits, except for our own misuse of them and when their inherent down-sides kick in. When we are not careful, not reflective, when we cannot envision unintended consequences, our inventions create weapons of mass destruction, not only in the physical world, but in our minds and our relationships as well.
Wisdom of life’s fundamental essence – its true nature – cannot be gained by dissecting and analyzing its component parts. The revelation of wisdom is a solitary undertaking in the vastness of the non-thinking mind. We all possess the gift of the canary, ready to provide warning when our environment is becoming unhealthy. But we have to listen to it when it sings, as did Walt Whitman.
We come to the practice when we first hear the canary’s call, when we sense that what we are doing with our lives is not in accord with who we are intrinsically, that our environment is not healthy and we that need to make a change. Our zazen practice expands our awareness, sharpening our capacity to hear and respond to the canary. We all have this capacity; it is not limited to poets.
Abbot of Kannon Do