Archive for August, 2017

Post 7: Sympathetic Joy

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Learn to rejoice in the good fortune of others and your own happiness multiplies – it’s the best cure for envy. Sharon Salzberg[i]

Sympathetic joy is unselfish joy in the good fortune of others. We rejoice in the happiness, accomplishments, wealth, success, and virtues of others wherever they appear, and we wish them even greater happiness. As we rejoice in the happiness of others, our own happiness grows. The opposite of sympathetic joy is envy, the resentment of another’s good fortune.

Much Ado About Nothing opens on a note of sympathetic joy at the achievements of young Count Claudio as he returns with Don Pedro and Signor Benedick from a military expedition.  They gather at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina. Hearing that Claudio’s accomplishments have brought tears of happiness to his uncle, Leonato says:

                                     There are no
faces truer than those that are so washed. How
much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at
weeping! (I.i.26-29)

The joy increases as Claudio seeks and wins the hand of Leonato’s daughter, Hero, and a wedding is planned.  Meanwhile Signor Benedick and Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, both self-professed bachelors, engage in a skirmish of wit at one another’s expense. Hero, Claudio and others of the party decide to pass the time until the wedding by bringing Beatrice and Benedick “into a mountain of affection the one with the other.”  Male characters maneuver Benedick into overhearing a conversation about how much Beatrice loves him, and female characters maneuver Beatrice into eavesdropping on a conversation about Benedick’s love for her.  Their scheme succeeds, and Beatrice and Benedick become engaged.

The atmosphere darkens when the envious Don John arrives.  Hearing of Claudio’s good fortune he says:

Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be med’cinable to me. I am sick in displeasure to him,
and whatsoever comes athwart his affection ranges evenly with mine. (II.ii.4-7)

Don John’s envy is the opposite of sympathetic joy. He is one “to joy at weeping.”

Don John devises a plot to convince Claudio that Hero entertains another lover on the night before their wedding, and Claudio is taken in by the deception.  Infected by jealousy, he rejects and shames Hero before the assembled wedding guests.  When Hero faints and at first appears to be dead, the Friar who was to have married the couple perceives her blamelessness and arranges for her to be secreted away until her innocence is proven.  Benedick challenges Claudio to a duel for having killed an innocent lady, but violence is forestalled when the bumbling constabulary exposes Don John’s plot.  The now repentant Claudio, still thinking Hero is dead, agrees to marry Hero’s cousin sight unseen. Then, posing as the cousin, Hero appears in a veil and says:

. . . when I lived, I was your other wife,
And when you loved, you were my other husband. (V.iv.61-62)

Beatrice and Benedick join them to make it a double wedding, and the play ends with a dance before the celebration of two marriages.

Six of Shakespeare’s comedies end with a wedding or with a wedding about to be performed, and what is a wedding but a celebration of sympathetic joy at others’ happiness and good fortune? What Shakespeare gives us at the end of his comedies is joy piled upon joy. Much Ado About Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona each end with a double wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night end with a triple wedding, and Loves Labour’s Lost and As You Like It each end with the impending marriage of four couples. Shakespeare wrote six other comedies that do not end with weddings but joyfully celebrate the achievement of marital happiness.

As audience members we fully participate in the sympathetic joy depicted onstage. We rejoice that the lovers are united.  We rejoice that those thought to be dead turn up alive and are restored to their families.  We rejoice that so many problems have been solved to the benefit of so many people. And after a good performance we rejoice in the accomplishment of the actors. We can even rejoice in the achievement of Shakespeare, who has been eliciting sympathetic joy from audiences on a vast scale for more than 400 years. For most of us the feelings of sympathetic joy begin to fade as we leave the theatre, but we might do well to retain, nurture, and extend them to as many beings as possible.

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[i] Salzberg, Sharon. Wishing Well. May 1, 2001 (Jult 26, 2017). https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/wishing-well/

 

Post 6. Compassion

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Just as with her own life a mother shields from hurt her own son, her only child, let all-embracing thoughts for all beings be yours. The Buddha, Metta Sutta [i]

Four of the qualities that counter suffering are known in Buddhism as the four immeasurables or sublime attitudes. They include loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In practicing loving-kindness, Buddhists begin by wishing happiness and the causes of happiness for someone dear to them, and then gradually expand that wish until it embraces all sentient beings throughout the whole of space and time. The other three qualities are practiced with the same all-embracing spirit. In practicing the four immeasurables Buddhists cultivate a good heart, replacing selfish attachments with the wish to benefit others, and in this way they overcome their own suffering and often that of others.

Shakespeare’s characters may not practice loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity with such a vast intention. We do not find them methodically training their minds to expand the scope of their altruistic motivation. And yet, in Shakespeare’s plays we find characters devoting themselves to making others happy (loving-kindness) and to freeing them from suffering and its causes (compassion).

Loving-kindness and compassion are so closely related as to sometimes be almost indistinguishable, since happiness often depends on freedom from suffering. Compassion arises from natural empathy with our fellow beings. For Shakespeare, as for Buddhists, it is the heart that feels another’s pain and longs to relieve it.

At the beginning of The Tempest we see a ship being destroyed in a storm conjured up by the magician, Prospero. This sight brings a spontaneous declaration of compassion from Prospero’s young daughter, Miranda:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash’d all to pieces. O, the cry did knock
Against my very heart. Poor souls, they perish’d.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth or ere
It should the good ship so have swallow’d and
The fraughting[ii] souls within her. (I.ii.5-13

In these lines Shakespeare gives us the compassion of an innocent girl with little experience of the world. Miranda’s compassion is a beautiful expression of innate human goodness.

Another tempest takes place in King Lear. Lear on the heath suffers from the storm without while he endures an even greater storm of mental suffering within. When he notices a naked beggar also feeling the fury of the elements, a heart that has been entirely taken up with selfish concerns is opened, and he prays:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just. (III.iv.28-36)

While Miranda’s compassion is the compassion of innocence, Lear’s is the compassion of experience. By enduring great suffering he comes to realize that he has been blind to the suffering of others for too long. With the opening of his heart he finds momentary relief from his inner pain.

Compassion is not a limited commodity. The more compassion we feel for the suffering of others the more our compassion grows. As compassion grows it displaces craving and ignorance, thereby relieving our own suffering. Buddhists sometimes describe compassion as a wish-fulfilling jewel that cannot be exhausted, bringing benefits to giver and receiver alike. As Sogyal Rinpoche points out, this quality of compassion is beautifully expressed in The Merchant of Venice when Portia appeals to Shylock to spare the life of the merchant, Antonio[iii]:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: (IV.i.168-171)

For Shakespeare compassion is the spontaneous expression of an innocent child on seeing a shipwreck and the prayer of an old man whose selfish heart has been opened by the suffering of a beggar. It is a transcendent virtue, falling from heaven and raining blessings on the giver and receiver alike.

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[i] Candy, Dennis. Peace in the Buddha’s Discourses : A Compilation and Discussion (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy Sri Lanka, 2008), 87.

[ii] Fraughting means making up the freight.

[iii] Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (Harper San Francisco, 2001), 202.

 

Post 5: Suffering

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

 

Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering. The Buddha, Samyutta Nikaya[i]

Suffering (dukkha)[ii] is a basic fact of existence and The First Noble Truth taught by the Buddha. In this life suffering is unavoidable. It can range from a vague feeling of dissatisfaction to the severest physical and mental torment.

Suffering is a truth unforgettably depicted in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.  In these three tragedies we find not only the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, but mental suffering of the worst kind.

These plays also illustrate The Second Noble Truth taught by the Buddha, the truth of the causes of suffering, which are to be abandoned. The causes are attachment and aversion arising from ignorance of the fact that all things are impermanent and illusory. Attachment, aversion, and ignorance are sometimes called the three poisons. Craving, clinging, desire, aggression, anger, pride, and jealousy are also identified by Buddhists as causes of suffering, but all arise out of ignorance and are forms of attachment and aversion.

As the middle-aged husband of a young wife, Othello is strongly attached to Desdemona and fiercely averse to the thought that she could be unfaithful. King Lear, long accustomed to the privileges of kingship, has developed an unhealthy attachment to the gratitude of loving daughters and the deference that goes with his position. Macbeth is attached to his wife and averse to her disapproval, and both are murderously averse to anything that stands in the way of royal power that is both absolute and secure. All are ignorant of the fact that the things they crave and the things they seek to avoid are impermanent and illusory.

Suffering and the causes of suffering are not confined to the central figures of high tragedy. Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters undergoing every variety of suffering caused by attachment, aversion, and ignorance. His understanding of the inner workings of the mind and his skill as a poet enable him to depict suffering in such a way that we feel it profoundly. Consider these lines from King John, spoken by the Lady Constance after her son, Arthur, jumps from a high wall and dies:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. (III.iv.95-100)

After Macduff learns that the agents of Macbeth have murdered his wife and children, he is advised to “Dispute it like a man.” His response is an understated but powerful expression of his suffering:

                 I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! (IV.iii.260-265)

From a Buddhist point of view, Macduff’s instincts are sound. We cannot alleviate suffering by ignoring it and hoping it will go away. We must confront and feel it before any healing can begin.

Outer circumstances such as the death of a child or of a whole family would cause anyone to suffer. But ignorance, attachment, and aversion can bring us plenty of suffering without that kind of outside help. Inability to control our natural cravings is all it takes to cause suffering for ourselves and others. As the Eighth Century Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, wrote of sentient beings:

Though longing to be rid of suffering,
They rush headlong towards suffering itself.
Although longing to be happy, in their ignorance
They destroy their own well-being, as if it were their worst enemy.[iii]

Sonnet 129 offers an example of the suffering we produce when we allow our cravings to get the better of us.

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The speaker tells us that until he acts upon them, his cravings, in this case sexual, are savage, extreme, rude, cruel, deceptive, and beyond all reason. No sooner does he gratify his lust than he is overcome with regret. He likens craving to a bait to be swallowed and a trap to be caught in. Both the craving and the regret that follow are extreme to the point of madness. There may be bliss in the instant of gratification, but very woe follows. In the closing couplet he says that we very well know what is going to happen, but don’t know how to stop ourselves. As Shantideva says, in our ignorance we “rush headlong toward suffering itself.”

Another form of suffering notable in Shakespeare is sadness or melancholy, which is expressed by Hamlet when he says:

I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. (II.ii.318-327)

For no apparent reason, Hamlet says, he finds the earth and the heavens themselves to be unhealthy and suffocating.

The Merchant, Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice is another character who cannot account for his sadness. He says in the opening lines of the play:

In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn. (I.i.1-4)

In the opening lines of the next scene Portia strikes a similar note:

By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is
aweary of this great world. (I.ii.1-2)

While they can be ascribed to various causes, these speeches exemplify an undertone of sadness that we find throughout Shakespeare. Whatever the merriment, sadness is rarely far away. Even at the happy close of Twelfth Night we are given a song about “the wind and the rain” and the rain “that raineth every day” at every stage of our lives.

The sadness that underlies Shakespeare’s works corresponds to what Buddhists call the suffering of conditioned existence or all-pervasive suffering. Because we are subject to causes and conditions that we cannot control and often do not understand, we experience a pervasive sense of the unsatisfactoriness of life.

Whether it takes the form of a vague sense of unease or the severest mental anguish, suffering is the truth of existence for all of us. Birth is suffering, teaches the Buddha. “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools,” says King Lear. (IV.vi, 200-201)

Shakespeare shows us suffering and the causes of suffering, but does he have anything to offer with respect to The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering?

Shakespeare was a poet and playwright and not a spiritual teacher. He does not describe a path to the cessation of suffering, such as The Noble Eight-fold Path, which is The Fourth Noble Truth, nor does he give us practices for training the mind, such as those taught by the Buddha and developed over the centuries by his followers. We cannot say that Shakespeare shows us a path to the complete cessation of suffering that would come with enlightenment, but in his plays he does show us qualities that, according to the Buddha and other spiritual teachers, help to counter our suffering and that of others.  One of these qualities is compassion, which will be the subject of our next post.

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[i] Kornfield, Jack with Fronsdal, Gil Ed. Teachings of the Buddha. (Boston: Shambhala, 1993). 38-39.

[ii] Italicized words within parentheses are from the Pali language in which the teachings of the Buddha were first recorded.

[iii] Shantideva, Bodhicharyavatara, Rigpa Shedra, 02 Feb 2016 (12 Jun 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Bodhicharyavatara

Post 4. We Are What We Think

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

Like the Buddha, Shakespeare appreciates the power of thoughts to shape our reality.  Hamlet tells his visiting fellow students, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

For there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. (II.ii.268-269)

And:

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.  (II.ii.273-275)

Because thoughts have such power, it is essential that we watch them mindfully and learn to control them. Shakespeare seems to have been naturally mindful of interior states, but most of us need to cultivate mindfulness through meditation.  In meditation we can learn to mindfully watch our thoughts and feelings as they come and go.  We are taught that when destructive emotions arise we can recognize them, be with them, examine them, and let go of them.  In this way we gain mastery over emotions that could otherwise gain mastery over us.

But if we lack mindfulness and fail to watch our thoughts, they may lead to destructive emotions such as jealousy, anger, or greed.  Such emotions can result in harmful actions, even murder.  Before we know it we are imprisoned in a hell realm of our very own making.  As the Buddha says in The Dhammapada, Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.”[ii]

Consider the case of Othello.  At the opening of the play he has just married Desdemona.  While Desdemona’s father levels accusations of witchcraft at him, the state sides with Othello and places him at the head of a force dispatched to defend Cyprus from a Turkish fleet.  By the time he reaches Cyprus the Turks have been destroyed in a storm, and his bride has arrived to join him.  But just as things seem to be going as well as possible for the all-sufficient Moor, the malevolent ensign, Iago, plants in his mind the false notion that Desdemona is already cheating on him with his Lieutenant, Cassio.  The state of the Moor’s mind goes rapidly downhill as the scheming Iago spins a web of circumstantial evidence that makes it appear more and more likely that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

Even as Othello writhes in agony under the spell of “the green eyed monster,” jealousy, he knows it is his mind and not outer circumstances that causes his suffering:

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me:
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips:
He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stol’n,
Let him not know’t, and he’s not robb’d at all… (III.iii.389-395)

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content! (III.iii.397-400)

Manipulated by Iago and unable to control the thoughts that are tormenting him, Othello suffocates his guiltless wife and then learns of her innocence.  Looking on her body he laments:

Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!   (V.ii.330-331)

If ever a living character could be said to suffer the pains of hell it is Othello, who ends by stabbing himself to death.

Then there is King Lear, who plans to enjoy a happy retirement from the stresses of monarchy after dividing his kingdom among three daughters.  His plan gets off to a bad start when he asks his daughters, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most.”  Two wicked and insincere daughters, Goneril and Regan, make elaborate protestations of love, while his youngest child, Cordelia, simply says that she loves him according to her bond as a daughter.  At this the disappointed Lear allows anger to take over.  In a rage he banishes Cordelia, along with his loyal servant, Kent, who defends her.  Lear realizes his mistake when the wicked daughters, having gained power, begin to treat him slightingly, take away his retinue, and leave him out in a terrible storm.  Like Othello, Lear knows that his suffering is of the mind and that it is worse than any physical suffering:

Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!  (III.iv.6-14)

Lear’s mental suffering continues long after the outward storm abates.  When Cordelia returns and takes him into her care, he wakes to say:

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead. (IV.vii.46-48)

Lear’s mind, deluded by many years of deference and flattery, is unprepared for the consequences of his foolish action.  Under the weight of suffering too great to bear, he descends into madness.

Finally, there is Macbeth.  Fresh from victory in battle Macbeth meets three witches who tell him that he shall be “king hereafter.”  Tantalized by the prospect of royal power, Macbeth conceives a plot to kill King Duncan and seize the crown.  Upon returning home he thinks better of it, but Lady Macbeth spurs him on.  After murdering the visiting Duncan and claiming the crown, he commits more murders in order to consolidate his position, and then suffers the mental consequences of his actions:

O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife! (III.ii.41)

Lady Macbeth’s mind is also in turmoil as she relives the murder of King Duncan while walking in her sleep and trying to wash imagined blood from her hands.  A doctor is summoned and Macbeth asks:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?  (V.iii.50-55)

The doctor replies:

Therein the patient
Must minister to himself. (V.iii.56-57)

And Macbeth responds:

Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it.  (V.iii.58)

He fails to understand that we must take care of our own minds.  No doctor can do it for us.  Lady Macbeth soon commits suicide, and Macbeth is left to brood on the utter futility of his existence until Macduff arrives with an avenging army to kill him.

Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth each fail to control their thoughts and are soon overcome by negative emotions that cause enormous suffering for themselves and others.  Their stories give us plenty of reason to heed the advice of the Eleventh Century Tibetan Buddhist Master, Geshe Langri Tangpa:

In my every action, I will watch my mind,
And the moment destructive emotions arise,
I will confront them strongly and avert them,
Since they will hurt both me and others. [iii]

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[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 1.

[ii] Ibid.13.

[iii] Geshe Langri Tangpa, Eight Verses of Training the Mind, Rigpa Shedra, 27 Apr. 2016 (15 Jun 2016) http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Eight_Verses_of_Training_the_Mind

Post 3: Mindfulness

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Mindful among the mindless, awake while others dream, swift as the race horse he outstrips the field, by watching. The Buddha, The Dhammapada[i]

Mindfulness is the practice of open attention to the external and internal experiences occurring in the present moment.[ii] It is often cultivated through meditation but can be practiced in any situation.Mindfulness is fundamental to the practice of Buddhism, andit is a source of Shakespeare’s genius. Though he never cultivated mindfulness within the context of a Buddhist practice, Shakespeare wasextraordinarily mindful of his surroundings, his fellow creatures, and his interior mental states.

He must have been mindful of his surroundings, because his writings abound in details drawn from nature. No fewer than fifty-seven species of birds inhabit his works,[iii] together with 180 flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables.[iv]

Shakespeare’s masterful description of nature is exemplified in Hamlet when Queen Gertrude begins her report of the drowning of Ophelia.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream. (IV.vii.190-191)

The essayist, William Hazlitt, has noted that:

The leaves of the willow are, in fact, white underneath, and it is this part of them which would appear “hoary” in the reflection of the brook.[v]

Details such as the white undersides of willow leaves reflected in a brook bring nature convincingly to life. Only a mindful observer would notice such details, remember them, and turn them into poetry.

The Bard must also have focused intently on the people around him, soaking up their personal quirks, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech.  Shakespeare’s close observation of human behavior has given us: the dissolute, fat, and loveable old reprobate, Falstaff; the silly, prattling, amoral Nurse of Romeo and Juliet; the vain and puritanical Malvolio of Twelfth Night; and the officious,meddling, and garrulous Polonius of Hamlet. It is not only for such “character” parts that Shakespeare stands out. In character after character Shakespeare gives us personalities that are as convincingly real as the people we know. To quote Hazlitt again:

Each of his characters is as much itself, and as absolutely independent of the rest, as well as of the author, as if they were living persons, not fictions of the mind.[vi]

In the following lines from Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare has Ulysses praise the very quality of mindfulness, the “watchful state,” that the playwright so well exemplifies:

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plotus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deep… (III.iii.205-207)

The watchful state misses nothing. It discerns every grain of the gold of Plotus, the Greek God of wealth. What Shakespeare describes here is not only mindfulness of outward appearances but also mindfulness that looks within and plumbs the depths. From such a “watchful state” he excels not only at depicting nature and outward human behavior, but perhaps more importantly, at depicting the operation of the mind. This is illustrated by Sonnet 113.

Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind;
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
For it no form delivers to the heart
Of bird of flower, or shape, which it doth latch:
Of his quick objects hath the mind no part,
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch:
For if it see the rudest or gentlest sight,
The most sweet favour or deformed’st creature,
The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow or dove, it shapes them to your feature:
Incapable of more, replete with you,
My most true mind thus makes mine eye untrue.

The speaker tells us that his obsession with the absent friend to whom the poem is addressed is so great that he is “partly blind” to the world around him. So preoccupied is his mind with the friend, that birds, flowers, shapes, mountains, seas, day, and night are seen by the eye but do not register in the heart or mind; they only appear as the form of his friend.

If mindfulness is the practice of open attention to what is happening in the present moment, it might seem at first that Shakespeare is offering an example of how not to be mindful. On further consideration we can see that this is not the case, because mindfulness includes attention to our internal as well as our external experiences. The speaker mindfully observes and movingly conveys the state of mind that constitutes his internal experience in the moment, even if that experience is one of obliviousness to the outside world. He might be oblivious to the birds and flowers, but he is mindfully observant of the operation of his mind.

Shakespeare’s greatness as a playwright owes much to his insight into the operations of the mind, as we will see in the next post.

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[i] Byrom, Thomas, The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 9.

[ii] Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1994), Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review, by Ruth A. Baer, p. 4. available at http://www.wisebrain.org/papers/MindfulnessPsyTx.pdf

[iii] Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare: General Q & A, Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (26 May, 2016) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/faq/birdsshakespeare.html>

[iv] de Bray, Lys. Fantastic Garlands: An Anthology of Flowers and Plants from Shakespeare. (Poole, Dorset: Blandford Books, Ltd., 1982), ix.

[v] Hazlitt, William, Shakespeare and Milton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1923), 2.

[vi] Ibid. 3.