Tag Archives: Dreamtime

Songs Old and New

“When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart”
Rabindranath Tagore

This blog has taken me in directions I could not have envisioned, and now it is asking for a new name. After much thought, I have settled on “Songs of Wisdom.”

Over the years, my teaching became less lecture, and more a creative dialogue between my students and me. It felt as though we were collaborating on a variation of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, where we entered a field beyond time and fixed ideas. Together we would trace the tracks and hints of our ancestors, and sing a world into being. We were in fact following the songlines sung by fellow travelers from Thales, through Lao Tzu, to Camus. We would embrace some touchstone ideas from a common reading, and follow the path they suggested in order to create a vision that was highly individual to each class, yet universal in the light it cast upon the human condition.

Every human being, I believe, sings A world, not The world, into being. In this regard, Robert Pirsig offers an illuminating analogy. In every instant, we are bombarded by myriad things vying for our awareness, and we simply cannot give our attention to everything. It is as though we are standing on a beach composed of millions of grains of sand. We reach down into that beach and pick up a handful of sand, and call that handful “the world.” The handful we choose is often determined by the cultural, familial, and religious conditioning of our early lives.

Here is where Philosophy comes in. Ben Zander says “It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.” Violence and loss, sickness and death are inevitable, but by following the songlines of visionary women and men down through the ages, we have the possibility of clicking the kaleidoscope of our minds, and creating more ample and generous templates that frame an increasingly kind and compassionate world. These are songs of wisdom, living words given soul by the melodies of the heart.


About half a century ago, one of my philosophy professors launched himself into a riff about how the life of a philosopher was irrelevant to the quality of his thought. Logical consistency, he said, was the ultimate criterion of philosophical worth. Even at the time, my young mind sensed that this could not be true. Over the years I have become even more convinced that if philosophical study does not result in a wiser, more loving and pleasant life, then it is a complete waste of time. I would sometimes joke with my students that I could not possibly give them an honest grade until they had lived for 50 years. Then I would need an email telling me how their lives had turned out. At that point, of course, they could grade themselves. It is immensely gratifying for me to see so many of my former students on this blog and on Facebook who are living creative, fulfilling and loving lives. The only small credit I can take is having had the privilege of introducing them to some wonderful friends, from Plato to Pirsig. The rest has been up to them.

It seemed to me that reading these inspiring thinkers made teaching a breeze; a joyful breeze, but a breeze nonetheless. Imagine working with the ideas of a thinker like Plato whose writings have lasted for over 2000 years. His thoughts easily inspired compelling words, but it seemed to me that those words would have been empty truisms unless they somehow had impacted my life. This is one reason I loved flying airplanes and playing music: all the fine talk came to an end when you lifted off a runway or played the first chord of a song. But how does one demonstrate philosophical sensitivity? Surely I couldn’t have my students follow me around all day. Nor did I have the courage to show them my lesser angels.

teacher 1983

It gradually dawned on me, however, that my attitudes and values showed up every day in the classroom. Did I listen carefully, and with respect? Did I value honesty over looking good? Did I have sincere love for the process of learning and for the unfolding souls of my students? Was I able to use my human frailty as a model for self-reflection and growth? I came to believe that these values were the essence of teaching, and that the spoken words were simply excuses that allowed us to come together in a field at once sacred and loving. I would begin every semester with this quote from Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.“

Aristotle once observed that the poet and the philosopher were alike in that they both began in wonder. It seems to me that true poetry and true philosophy do not talk about the world. Rather, much like the Aboriginal Dreamtime, a teacher and her students together sing the world into being. I do not mean an objective world, nor even a right world, but the very best world they can co-create on any given day. It is a world that springs from wonder and sincerity and playful intelligence. It is a verbal portrait which, when freshly and beautifully rendered, has the power to transform a life. And that, it seems to me, is never a waste of time.