The poet, author and philosopher takes questions from Frank and listeners, and offers some thought-provoking questions of his own for you to consider.
The poet, author and philosopher takes questions from Frank and listeners, and offers some thought-provoking questions of his own for you to consider.
About David Whyte’s Keys to Learning Generosity, Leadership and Presence
I am beyond excited to bring you this episode, which features poet, author and philosopher David Whyte.
In what may be the first-ever podcast to double as an interactive “book club,” he responds to questions provided and recorded by listeners like you.
Whyte spends a good portion of our interview discussing his book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. We previously gave away 50 copies of his book to CGT listeners, and will be doing so again with the publishing of this episode. (Look for more details about the giveaway below.)
The conversation with him is far-ranging and profound, but if I were to pick one unifying theme that flows throughout, it would be about asking beautiful questions.
Whyte explains how the right question can encourage us to pay attention, be more present, and make our minds more beautiful and more generous.
Highlights from David Whyte’s Interview
In this episode, you will also…
- Hear David discuss the art of “conversational leadership,” and explain one of the most powerful things you can do as a leader.
- Discover why “regret” is a more beautiful word than you realize. In fact, if you’re the type of person who says they have no regrets, you may be thinking about the term all wrong.
- Identify the greatest type of friendship you can have in your life, and hear a description of the experience of parenting we all can identify with.
- Learn the thought process around asking beautiful questions, and when to ask them.
- And finally, toward the end of the show, you’ll hear Whyte’s two keys to becoming more present, more aware of our surroundings, and better able to recognize all that’s available to us in this moment, right now.
I love podcasts for their ability to give many people access to amazing thinkers like David. As wonderful as it was to talk with him, it’s an equal privilege to share our conversation with you.
Win a Copy of ‘Consolations’ FREE
If you enjoyed this conversation, you will love David’s book, Consolations.
We’re giving away 50 more copies for listeners and fans to enjoy. Click here to sign up for your chance to win.
We love sharing stories from listeners about people who, by their acts or their example, are living generously.
We recently received a story from Glen Treadaway, whom I know from my time at The Home Depot, about a crazy good turn that took place in Canada.
Glen sits on a board of a nonprofit called Jobs Unlimited. It helps mentally challenged people enter the workforce, and also owns a wheelchair-accessible van.
Last March a man reached out to Jobs Unlimited to ask whether it was possible for them to give his elderly, wheelchair-bound mother a ride to get a COVID vaccine. The org refused payment for the favor, and also declined to cash his donation check which they viewed as payment. When the woman unfortunately passed away last December, her family designated Jobs Unlimited as a beneficiary for donations in her memory.
This uplifting story shows that even one seemingly simple act can have an enduring impact on a person and on a family. Generosity and gratitude create a virtuous circle.
Who’s done a crazy good turn for you? Who should we feature on an upcoming episode? Please share your ideas, thoughts, and shout-outs to others in our audio Q&A via ScholarSite. It’s easy to submit, and only takes a few moments.
David Whyte Interview
FRANK BLAKE: Welcome, David.
DAVID WHYTE: Lovely. Good to be here with you.
FRANK BLAKE: So where I’d like to start – I have to say, one of the great things about your book is, in my mind, it provoked terrific questions from our listeners. So I’m just going to jump right in rather than the usual expanding on all the different things you’ve done and jump right into one of our listeners’ questions. This question comes from Jennifer Wyatt.
JENNIFER WYATT: What’s one word, that for you, eludes definition, and why?
DAVID WHYTE: One word that eludes definition. It’s probably that word that we’ve been bandying around on Valentine’s, which is love. You’ll notice that love isn’t in there as a word. But I do think love is a deep form of intentionality and attention, but it’s also a word that is always subverting the person who’s trying to engage in that endeavor. It always takes larger and larger forms than our identity is able for. And so I’d say that, that is certainly one word, which has eluded us for millennia.
FRANK BLAKE: That’s a wonderful answer. I love that question because of course, “Consolations,” is a book about going into definitions of words and what words mean. And it leads very directly to a question from another one of our listeners, Rick Planos.
RICK PLANOS: David, thank you for the amazing book, “Consolations.” I found it to be very intriguing and inspiring. My question for you is how did you choose the words that are in the book? How did you pick which words you would describe and do you plan on doing another book with other words?
DAVID WHYTE: The book began actually with a phone call from my assistant. I was working with a company in Paris and walking around – I had a day off and I was walking around the city, and I got a call from my assistant saying, there’s the Observer magazine in Britain, wanted me to do a guest on their little philosophical column that they had. The Observer newspaper goes out to millions of people on Sunday morning. So I was quite excited that there’d be a forum for it. And she said, “There’s just two things.” And I said, “What’s that?” She said, “It has to be a one-word title and you only have 300 words.” Well, the Irishman in me was disgusted by the thought of only having 300 words. And I said, “Well, that’s ridiculous, but let me have a think about it.”
So I had a good old walk around Paris and I said to myself, “What if you could write something worthwhile in 300 words? You’ve certainly got a lot of poetry. And this was a prose, it was an essay. So it’s a different form. If you can do it in poetry, why wouldn’t you be able to do it in an essay?” So I got into a restaurant by myself that evening and I asked for some paper, they had some, and I started writing and I wrote at the top of the paper the word “regret.” And I wrote it specifically because I felt like it was a word that had become very unfashionable and that it was a word people didn’t want to investigate anymore. People were very reluctant these days to admit that they had any regrets. And whenever I met people who said they had no regrets, I always said to myself, where have you been all your life? And you need to get out more.
And so I realized, it’s a beautiful word, “regret.” And it’s part of the ecology of human experience. And there’s a place for every part of human experience, in and of itself, without it being a remedy for something. So I thought I would subvert the present understanding of regret and go back to its original sense.
And so after an hour or so in the restaurant, I had a very good meal and I had a very good essay. And that was the first essay. And then I said, “Oh, that was rewarding.” I said, “How many other words need subverting at the moment? They’re used in a way that’s pejorative or peripheral or where you’re actually afraid of really understanding what’s underneath it?”
And so what I did was I wrote half a dozen of them. And then I thought, “Well, this would be nice.” One way of getting me to write a series of them would be to create a series for people where I would be expected to write another one. And so I created what was called a Readers’ Circle. People signed up for it, and then they got an essay every two weeks. So I had a dozen or so in the pipeline when I began it, but you know the human need for procrastination. Very soon, I was up to the deadline of having to write the essays, wherever I was in the world. And so whether it was Paris or the mountains of Colorado or in London or wherever it was.
And usually I chose a word around a dynamic I was wrestling with in my own life. And so Halloween came around for instance, and I worked with the word “haunted” and the way human beings, almost every human being, is haunted by what has not been fully conversed with or spoken to.
And then slowly I did a first Readers’ Circle with 24. I did a second, and lo and behold, I said, “My goodness, I have a book here actually.” And so I added a couple of more and by sheer absolute luck of the Irish, it turned out to be 52. And so when the book was first published, everyone said, “Oh, it’s like a deck of cards, or one for every week.” But it was just sheer luck, actually, that there were 52.
FRANK BLAKE: Really?
DAVID WHYTE: Yes, absolutely. But the good stars were over the book. And it’s been remarkable actually. It’s sold 100,000 copies. Something that started in a very, very organic way, very close to my heart, a very eccentric literary project in a way.
FRANK BLAKE: Right.
DAVID WHYTE: Choose these words that’s spoken to so many people around the world and helped so many people.
FRANK BLAKE: Well, I’ll witness to that because I know that people to whom I referenced the book say, “Oh, yes, I love that book. That is such a wonderful book.” So yes, you’ve got a very dedicated audience. You mentioned “conversation,” when you were talking about “haunted” as a word, and what is not spoken. And that word “conversation” does come up a bit. And I saw that, one of the things you do is, something you call conversational leadership. And because I thought your book was so great. And then I saw that you also talked to companies-
DAVID WHYTE: Yes.
FRANK BLAKE: Struck a note with me. And I’m kind of curious, what is behind that? When you go in and you talk to a group of business leaders, what do you talk to them about?
DAVID WHYTE: I really talk about the phenomenology of conversation – which is really just a fancy philosophical way of saying what happens along the way when you try to have one. And when you try to have difficult conversations, what are the different phenomena. In many ways, I’d explored them just through the courageous conversation that’s involved in writing poetry itself. I often say poetry is the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn’t know you knew.
And quite often, didn’t want to know, thank you very much. Because once you’ve articulated it, you can’t go back to your old home. You can’t live in the smaller identity you were in before. It’s a bit like a marital argument where the other person says the truth. And you recognize and you say, “Damn, why didn’t I say it first?” But also-
FRANK BLAKE: That is so brilliant.
DAVID WHYTE: Yeah. Both of you are emancipated, actually, into a new phase in the relationship because the truth has been said. So I look at seven different stages in deepening conversations, I call them the seven elements. So I work with organizations big and small, but I do it all through memorized poetry. I have hundreds of poems memorized, Frank, and I call on them and build a narrative around them.
When I first was invited into the organizational world, I went in very reluctantly because I grew up in a… I’m from long lines of rebels, on both the Scottish Yorkshire and Irish side of me. And then I grew up in a raving socialist part of West Yorkshire, where the Luddites used to meet in the backfield where I grew up actually, before they marched across the field to break up the machinery that they thought was taking away their jobs.
So I had a kind of blood reluctance of large organizations. But I was invited by a very fine gentleman called Peter Block, who made a real invitation to me to come in. And I found actually that the serious artist in me didn’t need to compromise his work. After all, that people in the organizational world, as you probably know Frank, were actually very hungry to know any way that they could understand their position of responsibility in a better way. You can talk about conversational leadership. You can just as much talk about invitational leadership because as you know, one of the most powerful things a leader can do is make a real invitation to other people.
FRANK BLAKE: Yeah.
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. But we’re afraid of making invitations because you always receive back much more than you wanted from the person who you’re inviting. So you have to make yourself larger in order to receive. You ask for A and you always get A plus B, plus C, plus the rest of the alphabet. And the ability to be large enough and generous enough to be able to receive what you’ve unconsciously asked for, is a great hallmark of what we call leadership.
FRANK BLAKE: When you were discussing the power of truth, I will say I shared just my own personal experience with a well known business leader, here in the U.S., Jack Welch. That was his signature, was he was somebody who just spoke the truth and it was often so alarming and so shocking and set him apart as a leader, frankly. His willingness to grapple with the truth and hear the truth back at it. And very interesting. And an Irishman like himself, I guess. It was an important thing. And that notion of conversation and truth. Very, very powerful in leadership.
DAVID WHYTE: Yeah.
FRANK BLAKE: We have another question on conversation, from one of our listeners, Randall Kirsch.
RANDALL KIRSCH: So this is Randall. Thanks to you both for hosting this podcast. I was fascinated by the book and I read each of the reflections at least twice, often before reflecting on them myself. My question relates to the word “conversation.” So David, you use “conversation” throughout many of your reflections and not in the sense of two people talking with one another, but often at the frontier sort of an interface. At the frontier of two sometimes opposing ideas, or ideas in tension with one another, or situations in tension with one another. So I would love for you to talk to us a little bit about the word “conversation.” Why you chose that particular word and used it throughout so many reflections and also why you didn’t write a reflection on the word “conversation” itself?
DAVID WHYTE: Yeah. I’m just started a new series of words, so that’s one I should include. And one of the remarkable things about the word “conversation” is that it can’t be made into jargon because it actually stands for a whole spectrum of exchange. Everything from just a chat around the water cooler about the weather, to a life-changing emotional conversation at the kitchen table at midnight. And we use it for the whole spectrum of exchange. And of course it can be an exchange between you and the natural world too. Between you and the color blue in the sky or the sunset, or the ocean waves arriving on the shoreline. It’s the meeting between what you think is you and what you think is not you.
And there’s a lovely etymology origin to the word. It means in Latin, “inside out” actually, “converse.” And so it’s literally, what’s both seen and experienced on the outside and also this parallel experience of what is felt on the inside, both literally and metaphorically actually. I talk about conversational leadership because I think reality is conversational. I talk about the conversational nature of reality. It’s always this meeting between what you think is you and what you think is not you. Whatever you want to happen in the world will never happen just as you would like it to. But equally, whatever the world wants of us, will not happen according to the world, the way the world wants us to behave. And what actually happens is this third entity, which is neither what the world wants nor what I want. It’s the conversation between the two. And of course, all of us find out that marriage is that way, that parenting is that way. That leadership is that way. That just walking around is that way, actually. The only place where things are real is where I’m meeting something other than myself.
And yet we spend very little time at that place. We’re often afraid of that meeting. And certainly we’ve got a society at the moment that’s retreated into its own corners and refusing to have a generous conversation with things that are other than itself and its own inherited belief system. So whenever I meet a new person, the most tedious thing I could know about them is what their inherited beliefs are. I know that’s a radical thing to say, what I’m really interested in is whether they’re up for a proper conversation. It’s not that I immediately want to engage them in a deep philosophical conversation. It’s just, do they have a conversational identity? Do they have an invitational identity? And those are the people we actually, naturally, and unconsciously and consciously love in the world. There’s nothing better than having a friend in your life, a person in your life, who’s invitational; who’s also generous enough to understand when you don’t want to receive the invitation, thank you very much.
FRANK BLAKE: So it leads so interestingly to another question from one of our listeners, Clare. You were going right down this, or referenced this issue, I think.
CLARE DICKENS: Hello David. How in these “woke” times, do you find yourself inhibited in your poetry? For instance, descriptions, an acute feeling of happiness or despair, contentment, et cetera. I was first given your poems of self compassion more than 16 years ago. And it helped me so much through some very dark times in my life. Thank you so much for this wonderful, wonderful book. Really appreciated. Thank you very much.
DAVID WHYTE: No, I don’t, because the writing of poetry is coming from some place where your named identity, whatever it is – whether it’s by race, by gender – is kind of irrelevant. So where I mostly find that I have to just be very, very careful is, when we’re talking about, in the narrative around poetry, if I’m speaking just around gender. And it’s no longer enough just to talk about men and women, you have to always make sure there’s room for people who are somewhere along the gender scale, between the two. I just feel I have to be linguistically careful actually, in my talking about it because that’s the nature of our times. But I don’t feel any inhibition in the poetry itself.
FRANK BLAKE: It is interesting, I think. And I think you… It is interesting how it has impacted our conversation, our national conversations, for good or ill.
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. I must admit I’m not very interested in reading on university campuses, if there’s any kind of necessity for trigger warnings or whatever. Poetry is one massive trigger warning, has been for centuries. Poetry is meant to be both disturbing and nourishing at the same time. So I can’t imagine ever going on a campus and signing something where I promise not to trigger anyone’s past experiences because the way forward is to speak about trauma, but to put it into a generous and compassionate enough context, where it can actually be healing and helpful.
FRANK BLAKE: This may be a very old fashioned point of view, that memorizing things is hugely important. And I was struck by your reference, the prior question about memorizing a large number of poems. And I’d be curious as to, is that critically important and why have we moved so far away from that, in the learning process?
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. Well, certainly it’s been critically important for me in my life. Luckily I always loved memorizing poetry from when I was little, actually. And I probably got it from my Irish mother, who had a great store of poetry, both in English and Irish actually, which I’d hear in my bedtime stories from when I was very, very tiny. And I just had this very natural inclination to, if I heard a good poem, to memorize it. And so from seven years old, I was both writing and memorizing poems. And then it became, even in my teens, it became even more of an intense need. And I would always memorize when I’m walking. So it’d be great to take a page along with me and memorize as I walked. But also the incredible experience of being able to just pluck a poem out of the air, and the way it physically inhabits your body.
And I always say a good poem is not about something, it is the experience itself. And if you inhabit the voice in the poem, you’re inhabiting the very experience itself. So I felt as if I was playing this really rich amplitude of musical chords inside what it meant to be a human being, to be able to recite some Emily Dickinson or some of Mrs. Shakespeare’s son, William. I never think she gets enough credit, so I thought I’d mention her.
So now I have a repertoire of over 300 poems, probably. Probably a couple of hundred of my own. And that’s the way I speak, I call on them. I could just go on stage and, working in an extemporaneous way, following a thread or a theme, with these lovely songs that I can sing, except I speak them. And repeat certain lines, and just let them take me and take us all together to wherever we want to go.
There’s a beautiful line by David Ignatow. He passed away, 20 years or so ago. But he says, for instance, “I wish I knew the beauty of leaves falling. I wish I knew the beauty of leaves falling. To whom are we beautiful, as we go? I wish I knew the beauty of leaves falling. To whom are we beautiful, as we go?”
So that you travel a thousand miles in those two lines and you travel deeply into a more mysterious understanding of your appearance on this Earth and your eventual disappearance into something else. So to have those lines just, you don’t need 300 poems. You need two lines, or one line. And it’s a kind of ritual invitation into a deeper understanding of the question you’re asking in your life.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow. I think it is such a loss that we don’t do more of it. I don’t have 300 poems in my head, but I know I memorized a whole lot of poems, and it makes a difference. If only for the cadence occasionally or small phrases.
DAVID WHYTE: I just had a lovely walk with my daughter. We were on holiday together. She came from her college in Montreal. And we started going through all the poems that she’d learned when she was little, because I taught, both my son and my daughter, to memorize poetry. And she said a really beautiful thing. We were working with one poem called “Lost” by David Wagoner. She said, “That kind of poem, I didn’t really understand it when I first learned it at seven years old, but I grew into it and I’m still growing into that poem.” And then she said something really beautiful. She said, “It’s as if the poem knew me before I knew the poem.”
FRANK BLAKE: Wow.
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. And so when you have a very powerful poem, it knows the better part of you in a way. And it’s the part of you that’s gone ahead already and you wouldn’t have chosen it out actually, to memorize it, if it didn’t represent that frontier, which you’re both longing for and heading towards, both consciously and unconsciously.
FRANK BLAKE: So David, I’ve got to say, this is the most incredibly difficult interview I’ve ever done, because it’s like reading your book. When I started reading your book, I was underlining every line and that’s sort of pointless in a book, to underline every line. And talking with you in this interview, every sentence you could stop, and you’d go, “Wait, David, all right, let’s go deeper into that. I need to go deeper into that.” So just absolutely brilliant.
But it leads directly, your conversation about your daughter leads directly to a question from a listener, Damion.
DAMION SANKOVICH: Your book makes several references to parenting and having a daughter. I’m curious to know how you would describe the experience of parenting and what are some insights you’ve learned from it.
DAVID WHYTE: I’d say that parenting is one humiliation after another. And I think it is the hallmark of parenting, is a kind of helplessness. And that all your ideas about what it means to be a good father or mother are eventually subverted by circumstances, by the children themselves, by your deeper and further understanding of what it’s about.
And every child is different. I do think that fathering or mothering, a boy or a girl or anything in– wherever the child arrives on the gender scale, is different, according to where they are, in their sense of themselves. So with a child, you’ve got someone who is living with you, year after year after year. With a child, you’ve got someone who’s apprenticing themselves to all of your weaknesses and blind spots and difficulties. And they live with you as saboteurs and spies for years, watching your every move. And your embarrassing moves too.
And one day in the kitchen, usually when you have your back turned to them, usually when you’re making something for them, the psychological stiletto goes in, right between the ribs. And you turn and say to them, “How did you know exactly where to put that?” And they say, “I’ve been watching you for a few years,” and they have. So you have this remarkable gift, of someone who knows your strengths and powers, but also knows every weakness that you have, perhaps even more than your spouse or partner.
And so your ability to apprentice yourself to their understanding of you, is germane to your own forward maturation. And the humiliation comes in realizing that the game is up. Whatever show you’ve been putting on for them, eventually the curtain is pulled and you’re seen. The puppet master is seen, at one time or another. So this is very, very good for us if we’re large enough and generous enough and have a sense of humor enough to be able to understand it.
Also, on another parallel. When my son was born, I just felt like I was a natural father to a boy and my son’s a real boy, boy. So I felt like I knew how to do that. And we spent a lot of time together and eventually we were rock climbers and mountaineers together. We spent a lot of time with each other and have always got on.
When my daughter was born, it was about a year later that I realized I didn’t have a clue how to be a father to a daughter. And it was quite humiliating. And of course, to begin with, you’re just looking, well, it’s because I haven’t found the answer. And so you try all kinds of things, trying to be the all-powerful, all-knowing father or parent.
My biggest moment of revelation was when I realized that to be a good father to my daughter, I actually needed to apprentice myself to her. In many ways, she needed to parent me into understanding how to be a good father to a daughter. And that was the revolutionary moment where I actually did start to become a good father to my daughter, because I was actually, I put myself in the position of actually learning from her. She’s inhabiting this different body that holds a different conversation with the world than the masculine body does. It has different needs. It has different wants. So that was really a powerful moment and very good for me. I’m still in that apprenticeship now.
FRANK BLAKE: Wow. There’s a line that has stuck with me. One of the interviews you did with another podcast, with Krista Tippett, it was a wonderful podcast, and we’ll put a link in for everyone who’s listening because I think that also was a wonderful conversation. You discussed in that interview about learning to ask beautiful questions in unbeautiful moments. And that just has stuck with me. And I wonder if you could explain that a little bit and then how do we do it? How do you ask beautiful questions in unbeautiful moments?
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. Well, the whole, a theme of asking beautiful questions came out of a talk that I inherited from my good friend, John O’Donohue. And John was a priest for 17 years in the Catholic church, in the west of Ireland. He was a philosopher, an expert on Hegel and on the great Dominican 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.
We were very close friends. And one of the greatest shocks in my life was when he died at 52, the height of his powers. And he just passed away in his sleep, in the early hours of the morning. And John had a whole train of talks and workshops that he was supposed to give. And he and I shared a way of working and a kind of language and vocabulary that was quite extraordinary. We only found each other when we were in our 40s, early 40s, but it was just as if we were long lost brothers, actually.
So naturally when he passed away and he had all of these commitments, people would call me up and say, “We’ve got 300 people signed up here. John was supposed to be here. Would you come and give the talk?” And I’d say, “Of course.” And I found myself in all kinds of wonderful experiences, including giving a talk on Jesus to 7,000 Catholics in Los Angeles. As I was going on the stage, I was waving my fist at the heavens, to John, saying, “You did this.”
FRANK BLAKE: “What’d you get me into?”
DAVID WHYTE: But the one that led to the beautiful questions was a wonderful theme, which was the art and practice of creating a more beautiful mind. Which was really wonderful, when you think about it. To think that just as we can practice a musical instrument and become better on a musical instrument, a guitar or a saxophone or the piano, you could actually practice shaping a more beautiful mind.
You could practice thinking, or not thinking at times, or paying attention in a way in which you made your mind more beautiful, more generous and more inquiring. And so I was on my way to Toronto to give this workshop with this title. And I said, “How do you actually shape a more beautiful mind?” Because all I had was a little paragraph that I’d inherited. And by the end of the flight, I’d come to the conclusion that you shaped a more beautiful mind by asking increasingly more beautiful questions in your life. Such as the David Ignatow line, “I wish I knew the beauty of leaves falling. To whom are we beautiful as we go?” That is an incredible question, actually, that somehow gives your own disappearance and death another form of majesty actually, that there might be other eyes seeing a certain beauty and you’re going.
And so that started the theme with me. And of course, it’s not new, actually. It’s in the Zen tradition. I’ve sat Zen with various teachers for many decades. And in that tradition, you’ve probably heard of the koan tradition, these questions. And the most famous one is, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” And you’re not meant to answer it in an abstracted, strategic way. It’s actually a very physical invitation to a certain kind of understanding. For instance, in that question, “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?” it’s really, “What’s it like to travel through space and time not meeting anything other than yourself?” The sound of one hand clapping is really looking at our own narcissism, where we refuse to meet another mind, another thought, another opinion, another person, really, on their own recognizances.
So the koan tradition, of this series of cases as they’re called – they’re called cases because they’re memorized encounters between people that were really revelatory as to having a deeper understanding of reality. And I’ll just mention another one, which is the monk Jizo, that was the Japanese name for a Chinese monk. He was an enlightened Abbot of a monastery. And he was walking through the monastery garden and suddenly saw this scholar monk who’d appeared in the doorway and who lived at a monastery many hundreds of miles away. He was famous for his scholarship, but he was a man who got tired of scholarship and wanted to go out and have a real physical understanding of what it meant to have an understanding of reality.
So he set off, but he didn’t know where he was going. But he found himself in the doorway of Jizo’s monastery. Jizo stopped and said, “Where are you going?” And the monk said, “I’m going on pilgrimage.” And he said, “Why are you going on pilgrimage?” And he said, “Honestly, I don’t know.” And then Jizo said, “Not knowing is great intimacy,” he said. It’s a very famous koan. Not knowing is intimacy. So in asking a beautiful question, it’s a way of actually inviting – through a particular way of not knowing – the road to open up, to our unknown place of pilgrimage, which as yet, lies over the horizon of our understanding.
FRANK BLAKE: So I love when you were talking about the more beautiful mind, one of the things you included was learning to be more generous. And that’s one of the things we try to do on this podcast is, recognize and celebrate people who are generous. And in your chapter on giving, in the book, you write, “Giving is not done easily. Giving is difficult.”
What led you to that conclusion? Why is that so? And how do we break through that?
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. Actually, I was asked to give a talk, last year actually, to a group of philanthropists.
FRANK BLAKE: Oh wow.
DAVID WHYTE: And so I gave a talk on the seven vulnerabilities of giving. I can’t even remember what all the seven vulnerabilities are, but there’s plenty of them. I have them all noted down somewhere. But in giving, it’s not an abstract thing where you’re suddenly given this thing, and then the relationship is severed with the giver. It’s actually, you’ve taken a step into that person’s life, actually. And depending on the gift, you have actually taken a step of intimacy with that person. So immediately you are vulnerable in one way or another.
And there are questions around why it’s being given, what is being given, why so much is being given, and in what manner it was given. So these are all invitations to self-understanding. But giving is difficult because it’s so easy to give the wrong thing, and in the wrong way. We’ve all done that. And we’ve tried to be generous and we just haven’t been thoughtful enough. And we’ve actually imposed on another person.
But I think, I also say in the essay, the only way to learn how to give properly is just to give again.
FRANK BLAKE: So we ask, for everyone who appears on the podcast, who has done a crazy good turn for you in your life? And what was it?
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. My gosh. Well, I can think of so many people. I think of my English master at school. I went to a very old school. It was 400 years old. We had some remarkable teachers there, but there was one man who took me under his wing, and told me I had a gift, a gift in poetry. And if I wanted to follow it, that I had a remarkable path to follow. So that was, just the act of being seen is often – and recognized, and some essence in you being recognized – is really one of the most remarkable gifts. That’s a great turn to give to someone. And I received that.
I also think, we live in a time of mistrust of strangers. But I can think of so many strangers in my life, who’ve done me a good turn at remarkable moments. And in many ways the good turn has been magnified because I didn’t know them before the moment, and they disappeared afterwards.
FRANK BLAKE: Is there an example of that, that comes to mind?
DAVID WHYTE: Yes. I was walking in northern Ecuador, with a friend of mine, on some back roads, many, many years ago. And it just happened to be a local feast and many of the peoples in Peru and Bolivia and Ecuador, when they were under the Inca yolk, when they were subservient to the Inca empire, they worked all the hours God sends all year, except at these feast days, when the Incas would give them as much corn beer as possible, and they’d all get drunk. It was a kind of outlet and this still passed into the Christian calendar in a way.
So my friend and I found ourselves surrounded by a drunken mob and all of the bitterness against the inequity of their society. Here we were, two obviously well-off gringos – a gringa and a gringo. And we got surrounded by a very violent mob. And we were backed up against a wall and they were starting to throw stones. Probably there were 50 or 60 of them. And we were in a very, very dire situation. And behind us was a door in the wall. And at the crucial moment, as the stone started to hit the wall, that door opened and a complete stranger grabbed us both by the shoulder and pulled us through, and quickly closed the door again. Now, if you’d have been that stranger on the other side of the wall, hearing what you heard over the other side, you would’ve had every right not to risk yourself and open that door.
FRANK BLAKE: Right. Yeah.
DAVID WHYTE: And so I’ve had my life literally saved by a stranger, and I’ve had many, many gifts given to me, at crucial moments, in all my traveling, by people who I did not know, who did the generous thing. So I’m always alert to those moments where I myself can actually be present. And you never know in a human life, Frank, you may think you’re here to be this poet and speaker or to be the head of Home Depot, but your whole incarnation may be, come to its culmination when you’re standing at a bus stop, and you say something to a 15-year-old boy or girl that totally transforms their life. You just said exactly the right thing at the right moment in their life. And that could be the gift of why you’re here.
FRANK BLAKE: Absolutely. That is so true. One of our listeners did ask, do you have suggestions or thoughts on how to be more present? Because that’s really how to be more aware of your surroundings and more recognizing at that moment, there may be many of those moments.
DAVID WHYTE: Yeah. Well, the answer to that is too simple, actually, for anyone to really hear.
FRANK BLAKE: That must mean it’s true.
DAVID WHYTE: It’s really about taking silence and breathing in that silence. So it’s taking time to yourself, go for a 20 minute walk, leave your phone behind. Do not take your phone with you. You want something else knocking on your door, not the messages and your instruments. Follow your breath, make a friend of silence.
So breathing fully without thinking, and learn how to open up that aperture. To begin with, you can only do it for a few seconds, but as you open it up, it’s a bit like learning an instrument. You get more and more facile. And we give up thinking not to lose our intellectual minds, but to go to another foundation from which you can think in a better way. One that’s connected to your physical sense of yourself and the physical sense of others in the world.
So much of our language that we employ is used in defense against other people or preemptive attack as a way of defense. So to be able to find a home in your own body, through the breath, through silence. We stop holding ourselves and other people hostage in the world.
FRANK BLAKE: That’s phenomenal. Thank you. This has been just such an amazing privilege to speak with you.
DAVID WHYTE: Well, thank you, Frank. It’s been a lovely, lovely format actually, with people’s questions.
FRANK BLAKE: And we’re only getting to a fraction of them. Where can people connect with you and get updates on your work? Where should we be directing our listeners?
DAVID WHYTE: Well, my website, of course. Davidwhyte.com.
FRANK BLAKE: And that’s for everyone, W-H-Y-T-E.
DAVID WHYTE: Exactly. Yeah. And then there’s a Ted talk and various things online. There’s more than you need to know, as they say, online. But it’s all there, with all my different recordings and writings.
FRANK BLAKE: Well, this is such a scratch of the surface, and I hope that everyone listening will take the time to do that.
DAVID WHYTE: It’s been a pleasure.
Photo credits: Breath photo by Nicol Ragland; all other photos by Bodi Hallet.
There is no deed too great or too small. Know somebody (or a group of somebodies) doing something amazing for somebody else? Tell us here and we’ll help spread the word.