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Narrative: Rainer Rilke - What Must I Do With My Life?

Rainer Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet offers valuable insight into the artist's learning process. Throughout the letters, Rilke refers to ways of building an authentic life designed to pursue Art. In fact, Art in Rilke's terms is a style of living - a way of being in the world (revised and expanded entry)...

Art too is only a way of living, and, however one lives, one can, unwittingly, prepare oneself for it. - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Rilke's Four Elements of Learning: What Must I Do With My Life?

A great deal of Rilke's advice to Kappus is centered on the idea of consciously designing a way of life to support the pursuit of art. The design he recommended consisted of four parts:
  1. A Calling: Search For The Reason That Bids You To...;
  2. Experience Design: Build Your Life According To This Necessity;
  3. Perceptual Acuity: Draw Near To Nature; and
  4. Expression: The Exploration and Discovery of Everyday Life.
These four elements of an authentic lifestyle reveal a design for living that originates in Rilke's artistic sensibility. Throughout the letters, Rilke expands upon these four basic design ideas and makes a frequent reference to the nature of learning.

1. A Calling: Search for the reason that bids you to...

A calling refers to the idea that each of us has a unique purpose in life, and that purpose can be discovered through self-examination. And this calling desires, if not demands, expression. Rilke's approach to learning begins with the belief that we all have an inherent calling, or duty, to carry out in life that requires special care. The first thing we must do is identify it. In this context, Rilke is advising Kappus to go deep within himself to seek affirmation to the question, "Must I write?"

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all - ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Go Into Yourself: Essential to the learning process here is the idea that our calling cannot be told to us - it cannot come from an external source. Of course, we are all affected by external events, but Rilke strongly affirms a learning process that originates within "the deepest places of your heart." The discovery of this primary motivation for living is clearly connected to survival, " would have to die if it were denied you to..." The advice given makes no reference to career paths, economic progress, social expectations, or traditions. All of these elements are secondary to finding the reason that bids you to, in this case, write.

Learning, for Rilke, is a phenomenon intimately connected to our soul and the need to understand and pursue our calling in life. A work of art originates in the absolute and unavoidable necessity to produce it as an end unto itself, not as a means to seek popularity, material reward, or employment. This perspective stands in contrast to much of our experience in education in the sense that our primary motivation in life is something, for the most part, left unexplored and ignored. By this I mean that education largely positions itself as as external influence with its own set of predetermined goals and strategies that attempt to counsel us, to provide a "single way," rather than seek the kind of self-examination Rilke recommends.

2. Experience Design: Build Your Life According To This Necessity

Life, or perhaps the word lifestyle is appropriate, is Art for Rilke. In other words, the ways we choose to live and the things we do in our lives are: a) unavoidably connected to our unique calling discovered in the deepest places of our hearts; and b) a conscious design. The learner is then the source of design, not the object of design. What is being designed is quite literally experience, and the learner is in Rilke's context an experience designer. The world of social norms and expectations becomes a palette that can be used by the learner-artist to orchestrate a desired lifestyle. your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Enduring Solitude:

Long must you suffer, not knowing what,
until suddenly, from a piece of fruit hatefully bitten,
the taste of the suffering enters you.
And then you already love what you've savored. No one
will talk you out of it again.

The kind of empowerment Rilke describes is quite significant. A learner is not an individual who merely seeks knowledge, but instead someone who literally seeks experience. One of the recurring themes throughout Rilke's letters is solitude. Rilke believed that a poet learns to endure solitude as a natural pathway to discovery and creativity. In fact, much of his advice centered on ways of understanding the necessity of solitude and the gifts it has to offer. In other words, for Rilke's vision of a poet, learning is intimately linked to ways of enduring solitude.

Of course, we can expand upon this basic proposition being described. If an individual is not a poet, then the endurance of solitude may not be a necessity. But what remains critically important is the idea that we are, each of us, the primary designers of our own lifestyle and that lifestyle need not follow the traditional and often expected patterns demanded by society. Clearly, Rilke did not avoid his own society, but he also did not make himself subservient to its demands.

Live the Questions:

... try to love the questions themselves... Do not seek answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now... take it upon yourself and hate nothing.
- Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

We are trained to think that questions have answers, or at least the goal of proposing a question is to find an answer. Rilke suspends this idea and instead advises Kappus to live the questions. In other words, questions are the basis for experiencing life and to help formulate a way of living for the individual. Questions are something to be lived, not merely answered, and as such they become a powerful influence in the design of experiences.

Hold to the Difficult: In building a life, Rilke recommends "holding to the difficult."

And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

By holding to the difficult, we inspire learning. What we most trust and find most faithful is, perhaps, the mystery of living itself. Holding to the difficult demands patience, endurance and resilience - physically and psychologically.

3. Perceptual Acuity: Draw Near To Nature

Perceptual acuity refers to the clearness or sharpness of our sensory experiences. It is a term that embraces both the physiological and psychological aspects of perception. For an artist, perceptual acuity is a fundamental capability that enhances their sensibilities. The result of perception is a percept - or the representation held in the mind. The preservation and development of perceptual acuity is one of the most basic and essential components in the learning process described by Rilke.

Creativity as Motion: The idea of drawing near to nature, I believe, was Rilke's way of preserving and enhancing his sense perception. The constant care for and expansion of the artist's perceptual acuity is a fundamental learning process. I also sense that Rilke experienced Nature as the most important model for the creative process.

Leave your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

The idea that everything "is gestation and then bringing forth" describes the underlying current of the creative process. The ability to acquire patience is crucial to the development of creative faculties.

If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring... - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Sensory Ecology: Perhaps it is Nature that is our most vibrant learning environment - a place where are sensibilities are refereshed. What Rilke advises is really the development of sense perception through the experience of paying attention to and being in Nature. The "little things that hardly anyone sees" is a request to open our sense perception so that we may quite literally open ourselves up to the experience of life. This is in contrast to a city "where everything resounds and dies away differently because of the too great noise that makes things vibrate". Here Rilke is referring to his experiences in Paris, but in a more general sense we might think of the too great noise as progress hammering away at our sensibilities in a manner that limits and confines them.

People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear we must hold on to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Authenticity: Rilke advises us to be like Nature, "characteristically and spontaneously itself." And being authentic in the deepest sense of that word means to attempt something quite difficult but essential. In Nature we witness a natural calling and a diverse expression of "searching for the reason that bids you to..."

That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences called "visions," the whole so-called "spirit-world," death, all those things that are closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Our capacity to learn is intmately connected to our ability to perceive. If, for example, we immerse ourselves in textual descriptions of the world at the expense of other forms of experience, then our sense perception becomes "atrophied." In other words, our sensibilities become biased and our ability to be open to life is limited. And if our sensibilities are biased, so is our understanding of the world. The idea of expanding our ability to perceive the world is fundamental to increasing our capacity for learning.

4. Expression: Pervasive Exploration and Discovery

Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose... Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everday life offers you... for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place... Try to raise the submerged sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling past which the noise of others goes by far away.
- Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Expression can, of course, be revealed in many ways. Rilke recommends to anchor expression in our own "everyday life," and to avoid the general themes of the status quo. The word "noise" is often used to describe the distracting effects of social grind; "solitude" is often used to describe a place where we give ourselves the opportunity to care for and explore our "ample past." In this sense, artistic expression is akin to a perpetual and pervasive self-exploration and self-discovery. As in Nature, the process of expression is "characteristically and spontaneously itself."

But learning-time is always a long, secluded time. - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Learning-time: Rilke's ideas about learning are intmately connected with the question, "What must I do with my life?" For him, learning is not something that has pre-determined goals and outcomes. Instead learning is intimately woven into the fabric of everyday experience and is, of course, unavoidably lifelong. The idea of patience is critical to enhancing learning; learning-time cannot be denigrated into discrete chunks of time and content.

Learning to develop our unique powers of expression is also tied to the idea of endurance. In speaking about sadness, Rilke advises that we must remain open and patient to it in order to learn what it has to offer. In order to learn from sadness, then, we must also learn to endure it.

But, pleaase consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the center of yourself? ...Only those sadnesses are dangerous and bad which one carries among people in order to drown them out. - Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet

Rilke understands learning as a process in constant motion, perhaps originating in his closeness to Nature and his belief that everything "is gestation and then bringing forth." Sadness is conceived within and then brought forth to everyday experience. It is a dynamic emotional state that is in constant motion. If we attempt to close ourselves off to it through avoidance and fear then "we do not learn what it was." Sadness requires endurance, and learning from sadness is learning-time as a long, secluded time.

Rilke's Learning Model

Of course, it is too much to say that Rilke was presenting a formalized model for learning in his letters to Kappus. The four parts outlined above represent one possible interpretation rather than Rilke's conscious attempt to promote a distinct model for learning.

At the same time, I was struck by the constant references to learning throughout Letters To A Young Poet. Learning, for Rilke, was a phenomenon intimately connected with Art, creativity and expression. In a way, it is through ideas about learning that Rilke weaves his thoughts about how to craft a life and it is this sense that he views learning as something akin to experience design.


  1. Academy of American Poets: Rainer Rilke
  2. Rainer Rilke: Letters To A Young Poet
  3. Google Scholar: Rainer Rilke
  4. Life of a Poet
  5. Wikipedia: Rainer Rilke

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Hey it is the 4 Amigos - this is fabulous Brian. Rilke is my favourite poet.

If you don't mind - I would like to drop tjhis into my class who are struggling with what is their responsibility for how business and they treat our world. We have just broken through to see that it is not all about water and tress but all about human society - most importantly it is about how we raise our kids

Thank you for re-posting this Brian. Again, your timing is immpeccable.

Rob, Cynthia, Jeremy:

And the mystery continues:-)

Cyn and I have also been reading "Letters" How strange that we all have been doing this at the same time!

This is uncanny Brian, but I have been reading Letters to a Young Poet and just finsihed writing my own letter to a young writer who was asking me about where I get my material. Rilke's 'go into yourself' quote you used was the same one I sent to this young writer. I'm shaking my head at this. Very bizarre.

Great post. So much truth in Rilke's words and so much in yours. That 'dark place' where we go to find our selves, I think, is the only place to find it. Distractions that take us away from our core can mask our 'bliss'.

I'm still taking this all in. Thank you so much for this. I'm still amazed at the synchronicity.

Oh my. This post is truly outstanding. Still digesting it...

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