Poetry & the Beginner’s Mind

Poetry & the Beginner’s Mind April 19, 2021



Poetry & the Beginner’s Mind

Poetry, the beginner’s mind, the kingdom of heaven, & the power of community.

Matthew Sherling

A sermon delivered at
the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles

April 18, 2021

There was a time in my life when I had to start unlearning all the ideas & beliefs I had inherited from the past – from my parents, from my church, from TV & movies. About what matters, about history, about myself, about God, love, happiness, suffering.

Growing up in the south, there was a lot to unlearn, to decondition, to deprogram.

As I look back I realize a huge help in this process was reading books & being challenged & inspired by my English professors in college who became some of my heroes.

Books took me places I had never been, & getting into characters’ inner worlds made me feel less alone in my own head. I remember reading James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” where the two main characters begin emotionally distant from each other, the main character unable to understand why his brother Sonny plays jazz or has gotten caught up in heroin, & end with the narrator going to see Sonny play music for the first time, which causes him to finally see Sonny in all his humanity. Sonny’s music made the narrator actively listen. By the end Baldwin writes, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Stories like this stirred compassion in me, revealing that attention is a form of love, that one of the most sacred things we can do is to try to understand each other.

The books I was reading helped me start developing my own values of personal agency, open mindedness, the prime significance of human relationships, & necessary forms of rebellion. But it took me a couple years before I really embraced poetry.

I eventually realized that poetry could do similar things but in a smaller space, & therefore could be even more explosive. Poetry makes us look at ourselves, others, the world, the universe, & perhaps most importantly our own assumptions, with fresh eyes. Therefore, among other things, poetry is a powerful tool to cultivate what some Buddhists call the Beginner’s Mind.

In Suzuki Roshi’s 1970 classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”

When we act like we know everything, reality can be easily obscured. We don’t see clearly. We see thru a narrow tunnel vision, a skewed lens. When we act like we know everything we forget we don’t know much of anything. When I sit down to write poetry, I feel like I don’t know anything, but feeling this way opens up something fertile inside me.

When I was in the MFA poetry program at San Francisco State, I had a few revelations about poetry as i began to see it freshly for myself:

1) I realized it was more authentic & rewarding to write poetry that I’d wanna pick up & read rather than what I assumed my professors would think is good poetry. Unfortunately, I had been doing mainly the latter up to that point. It seems like common sense, though: Why would we want to write something we wouldn’t want to read?

2) I realized, after reading poets like James Tate & Russell Edson, that playfulness & humor could be brought into poetry. Becoming aware of these two things, I was poetically reborn. I began to enjoy poetry that was not trying too hard to sound like poetry, & I kept telling people that I wanted to write like a smart kid would.

When word got to Socrates that the famous oracle of Delphi said he was the wisest person in Greece, he wanted to prove her wrong by asking all the supposedly wisest people around town questions to show how much wiser they were than him. What he realized tho was that the more he asked them questions, the more that, unlike him, they claimed to know what they did not know. His questions would uncover the shaky ground their assumptions rested upon. Perhaps this is why the Oracle said he was the wisest person in Greece.

In my view, that’s also why Jesus said we have to become like children again to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To me this Kingdom is the infinite surplus of love, wisdom, energy, & creativity inside of us that we can tap into & express outwardly.

Children are the best poets.

This poetic beginner’s mind, this seeing from a childlike openness, is described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “The Poet.” He wrote, “This insight, which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees; by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.”

This is one of the beauties of poetry: not only can it put the poet in a state of beginner’s mind, where all things can be seen unencumbered by habitual thought, but can put the audience in that state as well. It’s an act of transmission. Sometimes with just one phrase, the poet can make this way of seeing, this way of being, “translucid to others.”

In Albert Flynn DeSilver’s wonderful book Writing as a Path to Awakening, he writes that this open state is similar to what ancient Indian sages called pure consciousness or pure potentiality. He says “this state makes language possible, makes experience possible, makes consciousness itself possible.”

So when we cultivate the beginner’s mind thru poetry, we access & activate a space within us that allows language to be possible, & when we have emptied our automatic ways of being, new connections start naturally being made, unexpected dots start being connected.

Forrest Church, the celebrated UU minister who our very own Keola got fortunate enough to see speak several times, said that the religious attitude is one of awe & humility – awe in the sense of How does any of this exist, & humility in the sense of I don’t know much about anything at all.

This spiritual attitude, which I ascribe to the notion of rebirth that so many traditions speak about, can be easily transferred to poetry. One of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms Alberto Caiero captures this well in this quote: “I feel myself being born in each moment, / In the eternal newness of the world.”

Pessoa claims he was massively inspired by Walt Whitman, & Walt Whitman was massively inspired by Emerson. In fact after Whitman saw Emerson speak in New York for the first time, he said that he had been simmering & Emerson brought him to a boil. Emerson inspired him to embody the type of new poet that Emerson imagined.

In college I painted this quote from Whitman on one whole wall of my apartment:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

A little dramatic to have painted on my wall, & maybe even antithetical to the soul of the quote, but it set the tone for how I wanted to live.

After I started writing poetry, the process became a spiritual practice that could empty my mind & let spontaneous intuition flood onto the page. This principle is applied to the Zen poetry workshop I attend at the Angel City Zen Center, where we freewrite & share without judgment, & in the Monday night writing group I host for this church, where we are not trying to be experts. We are just trying to explore where our language leads us. That’s why from the start, I made a point to call it the Writing Group & not the Writers Group.

On a more grounded level, a beginner’s mind, fostered by writing or otherwise, can lead us to empty ourselves of the stereotypes & prejudices & judgments & even fears we may carry inside of us. We begin to see the worth & dignity of each person, to honor their free & responsible search for truth & meaning, & to acknowledge the interdependent web of which we are a part.

Whitman puts it this way: “Each of us inevitable, Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth, Each of us here as divinely as any is here.”

Any one given life is just as important as mine. Any one given person’s search for truth & meaning is just as important as my own. Pluck any given factor out of the infinity of factors that allowed me to be born, & I obviously wouldn’t be here. Same goes for you, & for every stray phenomenon you see today.

Everything is connected whether we want it to be or not, so we may as well act like it, harnessing the power of our togetherness rather than our perceived separateness.

When the kingdom of heaven is revealed within us, it’s also revealed outside of us. We see it in other people, & we want to create relationships & communities that honor it. We want to bring it from the inside out. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, “When you make the two into one, and make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower…then you’ll enter the kingdom.”

This bringing together of seeming opposites or different poles is what poetry is all about too – Lynn Ungar expressed this point beautifully in her sermon here a couple months ago.

Putting two things side by side that usually don’t go together makes us look at both things differently. That’s why we love metaphor, which compares two different things as if they were the same. That’s why we love paradox, which says more than one thing at one time, or expresses the multisidedness of anything that might appear singular upon first glance.

Poetry closes the gap or dissolves the boundaries between the big & the small.

Or as Alan Watts wrote, “You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes.”

With a beginner’s mind, a simple color can be absolutely extraordinary. A glass of water can be. The taste of strawberries can be. Poetry shows us this.

If we only see the sacred in what transcends the ordinary, we lose touch with the vividness of our everyday world, which is where we spend most of our time. If we have a breakthru experience or insight, we still have to wake up & brush our teeth, respond to emails, cross off items on our to-do lists, & wash the dishes. This is why I love poetry that’s not afraid of talking about things like fried eggs or shampoo.

Also if we get lost in what transcends the ordinary, we lose sight of the real suffering in the world.

But poetry thrives on this tension. It reveals both the emotionally difficult & emotionally ecstatic. It makes us look at what is hard to look at with unflinching eyes, & to see it with courage & humility.

When I read poetry, I experience a delightful disorientation that knocks my feet off the track just enough to realize I had been stuck in the first place, or as Emily Dickinson put it, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

We are blasting thru infinite space at 67,000 miles per hour on a tiny blue marble – on Spaceship Earth as Buckminster Fuller called it – in one galaxy out of billions in a seemingly infinite universe.

This realization is humbling & inspiring, because tho it shows how small we are in the context of everything, it shows us how lucky we are to exist on a planet that’s a perfect distance from our sun. This miracle of existence is what Whitman celebrated most often & what led him to see not only the cosmos as sacred but each of us, & not only our spirits & minds but also our bodies.

As Emerson wrote, “I can believe a miracle because I can raise my own arm. I can believe a miracle because I can remember. I can believe it because I can speak and be understood by you.”

And despite the miracle of existence, we are each of us heroic for dealing with a life that is hard as hell, a world as chaotic as our own. Any ways we find to skillfully navigate it are blessings. Poetry has been one of my ways of navigating it. One of my blessings.

In Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s journey, which is a story structure seen in stories throughout the whole world, the protagonist leaves – literally or figuratively – their familiar world to enter an unfamiliar world full of trials, challenges, & new revelations that all help the protagonist return to the familiar world transformed with something useful to bring back to the group.

A poet is this protagonist, an artist is, & each of us is, as we’re faced with new challenges & blessings every day on micro & macro scales. The pandemic has felt like a hero’s journey for lots of us, I’m sure.

We reach a point in the journey, multiple times since the journey is cyclical & not linear, when it’s wisest to have a beginner’s mind, to embark upon the process of unlearning, emptying ourselves so that we may see reality as directly as possible. The unfamiliar – another personal’s inner life, the novel, the uncomfortable, the new terrains we inevitably traverse throughout our lives – forces us to reimagine our values, our notions of truth & meaning, & our own sense of empowerment.

And we might as well do this together, & how better do it than with poetry? The poetry of conversation, of gratitude, honesty, & beauty hidden in plain sight, as we are reborn each moment as a smart kid.




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