In search of beginner’s mind

As I come back to this blog, I am looking to try and inhabit what Zen practitioners call beginner’s mind. I first came across this idea in Natalie Goldberg’s classic book about writing Writing Down the Bones. (You can download the whole chapter at the foot of this page.) It’s not a bad principle to live by, especially when you’ve had a long layoff from doing something (in this case) you love.

At this time of year, as every September, my thoughts return to the classroom. Questions such as ‘Can I still teach?’ and ‘Do I still have it?’ are perhaps less useful than ‘Let’s see what happens!’ I think this may apply to reading and writing poetry as well. Earlier this year, I completely lost my confidence in my ability to do both (just one of the reasons for taking a break from blogging). But while I did really lose my confidence, I mean, really, really lose it, it wouldn’t be true to say I gave up completely on both. I found myself re-reading some favourite poets, as well as new work by poets I admire. (More on these in future posts.) And gradually, without really planning it, words began to take shape again, as they always do, on scraps of papers and edges of envelopes, things that may or may not become something, who knows. Let’s see what happens!

I want to inhabit this open state of mind (for teaching, for reading, for writing) as long as possible, even though I know the new term is going to be tough and long, as it always is. The past, including the poems I’ve already written and sent off into the world, aren’t really any use to me, least of all what I laughingly call my career or reputation. This came through to me with some force when re-reading Natalie Goldberg the other day:

“It is important to remember we are not the poem. People will react however they want; and if you write poetry, get used to no reaction at all. But that’s okay. The power is always in the act of writing. Come back to that again and again and again. Don’t get caught in the admiration for your poems. It’s fun. But then the public makes you read their favourites over and over until you get sick of those poems. Write good poems and let go of them. Publish them, read them, go on writing. …

“It is very painful to become frozen with your poems, to gain too much recognition for a certain set of poems. The real life is in writing, not in reading the same ones over and over again for years. We constantly need new insights, visions. We don’t exist in any solid form. There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.”

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

So my goal this autumn is to stay fluid, open and mindful of what is right in front of me in each moment: walking the dog, a cloudburst of rain, listening to a friend, cooking the evening meal. One of the places I return to most often to see this happening in poetry is the work of the late Estonian poet (I want to say master), Jaan Kaplinski. The following poem is taken from his three-in-one volume Evening Brings Everything Back. I love the way he moves with the same register of presence and presentation from one thing to another, whether it is meeting the French President or weeding in the garden. He doesn’t judge or force, he just is. It looks straightforward, simple, even, but is far from that. The things that are ‘mysterious’ to us are very often hidden in plain sight, like the feel of a president’s handshake, or subterranean like moles, or glimpsed fleetingly, like bats. They may or may not be connected.

In the morning, I was presented to President Mitterrand,
in the evening, I was weeding nettles from under the currant bushes.
A lot happened inbetween, the ride from Tallinn to Tartu and to our country home
through the spring that we had waited for so long,
and that came, as always, unexpectedly,
changing serious greyish Estonia at once
into a primary school child's drawing in pale green,
into a play-landscape where mayflies, mayors and cars
are all somewhat tiny and ridiculous... In the evening
I saw the full moon rising above the alder grove. Two bats
circled over the courtyard. The President's hand
was soft and warm. As were his eyes,
where fatigue was, in a curious way,
mingled with force, and depth with banality.
He had bottomless night eyes
with something mysterious in them
like the paths of moles underground
or the places where bats hibernate and sleep.


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