Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Seeing what's right there, now

Poet friend Beth Vieira posted me a poem from Lew Welch, that is something of a challenge:

Step out onto the Planet.
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody's ever really seen.

How many can you find?


I read this as a simple statement of a mindfulness meditation practice. It's not much of a poem. It doesn't pull me into an experience, and make me somatically feel the experience in my own self. It's declarative, not empathic. It's all statement, no description. You know, those usual things we look at when looking at poems, to declare or not that they are or are not poems. Lots of people still subscribe to the "show, don't tell" philosophy of poetry writing; I generally fall into that camp, too.

This poemlet is, however, a strong idea stated poetically. Whether one reads it like this, or re-arranges it as simple prose, it has that twinkle of the master challenging the monks to go out and actually, for once, SEE what is around them, without filters, without expectations, without judgments—and thus, see things as if for the first time. How many times walking by that moss-patch on that tree without actually having seen it? How many times walking by that person, that house, without actually having seen either? How many years being unaware of what is really going on around you, instead of what you think is going on? How many years drowned in that internal monologue, and missing the details of what's going on all around you?

Don't get hung up on the number 300—that's an arbitrary number. It could have been 18, 1000, a million, or 1. The point is to look, because when really looking, one will soon discover an infinity of things not seen before.

So, this is like the Zen classic The Abbot Instructs the Cook, in that it's a master's instruction to the community. At the time Welch wrote it, it was probably a radical thought to most of the poetry audience in the West. So, there are reasons we might not want to call it a poem, but it is a poetic way of expressing this instruction. Not a poem, but poetic? Perhaps.

Now, let's come at it from the opposite direction: If this is an exhortation to practice mindfulness meditation, even poets can learn to use this as a starting place for observing the world before we set down to write about it.

For me, not only the haiku that I write, but all poems typically start for me in this observation. So does the music and photography, and finished art. Of course, it may veer off, but it starts there. That's the whole basis of the camera-walk, for me.

I think seeing things one has never seen before is easy. I think the poem means, that we have never seen before, because each time a person sees something anew, it is a new seeing, a first time. When one is in the open mind without judgment, even things we saw yesterday are new today. This is "beginner's mind," and it's a powerful place from which to begin creativity. It is the place we naturally begin, as children; the practice of minfulness is, in many ways, a return to something we already knew, and had forgotten, rather than something entirely new and alien to our experience.

A few days ago I saw a dozen robins eating the black berries in the ivy covering the back fence. I just stood at the sink window and watched for awhile. That was a new one, to me.

Another way into seeing is through drawing. I refer the interested reader to several books by Frederick Franck, starting with The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as meditation. This book, like its successors, is drawn and handwritten by the artist. His handwritten style is almost calligraphic, and a good thing, because the fact that it's handwritten rather than typeset slows the reader down just enough to be able to savor every detail. (Publishers take note: there may be something to calligraphic presentation, rather than universal typesetting.) Franck writes:

Looking and seeing both start with sense perception, but there the similarity ends. When I "look" at the world and label its phenomena, I make immediate choices, instant appraisals—I like or I dislike; I accept or reject, what I look at, according to its usefulness to the "Me," this ME that I imagine myself to be, and that I try to impose on others.

The purpose of "looking" is to survive, to cope, to manipulate, to discern what is useful, agreeable, or threatening to the Me, what enhances or what diminishes the Me. This we are trained to do from our first day.

When, on the other hand, I SEE—suddenly I am all eyes, I forget this Me, am liberated from it and dive into the reality of what confronts me, become part of it, participate in it. I no longer label, no longer choose. ("Choosing is the sickness of the mind," says a sixth century Chinese sage.)

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