Often we live on the outskirts of reality, seeing what we assume truly is – but only through our preconceptions and comforting illusions. Wisdom comes from penetrating those illusions and seeing the Real.
Poetry has great potential to create a momentary shift in our consciousness. Entering into a good poem opens up space in our hearts and minds that allows us to get a glimpse of some truth of existence – and to know it through our hearts rather than simply our minds. Each such moment provides a potentially ever-widening portal to the wisdom that comes from seeing through the new eyes of expanded consciousness.
Take, for example, the following short poem from the fourteenth century, Sufi poet, Hafiz:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
With a love like that.
It lights the
In 28 words, Hafiz tells us something about the nature of love that no prose definition could ever communicate as powerfully. Notice also how it stirs your heart, perhaps inviting you to live with more reckless, to live with more reckless squandering of love rather than dispensing it in small measured doses. That’s the power of a poem. That’s the way in which it offers us an opportunity to awaken and to live with wisdom.
Poetry does this by speaking to our hearts, not just our minds. This might sound strange if you highly prize reason and tend to equate the heart with emotion. But, the heart is the fullness of the mind – including all the normal mental faculties (such things as thinking and reasoning) but also including such faculties as imagination, intuition and symbolic knowing.
The heart specializes in knowing through resonance, not reason. It is hard-wired to sense wholeness and truth, just as the mind is hard-wired to sense differences that help us differentiate and classify. The experience of inner resonance signals the heart’s apprehension of truth. It also confirms the importance of whatever has triggered that resonance for our fullness of being.
Normal mental thinking often serves as a defence against awakening, just as the pursuit of understanding often functions as a defence against true knowing. Sadly, our default state is one of preferring our illusions, preconceptions, prejudices and other distortions of reality to the truth. We all resist awakening, truth and reality.
Lao Tzu, the fifth century BCE Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, tell us that, “If words are of any use at all, they will be the words of the poet. Poetry has the ability to point us toward truth and then stand aside, while prose stands in the doorway describing all the wonders on the other side but rarely lets us pass.”
Poetry has a way of sneaking beneath the radar we use to screen out things that might awaken us. It does this by bypassing the mind – or at least the ordinary way in which we use our minds when we read literally, seeking facts and information. This is why many people don’t like poetry. It doesn’t yield its message in the comfortable way they are used to. But reading poems literally misses what they offer us. To receive that gift the poem offers us we must let it get us, not us get it.
Take a couple of minutes and read the following short poems slowly – if possible, out loud. If something stirs within you on your first reading, read it several times more. Don’t try to understand the poem. Let each poem do the work of reaching you. And if it doesn’t speak to you, just leave it for now and turn to the next one. But, most importantly, as you read each, watch for any sense of resonance in your heart that comes as you read it. This is the way you will experience confirmation of the truth the poem points toward, and the importance of that truth for you at this point in your life.
I have a feeling that my boat
Has struck, down there in the depths,
Against a great thing.
Or has everything happened,
and we are standing now,
quietly in the new life?
~ Juan Ramon Jimenez
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into all the places where I said no to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages that send me down
the wrong street again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them one by one
close to my heart
and I say Holy Holy.
~ Persha Gertler
When the words stop
And you can endure the silence
That reveals your heart’s Pain
Or that great wrenching-sweet longing,
That is the time to try and listen
To what the Beloved’s Eyes
We have not come here to take prisoners,
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
I’ve decided to make up my mind about nothing,
to assume the water mask,
to finish my life disguised as a creek,
an eddy, joining at night the full, sweet flow,
to absorb the sky, to swallow the heat and cold, the moon and the stars,
to swallow myself in ceaseless flow.
~ Jim Harrison
If only for once it were still.
If the not quite right and the why this
could be muted, and the neighbor’s laughter,
and the static my senses make –
if all of it didn’t keep me from coming awake –
Then in one vast thousandfold thought
I could think you up to where thinking ends.
I could possess you,
even for the brevity of a smile,
to offer you
to all that lives,
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Poetry is a powerful resource to help us open our eyes to inner and outer realities. In his acceptance of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, TS Eliot said, “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed things which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”
Give your normal ways of engaging the world a break. Try reading a poem a day and learn to open your heart to the realities of yourself, human existence and the world that they reveal. Nurture the momentary awakenings that each poem offers. And then choose to live the wisdom that each leads you toward as you respond to what arises within you as you read it.