On Emily Dickinson and Beginner’s Mind

4 minute read

<pre class="wp-block-verse">"Exultation Is The Going" - Emily Dickinson
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses, past the headlands
Into deep Eternity

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

“Exultation Is The Going” is a short poem from Emily Dickinson that begins the book Poems of the Sea. As with so many of Dickinson’s poems, there is amazing insight in the fleeting verse. Poets are those who can express insights within the structure of poetry, distilling topics that require less talented writers to spend pages and pages on. There is a common theme throughout literature and aesthetics that holds the poets as the highest of thinkers. The Greeks held the poets in highest esteem, especially the epic poems. Nietzsche believed poetry to be the highest art form, a form of transcendence. James Baldwin did as well.

When I first read this poem yesterday, the meaning did not immediately jump out at me. The first stanza seems straightforward but the second required examination. Dickinson is basically saying that because the sailor is always on the sea, entrenched in its familiarity, focused on the tasks of keeping the boat moving in the right direction or safe from the perils of the ocean, he cannot understand the experience of a land bred person as a sea voyage begins.

As I considered this poem, it struck me that this is the exact description of Beginner’s Mind, a Buddhist concept related to being totally present in the moment. Beginner’s Mind is a state where we are totally focused on the experience of the present. The person first sailing out from the harbor, past the houses, past the headlands, feels the sea breeze in her face and hair, the toss of the boat and exults in the joy of this new experience. It is a brief glimpse into enlightenment.

This idea carries over to all things if we let it. It is easy to become the “sailor” in all that we do, to forget the wonder of an experience or even just of life as the pressures or fears of the past and the anxieties of the future force their way into our focus. Watching my child eat a sandwich, I feel a tiny spark of that wonder I first experienced when she learned to pick something up and feed herself. Replacing a light bulb or other common task can be filled with the experience of Beginner’s Mind if we purely focus on the present, the amazement at a new bulb casting light on a place that had been dark. Taking down Christmas decorations can be an opportunity to cherish the fact we had a wonderful celebration instead of a focus on the sadness of loss.

The sailor mindset is of course good. It allows expertise and safety and protection. But our default behavior, driven by the reptilian brain to keep us alive, can become dominant and stifling if we let it. It can squash the childlike joy of an experience and prevent creativity from blooming. Like the landlubber on the deck of the boat, grasping the railing as the ship moves with the ocean, salty sea breeze blowing around him, we should focus on the present moment with child’s eyes as often as we can. We should protect against the scales of the sailor’s eyes closing down on the wonder around us. Always stay in touch with the beginner, the child, and look for the moments of wonder around us.

As I go into 2021, I know that I haven’t been focusing on anything in a long time. Reading this poem yesterday, it took several moments and a day’s worth of contemplation to really feel like I began to understand what its short 8 lines are expressing. This is the distillation of powerful ideas that the poet provides us. It requires focus. Focus is about the present. You cannot focus on the past or the future. The former is merely nostalgia at best and depression at worst. The latter is dreaming at best and anxiety at worst. Focus is beginner’s mind and relates only to the present moment.

Our world today is built to destroy Beginner’s Mind, to hide it behind cynicism and fear. Each moment we are pushed to worry about an uncertain future or to glorify some past moment instead of being totally present with the experience of now. I’m planning to make 2021 a year of Beginner’s Mind as best as I can, to allow the joy or sadness or frustration or exultation of each experience, of each moment be what my life is about. As I look back on 2020, I realize that an inordinate amount of my time was spent in either the past or the future, ignoring the activity of now. That is a lousy way to spend a year and serves to only stifle the wonder of Beginner’s Mind. Here’s to a year focused less on fear and anxiety and more on the wonder of this moment.