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“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is intuition.” is the full quote.
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi–that 13th-century Sufi poet that BBC said was the best-selling poet in the US in 2014, 807 years after his birth–still has a broad audience. And it’s understandable why that is. He was able to succinctly, beautifully (and very quotably) express things like love, joy, and wonder in a way that crosses cultural, ethnic, and religious divides. While you might find cleverness in his words, Rumi, I believe, did sell cleverness and buy bewilderment.
What a world we live in! I first encountered this quote quite recently — a soundbite from a Muslim mystic poem offered up during a Zen meeting held via Zoom in the US1.
Some of the group expressed that they didn’t like the word “Bewilderment.” “Awe,” they thought, was, perhaps, the more appropriate choice. Or “Great Doubt.” Or “not knowing.” A former student of Fritz Perls remarked that the Gestalt psychiatrist had said something similar: “Lose your mind and come to your senses.” But I think what Rumi meant, and perhaps Perls was onto as well, was something very akin to, if not precisely, the same as the “Great Doubt” of Zen Buddhism.
As usual, Rumi succinctly expressed something as true today as it was in his own time.
Cleverness — and knowing — is at a premium these days. Many of us — and I talk as myself here — want to be seen as creative, knowledgable, engaging. We want to be able to explain, argue our point, have the facts at our fingertips. Witty blurbs are at a premium — especially on social media where the sound byte rules. Unfortunately, some people see it as “weak” when you admit you don’t know something. We’re expected to have “strong opinions” or be “strong personalities.” Some facts, of course, are critical to know. But, too often, people take their beliefs, ideas, opinions to be the truth. Not knowing can be scary. However, there is also a joy in a certain kind of not knowing, a particular type of bewilderment.
Sometimes our desire for cleverness and our demand for having an answer is at the expense of joy, awe, or openness. Our left brain, our intellect, our need to be clever (or our desire to be seen as smart) can be a barrier that keeps us separate. That prevents immersion in our surroundings. That keeps us from being present. It’s hard to be a tree when you’re trying to quantify and explain the tree. Or decide which Instagram filter will showcase this fabulous tree. Or composing a tweet about how you’re currently having an experience of oneness with a tree. I often find that contemplating what I would write about an experience2 is often the barrier that keeps me from being present and genuinely experiencing it.
I’m not saying intellect isn’t essential. I wouldn’t trade my language or my capacity for reason and critical thinking for momentary tree-ness if I had to choose. I’m not saying knowledge isn’t important — and usually, the facts about science and nature are very awe-inspiring in themselves. But it’s not a this-or-that choice we have to make, fortunately. There are times when our intellect is not called for. When we can just stop and “be the tree” instead of analyzing or recording it. When it’s time to just look at art without mentally preparing a critical essay. Or when it’s time to just swim in the lake in the rain at sunset and let the world of words and language vanish. To give in to whatever makes us beautifully bewildered or awestruck or perplexed without having to quantify, analyze, or make sense of it.
Things like meditation practice can help with the trade-in of cleverness for awe. Personally, it’s been my experience as a lifelong but inconsistent meditator that plopping my butt on a cushion for 30 minutes a morning IS helpful, but equally as essential to me is getting out the door and walking — especially in natural settings2
So, where can I buy this “bewilderment”?
Another interesting thing about this quote is Rumi’s use of the language of commerce. Why did Rumi write of selling and buying? Was it more expedient and poetic to write in such terms?
In a way, you can sell cleverness in some form — selling ideas, inventions, writing. I’m not sure, though, how you’d buy bewilderment with the proceeds from that sort of sale. How does one purchase bewilderment, anyway? Where is my local bewilderment boutique3? Rumi, of course, appears to be talking of trading one for the other.
Should we favor intuition?
Another thing that struck me about this quote is that it seems to favor intuition over cleverness. Cleverness is mere opinion. Should we value intuition more? Our instincts are often on the mark. However, people intuit many things for which there is absolutely no evidence. And, sometimes, intuitions are wrong.
A brief meandering into the bewilderness of etymology.
A third thing that came to mind was the word bewilderment itself.
Often it’s interesting to look at the etymology of words. Bewilder — the root of the word meaning to “lose in the wilderness.” I like this sense of the word. It brings to mind a sense of not confusion but of being part of nature.
Of course, the problem with this is that Rumi didn’t write his poems in English for a 21st-century American audience.
In her 2017 New Yorker article, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi,” Rozina Ali explains how Rumi’s poems became the ones known and loved by modern American audiences. They were first translated into English during the Victorian era. Then they were later reinterpreted and “morphed” into American verse in a manner that minimized their Islamic roots.
So my getting caught up in dissecting the etymology of his words, while perhaps a fulfilling thought exercise, says less about Rumi and more about my own attachment to cleverness.
This passage brought, again, to mind my favorite bumper sticker wisdom: “Don’t believe everything you think.”
The world is too full of people who have made up their minds. People who KNOW this is the way it is or that is the way it is– frequently without any evidence for their certainty. We are frequently too attached to our opinions, beliefs, attitudes. Perhaps selling some of this so-called “cleverness,” trading it in for some “bewilderment,” is not such a bad idea after all.
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- Ah, Zen in the age of coronavirus. Less sitting, and more screentime.
- I’m thankful to have woods and trails nearby.
- My husband would likely tell me it’s right next door to the pot shop, but I disagree.