How poetry is like meditation
When we step back and examine the workings of the mind, not only the content of thought, but the thought process itself, what do we find? An incessant and self-generated flow of words, images, memories, stories; or repetitive loops of worries, plans, regrets, desires. We also come to see that we do not control our thoughts, or even intentionally that we actually think them. They just happen and they happen in deeply grooved patterns. In his 2009 book The wise heart, Jack Kornfield writes:
Just as the salivary glands secrete saliva, the mind secretes thoughts. Thoughts think of themselves. This thought production is not bad, it is just what minds do. A cartoon I once saw depicts a car on a long road in the western desert. A road sign warns: “Your own tedious thoughts in the next 200 miles. “
Meditation allows us both to observe our habits of mind and to experience moments of space: pauses in the incessant flow of thought, pauses along this 200 mile stretch of highway. Poetry presents another powerful means of disrupting the mind’s usual surge, automatic reactions, and obsessive self-care.
To fully enter into a poem, we must first stop and step away from the more immediate demands of life and engage in some imaginative activity that has no obvious practical value. Most importantly, we need to step out of our daily consciousness – the quick mind shrouded in its egotistical stories and projections. The poets help us to live this stop. Indeed, a poet can be defined as one who stops, one who is inclined by temperament and training to step out of the continuous flow of experience and look at it, and help us to do the same.
Robert Frost’s most famous poem is a perfect example of the beauty of stopping.
Stop at Woods on a snowy evening
Whose antlers are, I think I know.
His house is in the village, however.
He won’t see me stop here
To see its woods fill with snow.
My little horse must think it’s weird
To stop without a farm nearby
Between woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He shakes the bells of his harness
To ask if there is an error.
The only other sound is the sweep
Easy wind and soft flakes.
The woods are charming, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep
And still a lot of miles to go before I sleep
And still a lot of miles to go before sleeping.
It’s important to realize that the whole poem relies on the poet’s decision to stop. No stopping, no poem. And this is the difference between the poet and the horse, which can be seen as representing the force of habit, the unconscious instinct to do what he has always done. “My little horse must find this weird / Stopping with no farm near.” . . He shakes the bells on his harness / To ask if there is a mistake. Likewise, for most of us busy moving from place to place, there is no compelling reason to step out of the flow of time and just notice – come in, recognize our oneness with – what takes place in the present moment: in this case, the woods filling with snow, the sound of “easy wind and fluffy flake” inducing in the poet, and perhaps in us, a kind of respectful trance.
It’s also worth stopping to consider the stealthy nature of this moment. The traveler notices, perhaps with relief, that the owner of the wood will not see him while he stops to watch the snow fall. There is intimacy and intimacy in her unnoticed and secretive gaze. Because if he were observed, it would be with bewilderment or suspicion. Like the horse, the owner of the woods would also find it odd for someone to stop and watch the snow fall. Our cultural pragmatism cannot easily comprehend or justify the impulse to look attentively at something without “good reason” (except for officially authorized beauty like sunsets, oceans, mountain views, etc.) ). Snow falling in isolated woods is not among the acceptable categories of things that deserve our full attention. Of course, as readers, we observe the poet. We watch him as he watches the falling snow. We see the snow through his eyes and we also see his vision, see him seeing. The poem thus gives us an example of how we might behave in a similar setting or situation. The poet’s behavior in both the poem and in the writing of the poem makes an implicit, beautiful argument in favor of stopping and looking.
But why? What does this halt in the woods give rise to on “the darkest evening of the year”, the winter solstice? A moment of extraordinary depth and stillness, and a reminder that there is a world of beauty that exists independent of human will and purpose. Frost says, “The woods are beautiful, dark and deep,” and we feel the pull that the poet also felt, the desire to go to these woods, to escape the world of homework and destinations, to escape to the constriction of selfishness, and merge with that depth and stillness. The poet does not give in, but his the repetition of the phrase “And miles to go before sleeping” suggests the difficulty of resisting this lure. (Even snowflakes are “fluffy” – they fall but also look like down comforters). We feel the pull of these woods even after the end of the poem, how wonderful it would be to drop everything and immerse ourselves in such a calm amplitude, in the snow that scrambles and mixes all things in its whiteness – a staging physical nature of the homogeneous nature of reality which, in our usual way of seeing, appears as a series of separate things. In a sense, the poem itself becomes the wood, an imaginative space where we can experience a deep, healing self-forgetting. The question then is, how long can we stop and stay with the poem, the hushed world it places us in? Can we feel the feeling of wonder and reverence that the poet himself felt? Can we take this feeling with us in the demands and distractions of everyday life? Can we just afford to stop and watch?
Walking and Stopping Meditation is a practice designed to help us interrupt the usual rush of the mind and move from a state of lost thoughts – worrying, planning, regretting, wanting, etc. – to pay particular attention to what lies ahead. .
Choose a place to walk, preferably in nature, although this meditation can also be done in the city or in the city – a place where you feel safe enough that you don’t have to be too vigilant and where you won’t feel too embarrassed to stop and watch things. Before you start walking, just stand up straight and feel how your feet make contact with the ground. Shift your weight side to side, foot to foot, and feel how your entire skeletal structure adjusts to this movement. Pay attention to the flow of your breath and note the bodily sensations present.
Begin walking at a slow but not funeral pace, about half the speed you usually walk. Meditation teacher Tara Brach says, “If I walk half the speed, I notice twice as much. You just have to walk and watch. Let your eye be drawn where it wants, but keep the intention of noticing the things that you generally overlook – the things that have a neutral tone, that don’t elicit any strong feelings, positive or negative: the intricacies of bark and tree roots, the qualities of earth and rocks, shadows cast by bushes and ferns, spider webs lit by sunlight; or, if you are in a city or town, the lettering on street signs, bolts on fire hydrants, twigs on the sidewalk, etc.
As you walk, feel when something catches your eye, when something seems to call you or feels particularly lively. When that happens, let go of that thing and stop. Give it your full attention. Just notice what’s there in as much detail as possible without adding any conceptual overlay. Don’t make sense of what you see or tell a story about it – just watch. Bring a quality of warmth and friendliness to your look. Feel as if what you are looking at is aware of your gaze and appreciates the attention, as if it could say, “Ah, how wonderful to be noticed! No one ever really sees me the way you see me.
Note the physical characteristics of the object, but also see if you can feel an energetic quality emanating from it. Notice the quality of the relationship you have with him, what it feels like to keep him in your awareness. Stay with the object for as long as you can continue to notice and appreciate it. When you’re ready to resume walking, say hello to your new friend (inside or out) and thank them for being there.
Start walking again and repeat this process when the next thing calls you. Do this as long as it catches your interest. Notice the effect this practice has on you. Perhaps a deeper sense of connection with the ‘ordinary’ things of the world will arise, or a sense of calm affection, or the space, appreciation and gratitude that comes from freely giving your attention. to things generally overlooked. You may also notice the difference between walking and looking and stopping and looking, and between these moments of intense attention and our usual way of losing ourselves in our thoughts.
You may want to practice stopping and staring throughout the day, if only for a few moments. It’s remarkable what we can see when we stop and turn the light of consciousness on the things we take for granted.
As the ancient Japanese poet Old Shoju says:
“Do you want crazy zen?” / Just look, anything! “
To learn more about the concept of “the sacred break”, find a writing exercise on page 142 of The Dharma of Poetry, as well as a more in-depth analysis of poems, including “First Days of Spring” by Japanese poet Ryokan (1758-1831) and “A Blessing” by poet James Wright.