Wise Speech — Poetry & Meditation

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I couldn’t end our exploration of the use of words without visiting poetry, for poetry is the natural outpouring of the meditative mind, a mind that is present, clear, fearless and filled with tenderness for all life.

I am fortunate to be a member of an ongoing class at the College of Marin called ‘The Poetic Pilgrimage.’ Together, under the tutelage of Prartho Sereno and Catlyn Fendler, we read selected poets, both current and ancient, and then are given prompts to inspire and free us to hear the words that rise up within us and to write poems ourselves. We are training our minds to notice.

Likewise, in meditation practice, we are training our minds to notice whatever arises: the physical experience of being, what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste with our senses, our inner commentary, the judging of that inner commentary. And we do metta practice, sending universal loving-kindness to whatever arises — to others and to ourselves. And in that process, over time, we find we soften, mellow, sweeten, deepen, lighten, and are enriched by this ongoing being.

“All I was doing was breathing” is a poem title by Mirabai, a 15th century north Indian poet who considered herself married to the god Krishna.

All we are doing as we meditate is breathing. Or more accurately, noting the breath, because there is no effort in the breathing. As we rest in the simple state of being, we create a space for compassion, gratitude, appreciation, joy and generosity to well up within us.

When we spend time in this kind of loving silence, the words that rise up eventually are words of inquiry, fearless clarity, wonder, gratitude and praise. These by definition are poetry. Let’s look at each of them:

Poetry is often a journey of inquiry, experienced in a state of wonder, the state we are in on a meditation retreat, more and more as each day goes by.

Here is a quote that was recently shared by the poet Sophie Cabot Black in an interview in The New Yorker:For me, the act of writing comes out of query. Each image turns to the next with its question and gets answered. Or with its answer it gets questioned. Poetry is my way to understand what is difficult. How one thing can be explained through another—is to get closer, to unhide what feels hidden..”

Both poetry and meditation deeply notice of what is present in this moment, in the world around us and in the thoughts and emotions that traverse through our consciousness.

Poetry is not afraid to explore in a compassionate way that which is bitter, difficult or ungainly. Poetry unmasks, dissolves obscuring filters, and sees with fresh tender eyes.

As it happened, in meditation class last Thursday, our weekly reading of our Pocket Pema Chodron focused exactly on this. (We read these brief chapters, after meditation and before the dharma talk, in sequential order without regard to the dharma topic. Usually they lend some extra dimension to the discussion, and in some cases, like this, the reading could not be more aligned if I had purposely chosen it.) It was Chapter 44, titled ‘Gloriousness and Wretchedness’. Pema says there is value in both the gloriousness and wretchedness of our life experience. One inspires us and the other softens us.

Just so, poets are fearless in the face of what is. They do no go for the gore but if it is part of the experience of a moment they will not shy away from telling what is true. Those difficult encounters, told with tender perception, awaken the poet and the reader to a deeper, softer understanding of the nature of life. (How different this is from the addictive quality of some writing, where misery and suffering are used for entertainment and confirmation of a limited fear-based world view.)

The more we meditate, the more we let go of the need to know definitive answers because we recognize that to live in the wonder is the gift itself. To incessantly be seeking out answers is just part of that useless activity of shoring up our defenses, wanting control, wanting solid ground to stand on.

One of my favorite retreat experiences was the realization that I don’t know. All these assumptions I make about myself and the world around me are totally for convenience. I remember how I looked at the concrete under my feet during walking meditation, and I realized I knew nothing about most of it — only a small portion of it was exposed, and I didn’t really know all that much about that!

I suppose it could have been scary to discover I don’t know, but in fact it was liberating. It was delightful. Contained within it was the realization that all the struggles we make to know everything are exercises in futility that we can just release. This is not to say that we should give up the pursuit of knowledge, but we can enjoy the process a lot more if we do it with awe and wonder, rather than a driving need to uncover, expose, conquer and claim.

This famous advice from Rainer Maria Rilke, in his Letters to A Young Poet says it all:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

So much of poetry is written at a moment when the poet is simply looking out the window at an ordinary day and seeing the gift of this life.

There is a Buddhist saying that to be born into human life is as rare as a turtle surfacing within a circle the size of a life preserver floating in the vast ocean. Scientifically this is certainly true for us. Think of all the causes and conditions of all our ancestors that had to happen in order for us to have this chance to be here. The mind boggles!

The mind at rest, not striving, not in fear, can recognize the gift. On a silent meditation retreat, by day 4 the faces of retreatants glow with gratitude. Awakening to ‘this, just this…ah, bliss’ is simply a recognition of the gift that is this life, regardless of the causes and conditions. Any human, in any condition, even the most horrendous, can experience this joy. It is not purchased, it does not come with possessions or comfort. It comes from within, from awakening. We wish for all beings to be fed, housed, clothed and cared for. And hopefully we take wise action to help make that so. But even in the midst of great challenges, we can awaken to great joy and sing praises and feel gratitude, not for things but for the gift of being alive in this moment.

Let me share with you these links to some of the poems we have read together.

Pablo Neruda ‘Poetry’

Mary Oliver ‘The Journey’

Paul Hostovsky ‘Be Mine’

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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