Poetry and Mindfulness: Touching Reality Deeply

posted in: Dharma Topics | 0

Dear Still Water Friends,

What does making poems have to do with mindfulness practice? How are they connected? These questions are central for me. Thich Nhat Hanh helps me to understand what I’m really striving for:

Touching reality deeply–knowing what is going on inside and outside of ourselves–is the way to liberate ourselves from the suffering that is caused by wrong perceptions. . . .Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. It is the insight we have into the reality of life, a living insight that fills us with understanding, peace, and love. (From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.)

Recognizing the seeds of poems, making poems are my way to see beyond the mundane aspects of everyday reality. “Touching reality deeply,” Thay tells us, leads to a “living insight”–a starting place and at the same time the absolute heart of the practice. Note that this is a live insight–experience that has not been, in fact, cannot really be captured in concepts or fossilized into words. And yet, poetry tries, poetry helps, poetry can point. Here’s how Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, authors of The Poet’s Companion frame the challenge for the poet:

“There is a world inside each of us that we know better than anything else, and a world outside of us that calls for our attention. . .Our subject matter is always right here, at the tips of our fingers, at the edge of each passing thought.

Is it just me or does that language call to mind the challenge of mindfulness? The authors tell us:

The trick is to find out what we know, challenge what we know, own what we know, then give it away through language. . .Good writing works from the premise: your experience is not yours alone, but in some sense a metaphor for everyone’s.

That sounds right to me. Poems and poem-making help me to know and to communicate what’s absolutely  true for me and if my knowing is deep enough and skillfully realized, I can in this way touch our oneness, the sense in which we inter-are with each other and with all the universe.

This Thursday after sitting and walking meditation let’s celebrate Poetry Month by sharing favorite poems and dharma images that support our practice. Thich Nhat Hanh uses so many wonderful images in his teachings–the mud and the lotus, the cloud in the piece of paper. Do you have a favorite poem or image that helps you realize “a living insight”? Let’s bring in poems to share and let’s talk about the images that call us to mindfulness as we move through our days.

More quotes and poems below.

Bowing your way,

Mary Beth Hatem

Jane Hirshfield, 1999 quoted in Fooling With Words: A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft.

–Zen pretty much comes down to three things–everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention. It is simply a path toward entering your life more fully, a way of knowing the taste of your tongue in your own mouth. Poetry is much the same. . .each increases what we can know of human experience.

If You Are A Poet

Thich Nhat Hanh from The Heart of Understanding.

If you are a poet, you will clearly see that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.


by Naomi Shihab Nye,  from Words Under the Words

It is a good word, rolling off the tongue

no matter what language you were born with,

Use it. Learn where it begins,

the small alphabet of departure,

how long it takes to think of it,

then say, then be heard.

Marry it. More than any golden ring,

it shines, it shines.

Wear it on every finger

till your hands dance,

touching everything easily,

letting everything, easily, go.

Strap it to your back like wings.

Or a kite-tail. The stream of air behind a jet.

If you are known for anything,

let it be the way you rise out of sight

when your work is finished.

Think of things that linger: leaves,

cartons and napkins, the damp smell of mold.

Think of things that disappear.

Think of what you love best,

what brings tears into your eyes.

Something that said adios to you 

before you knew what it meant

or how long it was for.

Explain little, the word explains itself.

Later perhaps. Lessons following lessons,

like silence following sound.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *