The Dharma of Poetry

1. Poetry as Spiritual Practice

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One way to bring poetry more deeply into our spiritual practice is to see poems as exemplary, as modeling ways of behaving and modes of awareness that we might wish to adopt as our own. We do this by asking not what poems mean but what they show, what ways of thinking, feeling, and acting they are explicitly or implicitly endorsing. The English Renaissance poet Sir Philip Sydney understood poetry in this way. He asserted the fundamental truth that witnessing virtuous actions in literature inspires us to act more virtuously ourselves. Writing of Virgil’s epic poem The Æneid, Sydney asks: “Who reads Æneas carrying old Anchises [Æneas’ father] on his back, that wishes not it were his fortune to perform so excellent an act?” Sydney’s “A Defense of Poesie,” published in 1595, is the first fully articulated poetics in English literature. So this notion that poems model behaviors and can serve as teachers — can “delight and teach,” as Sydney put it — has been around for a long time. It’s right at 4the beginning of our thinking about the role and purpose of poetry. It’s also at the foundation of how humans have learned for millions of years. Before we had language, all learning was by example. You didn’t explain how to throw a spear or build a fire or help an aged father, you demonstrated it. Of course seeing poems as exemplary is not the only way to approach poetry, and many great poems will not yield to this kind of reading, but it is one way, and a way that can deepen and support our spiritual practice and inspire us to act more mindfully in the world.

Poems can also model beneficent mind states — states of loving awareness and clear seeing, of non-harming and non-separation — that we may aspire to ourselves. Beyond whatever its ostensible subject might be, a poem is always also about the quality of awareness that produced it. Simply by presenting that quality of awareness, the poem implicitly recommends it to us. And when we make contact with these deeper mind states, our own awareness is enhanced. Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, in particular, always inspire me to pay attention to the ways she pays attention and to bring the same kind of mindfulness to my reading of the poem as Bishop has brought to the writing of it. She also 5inspires me, as many other poets do, to look and listen more carefully as I move through the world, to wake up from my habitual self-focus and actually see the world in front of me.

By focusing on what they’re showing us — what ways of being in the world they’re recommending — we see that poems can serve as spiritual teachers and that the teachings they offer are both simple and profound: pay attention; walk through the world with reverence and wonder; look closely at extraordinary experiences and even more closely at “ordinary” ones; see the likeness in seemingly dissimilar things; delight in the world’s impermanent delights; feel into the joys and sufferings of others; treat all beings with respect; love the earth and know that you are not separate from it; talk to animals, plants, rivers, mountains, trees; listen for what they say back to you. These are elemental truths, the kinds of truth a child could understand but which modern adults have been encouraged to forget. In the form of abstract imperatives, they may not move us very deeply. But to see them embodied and enacted in poems, given shape and texture in the richness of language, in sound and image, in the rhythm and voice of a poem, is an entirely different experience. If we feel into the 6poem with our whole heart, with the mind and imagination, with our bodily presence and our spirit, we may come to know these truths in a much deeper and more healing way. And such knowing may change us.

Witnessing and imaginatively participating in the boundary-dissolving experiences rendered in these poems prepares the ground for transformation. Such poems show us that it’s possible to move from living as an isolated self trapped in a meaningless, insentient universe to finding our home again in a world that is shimmering, alive, intelligent, continuous with us and responsive to our loving awareness. Whether it’s Issa asking a cricket to move before he rolls over, or Whitman bending down to kiss his “enemy,” or Chuang Tzu knowing the joy of fishes through his own joy, or A. R. Ammons seeing himself in a weed that sees itself in him, these poems give us powerful reminders that we are not separate from the world. And this is the truth we most need to realize right now.

Buddhist environmental activist Joanna Macy writes:

The crisis that threatens our planet . . . derives from a dysfunctional and pathological 7notion of the self. It derives from a mistake about our place in the order of things. It is the delusion that the self is so separate and fragile that we must delineate and defend its boundaries; that it is so small and so needy that we must endlessly acquire and endlessly consume; and that as individuals, corporations, nation-states, or a species, we can be immune to what we do to other beings.

This belief that we are separate from the earth and superior to all other living things is the root cause of our suffering and the suffering we are inflicting on the planet. The poems we’ll be exploring undermine that belief not by arguing against it but by showing how wondrous it feels when the illusion of separation falls away.

But to fully experience a boundary-­dissolving moment in a poem, we must first dissolve the boundary that separates us from the poem itself. When we analyze and interpret a poem, when we put all our energies into “figuring it out,” we separate ourselves from it. The poem becomes an object of study, a problem to be solved. Analyzing/interpreting poems has its place and its value, but reading this way keeps us at a distance. In a mindful 8or spiritual reading, what we want is to enter the poem, to live in the field of its imaginative energy for a time, to appreciate and experience it rather than think about it.

The truth of non-separation — the absolute reality that we are simply another manifestation of life, that our bodies include the whole earth, that consciousness is not produced in the human brain but woven into the fabric of the universe — is a truth we may need to encounter a thousand times before we begin to feel and believe and live it. But when we do experience this truth, even if only for a moment, it’s exhilarating. Here’s how the character of Celie, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, describes such a moment:

One day when I was sittin’ there like a motherless child (which I was), it come to me that feeling of bein’ a part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house. I just knew what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it.

Many of the poems we’ll be exploring in this book are about such transformative, 9boundary-dissolving moments. Entering them fully, noticing and appreciating as much as we can about them, experiencing them from the inside out, can deepen our spiritual practice and water the seeds of our own transformation.

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