Poetry as a Spiritual Practice

The act of writing — especially writing poetry — is very close to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. 

Writing, by its very nature, is contemplative. You have to slow down long enough to put words on paper (or in pixels on your screen), and that requires a certain amount of conscious effort. 

Mindfulness, too, involves slowing down to notice what is going on around you — and inside you. The Sanskrit term, transliterated as “smirti,” means “remembering.” When you are mindful, you are remembering where you are and what you are. The Chinese character for mindfulness is a combination of two: on top is the character for “now”; underneath is the character for “heart,” which in this case also means source or root. So the practice of mindfulness involves coming back to the present moment and experiencing the center of where you are and where you come from. It is difficult to stay in that place for very long; our minds are so easily distracted. That’s why it takes remembering. We follow a thought, thinking about what might have been or might yet be, and we forget the present that we always inhabit. So we have to remember the now, remember the heart of who we are. 

Writing can be one tool for doing just that. It is an incredibly complex process, involving prior knowledge, transcription, motivation, planning — and it is recursive, not linear. Like a meditator coming back to the present moment after a flight of fancy, the writer has to keep coming back to the text that is being set down. That process involves remembering how to focus the mind. 

Modern psychology is coming around to a view that students of meditation have been espousing for many years – that the mind is not the controller of the person. Mostly, we live in our brains, listening to an endless thread of thought, and assume that this is who we are.

However, the truth is that the brain is merely one more mechanism for keeping the person alive and functional.

There’s a term from psychology, allostasis, which refers to the tendency of a living being to automatically predict and prepare to meet the body’s needs. The brain does this first, before it is able to think about the past, imagine future actions, or write poetry. In other words, the mind is first and foremost in service to the body.

This is the first step in developing mindfulness – realizing that our thinking brain is just one more sense in the service of the whole person. 

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