Paying Attention and the Uses of Meditation (Some More Notes)

Last week I blogged about poetic attention; this post is part two on the topic, in which I reflect on the role of Zen meditation in shaping my practice as a poet.

“Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” Susan Sontag

What should we pay attention to, those of us who aspire to poetry? Maybe, over the course of a lifetime of looking around and discovering what matters to us, we can learn how to order our attention accordingly.

In my twenties I started studying Zen when a boyfriend encouraged me to do a meditation retreat. I remember the low light of the meditation hall, the incense that made my nose run, and the ache in my legs after even an hour of sitting on a cushion and focusing on my breath.

I remember that my attention got smaller, rather than larger: I noticed the pieces of lint on the brown meditation mat when I straightened it before leaving the room. I noticed the unraveling fibers in the carpet. I noticed the difference in the sound of the mallet hitting the wooden frame from which the temple bell hung, and the sound it made when it struck the bell. One sound was deep and sort of dull, the other bright and resonant.

During meals we kept silence, learning to just eat, just chew. We maintained silence while bathing and sweeping and walking. The idea of doing spending a weekend without speaking, doing just one thing at a time, mindfully, would have been uncomfortable and foreign for some of my fellow students, but I had grown up in an environment that prepared me for it, and felt immediately at home.

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Painting and words by Paul Reps

During my childhood on a homestead in rural northern Michigan, I’d seen my father practice his version of sumi-E brush painting, and I’d observed my mother meditating. Her ethos around food, informed by her study of Zen macrobiotic cooking, also planted seeds of appreciation for these daily forms of contemplative practice.

All of these activities—painting, sitting, cooking—are opportunities to become aware of the present moment.

During morning meditation practice at the Zen Temple where I received my training, my teacher, Haju Sunim, will loudly recite the following mantras: “Be Awake Each Moment” and “Do Not Waste Your Life!”

For me, sitting meditation feels both simple and difficult, elegant and complex—pretty much the way my mind feels. I appreciate how getting still, and focusing on my breath provides a way to cultivate a still-point in which what is happening right now—this breath, this body—becomes more steady, awake, unperturbed.

With even a small amount of training, I started to notice how much of my mental attention gets channeled into thoughts of the past and future, while the present moment—just this—passes by, oh so stealthily, just like the little mouse in this poem:

And the days are not full enough 
by Ezra Pound

And the days are not full enough.
And the nights are not full enough.
And life slips by like a field mouse
Not shaking the grass.

There are so many ways to pay attention and there are so many reasons to do so. I don’t mean to preference meditation, which I practice inconsistently anyway, but I mention it because at an important stage in my development it provided pathways to awareness that I’ve found useful over the years.

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Meantime, I’ve come to think of my poems a way of embodying the present moment in language. It’s a modest aspiration for a poet, I think, and one I feel comfortable striving for. I’m happy to leave the epics, the crowns of sonnets, and book-length sequences and tour de forces to others. For me, a poem of a few lines, marking the ephemeral world, is enough.

In my last collection, Pilgrim, there’s a little poem inspired by a path in the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore that I used to walk several times a week with my dog Lucy

Since the Snow

The old path
is the new path
come morning.

In his wonderful book, ‘The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life,’ photographer and Zen master, John Daido Loori, suggests the following exercise:

“Sit comfortably so that you can close your eyes and relax, and for fifteen minutes, just listen without moving your body or mind. Just listen. Don’t focus on any one sound, or follow any particular sequence of sounds. Let your whole being function as a 360 degree open sphere of listening. Don’t process what you hear. Don’t daydream. Don’t doze.”

It’s not easy to let go of our commentary, or our urge to give language to things as soon as we recognize them, especially if these observations come with preferences or negative reactions, but in Zen meditation the idea is to very gradually let go of those attachments and allow things to simply be as they are.

Loori suggests trying the exercise once more, this time opening all of your senses, receptively and alert, without clinging.

Doing this little check-in with my environment, I begin to notice all that I miss when my mind narrows to a laser focus—an ability, by the way, that I rely on for other aspects of my writing life. But right now, the November rain falls on the sodden ground, making a wet, hollow sound like a child’s hand on a small drum. The cars coming down the hill slow as they near our house, anticipating the presence of police radar. I wonder if they see me in here, writing in my blue and white bed, wrapped to my chin in a navy flannel robe.

Zen would say that when the self disappears the poem writes itself. I trust this, and so I also trust the poem, which really means I write what I write and think less and less about if it’s any good. This is the freedom the poet needs to find out what she really has to say, has to write.

“Literature takes a habit of mind that has disappeared. It requires silence, some form of isolation, and sustained concentration in the presence of an enigmatic thing.”—Philip Roth

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A line from one of my poems on the side of The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Part of the Urban Renga: Poets in Cityscapes project.

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