The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves :
Flower flower flower flower
Today for the sake of all the dead Burst into flower.
Where are you right now?
Are you really where your body is, reading these words on this page, or is part of your mind rummaging around in the attic of Elsewhere? How here are you?
The here and now is the only life that’s truly ours. With the Past behind us and the Future ahead, the Present is the marvelous commons we share with all living things. Yet seldom do we devote to it our full attention. As if its grass weren’t green enough, we’re always hopping the fence, hoping for something greener on the other side. Somehow this moment’s offering, in and of itself, isn’t sufficient: we want more, we want better, we want different. Even in the middle of what we want, we want. We want, and must have. Such is the nature of desire. So we end up texting while drinking tea with a dear friend, and planning tomorrow’s meeting while shopping for today’s groceries, and watching the stock market while kissing our spouses, and chatting on Facebook while listening to our children jabber on about their missing homework or latest crush. Sometimes we’re even texting while drinking while planning while shopping while watching while kissing while chatting while listening⎯
Oh, to stop and breathe. To focus, if only for a fleeting moment, on What Is Now, without judging it, or seeking to escape it, or clinging to it. To let its shimmering ordinariness enter us through the doorways of our senses and the windows of our intuition. To encounter it with such spacious awareness that our place in the world is suddenly clear and clean as sunlight. To have it break us open, so that gratitude and compassion spill from us like spring water from split rock….
To be here now⎯this is what it means to be “mindful.” It’s a cinch to say, but not easy to do. Not for us grown-ups, anyway. What comes so naturally to young children, their ability to wholeheartedly trust and surrender to the present moment, seems downright foreign to most of us. Part of paradise lost. But what’s been lost can be found again; it’s already here, as close as our breath. Regaining it requires practice. We have to train the mind to invest itself in the sanctity of every moment. Over time, with effort and much gentle self-observation, we can learn how to gather in the scattered fragments of our divided attention and bind them together in sustained and interested awareness; awareness that, to paraphrase the great Sufi poet Rumi, welcomes every experience, even the most painful, as a guest in the house of our existence.
One of the best tools in mindfulness practice today, as it has been for millennia, is poetry. Why? Because the very act of reading a poem cultivates mindfulness. To fully experience any poem, we must stop whatever else we’re doing and give it our full and gracious attention, start to finish, just as the poet did when writing it.
“This moment is real, this moment is what we have, this moment in which we face each other,” the American poet Muriel Rukeyser once declared, “and if a poem is any damn good at all, it invites you to bring your whole life to that moment, and we are good poets inasmuch as we bring that invitation to you, and you are good readers inasmuch as you bring your whole life to the reading of the poem.”
If all good poetry deepens our engagement with “this moment we have,” as Rukeyser believed, certain poems do so in especially memorable fashion, because their makers have brought to their topics not only exceptional craft but extraordinary awareness. Whether these poems demonstrate what mindfulness is, or recount an experience of it, or offer advice on how to practice it, all of them show us how to be more present in the living of our lives. They are exquisite lessons in being here.
I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for 25 years; half my life, now, though I’m still very much a beginner. And as a wordsmith⎯songwriter, writer, editor, public speaker and occasional poet⎯I’ve loved poetry even longer. But that there might be such a thing as “mindfulness poetry” never occurred to me until last summer, when my friend Chuck, an English professor who is familiar with my spiritual predilections, was kind enough to send me a few poems he thought I’d like. There was, he pointed out, something particularly “mindful” about each of them, and he was right. I remember the pleasure I took in reading them. Each in its own way summoned my attention back from my daydreams and demands, my wants and worries, my gotta-dos and wanna-dos, inviting me to relax into the present. It made me feel more here now.
That’s what mindfulness poetry does: It calls us home to where we are, and helps us abide there. It helps us pay attention. It helps us inhabit our lives instead of just going through the motions.
Growing this Collection
If anyone deserves happy blame for this growing collection, then, it’s Chuck. His nosegay of “mindfulness poems” soon had me wishing for a garden. And, though it took some time, all my wishing finally made me realize that I’d already stored up quite a supply of starter seeds: I’d been collecting such poetry for years without knowing it. Dog-eared books of it squat on the shelves beside my fireplace. Yellowed sheets of it fatten a folder in my vertical file. Scribbled scraps of it turn up now and then in the house, slipped between pages of half-finished sheet music, tucked among photographs of dear ones long dead, stuck to a recipe for friendship bread, buried in the “to-do” pile on my desk. These days, whenever I stumble across one of these stray jottings, I never wonder how it came to be where it is. I just welcome it for what it is: soul food.
So that’s what wishing does for you, sometimes. It realigns the planets and stars of your vision, and makes you see that what you’ve been wishing for, you’ve already got. Those “mindfulness poems” I’d been gathering by instinct for so long became the seedstock for this website. Here, day by day, you'll enjoy beautiful poetry that cultivates, exemplifies and teaches mindfulness. Primary to the collection are selections from contemporary and recent poets, including Muriel Rukeyser, Wendell Berry, David Budbill, Barbara Crooker, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Kenyon, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Derek Walcott, David Whyte and many, many others who have a gift for “living words.” While these luminaries may never classify their work as “mindfulness poetry” or regard themselves as “mindfulness poets,” I see them walking in the footsteps of Rumi, Hafiz, Rilke and other great mindfulness poets of the more distant past. Read their poems aloud with full voice. Sit with them in full silence. Either way, they’ll wake you up. They’ll help you better be here now.
I’m not an academic. I didn’t begin this project with any fixed ideas about what a mindfulness poem is. I began instead with a rereading of the poems I’ve loved, singling out those that struck me as especially “mindful” in some respect. When I ran out of poems to read, I hunted for more. My process was intuitive, the sources infinite. For months I read all day, and sometimes well into the night⎯more than 50,000 poems, by the time I called an arbitrary halt to the intensive search. From that number I culled around 900 poems, and those I gradually whittled down to what I'll be presenting here, at least in the beginning. The whittling was a matter of listening to the wood, and paring it down with care. The grain of the poetry was true, its core solid, and my knife sharp. The carving was joy. I’m told that there are easier and wiser ways than this to assemble a poetry collection, but this is the way I chose, and I feel the richer for it.
The work of creating this collection has been⎯and continues to be⎯for me, part spiritual exercise, part labor of love, and a gesture of kinship with you, a companion on the journey. I’m not going to claim that these poems are “the best” of their kind. I’m not into awarding ribbons. (You can find something of value in everything, if you come at it right.) No, in the immense province that is poetry, these poems are simply the ones that I've happened to find, and like, and deem fitting; that seem clear and understandable enough for the general reader; that have been written mostly by contemporary or recent poets; and that are short enough to present as blog posts.
If you enjoy the taste of the wild berries I’ve picked, grab a pail of your own and head for light. That’s where these poems grow; there, and in the dappled dark of the woods. You’ll have a fine time, searching for them amongst the bushes and the brambles, so long as you go slow and watch out for thorns and bears.
Brookings, South Dakota, U.S.A.