At the end of a weekend retreat, I invited participants to break silence by turning to someone next to them and exploring this question: "What supports your practice of mindfulness?" Less clutter? Empty space in your home environment? An altar with precious objects from the natural world? Sitting with others? Reading from a book of poetry?
I watched and listened as they turned and shared their ideas. I was thinking, "This is a happy kind of ownership, this idea of 'my practice,' even if it is another way of making the self feel real."
Over the course of the two-day retreat, I read several poems: three by the twentieth century Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996; one by the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and others by Hafiz, David Whyte, Raymond Carver, and Denise Levertov. The last few poems I read were from a wonderful anthology, A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.
Seeing me read from the collection, one of the retreat participants wanted to know the title. I recognized in her request the subtle grasping that sometimes happens for me on retreats: "If only I can get my hands on that poem or that book of poems, I will be happy. I can relive my experience every time I read it."
It's true that hearing poetry read aloud at a silent retreat is a particular kind of gift. The words and images drop in like crystals.
A poem read with the text held in your hand is one thing. The eye follows the line of text and attempts to pass through to the images they evoke. A poem received through the medium of listening is something else. The poem's depth and reach expand through the weaving of layers of sound, rhythm, and meaning.
There is the original meaning and intention of the poet, to which is added the interpretation of the reader. The reader brings a subtle emphasis of her own, sometimes missing or perhaps even deliberately skipping a word, occasionally mispronouncing a phrase, thus adding something entirely unique to the reading.
These entwined meanings easily gain admittance to the ready heart of the listener, who has been gently dedicating herself to noticing and attending to the passing moments of her life.
Poetry offers a glimpse of time's evanescence. In the silence of retreat, we slow down enough to understand that.
"I prefer..." says Wislawa Szymborska in her poem "Possibilities."
I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind..."
Hearing the poet list her preferred options in life through all thirty-nine lines of the poem, we recognize our own habits of liking and not liking. Our identity may be constructed around different choices, but the habit of preferring is the same. The poet has shown us our own faces in the mirror.
"After every war someone has to clean up..." says the poet in her poem "The End and the Beginning."
As someone who lived through the Second World War, Szymborska knew first-hand the landscape of war. She points out quite bluntly what we mostly overlook as we scan the news: at some point, at the end of any conflict, it will be time to rebuild, which means there will be those who are given the mundane but often grisly task of cleaning up. But while the horror is fresh for those who were there, in time, the horror lessens, until, perhaps it is forgotten:
The last poem of Szymborska's that I read at the retreat was "View with a Grain of Sand." It begins with these lines:
We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
incorrect, or apt.
Simply, and with great love and irony, the poet taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that language has ensnared us. It traps us into believing in our human perspective. It appears to grant us dominion. In fact, says the poet, we must constantly find new ways of turning language inside out.
The window has a wonderful view of the lake,
but the lake doesn't view itself.
It exists in this world,
soundless, odorless, and painless.
The lake's shore exists shorelessly,
and its floor, floorlessly.
If the practice of mindfulness aims to liberate us from the mental habits of grasping and clinging, fear and aversion, ignorance and conceit, then poetry and mindfulness make good partners in the work of disentangling our patterns of identity formation, complacency, and the conceit "I am." Reading poets of other times and places, we learn how others have viewed the world and their place in it. Like mindfulness, poetry is an invitation to discover who we are.