expressing the inexpressible: poetry & meditationby Rob Lieblein February 2, 2015 0 comments
Not many people read poetry these days (compared to fiction and other prose, that is), but if you’re into meditation it might be worth trying out. Poetry and meditation complement each other, and each can lead to a deeper appreciation of the other.
There is a long tradition of poetry in a wide range of spiritual and contemplative practices, dating back hundreds or thousands of years to the present day:
- Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sufi mystic, is one of the most widely-read poets in the world today.
- Siddhartha Gautama—the Buddha himself—wrote poetry.
- The founder of Integral Yoga, Sri Aurobindo, was also a poet.
- Deepak Chopra, a contemporary spiritual and wellness personality, is a huge admirer of the early 20th-century Bengali poet/yogi Rabindrath Tagore.
- The Psalms in the Holy Bible are poems.
- Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost (along with countless other names that made you shudder in high school English class), expressed in their poetry amazing insights about the human condition and connecting to something greater than ourselves.
There are truly too many to mention here, but for a great overview of spiritual poets and some examples of their work, check out the website Poet Seers.
So what is it about the art of poetry that makes it so attractive within contemplative traditions?
Poetry often seeks to express, through words, what words cannot express. That requires poets to have laser-like focus on their choice of words, and to combine them in ways that convey a deep sense of meaning. And the meaning conveyed by the words is experienced not as “information,” but as a feeling, an intuition, a deep knowing.
In other words, poetry can be a gateway to the essence of life, an opening to greater awareness of our desires, fears, hopes, and connections to things greater than ourselves as individuals. Here’s what T.S. Eliot says:
“Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate, for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”
Substitute “meditation” for “poetry” above, and you’ve got one of the strongest definitions of meditation I’ve ever come across! However, if Eliot’s explanation falls short in any sense, another poet, (as well as an environmentalist and a Buddhist) Gary Snyder, bolsters the definition in his essay “Just One Breath,” in which he describes the dual natures of both poetry and meditation:
“Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.”
You can use poetry in your meditation practice today. Pick a poem you like and let the words sink in. Without getting bogged down in left-brained analysis, what sense of meaning does the poem convey to you? What feeling is imparted? Let the poem germinate as you sit in meditation, and see where it takes you. (Think of this as alternative to meditating on a Koan, which can be difficult to access without formal training.)
Maybe you attend a yoga class where the teacher reads poetry to begin or conclude the practice? Do you let your mind drift away until the “real” yoga starts? Next time, try tuning in to the words and see what impact they have on your practice. You might be surprised.