Good poetry can show intricacies of meaning and feeling easily lost. This is why I trust the vision of poets and consider good poetry as mindfulness.
The Zen teacher Katherine Thanas in a book which was published not long after she passed a few years ago, wrote:
I have come to realize that our work is to love the world just as it is.
The work she is talking about is our simple meditation practice.
I admit this statement didn’t land well. Can she be serious? Is this some New Agey speak sneaking into Zen Buddhism?
I took a peek at the world a few minutes through a news app on my phone, and all I saw was racial conflict, seemingly intractable culture wars, to say nothing of the blood and guts war in Europe and ongoing armed conflicts all over this globe.
I can see accepting the world with the aid of mindfulness practice, but even that seems challenging.
But to love the world as it is?
The world that Zen teacher Thanas asks us to look at is not just the world we encounter in the news, but, as she writes:
the actual life we have—our habits of mind, our desires, our disappointments, our fears, our embarrassments.
If we are quiet and honest, something like humility can arise from our mindfulness practice, allowing us to shed reactive, ego-driven resistance. This is when we catch a glimpse of life as it is, freed from our distortions and wishful thinking.
Thich Nhat Hanh often wrote that our ideas of happiness, of how things should be for us to be happy, get in the way of seeing the sources of happiness already here.
Sitting quietly, with mindfulness and humility, reveals this already present contentment.
The Chinese Zen master Wumen (1183-1260) wrote:
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
With gentle mindful awareness of the most ordinary details in our daily routines, we familiarize ourselves with the richness of the present moment.
As Thoreu wrote in Walden:
There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands.
Rather than waste our time on dead moments of the past or on abstract thoughts of the future, let’s attend to the details of the matter at hand: opening the cabinet where the teas are, deciding on green or black, then carefully measuring just the right amount into a favorite mug, and waiting for the water to boil.
Good poetry can show intricacies of meaning and feeling easily lost.
This is why I trust the vision of poets and consider good poetry as mindfulness.
Ted Kooser’s Splitting an Order
Take the poem below, the title poem of Ted Kooser’s collection Splitting an Order (2014). It takes place in a diner, with the poet watching an old man cutting a sandwich into two equal parts, one for himself, the other, for his wife.
I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife, and her fork in their proper places,
then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.
The poem unfolds as a single graceful sentence. And it reveals a piece of the world with such care and warmth, radiating the message that everything belongs, even the most common moments, as when his wife:
slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon, her knife, and her fork in their proper places.
I’m not sure I can bring myself to loving the world as it is conceptually or abstractly, but I can bring my full attention to this sip of tea and this clicking of the keys as I type this.
This I can do. This small slice of life, yes, this I can love.
I guess this is where we start.
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