Shambhala Sun | March 2013
This Whole World is Poem
This oriole, this friend, this daughter, this fox—MICHAEL SOWDER on all the poems that are just waiting for us to write them down.
My first English professor was
a Thoreau scholar, a poet, and an awakened human being named Theodore
Haddin. With wild black hair, a black beard, and an equally black coat,
he would read us poems and then take up his violin to play Bach’s
“Chaconne in D.” He’d tell us that when he heard Heifetz play the
chaconne, it felt like someone running a violin bow right through his
my idealistic eighteen-year-old eyes and ears, he seemed like a
magician, like an enlightened gypsy, or the green violinist on a roof in
a painting by Chagall. In his classroom, I found my home. Though I
didn’t fully realize it at the time, what Dr. Haddin was teaching me was
that poetry is a path to spirituality, to being awake to the magic of
the present moment. Now, thirty-five years later, he remains one of my
dearest friends and, following his example, I’ve devoted my own life to
teaching poetry and the practice of mindfulness. Poetry and Buddhism,
I’d come to know, share a long history. But at eighteen, I was just
beginning to discover how the heart of the dharma often finds its
fullest expression in verse.
morning during my first semester of college, I got up the nerve to
knock on Dr. Haddin’s office door. I went in and told him I was
struggling with an essay in our class reader—the “Conclusion” to Henry
David Thoreau’s Walden. The writing was difficult, I said. Was it worth the trouble? In class that day, Dr. Haddin talked about Walden and at one point said, “Why, I’ve read Walden like it was the only book in the world!” I resolved then that I’d read the book, however difficult.
look back at his comment today as the beginning of my spiritual life.
Thoreau became my first guru.
I sat at a table on the third floor of the
library poring over Walden,
while the yellow leaves of Lombardy poplars, lit by streetlights,
brushed the windows beside me. I read, “I see young men, my townsmen,
whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle,
and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.” I
soon discovered that Thoreau’s revolutionary ideas had sprung from his
reading of the sacred books and scriptures of the world, especially
those of Asia, most of which are written in poetry: the Dhammapada, the Heart Sutra, the Dao De Ching, the Bhagavad Gita.
saw all inspired writing to be a kind of poetry, not limited to verse.
He believed poetry to be the highest human calling and considered Walden
to be essentially poetry. His teaching can perhaps be summed up in one
sentence: “Seek the riches within”—a very Taoist, very Hindu, very
Buddhist-sounding notion. It was, in fact, Thoreau—and his mentor,
Emerson— who in the early nineteenth century introduced the teachings of
Asia to America.
took another course from Dr. Haddin, entitled American
Transcendentalism and Asian Philosophy. All the writers we studied spoke
of meditation. But how did one actually learn to do it? You couldn’t
walk into a bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama, and find “how-to” books.
Then one day I saw a poster for a meditation class and showed up to sit
in a circle on the floor with other young seekers. The teacher, Niila
Keshava, was a tall wiry twenty-something with a bald head and big brown
beard. When he greeted me, he looked into my eyes with a beautiful
benevolent gaze, his blue eyes full of light. He was teaching meditation
in a tantric tradition and I dove in. After several years I became a
meditation teacher myself, and eventually a poet and professor.
at the beginning of every semester, as cottonwoods wave their yellow
prayer flags or wait with buds encased in snow, I tell my aspiring poets
that the thing I most want them to get out of my class isn’t how to
create a powerful poetic voice, or how to use metaphors and rhyme, or
how to get published and become famous. I tell them that the most
important thing I hope they’ll take away from my class is how to pay
attention to their lives.
tell them that the nineteenth-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley
said poetry’s purpose is “to remove the scales of familiarity from our
eyes.” Shelley saw how we become habituated to people, landscapes, and
things. He observed how we walk around lost in our thinking minds, on
automatic pilot, and no longer experience what’s around us—the shadows
of ash-tree leaves on my desk, a crow cawing in the distance, the voices
of children rising from the street. Emerson knew this, too. He said,
“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and
in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never
seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” I want my students to
see that poems are all around them, that we find our originality in the
uniqueness of the present moment.
Early in each semester, I share a story out of Stephen Levine’s book, Healing into Life and Death.
Levine, a longtime Buddhist teacher and hospice worker, says meditation
can reawaken old wounds in patients and often initiates deep grieving,
but that the breakup of frozen emotions facilitates healing and often
triggers a global awakening of perception. One woman, a victim of
childhood sexual abuse, practiced meditation for twenty minutes, twice a
day, and found it unbearably difficult. But after about two and a half
months, she said, “A miracle happened. I walked into the kitchen, sat
down at the table, and looked up and saw the wall. I just saw the wall! I
was just here in my body, in the world, in my heart. I saw the wall as
if for the first time. I was just here. It was the most wonderful
experience of my life!”
was nothing extraordinary about the wall the woman looked at. What was
extraordinary was the depth of her perception, the level of awareness
she brought to the moment. The practice of being a poet, an artist, or a
Buddhist is this practice of waking up to what’s around us, to the
miracle of what’s happening. Such moments of perception can lead to
powerful writing, original and alive.
paying attention we also receive the details necessary to bring writing
to life. I tell my students that in the classroom where we’re sitting,
in the expressions on their faces, in their hairstyles, the colors and
patterns of their clothes, in their laughter and the knocking sound in
the radiator, we find a constellation of images that has never come
together before and will never come together again. No one has written
about this moment before.
mindful poet opens to the life of things. Basho said, “you can learn
about the pine only from the pine, or about bamboo only from the bamboo…
The object and yourself must become one, and from that feeling of
oneness issues your poetry.” In such moments, seeing becomes something
more than ordinary. We feel things with our eyes, participating in what
Martin Buber calls an “I-Thou” relationship. When we practice
mindfulness, the things of the world are no longer inert objects but
presences in whose life we participate.
the world our attention is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s hard to sit
on a boulder alone in the desert without pulling out a snack, a drink, a
book. It’s hard to sit at home quietly without calling a friend,
turning on the TV, or getting on Facebook. We become uncomfortable,
start to itch, fidget. Memories rise up; we might come face to face with
our suffering. In a poem called “Black Oak,” Mary Oliver stands in a
forest looking up at an oak as it starts to drizzle. She wants to stay
and look but feels the urge to move: Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from / one boot to another—why don’t you get going? But
if we can sit through the itch—the boredom, the anxiety, the
suffering—we will see how thoughts and feelings pass through us. Our
true human condition is one of flow.
then there’s death. Poets and writers, like Buddhists, are sensitively
aware of the impermanence of things. David Bottoms, a poet I studied
with, said wryly that all poems are about two things—life and death—but
that they’re all really about one thing, and that’s death. This may
sound morose, but he’s getting at how the transience of things is
responsible for their irreplaceable pricelessness. “Death,” Wallace
Stevens tells us, “is the mother of beauty.” As poets, artists,
Buddhists, we are called to bear witness to the life around us—to this
oriole, this friend, this daughter, this fox, this fawn.
we pay attention to the world long enough, wakefully, lovingly enough,
we realize that everything in the world is sacred, that this whole world
is a poem, or a million poems, just waiting for us to write them down.
Michael Sowder is
the founder of the Amrita Sangha for Integral Spirituality. It is a
nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring the contemplative
practices of the world’s wisdom traditions, including teaching
meditation and creative writing in prisons. Sowder is an associate
professor of English and an adjunct professor of religious studies at
Utah State University. His new book of poetry is House Under the Moon,
which features poems about fatherhood as well as poems about
spirituality, and meditation.