Thinking Metaphysical

I’ve been thinking more than usual about the relationship between spirituality, poetry, and the body because of the workshop I’m taking at the Poetry Barn with Jenn Givhan, “Poetry as Altar: Creating Space for the Sacred.”

Since childhood, I’ve been asking myself questions about the nature of existence. I’ve always thought that if I just keep looking, searching, that the answers will come, that they are just around the corner.

Maybe it’s because of my upbringing in the Catholic Church.

Maybe it’s because my dad used to talk about Jesuit theology with me on our trips to the hardware store or the dump.

Now that I’m much older, nearing old age, I think I will not know the answers until I cross over into a spirit realm. That’s my hope, anyway, that there is a spirit realm or an astral plane.

I read a story about astronaut Edgar Mitchell who, when he saw Earth from space, experienced a deep knowing, a profound sense that infused him entirely, that he was in the midst of a limitless cosmic mind.

After his experience of seeing Earth from the surface of the moon, Mitchell created a center called The Institute of Noetic Science. On the website history they say, “As he watched the Earth float freely in the vastness of space, he became engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness.”

I’ve never had an epiphany like his, nor can I vouch for the scientific validity of the astronaut who experienced such bliss. But experience counts for something.

The realizations I’ve experienced have been fleeting ones that I need to practice again and again, moment by moment, through yoga, walking, writing, meditating, and even by teaching, reading, and discussing literature with friends and students.

What I Need Is More Yoga

Tree in tree pose

Tree in tree pose

When I woke up yesterday morning the light in the room was still dim. The closed door, stained dark walnut, looked like an open portal, a deep black tunnel.

At the end of yoga class yesterday afternoon, when our teacher said to allow the mind to go into the deeper states of consciousness, this ink black portal, a door made of shadows, opened before me once again.

Corpse pose is a preparation for death, not a moment to fear, but rather a letting go. I slide into the velvety, warm blackness, this state of consciousness where poetry is born.

After Yoga Writing Circle

Writing after practicing yoga and meditation is one of the best ways to release creativity. With a relaxed body and mind, we can touch our inner feelings. Writing with a group where we feel safe and nourished, we can take small risks with our writing and reveal heartfelt truths.

For the past six months or so, a group of us have been meeting once a month after our wonderful yoga teacher’s Saturday class to generate new writing. I’ve been leading the writing circle because of my certification with Amherst Writers and Artists, a writing circle method devised by Pat Schneider.

For the warm-up prompt, I read these lines from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening the knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

I wrote these lines based on the prompt:

Overflow

My heart is a bowl
that, today at least,
brims with anger.
Rage spills over the rim,
pulses into my chest, my throat.

But rather than opening my mouth,
I take to the street
and walk with my anger.
Inhaling the fresh fall air,
I release my bitterness.

The last yellow and orange leaves
hanging on the lowest branches
of a cottonwood tree
glitter in the breeze
like Tibetan prayer flags.

TreeCampus

Keeping the Camino Alive

On a physical level, the best outcome of my pilgrimage is that after 22 years I have been able to go off anti-depressants. 

I don’t mean to judge anyone who takes SSRIs, not at all. We are all trying to figure out what our lives mean and how best to live.  

It wasn’t the Camino alone that helped me ween myself off them. I also had the help of a mind-body therapist who continues to offer suggestions for passing through anxiety and panic, the two main symptoms of the depression I have experienced off and on since childhood. 

If the medications work, then take them. But after more than two decades on various SSRIs, I had fluctuating blood pressure and strange head rushes that led to near fainting, symptoms that have now disappeared since I went off the medication. 

I attribute my peace of mind to the days and days of spending six to eight hours outdoors, walking and meditating. Even though the heat in Georgia can be unbearable, I continue to walk.

Each day is a new challenge in maintaining a balance of body, mind, and spirit. I’m tottering on a fragile tightrope of sanity, but walking and writing continue to be my medicine. 

   
    
    
    
   
Yesterday’s hike:

About 8 or 9 miles, from Burnt Hickory Road to Dallas Highway at Kennesaw Battlefield Park, then on to the visitor’s center and back to Burnt Hickory.

Creatures I noticed:

Dragonflies, ants, butterflies, various birds, including two giant vultures, a wee toad, about the size of my thumb pad, a chipmunk, many squirrels.

I stood still and listened to the cicadas in the trees and the grasshoppers in the tall grass. There was very little breeze, and the trees were still and silent, their leaves dry and weary from the heat. The noise from the highway and the passing trains at times overpowered the silence of the woods.  

It was a heavy, humid trek. I encouraged myself to keep walking by remembering the way I felt toward the end of my walks on the Camino–with sore feet and tired legs, I still managed to make it up those steep inclines. You can do this, I told myself. 

Day 3 of Camino 

Today I walked 21 km from Roncesvalles to Zubiri, a small town in Navarra. Navarra is part of the Basque region of Spain and France, and all the road and street signs are in Spanish and Euskera, the Basque language. It has been fun speaking Spanish again and reacquainting myself with the culture.

The Spanish consider Roncesvalles to be the start of the Camino de Santiago. There’s a very modern pilgrim’s shelter there, modernized in 2011. 

The shelter is located in what used to be an Augustinian monastery, and it’s attached to a church that was originally built in the twelfth century.

Last night I attended a special mass for pilgrims to receive a blessing, the same blessing that has passed down through the centuries since medieval times.

There was a beautiful gold light illuminating the altar, and above hung a statue of the Virgin Mary made of gold-plated walnut. 

The priest spoke of the mystery of the faith, of the word of God, but the mystery that he spoke of that touches my heart the most is the mystery of nature. That’s where I go to connect with what it means to be free and at peace. 

                 

Praying for Peace

Today at my house we’ve been talking about the many horrifying events that are occurring around the globe, and more specifically, the brutal killing of journalist Steven Sotloff in the wake of James’s Foley’s murder. The question is, how do we stay positive? How can we keep ourselves from falling into despair? How do we continue to enjoy our lives when so many are suffering?

Violence begets violence. We can trace the causes of war by jumping from one act of aggression to another. Whose fault is it? Who’s to blame? The people who are using the deaths of these journalists to goad the president into war are irresponsible. As Martin Luther King preached, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

The answer is compassion. And focusing on the breath. I mean that on a very personal level. There are no slogans that will save us. We have this present moment to cultivate love and compassion for ourselves and each other. I’m committed to remaining faithful to gratitude for each breath, for each opportunity to grow in awareness and compassion.

If we learn to respect the abiding source of love within ourselves, we will never want to harm another creature, because all sentient beings are made of the same stuff of life, the same love. We can’t control others, let alone world events. So we need to focus on cultivating love for ourselves and the people with whom we have contact on a daily basis. If each of us does this work, we will evolve and the world will be at peace.

As Robert Thurman says in the introduction to  his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, “in order to create something, we have to imagine it first.” The work of creating peace begins in our individual minds, and it spreads as each of us grows in awareness, clarity, and peace.

Peace to James Foley and his family. Peace to journalist Steven Sotloff and all those who love him. Peace to Michael Brown, his family, and all the young people of color who have lost their lives due to discrimination.

Hike: A Noiseless Patient Spider With Turkey Buzzards

Today’s hike was Pigeon Hill trail in Kennesaw. I only did half the hike today because I got a late start. To the visitor’s center from Burnt Hickory Road is 2.5 miles (five miles there and back), but I stopped at Little Kennesaw and turned around so that I would have time to meet my friends for a poetry reading.

Today is Walt Whitman’s 195th birthday, and to honor his poetry some Poetry Atlanta folks have organized a non-stop reading of all 52 songs from Song of Myself.

I was thinking of Whitman as I picked my way across boulders and rocks toward the summit. When I sat on a lichen-covered ledge to take a rest in the shade, a tiny red spider floated in the air next to me, spinning an invisible thread that helped it move up and down, and I remembered Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

***

I wish I could experience the same confidence Whitman exudes in the capability of his soul. That’s why I go hiking and meditate, swim in open bodies of water, practice yoga. It’s a path outward that circles inward. Today I felt like most at peace watching the turkey buzzards circling the tree tops, until one swooped close, it’s red face angled toward some dead creature.

 

Grateful May, Day 1

Satya and Kaspa have started a new writing theme for the month of May–gratitude. Each day on their website, Writing Our Way Home, they share the small and big aspects of their lives for which they are grateful, and they invite others to do the same.

I signed up for their inspirational emails to keep me going; I’ll admit, I tend to let my mind run along some very slippery, downward slopes.  Having a bright note in my inbox reminding me to look up at the blue sky encourages me to pay attention to what brings me joy and happiness.

May 1: After a long drive in rush hour traffic and teaching a three-hour writing class at the community college, I came home to a sink full of dirty dishes, the counters littered with dishrags, coffee spills, and crumbs. The dogs were whining to be let out. I was feeling tired  from the work day and disappointed that no one in the house had cleaned up the kitchen mess.

But when I took the dogs out to the back yard, I looked up at the canopy of tulip poplars and hickory trees hovering over the house, shifting in the twilight breeze. I was still tired, still disappointed that I would have to go in and clean, but for that moment when I stopped at the fence and looked up, I felt the peace that comes with pausing and paying attention to what is good.

Wordsworth writes in his poem Tintern Abbey,

                                    These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet… .

Just as the poet’s memories of nature help to restore him when he is alone in his rooms, even my small moment of looking into the veil of leaves at dusk helps smooth the rough edges of anxiety and sadness, emotions that have built up in me over the years.

The trick is to pay attention, and to be grateful. I’m grateful for the sea of trees that sways in my backyard, for the birdsong that wakes me each morning in May.

Tree

 

 

Indoor Swimming in January

If you close your eyes and focus on the space between your eyebrows, a white light will appear. Sometimes the light will crystalize into a sphere lined with purple. Some longtime meditators who maintain focus will even see a white lotus lined with purple. I have only seen the sphere, sometimes called the pearl.

Today swimming laps the sun spills into the pool through the glass wall. On the other side of the wall is a stand of very tall pine trees. Beyond the trees, a robin’s egg blue sky and a single cloud.

I focus on the breath, sometimes kicking a little harder to increase the amount of air I need to take into my lungs. I don’t try to go too fast, just fast enough so that my mind stays focused on the sensations of swimming–my shadow swimming with me along the bottom of the pool, the shaft of light I swim through each time I reach the deep end, the axle of my shoulders as my arms arc up and down, scooping the water, driving the rest of my body forward through the water.

There is no rush, just back and forth through the water from one side of the pool to the other, pushing gently with my feet  off the side  of the pool to propel myself back into the lane. Nowhere to get to, no goal other than to breathe, glide, and enjoy those moments at the far end when the sun shines on my face.

Maybe it’s the memory of the sun that allows us to see the pearl in the mind space when our eyes are closed. Even when we’re in the dark the light exists.

Mindfulness writing, Day 17, Writing Our Way Home.

Meditation on Sounds

Click-click, a metal zipper taps against the drier drum.

Click-click, the house birds have come back to reclaim

their timeshare above my window.

A fledgling creature clicks and mewls from the upper branches of a tree

outside my window.

A crow creaks a greasy call across the street.

The whoosh of tires on asphalt, wind parted by metal hulks.

The cool swish of air on the in-breath, the warm puff on the out-breath.

Drawing air up to clavicles, I hear the click-click

of spines expanding along my upper back.

A thin click as lips part then close.

The muffled click of a wooden bead as a mala passes through my fingers.

***

Many beginning meditations instruct practitioners to listen to the sounds that come and go outside the room where they are sitting. We notice the sounds rise and fall away, without labeling them or trying to find out what is making the noise.

We then focus our awareness on sounds in the room where we are sitting. The point is to notice how sounds come and go, just like feelings and thoughts come and go. In between the sounds, feelings, and thoughts, we continuously draw the mind back to the breath.

I found that today I kept labeling the sounds. I knew I was going to spend time writing after I meditated, and so my mind kept sifting through the sounds and placing words on them.

But when I think back to all these tiny moments of small noises, I remember a gentle popping, clicking, humming– these are the continuous sounds of life. They are always there, rising and falling like waves in an ocean. We swim in a broth of sound waves.

Day 13: Mindfulness Writing, Writing Our Way Home.