“It is very healthy, from both psychological and spiritual standpoints, to spend some time just doing nothing with a very strong feeling . . . neither repressing nor expressing it, but simply watching and feeling its vibrant play within the spacious atmosphere of awareness.”
I was, at the time, suffering from a chaotic cacophony of emotions, and found May’s insight so stunningly intriguing, I outlined the paragraph, wrote the date in the margin, and stopped reading the book for almost a year. From that moment forward, I tried to do what he suggested. Daily. It helped me survive divorce. He was, of course, describing mindfulness.
A few years later, I journeyed to The Shalem Institute in Bethesda, Maryland to sit at Dr. May’s feet and learn a range of contemplative practices, many informed by Buddhism. Eventually, I sat with Buddhist teachers as well. Over the years, I led many contemplative groups and retreats, including a year-long series called “The Poetry of Mindfulness.”
One good word. That’s what we’re listening for in Lectio Poetica. Out of an entire poem—one word, one idea or insight, one line or phrase, one powerful or puzzling image. Is that enough, you ask? It’s not, if you’re reading for information. It is, if you’re opening to transformation.
“You must go to the place / where everything waits, / there, when you finally rest, / even one word will do…” David Whyte says elsewhere.
When you finally come to rest, when you’re mind is still, like the surface of a quiet pond on a windless summer afternoon, one good word is a pebble dropped into the depths. The ripples reach far beyond the initial splash. All it takes to transform the entire body of water is one small stone.
In her poem “Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End?” (Why I Wake Early, 2004). Mary Oliver has a line about the rain sinking straight to the feet of the trees “whose mouths open.” During one of our gatherings back in November, one participant heard the word “open” during the first reading of the poem. She sat with that single word, meditating. And something wonderful happened.
She found her soul and her senses opening, like the mouths of trees, to all the subtle, silly and serious beauty, wonder and grace of each moment—right there in the middle of our little gathering. Afterward, she emailed Barbara and me, and shared a little poem that emerged from her reflections—a poem of opening to her own thoughts, to sharing those thoughts, to the interpretations of others; opening to whatever arose, whether good or evil; opening to the beauty of the ordinary, a cough in the silence, to the next unknown moment to come, to trust, to the dance—with open arms—in the theater of the world.
It was lovely. And gratifying. The power of one good word.
And like a pebble in a pond, it set up ripples that moved right through me. All those openings brought to mind David Whyte’s “Enough” (Where Many Rivers Meet, 1990), a poem which, he admits, was written covertly during a Zen meditation retreat, where he had been expressly instructed not to write. I love it.
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
I’ve memorized this little poem, and often recite it during my own meditation. Every time I reach that line “opening to the life / we have refused,” I pause and notice what life I continue to refuse. I notice whether I am willing to open to it, right now. Sometimes I can feel myself softening, opening, letting down my defenses. If not, well, I keep sitting. I keep breathing. I keep remembering these few words.
And yes, they are enough.
—Jay E. Valusek