"A Poetic Moment"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -
Awareness is a highly-prized discipline on almost every spiritual path. Almost every day I read some sort of spiritual journal or book and the word awareness almost inevitably surfaces. Awareness: the practice of being mindful in the present moment, awake and alert with an uncluttered mind.
While awareness may be a celebrated spiritual practice, there are plenty of people nowadays who do everything they possibly can to avoid being mindful in the living of their everyday lives. They bury themselves in their computers, always browsing the social media, pecking away at a smartphone, constant texting. Others may avoid awareness by numbing their minds through an excessive use of drugs or alcohol, some others may even avoid awareness in the present moment by hiding themselves away from their everyday lives behind the closed doors of a church.
Some other people have chosen to explore a spiritual path and so they usually recognize the value of awareness and they try to practice mindfulness by engaging in a daily, dedicated time of quiet meditation, counting breaths, deliberately paying attention to the “now;” but as soon as the meditation time is over, it’s back out into the real world of everyday routine life where awareness hardly ever enters the picture.
As I see it, instead of a 15-minute spiritual practice, I am more and more convinced that the practice of awareness is actually a rule for living life everyday- the benefits of this practice are enormous.
I once heard the poet, Marie Howe, give an NPR radio interview where she described what happens whenever she teaches “poetry” to college students. They all come to her class expecting she will talk about literary style, proper grammar, perhaps rhyming techniques. Instead she begins the semester by asking everyone to take out a piece of paper and simply jot down something about what they may have observed on their way to class that day. For the most part, almost no one ever remembers what they observed, most were oblivious to it all. They were listening to their iTunes, driving aimlessly, or sitting at a desk before class texting a friend.
She tells them that the only assignment these future poets will receive at this point in her class is to simply pay attention to whatever “comes to them” in the ordinary events of their lives and to describe what they observe. She tells them not to embellish, no metaphors or flowery poetic language, “just describe life as you become aware of it, then come to class and share what you have observed.”
Professor Howe talks about the wonderful thing that always happens when her students grow into “awareness”- in a few short weeks they all turn into poets. She observes:
By the fourth week or so the students come into class
and onto their desks pours all this wonderful stuff.
And it’s so thrilling, I mean it’s really thrilling and everybody can feel it.
The slicing of an apple, the gleam of a knife, the sound of the trashcan closing,
the maple tree outside, the blue jay.
About half-way through the course Professor Howe tells her students that, if they wish, they may now employ metaphors in writing their poems, but no one wants to. They tell her: "Why should we compare what we see to something else when the beauty we observe is the thing itself?"
Professor Howe ended the interview by observing:
You become a poet when you become aware of
the events of everyday moments in everyday life.
We often think of poets as people who have exceptional gifts and talents, people with an uncanny ability to carefully fashion sentences, craft elaborate metaphors and devise exotic rhyme patterns; and while some poets are able to do this, the real “magic” of poetry is to simply be aware of life, to catch a glimpse of the mystery of each moment and describe it. Each and every one of us can do this, no matter who we are or what language we speak or even if we are unable to read or write.
I am reminded of something another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, once told to one of his students:
If your daily life seems poor do not blame it,
blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.