Mindfulness and Poetry

Mindfulness is a buzzword these days, whether in health and wellness, parenting, education, the workforce, counseling, spirituality … but what does it mean? Here’s one way to understand it: Mindfulness is keeping our heads and hearts where our bodies are. Moment by moment, we sustain a deep, nonjudgmental awareness­­ of our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and surroundings, right where we are.

In reading this [web]page, for example, you invest your full self in the act of reading. You’re right here, right now­, experiencing the text­ … until a moment arrives when you’re not. Sooner or later, that moment will come. Guaranteed. A sound or smell will distract you. A stray thought will lead you into a thicket of ideas. You’ll be snagged by sentiment, or caught up in a rush of feeling. That’s okay. Once you notice the drift of your attention, you return to the page. Gently. Rather than blame or scold yourself for wandering off, you accept that it happened and bring yourself back.

We cultivate mindfulness throughout our days by returning to the present moment, again and again. This allows us to actually live our lives instead of just going through the motions. The more mindful we become over time, the happier we are. Studies reveal that regular mindfulness practice reduces stress, promotes health, stimulates learning and creativity, enhances relationships, helps us face suffering and loss, and strengthens our compassion for others.

Many resources for mindfulness practice­ quote snippets of poetry or even publish entire poems. The website of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California San Diego, for instance, will provide you with links to around eighty poems used in its Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction classes. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein and other esteemed mindfulness teachers regularly invoke poetry in their books and workshops. What accounts for this popular coupling of poetry and mindfulness?

As its very appearance makes plain, poetry invites a different kind of reading than prose. The white space around the text slows us down. Like an island on the page, its shape appeals to the eye. It begs for attention. It wants to be heard. When we choose to listen, we bring the poem to life. Our voice revels in the musicality, our breath is shaped by the lines. The imagery heightens our senses. The language revives our spirits.

The act of reading a poem­—any poem—can therefore become an exercise in mindfulness. And our experience of the poem is magnified when its subject is particularly mindful. The poem might demonstrate what mindfulness is, recount an experience of it, or offer advice on how to practice it; perhaps it fleshes out a mindfulness theme, such as acceptance, impermanence, non-clinging (“letting go”), compassion, or the unity of all things. Such mindfulness poems inspire us to live better, and to make our world better; at the same time, they grant us a taste of being good enough, just as we are, in this world, just as it is.

Poetry of Presence contains over 150 mindfulness poems. Of course, you don’t have to be interested in mindfulness to enjoy them. You can simply delight in their beautiful language, their vivid imagery, their uncommon wisdom. But if you sit down with this book in companionable silence, as with a cherished friend, the poems will teach you about mindfulness without your asking.

— From “The Invitation,” introducing Poetry of Presence