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Lions Roar : March 2013
perception, the level of awareness she brought to the moment. The practice of being a poet, an artist, or a Buddhist is this prac- tice 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. From 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. A 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. Giving 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. And 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. When 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. ♦ We find our originality in the uniqueness of the present moment. SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2013 23