My meditation practice began with the purchase of a new, maroon zafu and zabuton—fancy names for the pillows I learned were a must for those who suffer while sitting cross-legged on the floor. The cushions feel good under my sit-bones, keep my back straight and my anklebones comfortable. I sit in a dark room near my office at the college where gray light filters in through venetian blinds. Behind me is a green chalkboard since this used to be a classroom, turned conference room, now cleared out as a space for prayer and meditation. Our college has welcomed a new group of Muslim students who needed a quiet place to pray. So we created this space in which I find myself meditating each morning.
Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock wryly cracked, “Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.” And I might agree, except that French is a beautiful language and kissing speaks of love—especially when it’s not required, or expected. This is the beauty of meditation for me. Out of the nothingness of it, out of this waste of time, comes beauty and knowledge I never expected.
For instance, one day I sat, focused on my breathing, and came to the knowledge that my body is not happy unless it is in constant motion. I itched to go and do while I sat. It was a pulling within me towards activity like the addict is pulled to her dope. The same was true of my mind that was not content unless it was leaping, forward or backward, to any moment but the present. After my practice I wondered how I could be happy if my body and mind never wanted to be where I actually was? I didn’t know of this discontent—of my unrest and addiction to motion—until I practiced doing nothing.
Meditation, then, is a clearing of space for me, an emptying ritual of only ten to twelve minutes. My desire is to open myself through this practice so I can receive whatever comes. Sometimes nothing comes. But that’s okay. Who am I to judge the nothingness? More often, though, I am given something out of the nothing—an epiphany (such as the discontent to which my mind and body lure me) a knowing humility that the world moves on as I sit, or a simple and subtle diffusing of the urgency of my emotions. These are gifts I never would have received had I not engaged myself in the practice of doing nothing, had I not stopped for a few minutes to sit cross-legged, in a dark room on a maroon zafu and zabuton.
A figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox).
I’ve fallen in love with the simile. A friend suggested I use one in an article I was writing. I had so much fun trying to come up with the perfect simile that I have been hunting them down in everything I read. This summer I’ve been immersing myself in the stories of Flannery O’Connor who—hands down—is the QUEEN of similes! Just for fun–here are a few of my favorites:
- His heart began to grip him like a little ape clutching the bars of its cage.
- Rayber felt as if he were fighting his way out of a net.
- His khaki trousers reached just to his hipbones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt.
- Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.
- She could hear the wind move through the treetops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.
- The graduates in their heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them.
- He heard the words drag out. He felt them pull out of his mouth like freight cars, jangling, backing up on each other, grating to a halt, sliding, clinching back, jarring, and then suddenly stopping as roughly as they had begun.
They don’t know
Leaping, squealing, delighting in the mud
between their toes, how
Downstream from us it swirled in a thick,
Their heads turned away from me
and the panic in my eyes
They thrilled in the surprise of the mudslide
made perfect for play and pleasure
While, not far from us, the black-as-tar earth
consumed houses, poured through windows,
sweated through floorboards
Mommy! Mommy! They screamed
in play as my son threw a handful
at my daughter
They don’t know
and I can’t tell them
that the blue sky ahead is for all of us
When I know it is not
This is an ekphrasis poem (written off of visual art) that I wrote during the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival.
Image: Nikki McClure, 2009, Chronicle Books
Iowa City is a place of poets and aspiring writers of novels, memoirs, flash-fiction, and sermons. It’s a place of independent book stores, all-you-can-eat Indian buffets and Hawkeyes—everywhere—Hawkeyes. I hope to post some of the writing that has bubbled up for me at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival. But for now a simple note of gratitude.
First, I am grateful for my class, Poetry for Beginners (A Short Course in Attention) and for my teacher, Michael Morse, who taught me that, “More than intending, the poet ATTENDS!” How true this is (or should be) for pastors and preachers as well.
Michael introduced me to the Pantoum, the Ghazal, and the Sestina, specific kinds of poetry that I might have assumed were wild safari animals before taking this class. We discussed voice, image, metaphor, sound, and structure—the “ways in” to poetry. And we read poetry to each other—slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully. The reader of poetry, as James Tate describes, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks of the prayerful, haunted silence between the words, phrases, images, ideas and lines. This is what I’ve been doing all week and loving the luxury of it—because in between those lines of poetry lay observations of life I deeply appreciate.
I am constantly in awe of the ability certain poets have to name the mysteries of the universe, or call forth a beautiful, insightful philosophy, in a few, perfectly chosen words. The power of poetic language astounds me. For example, this poem by Nazim Hikmet blows me away.
It’s This Way
I stand in the advancing light,
my hands hungry, the world beautiful
My hand can’t get enough of the trees—
they’re so hopeful, so green
A sunny road runs through the mulberries,
I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.
I can’t smell the medicines—
carnations must be blooming nearby.
It’s this way:
being captured is beside the point,
the point is not to surrender.
Hikmet, a revered poet from Turkey often imprisoned for his socialist views, speaks deeply to me even though my life in no way compares to his. His point, though, of never surrendering to that which oppresses, or captures, or negates the beautiful, is universally insightful and helpful. What an astonishing poet! I’m so glad his poetry now graces my bookshelf.
Other new poets have found their way to my shelf as well: Bob Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz. After learning that Marie Howe (still my favorite poet) studied with Stanley Kunitz, I quickly ran to buy his book. (And yes, my husband will roll his eyes at me when he sees my credit card statement from Prairie Light Books.) Kunitz had me at “hello,” though, or, the words of his brief foreword entitled, “Speaking of Poetry.” Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.
If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay. Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?
Does one live, therefore for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of life.
 Dean Young
 James Tate, Introduction to the Best American Poetry, 1997.
 Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through, (W.W. Norton and & Company, New York, 1995), pgs. 11-12.
Last summer I made my writing a priority. I started this blog, hired a writing coach, and guarded a few hours each morning to practice my craft. It has paid off immensely. Not only did I get an article published in The Christian Century, but I have grown and learned more than I ever thought possible. Most significantly, I have come to recognize writing as the passion I need to pursue—it’s the one thing in my life I can’t NOT do. Acknowledging this call to write has been transformative.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about writing over this past, dedicated, year:
- Join a writing group, attend a workshop, hire a writing coach—do something to receive honest feedback and constructive criticism. It’s the ONLY way you’ll learn and grow as a writer. I recommend my writing coach, Christine Hemp, whom I affectionately call The Beast, Madame Bossypants, or my personal Grammar SNOOT. Working with Christine has been phenomenal. She is a poet, teacher, coach and spiritual director all rolled into one. I’m also quite fond of the fact that she’s a faithful Episcopalian. In other words, she gets me. Check out her website here.
- If you’re having trouble getting started, begin with a story you care about—in my case, (as a preacher) something with a theological problem within it.
- Also…if you’re having trouble getting started, focus on something really specific—a moment, a scene, an experience—and branch out from there.
- I have a tendency to stop short—to think I am finished before I really am. Give your writing space to breathe. Don’t quit too soon. Don’t go for the quick, easy ending—push yourself further, to discover what you’re really writing about.
- Use specific, concrete, language—avoid clichés and tired, abstract, “churchy” language—paint a picture for the reader.
- Write as if no one—absolutely no one (especially the person you are writing about)— is looking over your shoulder. You can always edit later. First, you must discover your truth.
- Transitions matter. Pay attention to them. Guide your reader from one paragraph to the next. Offer clarity—it’s the polite thing to do.
- Lay (transitive verb: receives and object) Lie (intransitive verb: never receives an object.) I lay the book on the table. I lie in the sun all the time. Remember this!! It will curl the teeth of your Grammar SNOOT if you get it wrong.
- “We can go months, even years, without ever being crucially spoken to.” Stephen Dunn. Write words that are crucial. Write words that matter. Venture into the wilderness of humanity.
- “End with an image and don’t explain.” Stanley Kunitz
Last Thursday I settled myself cross-legged on my zafu and set my timer for twelve minutes of meditation. I had just finished scratching out my to-do list for the day—a mistake—it made me realize I only had an hour free this morning to finish writing my sermon for Sunday and meet a few other deadlines. The pressure of my schedule tightened my chest and shoulders as I wondered to myself why I was sitting there doing nothing when I could be writing, folding laundry, washing the dishes, or straightening up the living room that my children had just left in total disarray—blankets, pillows, game and puzzle pieces strewn all over the floor, a sippy cup turned over leaking milk on the couch. Even with my eyes closed, I could feel the mess pressing in on me. My body itched to start doing, but I forced myself to sit and breathe. The dog whined softly in the corner, the ice machine rattled in the kitchen. (It broke this morning. When will I get that fixed?) My twelve minutes were up.
Inspired by Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and a book I’m reading by Pema Chӧdrӧn, I made a commitment to meditate every day of Holy Week. I keep reading about how good meditation is for you, like in this article here. A poet once told me his writing really started to take off after he got serious about his sitting practice. I teach meditation to my college students who are hungry for ways to calm down and de-stress. My interest in this ancient practice webs and wanes, though. I often prioritize it out of my schedule because I have my doubts and my time is precious.
Holy Week has come and gone but I decided to meditate again today. It’s Easter Monday and I have the day free to get a lot of stuff done. Why not begin with twelve minutes of breathing? “If you have time to breath, you have time to meditate,” says Ajahn Chah (via Pinterest.)
Before I reached my meditation cushion, though, I noticed myself feeling stressed. Why am I feeling this way? I wondered to myself. I have the whole day free? Puzzled, I decided to take Ani Pema’s advice and enter into my emotion through meditation. So I sat with my stress—leaning into its pressure—to see what I could learn about my mind, how it works, and why I respond to life the way I do.
It was a miserable way to begin the morning, but I stuck with it, focusing on my breathing and the emotion within me. The air cooled my nostrils on every intake, warmed them on the outtake. Slowly I began to recognize my emotion as pressure I was placing on myself—my own desires were the root of this stress.
After my twelve minutes were up I opened my journal to see if I could identify what those desires were. Here’s a partial list: I desire more time to write—a clean home and office—recognition for my work—the ability to write beautifully—lose ten pounds—eat delicious food—ice cream—good wine—be an attentive mother to my children—more money—more time to exercise—lie in bed to read a good book—lie in bed—speak words that are meaningful at my grandmother’s funeral—create—publish—take the dog to the vet—enjoy more sex—get a massage—shop for pretty, stylish things—laugh with friends—love my husband well—have more spiritual experiences—feel more peace.
My desires quickly filled a whole page of my journal before I stopped myself, realizing I could go on for pages. Where does all this desire come from? Why do I crave more than I already have? When will I have enough? When will I be enough?
Okay, I will be meditating again tomorrow.