Poetry as Meditation

Using Poetry as Meditation

This year has been like a decade. COVID, with its attendant lockdowns, quarantines, and social isolation, have wreaked havoc on my mental health, and those around me. The world feels like a constant state of alert, without any recourse to unwind or de-escalate. As the year has progressed, I’ve struggled to maintain rituals and routines that bring about a sense of normalcy or space for deep reflection and meditation.

Last week, I chatted with a new friend on the phone. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a long phone conversation — so much now happens on social media, text messages, or Zoom calls. Our call meandered for nearly two hours, as we both took a walk in our respective neighborhoods, hundreds of miles apart, talking about how we’re feeling, setting big goals, and how we find purpose and meaning in life and work.

Although a weekly two hour phone conversation isn’t in the cards (for now anyway!), that call served as a reminder of how connection and reflection can create grounding and make sense of the world when things are chaotic or anxiety-producing. One ritual I talked about was one of reading or listening to poetry, a ritual through which I’ve found meaning, connection with others, and space for reflection.

Let your faith die.
Bring your wonder.
Yes, you are only one.
No, it is not enough
But if you lift your eyes, I am your brother.
And this is all we need.
And this is where we start.
This is the day we greet.
This is the day, no other.

From “Level Up” by Vienna Teng

Periodically, I like to share with others a poem, song lyrics, or podcast with poetry as a sort of meditation and reflection. Before I start doing that, in this space on my blog, I wanted to reflect on how I started using poetry as meditation, in part as a reminder to myself that this need not be linear but to draw on the feelings that drew me to this practice in the first place.

The light that never goes out!
Photo by Hans Vivek on Unsplash

About two years ago, a little bit on a whim, I showed up on a weekday evening to a conference room in our local public library. It’s a small conference room in a relatively small building in our mid-sized Colorado town. The room itself holds about 10-15 people, and varies so widely in temperature that I often feel like Goldilocks because it’s always a bit too warm or a bit too cold for comfort.

I was here for the monthly meeting of a “Poetry and Contemplation” group advertised in the weekly local UU email newsletter. I’d been meaning to come for a few months but had finally been able to avoid conflicts with other obligations and make it happen on a cold winter day. I was desperate for connection and time to myself to reflect, and the description had intrigued me:

Each month, we create a supportive environment for people to reflect on two poems which relate to a new theme. We read, journal and share our individual responses. Deep listening to our inner wisdom and each other is emphasized. This is an engaging and meaningful process for meaning making. The structure of each session rarely varies but each experience can be newly insightful and nourishing. No prior experience with poetry or contemplative reading practices necessary!

A few candles, a cloth, some stones, shells, and other small objects sat in the center of the conference table where another 8 or so people were seated, waiting to get started. A stack of papers sat on the end of the table closest to the door; an agenda and printouts of two poems. Name tags and a sharpie were nearby.

Stephanie, the meeting’s host, introduced herself briefly, and proceeded to give an overview of how we’d spend the next two hours on the two poems. Stephanie read a short quote and lit the candle in the middle of the table, a focal point for us to use as we listened and reflected throughout the evening. Stephanie passed around another paper, this time a colorful cardstock-thickness sheet that featured stones with various short statements printed inside each stone shape. These were Parker Palmer’s Touchstones. The intention-setting by using the Touchstones is something that’s stayed with me, and I’ve used them (or lessons from them) to help set intentions in other groups.

The next two hours passed rapidly. We tackled the first poem, having various members of the group read it aloud for a total of 3 readings, listening for intonation, meaning, or words that struck us or resonated in some way. Then a popcorn round calling out words or phrases from the poem, but without commenting on them. Journaling. I hadn’t journaled in years. Stephanie had provided a few questions to help us think about the poem or its relation to life or community, but the journaling was for ourselves.

We break in to pairs for 10 minutes of deep listening: no asking of questions. No responding to the other person. Just listening to their reflections (or sitting with them in silence if they didn’t wish to share more). This first experience was…well, HARD. It’s HARD to sit and listen without responding.

Dogs are the best at deep listening. Black dog looking up, listening.
Deep listening sometimes resembles how pets may listen to us: unjudging, without interruption.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Finally, we came back as a group and shared (with the caveat that no one could share their partners’ story — only their own story or experiences, or things they were thinking about).

We took a quick break, and then came back with a similar approach to the second poem. For the second though, we skipped the part where we did partner listening, and instead moved straight from journaling to sharing with the larger group.

As I made my way home some two hours later, I clutched my freshly-minted journal and poems while I reflected on a renewed sense of calm, but also excitement. This wasn’t the same type of meditation that I was hearing and seeing people talk about around me. It wasn’t just journaling. It wasn’t the hocus-pocus new age stuff that I sometimes read about. There was a sense of community and connection in this group — both with one another, but also with poetry. I don’t even remember the first two poems we talked about in that first meeting I attended, but I do remember that feeling of having found something different to tune in to, mindfully.

A dozen more Poetry & Contemplation sessions followed before the group came to a graceful end. Some folks came and went from the group, though most often there were several familiar faces whom I came to know better through the medium of poetry. By the time the group stopped meeting, I had started listening to meditations on the Insight Timer app, as well as my now-favorite podcast, The Slowdown. I also found my way back to the On Being podcast after having listened for a little while a few years ago. And I’ve found myself in rabbit holes of discovery of new poets and contemporary poetry.

I like to periodically share poetry on social media now as a means of reflection and not just talking about the world around us, and so I want to bring some of that sharing practice to this space, too. For sometimes poetry opens worlds within us deep with meaning and connection.

I also love to hear about poetry from others — poems or songs or lyrics that are meaningful, or places to find those bits of lyricism that can transport us to another view on the world and space we’re currently occupying. Please feel free to share about your favorites, or other rituals and ways you find space for reflection.

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