Sit Back, Relax, and Be Present in the World.
As part of my ongoing recovery plan for chronic fatigue, I’ve been experimenting with mindfulness meditation. Twenty minutes a day seems to be my sweet spot.
It took me awhile to initiate this practice; I had so much baggage about meditation, so much mumbo jumbo about all the mumbo jumbo I just knew I would find floating around in the Eastern ethers of out there.
No doubt, gobbledygook exists. But for me, mindfulness has turned out to be remarkably straightforward, practical, and secular (at least in implementation; the results are another matter). The forms I have encountered would work equally well if I were Orthodox or Atheist. So far, I have not been asked to accept a single unwarranted assumption about the nature of the soul, miracles, quantum mechanics, or the origin of the universe.
Like most people (I presume), I got into mindfulness for the health benefits. And of course, these are worth the price of admission all by themselves:
Preliminary research indicates there may be any number of quantifiable benefits to having a mindfulness practice, including lower blood pressure, less anxiety, improved PTSD symptoms, better focus, enhanced working memory, and most tantalizing of all, long-term changes to the physical structure of the brain itself:
With repetition, an intentionally created state can become an enduring trait of the individual as reflected in long-term changes in brain function and structure. This is a fundamental property of neuroplasticity—how the brain changes in response to experience. Here [in mindfulness meditation] the experience is the focus of attention in a particular manner. —Dan Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry, UCLA School of Medicine and author of Brainstorm.
But the big surprise for me was something else—a return to poetry.
I realize poetry sounds like exactly the kind of woo woo I was trying to avoid. And I realize there's no such thing as a real science of creativity. But stop. There is such a thing as the empirical experience we each have of knowing what it is like to be human and to have a mind. Surely we can say something about that, in addition to our notes on blood pressure?
So I started writing poetry. Again. After a year of silence.
I wrote about meditation itself:
for long slow waking
for the taking
of time and energy
to fill my mind and limbs.
not to rush or bluster
into the day
not to halve myself
into one side, a drifter
the other, wanting to stay.
to sit comfortably here
or not so comfortably
with pain in my shoulder
and calm in my gut
for vacancy, for room
inside my head; it is enough.
for a day that starts with space
instead of spiked agendas
for grace to act and feel my age
refusing to knock the wind out of the
first breath, the last awareness
of soundless clouds and rioting birds
Last week, we took delivery of our first CSA box (Community Supported Agriculture food basket). It was a revelation: the tussocks of green, the bulbs of color, the freaky sweetness of the pea shoots were so crazy to me, that I packed my family into the car and drove over to the farm listed on the invoice. I couldn’t believe anyone could grow food like this in our sieve-like volcanic soil, or frosty high-desert nights.
The farm was beautiful. Bewildering actually. Between the coffee compost and the cornucopia of produce and vine creepers, I hardly knew what I was looking at. And the farmer? He left an unnameable impression on me.
It wasn’t until the next day, after meditation, that I was able to fully appreciate my own experience:
the language of body and soil
for medical ecology
where i stand in the gap
watching connections and meanings uncoil.
for tawny farmers
their leather skin and constant eyes
for hands in the earth
sensing, feeling, directing the life
interred there, stirred there
speaking up in bubbles mute and wise.
for forces they do not fully understand
as small as rhizomes, as big as dinosaur bones
and numberless bacteria like grains of sand.
for the blessings they derive
from loamy things and time
things they shepherd
not needing to comprehend
life from life
a long obedience
for the chance to die unconfused
in the end.
The veggies taste even better now; I swear to you.
To me, this rebirth of poetry demonstrates the power of meditation to go beyond blood pressure and to reconnect us with our creative impulses—those flickering parts of ourselves that seem to always be on the point of winking out and that rise up at the first whiff of oxygen. I don't think this is a miracle, except in the ordinary sense. At some point, everything is miraculous, even—and maybe most especially—science.
There’s a frame of mind that goes with seeing the ordinary as miraculous. And to me it feels like a frame with contours, with corners that look something like Love, Gratitude, Service, and Pleasure.
To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it." --Osho
In my experience, creativity takes a certain amount of stillness, a certain amount of listening and willingness to be empty so you can be full of something else. Basically, it takes something other than the rattle and hum of my own head to be grateful long enough to be creative. This is how meditation works for me, I think.
Could it be possible that creativity needs a space in which to operate? That it can't be the space, can't be the vacuum from which things just spring into existence ex nihilo. Could it be that creativity inhabits something prior to it, something more basic, like gratitude, stillness, love?
I don’t know. I’m asking. As I said, there’s no scientific test for this. Your answer, my answer; they're as good as anyone else's. This is what it's like to be human. Each of us is an N of 1. And yet somehow, together we seem to know something about what we're trying to say.
So I am curious what your unexpected experiences have been with meditation, if any. Has anybody else out there started a meditation practice with the humdrum goal of just wanting to manage stress, only to find that something more like flourishing is happening? Any unexpected side trails or slipstreams into creativity—or just plain gratitude—that feel both miraculous and mundane?
Please. Do tell. I’m anxious to hear.
Yours in Health and Resilience,