Mindfulness and Charles Wright


I’ve recently started practicing mindfulness as a healing tool and I was struck by how the practice of mindfulness overlaps for me with the practice of poetry. In order for me to write, I have to first be paying attention to the world around me. I have to be intentional about seeing and listening in the present. If my mind is cluttered with too much worry or distraction, I can’t possibly write.

In my own writing process, I often start with taking notes in journals. Before I write, I need to be outside, connected to the natural world. I like to take hikes in small, local county parks, usually some prairie preserve that is adjacent to a farmer’s fields. I write down the names of the flowers, the compass plant, the blazing star, the coneflowers. I try to pay attention to each particular thing and just be present with the wind in the grasses or the soft hush of rain on the leaves of the oaks. I love the smell of the locust trees in blossom in the woods in Iowa. And almost always I’ll be surprised by some amazing visitation, sometimes very small, like a spring of grasshoppers out of late summer light, orhundreds of tiny frogs leaping all at once into a green pond or something wonderfully big like a huge old tree falling with a huge crash right ahead of me across my path.

I am at my most joyful in these times.

I can’t always be out in the woods or prairies, so I try to apply this to walks along my suburban streets or in my backyard or even in my house. I write what I see in my notebook and try to pay attention to the beauty right in front of me, no matter how small or insignificant it seems. A small, naked pink bird blown out of its nest. The rabbits leaping across the grass. Tiny blue juniper berries on an overlooked shrub. The dog snoring on the velvet couch on a rainy morning. There it is! I find my joy (or bliss) every time.

Every time I orient to these details, I can feel my heart steady down and my breath becoming more at one with the pace of my regard. The world opens up and I’m able to be in the moment.

My very favorite poet, who for me embodies this way of being, is Charles Wright. He was my teacher at the University of Virginia and I go back to his books over and over again to learn more. I love to recall the sound of his quiet Appalachian drawl when I read his poems. In the following poem we see him engaged in this kind of attentiveness, but also questioning, as always, our ability to gain knowledge from it. I have always loved the humility in a Charles Wright poem, even as he insists on committing this audacious act of questioning God or the Universe and looking for answers. A Charles Wright poem really demonstrates mindfulness not as a tool for power or knowledge, but simply as the humble practice of being honestly, authentically present:

Sitting Outside at the End of Autumn

Three years ago, in the afternoons,
I used to sit back here and try
To answer the simple arithmetic of my life,
But never could figure it–
This object and that object
Never contained the landscape
nor all of its implications,
This tree and that shrub
Never completely satisfied the sum or quotient
I took from or carried to,
nor do they do so now,
though I’m back here again, looking to calculate,
Looking to see what adds up.

Everything comes from something, only something comes from nothing,
Lao Tzu says, more or less.
Eminently sensible, I say,
Rubbing this tiny snail shell between my thumb and two fingers.
Delicate as an earring,
it carries its emptiness like a child
It would be rid of.
I rub it clockwise and counterclockwise, hoping for anything
Resplendent in its vocabulary or disguise–
But one and one makes nothing, he adds,
endless and everywhere,
The shadow that everything casts.