mindfulness and poetry

Practicing mindfulness, though they would never have called it that, is something that poets have always done. And poetry readers too. Reading mindfulness poetry requires as much creative attention and presence as writing it.

I’d been writing for almost a decade before I was introduced to the word and the concept of mindfulness, by the Vietnamese zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, dubbed “the father of mindfulness in the west”.

So that’s what it’s called, I thought, when I first heard his succinct explanation of what it is to experience mindfulness.

Suppose you are offered a cup of tea, very fragrant, very good tea. If your mind is distracted, you cannot really enjoy the tea. You have to be mindful of the tea, you have to be concentrated on it, so the tea can reveal its fragrance and wonder to you.

Thich Nhat Hanh on the Practice of Mindfulness

Up to that, I’d thought those moments of fragrance and wonder that I’d experienced as a poet, concentrating fully on an object or experience, arose from a magic, mystical unnamable force, that could only be experienced by happy accident.

Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as his pupils call him (the word means Teacher in Vietnamese), taught me that mindfulness can be practiced, accessed not through willed efforts but through dedicated effortlessness.

What’s often forgotten about this great Buddhist teacher, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, is that he is also a poet. And it was as a poet that I first encountered his work.

I’ll always remember first reading his poem “Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine”, in the Ilac Center Library in Dublin.

Sunshine, though absent from space,

fills the now rose-colored stove.

Sunshine reaching out takes the color of smoke;

poetry in its stillness, the color of the misty air.

Spring rain holds poetry in its drops

which bend down to kiss the soil,

so that the seeds may sprout.

Thich Nhat Hanh “Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine

(You can see the full poem below and below that, a dharma talk in which Thay parses the poem for a group of social workers from Vietnam, telling them how “sunshine makes up the dance, and poetry the song”.)

Reading Mindfulness Poetry

When I first read those lines, so different in form and structure and sensibility from the Western poetic tradition within which I’d been trained, I was stunned. Up to then I’d been interested in his thoughts, now I was hooked on the experience of mindfulness conjured by his words.

Thay’s poetry led me—and my family–to his elegantly simple mindfulness exercises (“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. In. Out”).

Then to a regular sitting meditation practice, and, when I moved to London, to his Heart of London sangha.

And to reading and writing haiku and other forms of mindful poetry.

For readers too, poetry is one of the oldest mindfulness tools on record. To truly read a poem, we have to stop, listen, pay attention.

A mindful poem mindfully read dissolves confusion and encourages clarity, dissolves anxiety and encourages peace, dissolves distraction and encourages focus. It provides a refuge within which to recharge and reconnect with the truth of life.

That peace, focus and clarity is the invitation of poetry. Good poets bring our whole lives to our experiences, and to the writing of them. And good readers bring our whole lives to the reading, so we can not just understand the words but listen also for the spaces between the words that carry the full meaning.

In mindful reading, the poem is a soft white cloud, or a darker grey cloud, on the big, open, blue sky of your mind. White or grey, we don’t judge. It’s not about whether you like it or don’t like it, whether it is better or worse than another poem. It’s about listening to what’s being said.

Reading Mindfulness Poetry: Instructions

  • Find a place where you won’t be disturbed for a little while and sit in a comfortable way. Cushions and blankets and anything else that adds to your comfort is desirable.
  • First, relax. For two full minutes, notice your breathing.
  • Now open the page, and read the words silently or aloud.
  • Notice if your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the words on the page.
  • When you have finished the poem, sit with it. Don’t move. Don’t rush to read another one.
  • Don’t analyse. Don’t judge. Just let it reverberate, like the sounding of a bell, within you.
  • Read it again.

The greatest gift you can offer anyone is your creative presence: you, fully present and alert, both relaxed and engaged. It’s a more of a gift than ever in our distracted times. The greatest gift you can offer a poet is to bring your creative presence, your ability to listen deeply, to the poems.

Then poetry can happen in the reading, as it did in the writing.

And to reread. Poems have a life, just as you do. They will change as you change.

Until next time, may your life be filled with poetry.


Reading Mindfulness Poetry: Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine

Sunshine rides on space and poetry on sunshine.
Poetry gives birth to sunshine, and sunshine to poetry.

Sun treasured in the heart of the bitter melon,
poetry made of steam rising from a bowl of soup in winter.
The wind is lurking outside, swirling.
Poetry is back to haunt the old hills and prairies.
Yet the poor thatched hut remains on the river shore, waiting.

Spring carries poetry in its drizzle.
The fire sparkles poetry in its orange flame.

Sunshine stored in the heart of the fragrant wood,
warm smoke leading poetry back to the pages
of an unofficial history book.

Sunshine, though absent from space,
fills the now rose-colored stove.

Sunshine reaching out takes the color of smoke;
poetry in its stillness, the color of the misty air.

Spring rain holds poetry in its drops
which bend down to kiss the soil,
so that the seeds may sprout.

Following the rain, poetry comes to dwell on each leaf.
Sunshine has a green color, and poetry a pink one.
Bees deliver warmth to the flowers from the sunshine
they carry on their wings.

On sunshine footsteps to the deep forest,
poetry drinks the nectar with joy.
With the excitement of celebration,
butterflies and bees crowd the Earth.

Sunshine makes up the dance, and poetry the song.

Drops of sweat fall on the hard ground.
Poems fly along the furrows.
The hoe handily on my shoulder,
poetry flows from the breath.
Sunshine wanes away down the river,
and the silhouette of the late afternoon lingers reluctantly.
Poetry is leaving for the horizon
where the King of Light is blanketing himself in clouds.

A green sun found in a basketful of fresh vegetables,
a tasty and well-cooked sun smells delicious in a bowl of rice.
Poetry looks with a child’s eyes.
Poetry feels with a weather-beaten face.
Poetry stays within each attentive look.
Poetry—the hands that work the poor and arid land somewhere
far away.

The smiling sun brightening up the sunflower;
the ripe and full sun hiding itself in an August peach;
poetry follows each meditative step,
poetry lines up the pages.

Discreetly,
within closed food packages,
poetry nurtures love.

Reading Mindfulness Poetry: Armfuls of Poetry, Drops of Sunshine Explained

In 2002, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a dharma talk to social workers from Vietnam visiting Plum Village, in which he explained this poem about mindfulness and poetry, where it came from, why he wrote it, what he hope it inspires.

The talk is a rare insight into Thich Nhat Hanh, the poet and is an example of his theory of interbeing in action.

Sunshine rides on space and poetry on sunshine. Poetry gives birth to sunshine, and sunshine to poetry.

Rarely do we say an armful of poetry…no one says a drop of sunshine.  This poem is an invitation to look deeply in an awakened way and to see poetry as an armful and sunshine as a drop.

Without sunshine how can we have poetry?

Without sunshine we would die.  How could we make poetry?

In sunshine there is not only the pleasant image, there is also a strong aspect. Sometimes sunshine is also dry and burning.  When we read poetry we feel something sweet and it can also be like a shout denouncing injustice.

Sun treasured in the heart of the bitter melon, poetry made of steam rising from a bowl of soup in Winter.

I wrote this poem during winter. In the previous summer we grew many bitter melons, more than we could eat. We put them in the freezer and in the midst of winter we took them out and made soup.

The bitter melon stores so much sunshine within it. In the winter we could not see the sun at all, it was only gray and cloudy with a cold, sharp wind. We took a log of wood and put it into our stove. At that time in Plum Village we did not have any central heating. We only used wood stoves.

We could not see the sunshine outside, but we could touch the sun in the wood log and in the bitter melon in a hot bowl of soup.

Even in the depths of winter you know that the sun has never left you. In the warmth inside your home, you see the sun in your bowl of soup; you feel the sunshine is still there.

We are eating but we don’t know that we are consuming sunshine…

The wind is lurking outside, swirling. Poetry is back to haunt the old hills and prairies. Yet the poor thatched hut remains on the river shore, waiting.

When I heard the howling wind outside I thought of Vietnam with many poor thatched roofs. Of course, there are also many good houses in Vietnam, but I thought of those families who are most destitute. I thought of the poor thatched-roofed hut by the river shore waiting for our support.

My mind is in touch with the wood log; my mind inter-is with the material things, the phenomenal world.  At the same time, when I heard the sound of the wind, it touches my store consciousness and I remembered the images of our country.

When I left Vietnam, over thirty-five years ago, there were so many poor people living in huts like that. My mind is in touch with the bitter melon, and then hearing the howling wind my mind touches the image of the day I left Vietnam, with many people suffering under the bombs. And now they are still poor and waiting for help.

Sunshine stored in the heart of the fragrant wood. Warm smoke leading poetry back to the pages of an unofficial history book.

An unofficial history book is the book Hermitage Among the Clouds about the true story of Tran Nhan Tong, a Zen teacher in the fourteenth century. During that winter I wrote that book and I ate the bitter melon soup. My poetry is what I have truly lived.

You need to read that book; it is very beautiful.

Poetry is everywhere.

Sunshine, though absent from space, fills the now rose-colored stove. Sunshine reaching out takes the color of smoke; poetry in stillness, the color of the misty air.

It seems that sunshine is absent from space, outside it is so dark and gloomy, but sunshine fills the woodstove.  When you prepare the stove the heat that radiates out is poetry. The bitter melon soup is also poetry. That is the deep look that is not caught in the form. We have to learn to see things free from the form. When the person that you love is not there, you think that he has died, but when you look deeply you see that he or she is still there.

We complain that there is no sunshine, but sunshine is there in the bowl of green vegetables, sunshine is there in the block of burning wood.

Spring rain holds poetry in its drops which bends down to kiss the soil, so that the seeds may sprout. Following the rain, poetry comes to dwell on each leaf.

In a drop of rain, there is also sunshine.  During the summer there is a lot of sunshine evaporating the water from all the ponds and lakes, forming clouds. Thanks to the cold air the clouds will become spring rain.  We can say that the rain is kissing the Earth, but we can also say that the sunshine is kissing the soil because the sunshine is in each drop of rain. We see the deep connection between the sun and the earth [through the rain].

Sunshine has a green color and poetry a pink one. Bees deliver warmth to the flowers from the sunshine they carry on their wings. On sunshine footsteps to the deep forest, poetry drinks the nectar with joy. With the excitement of celebration, butterflies and bees crowd the Earth. Sunshine makes up the dance, and poetry the song.

If you look deeply you see poetry everywhere; it happens every second and every minute of our life…  If you have the time to lie down on the grass you will hear the excitement of spring. Every little being is inspired to sprout. The Earth is crowded with butterflies and bees and many other things. Don’t miss your appointment.

Drops of sweat fall on the hard ground. Poems fly along the furrows. The hoe handily on my shoulder, poetry flows from my breath. Sunshine wanes away down the river, and the silhouette of the late afternoon lingers reluctantly. Poetry is leaving for the horizon where the King of Light is blanketing himself in clouds.

After being in touch with the beauty we are also invited to be in touch with the suffering.  We see the sweat of the farmer who works so hard to grow vegetables for us to eat and we see poetry in that beautiful act of the farmer. The King of light means the sun is going to sleep and he uses the clouds as a blanket. The sun going to sleep is a beautiful atmosphere.

A green sun found in a basketful of fresh vegetables, a tasty and well-cooked sun smells delicious in a bowl of rice.

If you look at the basket of vegetables but you cannot see the sunshine you are not a good practitioner. Without the sunshine how can you have green, fragrant vegetables?  In Vietnam there is a variety of rice called, “eight fragrances rice.”  When you taste that delicious rice you know you are tasting the sun. You can see poetry everywhere.

Poetry looks with a child’s eyes. Poetry feels with a weather-beaten face. Poetry stays within each attentive look. 

…This morning I received a photo of many toddlers from three to five-years-old taken in Do Linh village, the hometown of my mother which is in a very poor area. I see each child as my mother.

My mother was a toddler, poor and undernourished like that.

If these undernourished children can grow up properly, as my mother did because she had a good family, they can become a healthy person and give birth to someone like me.

If I am a bit thin and small-boned it is because when I was a child I never had a cup of milk to drink… I look at every child in Do Linh as my mother, every child in Vietnam is my mother; every child in Thailand is my mother. I see that every child in Africa and everywhere could be my mother.

I wish that every child would have a cup of milk to drink.

When you look deeply, you can see like that. That is what we call the “attentive  look.”

You dwell in the present moment but you see far away all over the planet. You dwell in the present moment, but you can see the past and the future.

Dwelling in the present moment doesn’t mean that you are limited to the present moment.

With an attentive look, you can see the toddler, and you can also see the past and the future of that child.  That child can become a strong mother who gives birth to a healthy child, or a weak mother who gives birth to handicapped children.

Poetry stays within each attentive look.

The smiling sun brightening up the sunflower; the ripe and full sun hiding itself in an August peach; poetry follows each meditative step, poetry lines up the pages.

A person who walks mindfully and beautifully looks like a poem. When you write a compassionate line that is poetry.

Discreetly, within closed food packages, poetry nurtures love.

At the time that I wrote this poem it was impossible to send money to Vietnam. It was impossible to reach the poorest children, the elderly people. The government forbade our social work and charity work.  The work of the School of Youth for Social Service, that we had set up in Vietnam to help mend the wounds of war, was stopped and the director was in jail.  Many social workers were prevented from doing anything. Yet we found a way to provide food to the poorest people in Vietnam.

With the deep look of a practitioner, every moment can be poetry, we can see very deeply and very far while dwelling in the present moment.

To read how the medicine and food were delivered to Vietnam despite the communist government, and other thoughts from Thay on poetry and mindfulness and interbeing, see this transcript of a dharma talk offered to social workers from Vietnam visiting Plum Village in May, 2002.


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