In Ponsot’s poem “For Denis at Ten,” in Easy, a boy is sent to the brook beyond the pasture to collect watercress. He sets off on the errand whistling. The poem concludes when the speaker says,
Nothing reminds him of something.
He sees what is there to see.
Seeing what there is to see.
Hearing what there is to hear.
Tasting what there is to taste.
Smelling what there is to smell.
Sensing what there is to touch.
Feeling what there is to feel.
“The direct experience of what?,” writes Trappist monk Thomas Merton In Zen and the Birds of Appetite. “Life itself.”
An essayist, Merton puzzles out ideas on the page. “I believe,” he concludes, “Zen has much to say not only to a Christian, but also to a modern man.”
Seeking the authentic in creative and spiritual encounters, he traveled, studied, worked, contemplated, conversed and stilled. Of Zen,
It is nondoctrinal, concrete, direct, existential, and seeks above all to come to grips with life itself, not with ideas about life, still less with party platforms in politics, religion, science or anything else.
As a poet, Ponsot logs direct experience in the recreation of recollection.
Could a moment be inhabited as an eternal present?
This is not enlightenment but another offshoot of the tree of experience–imagination.
In “This Bridge, like Poetry, is Vertigo,” Ponsot writes,
Late at night when my outdoors is
indoors, I picture clouds again:
Come to mind, cloud.
Come to cloud, mind.
Any activity can be termed meditative that fastens us like a seat belt to the present. You spot it in people in motion, stacking wood, running, cooking, whittling, crocheting. It happens when listening to music, painting, reading.
Louise Rosenblatt identified the transactional quality of a reader’s response to literature. Many of us believe this imaginative engagement fosters empathy.
In decades of teaching, I’ve experienced a handful of minutes when the close attention of a reader to a marvelous text creates a third thing, when the abracadabra of words manifests.
Could empathy be another offshoot of engaged experience?
As effective as words can be for straddling fissures among us, we cannot become too attached to them. Words displace silence. They can disrupt experience. We’ve all been jarred out of moments, distracted, by a companion’s well-intended comment.
Words remain intermediaries.
The Zen experience is a direct grasp of the unity of the invisible and the visible, the noumenal and the phenomenal, or, if you prefer, an experiential realization that any such division is bound to be pure imagination.
In a somatic workshop I attended this month on the vagus nerve, Lauren Wadsworth suggested walking barefoot on a variety of surfaces. Even inside, contrasting textures of rugs, linoleum, tile and wood provide information.
I’ve noticed my city dog is happiest when our walk traverses varied substrates–fallen leaves, puddles, mud, and, back inside, the thickly carpeted hallways of our building.
My chair yoga students slide soles of their feet along the carpet and place them on chair rungs. They write the alphabet in the air with their toes. JoAnn Lyons, who specializes in teaching yoga to people with disabilities, says moving the feet benefits the heart.
We experimented, in the workshop, held in a sunny tenth floor apartment, with humming and moving, sensing internal spaces and external. Wadsworth pointed out that “gravity is a force of belonging.”
For me, it happens when I am absorbed in yoga practice, playfully attuned with my pooch, arrested by beauty, gripped by pathos, aligned with a friend, engrossed in work, captivated by wonder, snagged by an idea, participating in life.
It’s when breathing with an awareness of how precious earth’s atmosphere is.
How does this happen for you?
Merton’s embrace of the tree of experience is encompassing. He writes,
Both Buddhism and Christianity are alike in making use of ordinary everyday human existence as material for radical transformation of consciousness. Since ordinary human experience is full of confusion and suffering, then obviously one will make good use of both of these in order to transform one’s awareness and one’s understanding, and to go beyond both to attain “wisdom” in love.
Grace can lie in a smooth, well-coordinated motion, or in a humble and tolerant attitude. More often than not, the two go hand in hand….Grace has nothing to do with looks or sophistication, and everything to do with compassion and courage.
Patti Smith’s M Train shows how writers accrue experiences as images and how those images become raw material for our work. She explains,
Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling from the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle.
A black dog on a strip of beach, Fred standing in the shadows of mangy palms flanking the entrance to Saint-Laurent Prison, the blue-and-yellow Gitane matchbox wrapped in his handkerchief, and Jackson racing ahead, searching for his father in the pale sky.
After the abolishment of California’s Arts-in-Corrections funding in 2009, inmates facilitated their own arts groups, relying on volunteers to infuse fresh ideas. From 2010-2013, I volunteered as a poetry teacher at California State Prison-Sacramento (New Folsom Prison). The maximum-security facility housed about 3,000 men at the time I worked there.
Offering up experiences within the framework of writing, the guys and I learned from each other about perspective, environment, language, rhythm, time, friendship, justice, illness, empathy and responsibility.
In that stark setting, we drew from memory for images to turn into phrases. When asked to construct metaphors using animals or natural imagery, the students were often stuck. Their experience of animals beyond a neighborhood cat or dog was limited. Most had never visited a wildlife park or even a zoo.
Having grown up under street lights, they’d never seen a dark sky brightened with stars.
I’d filed my essay away in the cloud; I’ll share it now. This is what I wrote after my final visit.
One afternoon, in a small group gathered at New Folsom Prison to discuss writing, a young man lifted the lid on his stockpot of stories.
At 20, he was three years “down.” In those last few teenage years, by listening and paying attention he’d gathered a writer’s skills, developing in English and Spanish a storyteller’s sense for detail, dialogue and pacing. I suggested he could write in both languages, maybe for people who have no way to tell their own stories; he could bear witness to events.
“I never thought of it that way before,” he said.
Through the room’s window on the hallway, he watched his younger brother being led in chains by officers past a gate. That brother’s twin, he said, was in another state prison. “We’ve disappointed our mom.”
They grew up with their mother (their father lived close by, but not with them) in a small Central Valley town bound on four sides by orchards. The town’s children had a pond for swimming–when it wasn’t emptied by irrigation–and a community center where he hung out with the kids, even after he was inducted into a gang.
“One time,” he told us, “the center was having a drawing contest for the little kids, something about our town.” One boy drew the bird that symbolizes the United Farm Workers. The boy included the name of the town and proudly showed it to the teacher.
“Oh, man,” the storyteller said, “I thought, ‘He doesn’t know.’”
The boy didn’t know that the symbol he saw on t-shirts, banners, and posters, had been co-opted by a gang. The boy’s drawing could not be entered in the contest.
“That was when I realized that up until a point you can be a little kid and then you can’t.”
He told us about working beside his father in the fields and how pickers would trade rows so everyone had enough. He laughed as he remembered out-of-town relatives arriving to glean nectarines from trees edging the streets. His favorite times were riding in the car to the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town before his town had its own store.
On those trips he could look out the window at the scenery passing.
He told more. About the time a bird struck the windshield when his mother was driving. The time he pushed his teacher for grabbing his headphones, and the man fell, and he was charged with assault.
About when he stopped smoking weed and how stupid his friends looked when they were high but how they passed the blunt, skipping him, without giving him grief.
He told us how he could look at a math problem and see the answer arise without touching a pencil. (“I don’t know how it happens,” he said.) He told us about a girlfriend who mentioned a test he could take for college entrance and how no one could believe it when he scored so high.
“People with scores like mine. They go to MIT,” he said. He shook his head. “I wish I had known. I wish I had known that I could go to college and all that.”
I wish I had known is a phrase I heard often from inmates.
One man, upon writing his first poem, told me, “I wish I had known earlier that I can do this. I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t know I had this in me.”
On one visit, we used a simple Venn diagram to compare how we perceive in “artist mode” with how we perceive in daily life. An inmate observed, “This is weird. Thinking about my mind in two ways.” He stuck with it, then commented, “I can bring these together. I can be my ‘artist self’ more often.”
Another writer spent more than a year revising the same wonderful poem of numbers that held a pattern he perceived. He was dealing with schizophrenia and a brain injury. Beautiful and complex, his poem operated outside of any recognizable linear progression, any expectations of a “healthy mind.”
At first, the poem was no more than sounds. Over time, the sounds stacked up to make meaning.
One day, he delivered the poem to the room, reading from a creased piece of lined paper. After a moment of stunned silence, everyone applauded. With persistence, he had made sense. He had untangled a portion of his thinking through effortful experience.
In the introduction to the 1921 Modern Library Edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg points out,
Throughout “Leaves of Grass” there recurs often a wild soft laughter carrying the hint that it is impossible for a poet to tell you anything worth knowing unless you already know it and no song can be sung to you that will seem a song deeply worth hearing unless you have already in some strange, far-off fashion heard that song. An instance of this wild soft laughter is in the closing lines of “Song of Myself,” where it is written:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and of my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am unstranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapour and the dusk.
In every work of art and every conversation we respond to there’s that feeling of recollection. It’s the marvel of connection. It’s embodying metaphor, from Greek metaphora, to transfer; it’s the conveyance of meaning between one living creature and another over the broad valley of experiences and genes that make our dispositions and keep us from being all the same, too tamed.
Experience is related to experiment. All experiences begin as experiments, don’t they?
Greeting an inmate, I’d say, “It’s nice to see you.”
“It’s nice to be seen,” he’d respond.
Toward the end of M Train, Smith’s ellipsoidal gift of black and white photos, flavors of black coffee and brown toast, her shared beauties, fantasies and phantasms, she observes,
We seek to stay present, even as ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs us all.
During my 10 years in Sacramento, The Book Collector revealed many gems. One is Move and Be Moved published in 1980. I’m glad I brought the book along to D.C.
In poem-like descriptions Anne Lief Barlin and Tamara Robbin Greenberg suggest ways to move, alone and with others. Black and white photographs celebrate making shapes.
Stanley Keleman‘s introduction explains the difference between sensing and feeling. Rereading it yesterday reminded me of why I find teaching yoga one-on-one or in small groups effective and exciting. The personal attention allows for awareness of feeling, what Keleman calls “the whole action.”
Though Keleman does not use the word, I think of “empathy.”
In my experience, the three braids of imaginative engagement that yoga requires–mental, physical and emotional–provide an experience of empathy with the self that transfers to fellow humans, pets and the natural world.
So often people confuse feeling and sensing. Sensing includes specific stimuli that provide information about a situation. The brain senses pressure, light, temperature and movement to position the body in space. Feeling, on the other hand, is a response from the cells. This visceral state involves the muscles, tissues, blood and nervous system in rhythmic and pulsating patterns and speaks the language of emotional expression….
The distinction between sensing and feeling opens the door to the two facets of contact: contact from the senses (objective reality) and contact from internal metabolism (subjective reality). These are ways of connecting with self and others. We make contact with ourselves through sensing where we are in space, by sensing the relationship of one part of ourselves to another part. The senses provide the images for patterns of movement. The other form of contact is the direct upwelling of warmth, liquidity and visceral motility which is expressed as tenderness, rage, anger, etc. This is emotional connection.
Actions and movements can be impersonal, a mechanical marvel wherein the body is an instrument for performance. But actions are incomplete unless they convey the meaningfulness of experience. Emotional knowledge liked to action is known as expression. The intent of internal movement and its expression is to arouse and generate response. Inner motility shapes the body, psyche and brain–one’s very life. Organismic movement reorganizes self-concept and self-image.
Life is a mobile, a pendulum, in which one is always trying to arrive at integration. We seek to maintain our uprightness, keeping the weight moving between two feet. Movement is not only muscular and cardiovascular but also gracefulness that comes from using oneself completely.
Try an experiment: Stand. Or sit on a chair. Sense your feet on the ground, bones and muscles holding the body. Place one palm on what we call the heart center, the area to the right of the beating heart. This motion may be familiar from reciting pledges. Let the hand linger. Notice the sensation of skin on cloth, the feet, the space above the crown of the head. Breathe, inhaling and exhaling for six full cycles. Return the hand to your side. Notice what you feel, inside. Choose one of the feelings and name it. Now replace the hand on the heart center, carrying with it that feeling, letting the movement be an expressive gesture of yourself. Pause. Return the hand to your side. Mentally let go of the named feelings and words. Stay present for a few more breaths.
Satya, the second yama, translates as truth. Truth emerges naturally from clarity: the more we know ourselves and accept ourselves, the greater the odds are that every word, action and thought will be in alignment with that self. Really, to be truthful is to be steadfast with yourself, your loved ones, the world.
“But all the telling detail in the world doesn’t matter if the song lacks an emotional center. That’s something you have to pull out of yourself from the commonality you feel with the man or the woman you are writing about. By pulling these elements together as well as you can, you shed light on their lives and respect their experiences.” Bruce Springsteen is writing here about the making of The Ghost of Tom Joad. He’s also writing about the experience of being an artist. I understand what he means. When things are going well, when I’m tapped in, getting an assist from the Muse, there’s a shift at some point–and it can be at anytime during the process depending on the piece–where the tale (song, story, poem) moves from a direct and personal experience–memory, image, sound, idea–to something broader, having to do with more than me. There’s still no guarantee the piece will end up working, but the connection’s been made.
Increasingly, I believe the connection is the most crucial part of the process. Springsteen says he knew the album “wouldn’t attract my largest audience. But I was sure the songs on it added up to a reaffirmation of the best of what I do.”
Poets aren’t rock stars. (Except in our dreams!) But we are in a position to identify instances of commonality among human and non-human inhabits of our world. Any work of art requires an emotional center. The center is ballast. From this stable center, the piece reaches beyond itself and, hopefully, invites someone into an experience of empathy in which each retains autonomy while relating.
On good days, I find leading a Yoga class resembles this process of poem-making. Yoga is an ongoing practice of finding stable center within the body’s geography, sitting or standing or lying down, and moving in relationship to it.
Again and again I return to the heart center, near the literal, beating heart, the one that both lets us know we are alive and keeps us so. Teaching reminds me of a satin magic hanky. I go into class having prepared a sequence and (hopefully) cleared my head and warmed up my body. This is, say, the blue section of the hanky. Then class starts and as we move with breath through shapes, the commonality of our incontrovertible humanness pulls a deeper emotional center from me–call that the green section. My intention was to offer conditions for my students’ transformation and I’ve been transformed, pulled and flipped like the magic satin hanky chain. Every artist is changed by what he makes. And teaching can be an art.
As with making anything, what goes into it matters: A poet, a songwriter, a novelist, a yoga teacher trains herself to notice details, develop an ear for rhythm and tone, learn the architecture of lines. But what happens once that table is set–polished silverware, sparkling glasses, bright plates, crisp linens, flowers and candles–what happens after it’s set, when you sit down with what you’ve prepared and whomever joins you, and let that teach you and enrich you, that’s where the joy is.
What use could the humanities be in a digital age?
University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world.
Kristof places the need for empathy into a global context. Check it out. Letters in response to the Kristof piece add to the conversation.
Dog walking taught me plenty about people, what they value and how they choose to be. The experience gave me practice in empathy and problem-solving as well as lots of time to reflect.
Like teaching in the humanities, and teaching yoga, it’s a job that satisfies body, heart and mind. No matter how many machines we habituate ourselves to, people –all animals–want to be acknowledged by a greeting voice and a gentle touch, to know that who they are and what care about matters to someone else, even for just a 55-minute English class or a 20-minute stroll. And, somehow, time attending lovingly to another holds within it the the potential for truth, beauty, justice and knowledge. This is necessary.