Much has been said on the frenetic pace of modern life, and its consequences. Writers have been glorifying the wonders of simplicity for hundreds of years: “Let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred,” Thoreau advised in Walden. But in the past five to ten years, especially, the art of “slowing down” has garnered a mass-market following. Today, it is “cooler” than it ever was (think Eat Pray Love, Lululemon, and the rising popularity of Buddhist quotes in tattoo parlors).
I found my way recently to meditation out of medical necessity; chronic stress and anxiety had been causing stomach pains and other physical symptoms. I did, of course, what all good writers do before embarking on something new—I procrastinated the actual “doing” of the thing by reading about it first. A lot. In Mindfulness, Meditation, and Mind Fitness, Joel and Michelle Levey ponder how, “In a single day we respond to more information and make more decisions than one of our ancestors faced in a lifetime.” I thought about this as I went through my day: sorting through dozens of emails advertising clothing, facials, and charities; walking a supermarket aisle devoted entirely to cereal; stopping at a popular intersection with four competing drugstores, one on each corner.
I spent a great deal of time preparing my meditation. I downloaded just the right app, found just the right space where I would not be disturbed (a carpeted closet), bought a tray for the occasion to hold a candle, beads and fancy Santa Maria Novella incense papers. It was only weeks later that I gathered enough courage to actually sit down in my closet, close my eyes, and try to think… of nothing. I wasn’t very successful.
I’ve learned since then that it takes at least seven hours of accumulated meditation time before one begins to see an actual difference. But I’ve thought a lot in the past month about what “meditation” means to different people. To some it means sitting in a dark closet; to others it means tai chi, or yoga, or reflexology, or reiki.
But couldn’t it also be poetry? Self-help books don’t really reference this tactic. But I think a lot of people would agree that reading poetry slows down our minds in the best kind of way. For exactly that reason, the faster society goes, the more people tend to say to poets when apologizing for not buying their books, “You know, I don’t really get poetry.”
But if we spend the same amount of time on a page of poetry with sixty words as a page of a novel with four hundred words, we get a whole lot more out of it. William Stafford is one of my favorite twentieth-century “meditative” poets (“There are great gray islands that come for us, / where the dreams are / far as the sky and the light…”) but I also recently discovered a beautiful, slim volume by Richard Wilbur, published in 1947, called The Beautiful Changes: “I’ve been / Down in Virginia at night, I remember an evening door / A table lamp lit; light stretched on the lawn …” The comma he places between “at night” and “I remember” makes two sentences glide into one, and he does this often, stylistically inviting a more meditative reading.
I think the key to a good relaxation practice is getting out of one’s own mind and away from one’s own obsessions, however that is achieved. I love the recordings of Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles for this, and PBS’s American Ballet Theater documentary, with all its incredible slow-motion footage of dancers on pointe (it is not lost on me how overly-romanticized this seems, talking of nuns and ballet, but truly, they are very calming). Thoreau said, “If for a moment we make way with our petty selves…what a universe will appear, chrystallized and radiant around us.” I keep looking for it; hopefully—one day—I’ll see it.