Featured Articles

Why Creative Expression is Meditation (Guest Blogger Sarah Cooke)

by IDP member Sarah Cooke

Okay, so here’s the buzz on a major recent development in my life.  In July, I completed my MFA in Creative Writing, focusing mainly in poetry.  My degree is from Naropa University, an amazing, Buddhism-inspired school in Boulder, CO.  I highly recommend it to any college- or grad-school-bound person who prioritizes nourishing his or her spirit.  While my experience at Naropa was totally inspiring, I’m now faced with the question that has struck existential terror in the hearts of many an MFA grad before me – “What, exactly, does one do with a degree in poetry?”  While the answer, “Well, one learns to access her spiritual being through creative expression,” might not impress the lovely H.R. folks at Random House, it’s absolutely true.

This summer, I had a class with the incredible Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui (http://www.bitsui.com/).  In his class, we talked at length about how unfortunate it is that we – meaning especially those of us reared in mainstream American culture – tend to think of our spiritual lives as being separate from the rest of our lives.  We go to services once a week (if that) and that’s it, we’ve clocked our time.  This is especially detrimental for artists because art is an expression of something innately human, and human beings are innately spiritual creatures.  Think about it – we were drawing pictures in caves before we even had formalized language.  Creativity, therefore, comes from the same place as spiritual “enlightenment” or from our “buddha nature.”  Or, to use less loaded language, creativity comes from our basic connection with existence – and the nature of that existence is spiritual.  We are all connected to one another and to our world, and it is those ties that enable us to creatively express our humanity. When we are being creative, therefore, we are channeling our basic humanity – and engaging in an activity that helps us to better understand it – just like when we meditate.  This is why arts therapy is so profoundly powerful.  So poetry – or painting, sculpture, music, film, photography, graphic design, cooking, interior design, whatever – can be a form of meditation, if done with mindfulness.  More on this in a bit.

In Sherwin’s class, he asked us to take 30 minutes and write with this in mind.  That is, he wanted us to write as if we were channeling the divine.  Which of course we’re always doing 24/7, we just don’t always realize it.  I have to say, this exercise was pretty astonishing.  I tend to be a perfectionist, so I have the rather unproductive habit of editing my writing as I’m going along.  As opposed to someone like Jack Kerouac (the namesake of Naropa’s writing department), who could write brilliantly in long streams of consciousness and, as I understand it, do his comparatively minimal editing later.  But when I imagined myself as a funnel for divine understanding, the words kept flowing and flowing.   Thirty minutes went by and I hardly noticed at all.  I’m convinced this is because I was allowing the practice of writing to be what it truly is – a meditation.  For those interested, the poem is at the end of this post.  And it’s also in my book, Sleep Waking, available at www.lulu.com.

Enough with the commercial.  Now, back to mindfulness.  I’ve written plenty of poems that have been practices in frustration, egotism, even experimentation – but weren’t even in the ballpark of any kind of
spiritual practice.  The reason for that?  I wasn’t writing those poems with mindfulness.  Doing something with mindfulness means your mind is actually present for the activity at hand.  It isn’t wandering
and causing you to go through the motions on cruise control.  The classic example of not being mindful is when you’ve just finished driving somewhere but have no memory of making the turns to get there. When you’re being mindful, neither is your mind pulling you into the pitfall of doing whatever it is you’re doing for some egoic reason. For example, I’ve written countless poems that have turned out horribly because, as I was writing them, I was thinking about how my classmates would judge them when I read them in a workshop.  Had I been focusing just on writing the most authentic poem I could, the work would have turned out much stronger.  So mindfulness is key if you’re going to engage in an authentic creative practice.  And if you can do that, major kudos to you because you’re doing something that allows you to delve into the very nature of spiritual existence.

And as promised, my divinely-channeled poem…

Knots

Love is the tangled grass.

Its body odor mingles with eyes and skin

as hummingbirds emerge from my palms.

Lips fingering the air that is nectared by the tinge

of a hand on a waist.

The moist earth ruptures like the parting of

the planet’s ancient mouth.

Swallows ten thousand moths that reappear as

one butterfly.

Are you soldiers,

booting your heavy passage through delicate land?

No.

Afraid and defensive and wanting only the tangled grass.

Blooming blooming everywhere.

Unable or

unwilling to hinder the outburst of

passionate new blood

flowing in tiny jet streams

of life (life!) teeming in the air

so thick I can feel the blessed pressure on my chest embracing.

Bodies swing in and out of each other.

Around and on top of fields and valleys.

Nestling into and breaking away from

heads of cabbage that grow in backyard gardens

extending around the epicenter.

What surrounds me is not space.

Not the gap between myself and other things.

We are constant points of explosion

on the continuum of light.

My existence is a peal of laughter.

The peel of an apple that my grandmother slices off in one long coil.

Throws into the compost heap like the one next to the blanket

where the dogs play

and last summer we made love in the tangled grass.

Vote for this article to appear in the Recommended list.

Comments

Thanks and listening

Thanks for sharing your inspiration so openly. I also enjoy the surprise I find using writing as an extension of meditation - stepping off from a potent line of poetry and writing for maybe 7 minutes - you know this trick already, but for others... keeping the pen on the page and moving for the full 7 minutes really wreaks havoc with the editor and turns out some surprising A-HA's! Sometimes, using the insights of the writing in a conversational exercise is quite revealing too. The speaker shares according to their own sense of safety, and the listener simply listens - no coaching, no responding. Both end up learning quite about ourselves.

Mary Oliver is a favorite - also check out David Whyte (Start Close In), and Ellen Bass (Prayer for Peace) and Marie Howe (The Last Time)

Your comments invited me to play along - thanks! Mark P

Following in footsteps that

Following in footsteps that the Zen traditions have pathed (as well as other traditions).

While I can do Chinese calligraphy (not very good), I lean towards the craftsmanship side. But instead of wood or stone, I work with bits and circuits.

thanks :)

...i was just chatting with a friend about this very subject last night. this is exactly what i needed to read in this moment  : )

thank you!!

peace ~ j

Wow - great inspiration

Thanks, Sarah - Fiction writer here who takes your point well into my heart. Beautifully expressed.

Mindful writing - it's stream of consciousness honesty all over again.

Thanks for the essay.
jim

Beautiful...

Whatever you do, please keep writing!

The poem is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing it. <3

It reminds me a little of this animation by Daihei Shibata

 

-monica

Spirit through creativity

As a fellow person in the arts, I'm constantly thinking about the idea that, "well, one learns to access her spiritual being through creative expression," and I would only say this: the HR folks at Random House may or may not be impressed, but your life will always and only be richer by pursuing both the spiritual and the creative. And bringing that to whatever work you may do, and not separating the spiritual from the day-to-day, will always and only make the lives of those around you richer.

I know you know this, but I wanted to thank you for reminding me.

And Naropa is great. I got a chance to visit last summer.

Thank you again,

Edoardo

Thanks, Ron!

Hi Ron,

Thanks so much for your comment. I love Mary Oliver!! She really has a way of expressing a lot of intense feelings in a very succinct way that cuts right to the point (and the heart).

For anyone who may be interested, by blog is spiritsandwich.com :)

-Sarah Cooke

thank you

This is a beautiful reminder and a beautiful poem and what great timing: I was thinking about replacing my post today with a Mary Oliver poem - I think about that line "Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?" all the time recently.

"Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?

Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart!"

I don't know shit about poetry but reading your post and poem I'm reminded of that.

THANK YOU!

Site developed by the IDP and Genalo Designs.