As an English professor who is also active in the environmental movement, organizing an annual environmental conference at my college, I thought it would be productive to write out to myself what I think meditation is in relation to the subjects of poetry and the environment. This is necessarily an attenuated outline, not a deep dive, but I post the result here in the hopes that this little explainer to myself is a helpful assist to your own thought processes.
What is meditation? (five basic observations)
First, we might say that meditation is a way to exercise the prefrontal cortex (your attention/discipline muscle) via calm focus and non-reactive observing.
In meditation, you’re delaying gratification & “doing the harder thing,” as per the neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, not the easier, perhaps noticing that everything is burning, flowing, and changing–inside and out–and you’re being quiet and still in response. In meditation, you don’t trigger easily.
It’s akin to being a radio: you’re receptive to the flow of things through and around you, noticing the signal amplitudes that arrive to your attention. (“Oh, man, that channel is coming in really strong!”)
In film, I think of Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). In Stromboli, a woman (actress Ingrid Bergman), after a great inner struggle, arrives at peace with living on an island that has an active volcano; in Persona, a woman (actress Liv Ullmann) goes silent in response to trauma and absurdity.
Yes, I get it that both of these films are problematic as rationales for meditation, and even raise problematic issues surrounding the value of meditation in the first place. But in terms of describing what one is doing in meditation, as opposed to whether it should be practiced in the first place, one is dampening reactivity with an even temperament, going from a soundtrack of desire to a meta-soundtrack of non-reactivity. That is, one is fixing unconditioned awareness on the present, w/out tanha—Pāli for thirst—& you don’t grasp or push away, but instead eat the dragon heat of tapas (a Vedic term for “inner heat”), staying put on your cushion or yoga mat.
So in meditation, it’s easy come, easy go–which is much easier said than practiced. The poet John Ashbery puts it this way: “The seasons are no longer what they once were, / But it is the nature of things to be seen only once / As they happen along.”
Second, there are two basic types of meditation: one is tratak, or single focus (single point) meditation. This is where you place your attention on one thing, perhaps a candle flame, and you are in no hurry, still and quiet in the presence of it. You stay with it; you don’t attend to anything else. This of course strongly works the pre-frontal cortex, one’s attention/discipline “muscle.” Second, there is vipassana.
The attention/discipline “muscle” is strongly worked in vipassana as well, but in vipassana, the attention alights on ever-changing particulars, and they are observed closely. That is, there is the breaking down of essence and emergence by calmly noticing that things also consist of parts that are constantly changing. It can be thought of as a form of foreground-background/aspect seeing, as in the famous face-vase image in introductory psychology books. In vipassana, one drops the foreground faces, as it were, and notices their interconnection and reliance on background conditions, which can be observed to constantly change.
So you are in no hurry, observing these underlying, changing conditions without preference, and in perfect stillness and silence. In vipassana, you notice that everything is burning and nothing is simple (that is, all things consist of parts)—and therefore, that nothing is personal. Put another way, because things consist of shifting parts in causal relation, it’s hard to become bitter toward people or yourself. It’s akin to raging at the components of weather that have come together to make wind. The wind is blowing in response to immediate, impersonal conditions, not because it is out to get you, personally.
Third, in meditation one is, as Robert Wright puts it, “taking the red pill.” That is, you are noticing how your wet, mammalian brain, built by evolution, interacts with the environmental matrix. For example, you might notice acutely that every pleasant dopamine hit fades, and the calm poetry of being here now, on your meditation cushion, fades, and perhaps becomes boring, tempting you elsewhere: to spells and manias for sex, food, service (ends), & status.
In meditation, what you are doing is hacking the matrix by breathing evenly, noting how your brain is churning in response to stimuli, even as you are not reacting to those churns, having some emotional distance from them, merely observing them, like a lion on a hill.
You might thus ask, “To what end am I being hijacked/tempted to serve & what modules/networks in my brain are being activated in the service?”—then you might, in the words of the poet Wallace Stevens in his poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “let be be finale of seem” (that is, let be be an end in itself; let the appearance of now be the epiphany of being, not the mere appearance of something on its way to something else deeper and more important). Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Of Mere Being” (1967) can be helpful here:
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
Fourth, meditation is a trick for dropping desire and aversion so that you can see inside/outside as one. That is, you don’t let anything inward or outside bother you; you notice the blood flowing in your veins and arteries and the streams of life flowing everywhere outside of you. It’s all one system; one flow.
Reduced to four words, meditation is this: one thing, no reaction.
The “no reaction” helps you see that everything is one thing. In literature, one can think of Emerson’s famous “Eyeball” and of T. S. Eliot’s end point or “still point of the turning world.” By embracing no reaction, you can choose love awareness and see love as connection & peace, with no need to grasp and hold.
Another poet we might think of here is Allen Ginsberg: “It’s never too late to do [or to be or buy] nothing at all!” And with each day, we might say with the French poet and critic Apollinaire, “Here’s the day’s poetry!”
It’s akin to Jacques Derrida’s reflections on l’avenir, the time to come; i.e. being open, flexible, & accepting of the onrush of new things, enacting LSD-style hospitality, but via a method less freighted with recreational drug usage to arrive at the effect: mere meditation itself.
Fifth, in relation to poetry, literature, and language, meditation can be thought of as the practice of bringing down the energy on one’s nouns and adjectives. In other words, it teaches us to think of things as a happening, noticing that things (nouns) are really events in relation (the physicist Carlo Rovelli)—and that nouns often bear adjectives, which entail emotions and models that drive our judgments. In meditation we might question, for example, lyrics like these from the Schoolhouse Rock children’s song on adjectives: “It was a hairy bear! / It was a scary bear!” What happens to our charged, alarmed perceptions when we drop the hairy and scary–and perhaps even let the designation bear itself drop away? Wallace Stevens’s poem, “The Plain Sense of Things,” captures this intuition that we should interrogate our habitual deployments of language, such as judgmental adjectives:
After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir [French for knowledge].
It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.
The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.
Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence
Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.
In other words, Wallace Stevens agrees that language and imagination are inescapable. If you seem to strip them away, they’re still there, even if sublimated (“the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined”). Mental life always accompanies our bodily and environmental life. No need to run from that. But Stevens, in this poem, also shows an interest in at least sometimes attempting to subtract imagination, judgment, naming (nouns), and adjectives as much as possible from the poet’s fictions & seeing what’s left. Doing so is akin to opening up to a Freudian return of the repressed. Part of the work of meditation is a willingness to look the repressed in the eye, allowing it to appear from beneath the overlay of imagination, language, and reactive emotions.
What about meditation’s relation to the environment?
Two points here.
At one level, meditation in relation to the environment is noticing that, when actually observed moment by moment, the self is not different in nature from the dynamic environment. Along with all other things, the self too is a flux, elusive, not really graspable, like a phantom or blue pipe smoke. Here’s the historian and philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) on the illusion that one possesses a stable, permanent self:
There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self….For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist…I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement (T 1.6.4, 1–4; SBN 251–53).
Scholars have puzzled over how Hume arrived at such an explicitly Buddhist position on the self, and have generally concluded that he had access to Buddhist texts in translation, but of interest here is that meditation–most specifically, vipassana meditation–is the practice of observing that all things consist of parts–including the self, which Hume expresses admirably here, independent of how he arrived at the insight.
At another level, meditation in relation to the environment is samadhi (a consciousness of the oneness and interconnection of all things), as when the astronaut Edgar Mitchell described his experience in 1971 of being in space:
I had completed my major task for going to the moon and was on my way home and was observing the heavens and the earth from this distance, observing the passing of the heavens. As we were rotated, I saw the earth, the sun, the moon, and a 360 degree panorama of the heavens [—the stars of which are ten times brighter than when they are seen from Earth]. The magnificence of all of this was this trigger in my visioning. In the ancient Sanskrit, it’s called Samadhi. It means that you see things with your senses the way they are – you experience them viscerally and internally as a unity and a oneness accompanied by ecstasy.
Here’s The New York Times recounting Mitchell’s experience of samadhi:
[In 1971 Edgar Mitchell] is 40…It is Feb. 9, 1971, and he has just had an epiphany. It happened on the flight back from the moon, where Mitchell and his colleague Alan Shepard had traversed [regions of the moon]…to gather geological samples that, it was hoped, might reveal something of the moon’s inner structure. As the Kitty Hawk command module hurtled homeward, Mitchell watched the earth, moon and sun passing by the window of the rotating capsule in two-minute intervals. Looking out into space, Mitchell later recalled, “I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars.” Mitchell was a naval aviator whose doctoral dissertation, from M.I.T., was on guidance systems in low-thrust interplanetary vehicles. Nothing in his training had equipped him for a sudden discovery of the oneness of all things. “It was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy,” he would later tell a yoga magazine.
To conclude, here are two poems that I think bring together the key ideas surrounding meditation that I’ve attempted to outline above. The first is by Mary Tighe (1772-1810)
written at Scarborough in August of 1799:
As musing pensive in my silent home
I hear far off the sullen ocean’s roar,
Where the rude wave just sweeps the level shore,
Or bursts upon the rocks with whitening foam,
I think upon the scenes my life has known;
On days of sorrow, and some hours of joy;
Both which alike time could so soon destroy!
And now they seem a busy dream alone;
While on the earth exists no single trace
Of all that shook my agitated soul, As on the beach new waves forever roll
And fill their past forgotten brother’s place:
But I, like the worn sand, exposed remain,
To each new storm which frets the angry main.
And here is Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “The Last Stop,” as translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh. It appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of The Atlantic. After you read the poem, I’ll offer a way to think about it in light of meditation and Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Of Mere Being,” which was presented and discussed earlier in this post.
The tram rumbled past red houses.
The wheels in mining towers whirled
like carousels in fairgrounds.
Roses dimmed by soot grew in the gardens,
wasps raged in pastry shops
above cakes strewn with crumbs.
I was fifteen, the tram moved
quicker between the housing projects,
in the meadows I spotted marsh marigolds.
I thought that at the last stop
the meaning of it all would stand revealed,
but nothing happened, nothing,
the driver ate a roll with cheese,
two old women talked quietly
about prices and diseases.
So I read Zagajewski’s poem in light of “Of Mere Being” in the following manner: it’s in the gleam of Wallace Stevens’s “bronze décor” at “the end of the mind,” with the bird’s “fire-fangled feathers dangling down,” that we meditate–and reach samadhi. In meditation we are not oriented toward some far-off mental space (Zagajewski’s “last stop”). For those paying attention to the present, we are always already at the “palm at the end of the mind.” The kingdom of the bird’s “fire-fangled feathers” is right here, at this unlikely combination of events, so the advice of the meditator is to be with the bird now.
In other words, be here now—as Ram Das famously puts it.
Put yet another way, the “two old women” who “talked quietly / about prices and diseases” are another incarnation, another revelation, of being. They are manifestations of Stevens’s bird and palm at the end of the mind. Yet we are often focused, when not in a meditative state, on a distant end, toward Zagajewski’s “last stop,” where “the meaning of it all would stand revealed.” But now is the current revelation of being, whenever we attend to it in meditation. “Be still and know that I am God” and “the kingdom of heaven is within you” might be the monotheistic versions of this insight. This moment is only mere to those who aren’t paying attention to the strangeness–the wonder and alienness–of existence itself.
Note: I made this figure/ground image on my computer to illustrate aspect seeing to myself, and call it “Marilyn Martian.”