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Poetry and the present moment

The idea of living in the present moment is central to Buddhist practice, which I’ve been trying my hand at for more than two decades. As I’ve come to understand it, the basic concept is that the past has passed and the future is unknowable, so the only time with which we can interact is this moment right now. And right now. And … you get it.

The instruction to remain centered in the present is one of my favorite parts of Buddhist philosophy. It’s also remarkably difficult to do, at least for me. No matter how much the present might be demanding my attention, I still find myself caught up in memories and daydreams, returning to past successes and failures, and turning over future visions in my mind.

Poetry can be an aid to present-minded living, serving as it does — or at least as it can — as a textual photograph of a moment. This is supposed to be one of the main methods of creating haiku, for example, though I find even in that form I am often mired in the past. The more I deviate from the nature-word-plus-present-description method of haiku, the more likely it is that my tiny poems will contain sharply pointed thorns of memory.

I overheard one of my coworkers this morning talking about an “on this day” post they’d received on Facebook and how it had dredged up difficult memories. I’m glad to not be on Facebook, because I have too many memories I’d prefer to avoid. And yet, when left to its own devices, the Zuckerberg in my skull is all too happy to pull up some scene I’d sooner escape.

Perhaps one problem, if that’s the word, is that my current life is — or seems — very small. I work in an office during the day. After work I retreat to the 32 square feet of my van, which is where I spend most of my non-work time. This might be an excuse, but I feel like these circumstances don’t lend themselves to the kind of noticing so fundamental to poetry. So instead of seeing things in the world around me, I mine the shafts in my brain for the ore I need to write.

That last paragraph does feel like an excuse now that I read it again. Noticing can happen in any circumstances, and the present moment is the present moment, no matter what it contains. Maybe this whole essay can serve as a call to action for my own writing (I accidentally typed “righting” — a useful accident?); a reminder to pay closer attention to what might seem mundane or confined. I guess we’ll all find out together whether I heed that call in the weeks and months ahead.

Published in Buddhism Massachusetts Poetry Random Musings

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