According to the fifth-century Indian sage Bodhidharma, one of the founders of the Zen tradition, Zen is a mode of inquiry “not dependent on words and letters.” It is a practice of direct seeing, based on direct experience. Language in general and conceptual language in particular can come between our minds and the realities of this world. We can mistake the word moon for the moon itself.
Yet, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, author of more than sixty books, affirms, “Writing is a practice of looking deeply.”* Through the act of writing, as through the practice of meditation, we can become intimate with our lives. We can stop and look deeply into what is occurring, and as the poet Eavan Boland once put it, we can fully “experience our experience.” In these ways, as in many others, the parallel practices of meditative inquiry and meditative writing share a common purpose. And in the works of the greatest contemplative writers—Thomas Merton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, Matsuo Basho, to name a few—the two practices are so closely allied as to be one and the same.
That is certainly true of the Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (b. 1939), whose poems and essays bear the marks of a meditative temperament. And in his poem “Personal Helicon,” he offers an illuminating metaphor for the process of “looking deeply,” even as his poem enacts that process.
The title of Heaney’s poem alludes to Mount Helicon, the sanctuary of the Muses in Greek mythology. By association, it also alludes to the Hippocrene spring, the legendary source of poetic inspiration, which was situated on Mount Helicon. Yet at first glance the poem appears to be a fond sketch of childhood, set in rural County Derry and centering on the poet’s early fascination with wells. “They could not keep me from wells,” Heaney declares in his opening stanza. “I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells / Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.” In subsequent stanzas, he recalls particular wells in the Northern Irish countryside, including one “so deep you saw no reflection in it,” and a shallow well in a ditch, which “fructified like any aquarium.”
In his closing stanzas, however, Heaney turns from fond reminiscence to mature reflection on his life’s work:
Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
In the first of these stanzas, Heaney acknowledges both the childhood pleasure of hearing echoes in a well and the not-so-pleasant experience of seeing a rat in the water. Understood figuratively, the image of the rat suggests foul and frightening aspects of the self and the world, revealed by the process of looking deeply. And in the closing stanza, he likens that process to the act of writing, which allows him both to see himself and to evoke what he has elsewhere called “the mysterious otherness of the world.” Like the child’s voice echoing in a well, the mature poet’s rhymes conjure the dark unknown. They create a state of mind known to literary analysts as “negative capability” and to Zen practitioners as “Don’t-know mind” or the mind of “not-knowing.” Abiding with confidence and courage in that state, the poet and meditative practitioner are open to infinite possibilities.
Not everyone can write a poem with the depth and precision of “Personal Helicon.” But anyone with pen and paper can enlist the act of writing as a tool of meditative inquiry. As the American poet William Stafford once remarked, writing is “one of the great free human activities,” which anyone can pursue, whether as a literary vocation or as a vehicle for “looking deeply.” Please try it for yourself.
*Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Parallax 1998), 83.
Seamus Heaney’s reading of “Personal Helicon” may be heard at: