Twelve years ago, my wife and I planted a row of Red Twig Dogwoods on the western border of our back yard. They are now more than twelve feet tall. As I look out on this cold winter morning, I notice again how the dogwoods’ deep-red branches contrast with the prevailing whites, grays, and browns. Against a dormant and seemingly lifeless landscape, they remind us of the life force.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called that force “the clearest freshness deep down things.” Dylan Thomas called it “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” More simply, the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura, in his book Living by Vow,* calls it the “natural universal life force,” which appears most vividly in nature but is common to the natural and human worlds alike. “The force that drives the water through the rock,” Thomas went on to say, “drives my red blood.” “We are all connected,” writes Okumura, “one universal life force.”
The connection to which Okumura alludes is readily verified, but in our everyday lives we may easily lose sight of it. And one of the primary aims of sitting meditation is to reconnect us with the life force within and around us. “We start right from this posture in silence,” Okumura explains, “from the ever-fresh life force that is free from any defilement.” And as we sit in silence, we “seek to manifest the universal life force which we have been given. We live on this earth with everything we need as a gift from nature.” Merely by sitting still, we can become aware of that boundless gift, and we can also seek to “live out” the life force, allowing it “to practice through us for all living beings.”
Known in Zen as “just sitting,” this practice is simple but not always easy. It requires us to sit absolutely still and attend to whatever is occurring, within and around us. But should we commit ourselves to the practice, we may come to see how everything is changing, moment by moment, and how embodiments of the life force persist and grow, even as they negate themselves. A seed becomes a shoot, a shoot a flower. An infant becomes a child. When we seek to control the life force, Okumura warns, we diminish it. But if we put our wholehearted energies into the present moment, allowing the life force to manifest within us, its fruits will grow naturally. “We think that our own life is a failure and that we’re in trouble. But the life force is flexible. There is always some other way to live, to grow, and to manifest our life force.”
Many things can hinder our living out the life force, chief among them our inner chatter and our habits of excessive thinking. But as Okumura elsewhere reminds us, part of our life force is our power of thought. And, as the poet Seamus Heaney demonstrates in his poem “Perch,”* the practice of contemplation, supported by language, thought, and poetic form, can bring us close to that “freshness deep down things.”
A ten-line poem consisting of a single sentence, “Perch” recalls Heaney’s observation of those small freshwater fish in the Bann River in County Derry:
Perch on their water-perch hung in the clear Bann River
Near the clay bank in alder-dapple and waver,
Perch we called “grunts,” little flood-snubs, runty and ready,
I saw and I see in the river’s glorified body
That is passable through, but they’re bluntly holding the pass,
Under the water-roof, over the bottom, adoze,
Guzzling the current, against it, all muscle and slur
In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air
That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on hold
In the everything flows and steady go of the world.
In this brief, intimate lyric, Heaney observes a balance of movement and stasis in the natural world. An imagery of incessant activity–the alders’ reflections, the river’s current–is countered by an image of stability: the dozing perch, suspended between the “river-roof” and the river’s bottom. And, like the perch “holding the pass,” the poem’s off-rhymed couplets (river/waver; ready/body) create a succession of fixed but permeable forms, through which the long, sinuous sentence flows. In the presence of these balanced forces, natural and literary, the narrator summons a fondly remembered experience to present awareness.
“Zen and poetry are one,” an old Zen saying tells us. In this instance, Heaney’s poem enacts a moment in which the life force co-exists harmoniously with contemplative thought. Vested with the power of thought, the narrator contemplates the life force. Held by thought to a single point, he experiences–and honors–the “steady go of the world.”
* Shohaku Okumura, Living By Vow: A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts (Wisdom, 2012), Kindle edition, locations 3910, 1293, 1598, 3861. Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan (Wisdom, 2010), 1261.
* Seamus Heaney, Electric Light (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), 4