In his memoir “Something to Write Home About” the poet Seamus Heaney recalls an experience from his rural childhood in Northern Ireland. Near his parents’ farm in Co. Derry, there was a ford in the River Moyola. A trail of stepping stones led from one bank to the other. Venturing into the river, “from one stepping stone to the next,” he felt a sense of security, mixed with a sense of daring:
Suddenly you were on your own. You were giddy and rooted to the spot at one and the same time. Your body stood stock still, like a milestone or a boundary mark, but your head would be light and swimming from the rush of the river at your feet and the big stately movement of the clouds in the sky above your head.*
Looking back at this experience, Heaney sees it as a metaphor for the capacity of human beings “to be attracted at one and the same time to the security of what is intimately known and the challenges and entrancements of what is beyond us”. For the poet Heaney, the experience is also a metaphor for a good poem, which “allows you to have your feet on the ground and your head in the air simultaneously.”
Seamus Heaney is not a Zen practitioner, though his poems often have a contemplative character. But his experience of standing “stock still” in the middle of a river, with the current flowing past him and the clouds moving above his head, has something in common with the practice of Zen meditation.
In practicing zazen, or seated meditation, we assume a posture that resembles a pyramid. Using the meditation cushion as a wedge, we keep our knees on the mat below, forming a triangle with our sitting bones. Leaning forward, then straightening up, we allow the spine to assume its natural curvature, erect but resilient. Exhaling fully in this position, we let our weight and our awareness drop into the lower abdomen. As we settle into stillness, we feel aligned and firmly grounded. To heighten our awareness of our stable posture, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we silently recite the verses, “Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain. / Breathing out, I feel solid”.
Yet if the posture of meditation engenders feelings of solidity, it also fosters openness to experience. Because we are sitting still, we become more sensitive to movement within and around us, be it the flow of breath or the buzz of a fly at the window. Because our posture promotes relaxed alertness, we can observe the thoughts that cross our minds, as though they were clouds in the sky. And because we are resting in awareness, we can recognize those mental habits—those recurrent memories, fantasies, and expectations—that leave little room for anything more productive. Merely by bringing awareness to that mental traffic, we may cause it to diminish, clearing a space for creative thought.
In December, 1995, Seamus Heaney traveled to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In “Crediting Poetry,” his Nobel Lecture, he reflected on his “journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival—whether in one’s poetry or one’s life—turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination”. For the meditative practitioner, whose aim is the deepening of awareness, wisdom, and compassion, the journey may be very different, but the underlying pattern is much the same. Successive acts of attention, made possible by the practitioner’s stable base, open the ego-centered self to a more expansive reality, be it the wideness of language or the ocean of human suffering. On the long path toward compassionate understanding, each moment fully realized becomes a stepping stone, each step a fresh arrival.
*Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers (Faber, 2002), 48. For the full text of “Crediting Poetry” see http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1995/heaney-lecture.html
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