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Jane Hirshfield 2009

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying asserts: “Poetry and Zen are one.” And in the poems of Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953), a leading American poet and longtime Zen practitioner, that adage is borne out in concrete images and recurrent themes. Such is the case in this elegant poem, which hangs on a wall in our home:

                        A CEDARY FRAGRANCE

                       Even now,

                       decades after,

                       I wash my face with cold water –

 

                       Not for discipline,

                       nor memory,

                       nor the icy, awakening slap,

 

                       but to practice

                        choosing

                        to make the unwanted wanted.

 In these lines Hirshfield examines a daily ritual: splashing cold water on her face in the early-morning hours. In so doing, she also articulates several core principles of Zen practice.

In the 1970s, Hirshfield spent three years in residence at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which is situated in the Los Padres National Forest in central California. The fragrance of cedar, we may infer from her title, was in the air. In Zen centers and monasteries, residents rise as early as 2:30, splash cold water on their faces, and make haste to the zendo (meditation hall) for the first sitting of the day. “Decades after,” as she puts it, Hirshfield is still continuing this practice, though her external circumstances no longer require her to do so. “What is this?” Zen students are enjoined to inquire, whether the focus of inquiry is a concrete object, a physical sensation, or a state of mind. In this instance, Hirshfield implicitly asks why she is still performing a less-than-pleasant action, morning after morning, when she no longer has to.

Employing abductive reasoning, her poem entertains three plausible explanations. The first is that she is maintaining the rigor of Zen discipline, as a musician might do in playing scales. The second is that she is reconnecting her present experience with what she has called the “diamond at the center of [her] life”: her years as a full-time Zen student at Tassajara. And the third is that she is using the shock of ice-cold water to awaken herself, awakening being a fundamental aim of Zen practice. Rejecting all these explanations, however, she answers her own question in five key words, each of which carries a rich cargo of meaning.

The first of these words is practice, a word and concept as essential in Zen as it is in medicine or law. In Zen, nearly every activity one might engage in, be it sitting, eating, walking, gardening, cooking, or cleaning, is viewed as a form of practice, to which the practitioner gives his or her wholehearted attention. An end in itself, each such practice is also a means to an end, namely full awakening, and it is also the fruit of previous practice.

No less important is the word choosing, which Hirshfield underscores by allotting this operative verb a line to itself. One of the primary benefits of Zen practice is the eventual replacement of habitual, reflexive reactions with mindful, chosen responses. Through daily practice, the former give way to the latter. By anchoring ourselves in a stable posture, practicing conscious breathing, and observing our thoughts as they come and go, we become intimately aware of our mental habits—what Zen teachings call our “habit energy”(vasana). Bringing this awareness into our everyday lives, we develop the capacity to relinquish our most destructive habits. We fortify our power of choice.

The third key word is make, which in this context refers to creating a particular emotional response. In her book How Emotions Are Made, the distinguished neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett propounds what she calls the “theory of constructed emotion,” which holds that our emotional responses are not hardwired into our bodies and minds but actively constructed by our brains from three primary components: “affective realism” (empirical fact filtered through present feeling); “emotion concepts”; and social realities. Broadly speaking, Zen teachings accord with Barrett’s findings. Our emotions don’t just happen to us. Our brains play an active part in creating them. By becoming fully aware, through daily meditative practice, of that ongoing, moment-by-moment process of creation, we gain control over our reflexive thoughts and actions.

By such means, we can make the unwanted wanted. Rather than merely react to a splash of icy water by fighting that sensation, we can choose to respond with openness and curiosity. Rather than mindlessly react to its verbal counterpart—an offensive opinion, an inadvertent insult, a condescending remark—with prejudicial judgment and a commensurate retort, we can learn to respond with genuine compassion. And over time, we may even come to welcome adverse situations, insofar as they offer occasions for cultivating broader awareness, clearer insight, and deeper understanding.

___________

Jane Hirshfield, Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins,2001).

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, “Zen and the Art of Poetry: An Interview,” Agni Online.

Photo: Jane Hirshfield, Zen Center of Syracuse, November 2009.

 

 

 

Michael Longley (b. 1939) is the foremost living poet of Northern Ireland. Born and reared in Belfast, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied classics. Although he has traveled widely, he has lived in his native city all his life, and some of his most admired poems address what he has called the “Years of Disgrace”—the thirty-year period of sectarian warfare in twentieth-century Ulster. But Longley’s poetic imagination is most at home in the townland of Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, where he and his wife, the distinguished literary critic Edna Longley, have owned a cottage since 1970. Over the decades, they have regularly returned to their remote retreat, and many of Longley’s most compelling poems are exquisite miniatures, set in the Mayo landscape. Many feature birds and flowers.

Longley’s most recent collection, Angel Hill, includes a poem as remarkable for its diction as for its concentration: Continue Reading »

197. Nothing special

Consider, if you will, the peculiar status of the word special. Whether employed as adjective or noun, the word means distinctive, uncommon, out-of-the-ordinary. Yet the word itself could hardly be more common. On what seems like a weekly basis, retailers announce their Special Offers and Special Sales. For breakfast, some of us eat Special K, which presumably is superior to Regular K. When we go out to dinner to celebrate a special occasion, we are likely to hear at length about that evening’s specials. In some contexts, as in “special needs,” “special effects,” and Special Counsel, the word’s function is chiefly descriptive, but more often it serves to praise, sell, or persuade. If someone calls you a “very special person,” you can safely take it as a compliment. With rare exceptions, both the literal meaning and the connotations of special are reliably, if vaguely, laudatory. Continue Reading »

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Wallace Stevens 1879-1955

In his poem “Sunday Morning,” the modern American poet Wallace Stevens depicts a leisured woman enjoying her late-morning coffee in a sun-drenched room. “She dreams a little,” the narrator notes; and in her reverie she revisits moments of heightened emotional intensity:

            Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;

            Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued

            Elations when the forest blooms; gusty

            Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;

            All pleasures and all pains, remembering

            The bough of summer and the winter branch.

I first read those lines as an undergraduate, some fifty years ago. They have stayed with me over the decades, partly because of their formal beauty but also because they exemplify what the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) viewed as a principal aim of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” In this instance, the qualities being reconciled are the disparate emotional states associated with spring and fall, summer and winter. Passion and its absence, grief and elation, loneliness and excitement, pleasure and pain—all are held in balance in one harmonious whole. Continue Reading »

All conditioned things, Zen teachings tell us, are impermanent. A conditioned thing is a phenomenon that arises from contingent causes and conditions. A pickup truck, a million-dollar home in California, a relationship, thought, or state of mind—all arise from particular causes and conditions;  all are subject to what Zen calls the “law of impermanence.” Continue Reading »

In the spring of 1998, at a meditative retreat in Burlington, Vermont, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offered some basic instructions for seated meditation. “Just sit there,” he said. “Don’t try to become someone else.”

A year later, in Brownsville, Vermont, I attended a subsequent retreat conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh. On an August afternoon, I sat outdoors with “Thay,” as we called him, and a dozen others, drinking herbal tea. A gentle monk in his early seventies, he wore the earth-brown robes of his Vietnamese order. Now and then, he lifted his cup with both hands and took a sip of tea. At that time, Thich Nhat Hanh was already a figure of international renown. Describing him as an “apostle of peace and non-violence,” Dr. Martin Luther King had nominated him, in 1967, for the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, on that August afternoon, his silent presence seemed as humble as it was peaceful. Well established in the present moment, he was the very embodiment of his own advice. He showed no sign of wanting to be anywhere or anyone else. Continue Reading »

192. A singular image

Last month I read a book I hadn’t intended to read. Entitled The Camera Does the Rest, it is an illustrated history of the Polaroid camera. Its author, Peter Buse, chronicles the creation, the triumphant success, and the sad demise of the Polaroid phenomenon in twentieth-century American culture. More broadly, he assesses the impact of Edwin Land’s brilliant if rather bulky invention, once considered near-miraculous, in the history of photography. There had been nothing quite like it before, and though it foretold the digital era, its unique properties have yet to be fully replicated by digital technology. Continue Reading »