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Meditation, poetry, and the skeptic’s mind

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I’m a natural skeptic. Dana Scully is one of my heroes. I have a tendency to dismiss things that are popular (which is a jerk move, I know). And the more someone tries to sell me on something, the more I resist. (See: Harry Potter. See also: Kale chips.) As mindfulness has become more popular, I have resisted it in equal measure.

But every once in a while in one’s life, you experience a confluence of ideas in what you’re reading, listening to, or talking about that has the potential to create a shift in the way you see the world. For me, this confluence came in the form of one kind and intelligent person, some well-timed book suggestions, and Mary Oliver (always Mary Oliver).

I had an opportunity to have a few sessions with a local practitioner of mindfulness. I’m not entirely new to the concept and have flirted with the idea of meditation for several years. The practice has always felt like something out of reach—something for those with purer hearts, less anxiety, and more limber bodies that could sit cross-legged for periods of time. There’s also no small amount of fear that comes at the thought of my trying to be still and quiet.

During these sessions, I was able to suspend my skepticism briefly enough to notice some tangible benefits of practicing mindfulness. I also began reading some of the foundational work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, which, truthfully, challenged my eye-rolling reflex a bit. Ultimately, a lot of the information I read, particularly in Meditation is not what you think: Mindfulness and why it is so important, challenged many of my own preconceived notions and proved to be very educational.

Around this time, a friend suggested I read 4000 weeks: Time management for mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Books about productivity also challenge my eye roll reflex and kick my skepticism into high gear. This friend knows me well, though, and this isn’t your typical book about time management.

Four thousand weeks is the average length of a human life, and the book encourages readers to lean into rather than resist our finitude. Burkeman counsels us to embrace the understanding that we can never do all that we want or even need to do. This existential approach to time management urges choosing carefully how you spend your life, knowing that the act of choice will mean missing out on other, worthwhile things. Take heart, “you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer.” I know that many readers will find this unsettling, but for me it feels like liberation.

But it was when both of these books invoked poetry that they clicked with me. I have often read poetry as a means of both comfort and challenge. Yet I often hear people expressing the same reservations about poetry that I was feeling about meditation. Poetry may also feel uncomfortable, as it asks for our full attention. Kabat-Zinn writes that great poets “engage in deep interior explorations of the mind and of words and of the intimate relationship between inner and outer landscapes, just as the greatest teachers in the meditative tradition.” Mary Oliver is one of those poets to whom I return again and again. For me, her deceptively simple poems reflect the challenge of being a spiritual being in a finite world.

If, like me, the Pandemic has shifted your relationship to time and opened the space for you to evaluate your priorities and connections, you might enjoy Burkeman’s book as well as several others on this list. But, if poetry is your window, here are a few of my recent and longtime favorites created in honor of National Poetry Month.

When you read a book, you enter a different world. But the act of reading does more than broaden our world-view; it creates empathy, and nurtures civility.
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