I’ve not tried before to retrace in memory how my poems come into being. Yesterday a close friend’s response to “Fixed” move me to do so.
This poem came to me, as most of them do, in much the same way that spoken ministry messages come to me during Quaker waiting worship. I am inspired by something, perhaps something very minor, that crosses my awareness, and suddenly there is an image or word or phrase.
My usual morning practice is a sequence of pragmatic morning activities (hygiene, dress, cat food, water, and medicine, getting coffee and setting up my study space). I observe each of these actions mentally as I am doing them, rather than merely doing them reflexively.
For me, contemplative sitting, whether alone or in Quaker worship, has ceased to be a ritual of getting into the “proper pose” and striving to have a “spiritual experience.” That was my practice from my 20s until our move to Worcester in June 2021.
Now, instead, sitting is a very practical movement of my point of awareness up through my body: hips, one-point (near the spine’s base, a sort of imaginary fulcrum for the spine), navel, solar plexus, heart chakra, throat, third eye, crown.
The objective is not “getting to” some state or position but, rather, noticing the actual, physical sensations at each step of the way. Allowing muscles and tendons to relax, so that my skeleton shifts from its habitual right-leaning slouch toward the more-or-less symmetrical balance it is actually capable of having.
In other words, sitting has become a proprioceptive exercise. I pay deliberate attention to the articulation of and interrelationships of each physical part of my body.
Then I read a few passages from whatever Quaker and Buddhist books or magazines I am studying at the moment. Sometimes, as was the case yesterday, as I finish reading I notice a feeling of some sort.
My teacher on the neurobiology of consciousness, through his writings, is Antonio Damasio, going back to his first book for lay readers, Descartes’ error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, which I read in 2006.
Damasio’s convention is to call the complexes of bodily sensations which the brain recognizes as significant information emotions (pain, anger, arousal). He distinguishes emotions from feelings, the habitually ascribed values or “meanings” that a given human consciousness habitually ascribes to different emotions (suffering, resentment, lust).
All of the above is back story to what produced that verse yesterday. After reading and looking out at the cold, overcast sky, I noticed sensations, a complex emotional state that I couldn’t name consciously. But then I watched for the feeling label that arose and that gave me “I feel stalled, confused.”
I reached for my journal, which I haven’t used much in recent years, and wrote those words. The rest followed as if dictated.
When this sort of verse comes to me, I usually don’t know where it’s going until it ends. Then I have to read it through several times to begin to understand what it is that I am telling myself.
The experience of winter signals a time when it is natural, even biologically necessary, to “slow down, let go, wait.” My socialize “self” doesn’t like this phase, because I “have to be busy.” Busyness keeps me distracted from uncomfortable feelings.
But uncomfortable feelings are merely my personal labeling of value-neutral emotions: that is, of the complex of physical sensations I am experiencing at the moment.
“Nothing seems fixed.” This sentence was paradoxical. I didn’t understand what it meant or how it related to what came above as I wrote the it.
Hmh. “Fixed” is an ambiguous word, I thought. It can mean “repaired” or it can mean “stuck in place.” How odd.
Then next lines came out of “nowhere.” They don’t answer my question but, instead, pose a completely different perspective on the experience of that moment—and add another paradox.
“Would the repair” [of what?] “be to let it flow?” [“it” what?].
The last image as a total surprise: “Molasses in winter.”
That one, as I wrote it and now as I reread it, I don’t try to interpret into words.
I simply enjoy it with bemusement.
Image: “Sitting Meditation [detail],” by Mike Shell (10/13/2012).