Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Poet Mary Oliver: mindfulness of death

Michael Stroud (insightla.org); Crystal Q., Dhr. Seven (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
InsightLA logo. Calming Minds, Opening Hearts, Changing the World

Mary Oliver died last week. She was one of the country’s most beloved poets and also something of a "patron saint" for mindfulness meditation teachers.

I have read her poems dozens of times at the end of meditations. Every time I do I feel a catch in my throat. I feel like she's talking directly to me.

Often we come to spiritual practice after years of self doubt and difficulty. Those difficulties can be the grist for transforming our lives if we recognize that they are a necessary part of being alive. Oliver beautifully evokes the possibility of ennobling our attitudes toward ourselves. It’s why her words have become such central parts of the mindfulness repertoire.

Her poems fiercely combine the personal and the eternal, speaking of the immeasurable worth of our existence. Even as the wind pries "with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,” she writes in “The Journey,” we can choose to stride “deeper and deeper into the world,” "determined to save the only life” we can save.

Like wild geese, she writes in the poem of that name, the world is “harsh and exciting” and “offers itself to your imagination, over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

Whether or not she was herself a Buddhist, she was clearly touched by the Buddha’s words. In her poem “The Buddha’s Last Instructions,” she writes of his famous exhortation to “make of yourself a light.” She often thinks about those words at sunrise “as the east begins to tear off its many clouds of darkness.”

When the sun blazes over the world, she realizes that she is “not needed” and at the same time of “inexplicable value.” It’s a perfect summing up of our paradoxical lives. We are so insignificant and at the same time so irreplaceable.

When I hear her words, I realize their truth for me. It gives me renewed confidence in my own place in the world and a desire to pass that truth to others.

Oliver made of herself a light. Fortunately, she shone on us.
Michael Stroud
Michael Stroud teaches Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention and leads InsightLA's San Gabriel Valley Sunday Morning Sitting Group. He also co-leads the Monday night sitting group at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. 
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