When we step back and examine the workings of the mind—not only the contents of thought but the process of thinking itself—what do we find? A relentless, self-generating stream of words, images, memories, stories; or repetitive loops of worries, plans, regrets, desires. We also come to see that we are not controlling our thoughts, or even in any intentional way actually thinking them. They’re just happening—and happening according to deeply grooved patterns. In his 2009 book The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield writes: 

Just as the salivary glands secrete saliva, the mind secretes thoughts. The thoughts think themselves. This thought production is not bad, it’s simply what minds do. A cartoon I once saw depicts a car on a long western desert highway. A roadside sign warns, “Your own tedious thoughts next 200 miles.”

Meditation allows us both to observe our habits of mind and to experience moments of spaciousness—breaks in the incessant flow of thought, rest stops along that 200-mile stretch of highway. Poetry presents another powerful way to disrupt the habitual momentum of the mind, its automatic reactions and obsessive self-concerns.

To fully enter a poem, we must first stop and step away from the more immediate demands of life and engage in an imaginative activity that has no obvious practical value. More importantly, we must shift out of our everyday consciousness—the speedy mind wrapped in its self-centered stories and projections. Poets help us experience this stopping. Indeed, a poet may be defined as one who stops, one who is inclined by temperament and training to step out of the ongoing flow of experience and look at it, and to help us do the same.

Robert Frost’s most famous poem is a perfect example of the beauty of stopping.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though.
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it’s queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

It’s important to realize that the entire poem is predicated on the poet’s decision to stop. No stopping, no poem. And that is the difference between the poet and the horse, who may be seen as representative of the force of habit, the unconscious instinct to do what it has always done. “My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near . . . He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake.” Likewise, for most of us, caught up in getting from one place to another, there is no compelling reason to step outside the flow of time and simply notice—enter into, recognize our oneness with—what’s happening in the present moment: in this case, the woods filling up with snow, the sound of “easy wind and downy flake” inducing in the poet, and perhaps in us, a kind of reverent trance.

It’s also worth pausing to consider the furtive nature of this moment. The traveler notes, with relief, perhaps, that the owner of the woods will not see him while he stops to watch the snow fall. There is a privacy and intimacy in his unobserved, secretive looking. Because if he were observed, it would be with puzzlement or suspicion. Like the horse, the owner of the woods would also think it odd for someone to stop and gaze at falling snow. Our cultural pragmatism cannot easily comprehend or justify the impulse to look intently at something for no “good reason” (with the exception of officially sanctioned beauty like sunsets, oceans, mountain vistas, etc.). Snow falling in lonely woods does not fall within the acceptable categories of things that warrant our full attention. Of course, we as readers do observe the poet. We look at him as he looks at the falling snow. We see the snow through his eyes and we also see his seeing, see him in the act of seeing. The poem thus gives us an example of how we might comport ourselves in a similar setting or situation. The poet’s behavior both in the poem and in the writing of the poem makes an implicit argument, a lovely one, in favor of stopping and looking.

But why? What does this stopping by woods on “the darkest evening of the year,” the winter solstice, give rise to? A moment of extraordinary depth and stillness, and a reminder that there is a world of beauty that exists independently of human will and purpose. Frost says: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” and we feel the attraction the poet also felt, the desire to go into those woods, to slip the world of duties and destinations, escape the constriction of egoic self-concern, and merge with that depth and stillness. The poet does not give in, but his repeating of the line “And miles to go before I sleep” suggests the difficulty of resisting that lure. (Even the snowflakes are “downy”—falling down but also evoking feathery down comforters). We feel the pull of those woods even after the poem has ended, how wonderful it would be to drop everything and immerse ourselves in such quiet amplitude, in snow that blurs and blends all things in its whiteness—a physical enactment of the seamless nature of reality, which in our habitual way of seeing appears as a series of separate things. In a sense the poem itself becomes the woods, an imaginative space where we can experience a deep and healing self-forgetfulness. The question then is, how long can we stop and stay with the poem, the hushed world it places us in? Can we feel the sense of wonder and reverence the poet himself has felt? Can we carry that feeling with us into the demands and distractions of daily life? Can we allow ourselves simply to stop and look?

Meditation: Walking/Stopping

Walking-and-stopping meditation is a practice designed to help us interrupt the habitual momentum of the mind and shift from being lost in thought—worrying, planning, regretting, wanting, etc.—to paying close attention to what’s right in front of us.

Choose a place to walk—preferably in nature, though this meditation can also be done in a town or city—someplace you feel safe enough so that you don’t have to be overly vigilant and where you won’t feel too self-conscious about stopping and looking at things. Before you begin to walk, simply stand and feel how your feet make contact with the ground. Shift your weight from side to side, one foot to the other, and feel how your whole skeletal structure adjusts to this movement. Bring your attention to the flow of your breathing and notice whatever body sensations are present.

Begin to walk at a slow but not funereal pace, about half as fast as you usually walk. Meditation teacher Tara Brach says, “If I walk half as fast, I notice twice as much.” Simply walk and look. Let your eye be drawn where it will, but hold an intention to notice the things you typically overlook, things that have a neutral feeling tone, that don’t call forth any strong feeling, positive or negative: the intricacies of the bark and roots of trees, the qualities of dirt and rocks, shadows cast by bushes and ferns, spider webs lit by sunlight; or, if you’re in a city or town, the lettering on street signs, bolts on fire hydrants, twigs on the sidewalk, etc.

As you walk, feel when something draws your attention, when something seems to call to you or feels especially vivid. When that happens, let yourself go toward that thing and stop. Give it your full attention. Simply notice what’s there in as much detail as possible without adding any conceptual overlay. Don’t ascribe meaning to what you see and don’t tell a story about it: just look. Bring a quality of warmth and friendliness to your looking. Feel as though what you’re looking at is aware of your gaze and appreciates the attention, as if it might be saying, “Ah, how wonderful to be noticed! No one ever really sees me the way you are seeing me.”

Notice the physical features of the object but see also if you can sense any energetic quality emanating from it. Notice the quality of the relationship you’re having with it, how it feels to hold it in your awareness. Stay with the object as long as you’re able to keep noticing and appreciating it. When you’re ready to resume your walk, bow to your new friend (inwardly or outwardly) and thank it for being there.

Begin walking again and repeat this process when the next thing calls out to you. Do this as long as it holds your interest. Notice the effect this practice has on you. Perhaps a deeper sense of connection with the “ordinary” things of the world will arise, or a sense of calm affection, or the spaciousness, appreciation, and gratitude that comes from freely giving your attention to things typically overlooked. You may also notice the difference between walking and looking and stopping and looking, and between those moments of bright attention and our habitual way of being lost in thoughts.

You might want to practice stopping and looking throughout the day, even if only for a few moments. It’s remarkable what we can see when we stop and turn the light of awareness on the things we take for granted. 

As the ancient Japanese poet Old Shoju says:

“Want meaningless Zen? / Just look—at anything!”

For more on the concept of “the sacred pause,” find a writing exercise on page 142 of The Dharma of Poetry, as well as further analysis of poems including “First Days of Spring,” by Japanese poet Ryokan (1758–1831), and “A Blessing,” by poet James Wright.

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