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 …….