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Poetry and Mind: detaching the finger from the moon

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

The following is a paper I gave at Corroding the Now: Poetry + Science/SF held at Birkbeck, University of London, in April 2019.

The call for a multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm

In A Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (Second edition 2013), the editors, Paloutzian and Park, make this statement:

“Research in psychology must be integrated with research from allied disciplines that study religion. Anthropologists, historians, neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, sociologists, linguists, and religious studies scholars all study religiousness and spirituality in different ways, and all have specialised knowledge that they can share through collaboration. Thus, we think that expanding our reach under the umbrella of a multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm is essential, not optional, if we want to make progress towards genuine understanding.”

Ann Taves develops this approach in her study Religious Experience Reconsidered, with a particular emphasis on bridging the divide between the natural sciences and the humanities:

“We humans are reflexively conscious biological animals - that is animals who are not only consciously aware, but aware of being aware. This means that our experience can be studied both as a biological phenomenon from the science side of the divide and as a subjective phenomenon from the humanistic side.”

In Paloutzian and Park’s formation, the “mutlilevel” refers to the possibility of exploring religion and spirituality both from a micro (for example neuroscience) point of view and a macro (for example anthropological) point of view. In their own words:

“We need to move towards mapping evidence gained at one level with one method to its counterparts at the levels above and below. In this way a multilevel interdisciplinary theory of religiousness and spirituality, anchored in the psychology of meaning making, can begin to take shape.”

Reviewing traditional approaches, the primary obstacle that both Taves and Paloutzian and Park identify is the attempt to find a sui generis: “a thing unto itself that constitutes the core of genuine religion.” In her essay Building Blocks of Sacralities, Taves explains the importance of separating from this approach:

“Our ability to work across cultures would be enhanced if we did not attempt to specify the distinctive feature of all religions and spiritualities, but rather sort to identify the more basic elements or processes, which are not unique to religions or spiritualities, that people mix and match to create them.”

Taves argues for: “a building block approach that conceives of religions and spiritualities as disparate wholes made up of parts, such as beliefs and practices.” She suggests the use of image schemas as helpful in this endeavour and identifies schemas that might more fluently traverse across cultures when studying spirituality and religion, such as the image schema of moving from the periphery to the centre, or the image schema of a path. Elaborating on the example of path, she says:

“Thus, to take PATHS as an example, all paths, whether literal or metaphorical, have (1) a starting point, (2) a goal, and (3) a means of moving from the starting point to the goal (Johnson, 1987). Hindu and Buddhist practitioners explicitly use the path concept (marga or pada in Sanskrit) to characterise particular means of reaching tradition specific goals, and scholars of Buddhism (Buswell & Gimello, 1992) have encouraged the use of the path concept in the comparative study of religion.”

In this paper, I want to focus on what I consider to be the most crucial element of ‘path,’ that of contemplative practice and specifically any practice incorporating mindfulness which I will define in due course. Adopting this narrower focus, I believe that there are some very basic and profound similarities across religions and spiritualities that we can identify. To begin I want to look at contemplative practice within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in order to develop my hypothesis.

Meditation as a scientific process

This is Matthieu Ricard, who is a French Buddhist monk. In his early twenties Ricard completed a PhD in molecular genetics, but at the age of 26, after meeting his primary teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, he decided to forsake a career in science in order to dedicate himself to the Buddhist contemplative path. He has famously been described as ‘the happiest man in the world’, a moniker he is not particularly fond of, but one which he gained after neuroscientists investigating the effects of meditation on the brain found a level of gamma wave activity they did not think was possible in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain connected to well-being. Since the neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s early work in 1992, scientists have been investigating the effect on the brain of sustained contemplative practice, analysing the brain activity of experienced meditators who have sometimes practised in excess of 44,000 hours.

Ricard’s view is that the meditative process is a scientific one. In his recent book, Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience, Ricard continually returns to the idea that the contemplative process is firmly rooted in empirical investigation. Talking of his own tradition he says: “Tibetan Buddhism... has pursued an exhaustive investigation of the mind for 2,500 years and has accumulated, in an empirical way, a wealth of experiential findings over the centuries.” Later, Ricard makes a direct analogy between science and contemplation:

“It is the same with scientific knowledge. You first have to rely on the credible testimony of a number of scientists, but later you can train in the subject and verify the findings firsthand. This is quite similar to contemplative science. You first need to refine the telescope of your mind and the methods of investigations for years in order to find out for yourself what other contemplatives have found and all agreed on.”

Ricard continues:

“Regarding cross-checking interpersonal experience, both contemplatives and the texts dealing with the various experiences a meditator might encounter are quite precise in their descriptions. When a student reports on their inner states of mind to an experienced meditation master, the descriptions are not just vague and poetic. The master will ask precise questions and the student replies, and it is quite clear they are talking about something that is well defined and mutually understood.”

The point I want to draw out here is that meditation is considered to be a precise, systematic process. This kind of inter-subjective empirical method for studying the mind does not have an analogue in western traditions, as it is unusual for subjective experience to be trusted to this extent. The framework of meditation, and specifically the fact that the process of meditative practice is essentially the same from person to person, allows for this possibility.

Contemplatives from other traditions

Ricard asserts that, “the state of pure consciousness without content… is something that all contemplatives have experienced… Anyone who takes the trouble to stabilize and clarify his or her mind will be able to experience it.” It is unclear whether Ricard is talking here just about contemplatives within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, or if he includes contemplatives from other traditions. This connection is made explicit in the work of Levenson and Aldwin.

In their paper Mindfulness in Psychology and Religion, Levenson and Aldwin identify firstly what they call ‘utilitarian mindfulness.’ This is mindfulness used to aid in the therapeutic process which of course has increased massively in popularity in recent years. Generally it is characterised as a secular technique. Contrasted to this they outline a more basic definition of mindfulness as “remembrance or the process of being aware.” This fundamental process they consider is central to all contemplative traditions. In their own words:

“We address mindfulness in terms of practice and function across religions. In so doing, we hope to show that practice and function are much more similar than different across traditions that might, at first, appear very different. The contemplative traditions that we have chosen as examples - Buddhism, Sufism, and contemplative Christianity - are by no means exhaustive (see Michaelson, 2007, for a discussion of mindfulness in the Kabala and Judaism). However we chose to focus on these religions as they have the most substantive literatures on mindfulness.”

More explicitly they say, “contemplative traditions in all religions are centrally concerned with mindfulness. All such traditions begin with the practice of mindfulness as sustained pure awareness.” And they clarify that, “each contemplative tradition is situated in a religious context and often uses language specific to a religious tradition. However, in all of these traditions, mindfulness is remembrance or the process of being aware.”

Mindfulness here is not the sui generis mentioned earlier. Rather than attempting to encapsulate religion in its entirety, the focus is narrowed precisely to a single but fundamental building block of sustained contemplative praxis, demonstrable on an inter-subjective level, in terms of the mind's workings. My one reservation with this body of work is the word mindfulness itself, connoting as it does utilitarian mindfulness, and also biased in that it stems from the Buddhist tradition. If an alternative term is found, it must highlight the ordinary and universal quality of this very basic process of mind.

Developing this research

In this final part of my presentation I want to share some personal thoughts towards how Levenson and Aldwin’s work might be extended. Firstly, there is a need to develop a full taxonomy of all contemplative traditions that incorporate mindfulness and also locate how these contemplative traditions are situated within religions. Here, only the traditions mentioned in Levenson and Aldwin's paper are mapped.

Levenson and Aldwin’s emphasise “mindfulness in terms of practice and function.” For each tradition identified, both the actual contemplative practices and the subjective descriptions of the results of those practices need to be studied.

Firstly, identifying the practices shared by the different traditions, Levenson and Aldwin highlight the Zikr or silent prayer of Sufism, the Mani mantra shared by all Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and the centering prayer in Contemplative Christianity. All of these involve the silent repetition of a word or phrase. Other contemplative practices which also incorporate mindfulness (defined as development of the process of being aware) must be added. This is a very early stage list using a Buddhist classificatory system, dividing these practices into those involving the body, speech or mind:

There is undoubtedly a remarkable overlap across traditions, for example many contemplative traditions utilise circumambulation - the process of walking around an object or building - as a method to cultivate awareness. Interesting areas to explore may also be where a tradition does not have a particular practice, for example, asking the question: does the Soto Zen school incorporate any kind of silent prayer similar to the mani mantra, zikr or the centering prayer?

Having identified practices, it is then necessary to identify the function or results of the practices. What is needed is to investigate the precise relative function of these practices within their own traditions, alongside the subjective results that individuals from these traditions report.

This is where it gets much more subtle and complex. It’s fairly straightforward to establish the overlap of outer practices across traditions, however to understand the function of the practices it would require a thorough study of the contemplative instruction manuals of the various schools and especially a survey of the subjective results as purported by individual practitioners of those traditions. This would obviously be a huge undertaking (!) however since this is merely a speculative exercise at this stage, this brings us to a point where we can introduce poetics.

Contemplative poets

We find poetry in many contemplative traditions. Returning to the map developed earlier, contemplative poets have been added with a line connecting them to the tradition they practised within. Again as a cursory indication of how this research could be developed: from the Soto Zen school Ikkyū and Ryōkan Taigu; The founder of the Mevlevi Order Jalaluddin Rumi; and from the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition Patrul Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa. Of course there are many, many more contemplative poets that we could map on to this diagram.

Crucially, my interest here is not in people who write spiritual poetry but the poetry of contemplatives who have completely dedicated their lives to contemplative practice within the framework of their particular tradition. Often these practitioners are naturally compelled to use poetry for a number of different reasons at different points in their spiritual careers. For example, personally as a means to deeper self-understanding, or socially as a pedagogical method to aid teaching.

This presents the possibility of a method: By looking at this poetry we have access to the psychology of practitioners from varied centuries and cultures. Using a survey approach, shared experiences can be identified as well as differences. For example, examining emotional experiences such as loneliness, ecstasy, self reprehension; or pedagogical styles such as advice poems, or allegorical poems. This could be quite specific, for instance an investigation of ‘loneliness’ in the poetry of Ryokan and Chogyam Trungpa (two contemplatives, both Buddhist but from different traditions, Zen and Dzogchen respectively). Poetry of practitioners from the same contemplative tradition but from different social and cultural contexts could be researched within this framework, for example, an investigation of ‘pointing out’ meditation instruction in Chogyam Trungpa (20th century America) and Patrul Rinpoche (19th century Tibet).

It is my hypothesis - constructed so as to be tested - that the methodological process embarked on by many contemplatives from different traditions is not only remarkably similar from an outer perspective - usually a complex combination of practices involving the totality of body, speech and mind - but also from the inner 'mind's workings' point of view, the same experiential psychological processes are unfolding, despite the fact that conceptually these processes may be interpreted and described in radically different ways.

One trope that is common in many traditions is poetry as a confessional mode in which the practitioner is unmasking their own spiritual blockages. The theme of this conference is poetry that corrodes the now. I consider the poetry of all these disparate figures to be essentially corrosive in that it is part of a process which corrodes anything blocking the deeper states of awareness, both in the contemplatives themselves and in their students.


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