Poetry as Spiritual Practice

by Robert McDowell

Like prayer, the benefits of poetry are both immediate and long-term. Reading a poem for the first time that we connect with, we feel the exhilaration of surprise, insight, wisdom, and sometimes even humor blossoming within. With repeated readings, the poem enters our constantly consulted brain deck of index cards. It enters our heartbeats, our breathing patterns, our very cells. Like a divine perfume, an oft-repeated poem permeates our souls.

That is when the poem is always with us, softening our voices, sharpening our insights, and deepening our capacities to love and cherish, to listen, and to act with selfless compassion.

Poetry as spiritual practice is really the embodiment of loving kindness.

Consider the sutra of loving kindness. Literally, a sutra is a rope or thread that holds things together; in Buddhism, a sutra is considered canonical scriptures, recorded transcripts of the oral teachings of Guatama Buddha:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

The great teacher Jack Kornfield offers a shorter version:

May you be well,
May you be peaceful,
May you be free of sorrow;
May you know loving-kindness
Of heart and spirit.

This sutra’s benefits are wide-ranging. For instance, no poisons or projectiles can harm you; no sickness can fell you; babies are happy in the womb; if you lose something precious, it will find its way back to you; others will love you, and if you fall off a cliff, a tree will always be there to catch you.

Don’t you love that tree? The tree of life is the tree of poetry.

Find or write just one poem you enjoy and begin with that. Put it on an index card you can carry around with you. When you think of it, take it out a couple of times a day and read it, out loud or to yourself. Perhaps read it to a friend—and you’ll be lighting the candle in their hand.

And so you are living your poem, your prayer, your spiritual practice.

Robert McDowell is the author of Poetry as Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.