by James Crews
I have trained myself to say
thinking out loud each time I feel
my thoughts straining at their leash,
about to become a pack of coyotes
combing the night of my mind
and yipping like drunks when they find
some easy prey to gnaw on
But I’m not sure that saying thinking
makes me think any less, since now
I’m sitting on a log in a field thinking
about how much I say thinking to myself
when I should be kneeling at the feet
of stalks of goldenrod leaning
toward the ground after last night’s rain
and weary of the feast of light and heat
at summer’s end.
I should be as industrious as the bees,
streaks of pollen dusting my cheeks,
caked like mud on feet and wings.
Or as watchful as the sparrowhawk
hovering a hundred feet above
with ultraviolet eyes tracing
a trail of urine left in the grass
by a fleeing vole.
I should be as devoted as the vole,
saying his rosary with clicking seeds
and praying that dried-out ragweed
will be enough to conceal
the hole he and his loved ones live in,
huddled close and shivering
as a wide-winged shadow passes
over their heads.
From Every Waking Moment.
Lynx House Press, 2021.
Typically, when we talk about meditation, very simply, we mean sitting still in one place and watching our thoughts and emotions as they pass through the body-mind. Different traditions each have their own methods, but I find it more useful to keep things as simple as possible. What all methods have in common is that there is some object that the meditator focuses on, and this is often the breath. (Others use the heartbeat, sounds in the room, or a word they repeat over and over, and it’s essential to experiment and find what works for you). I sit on a cushion for at least a half hour a day, with my attention lightly focused on each in-breath and out-breath. I fully expect that my human mind will wander, but the instruction is just to bring the attention always back to the breath. If you find yourself really lost in difficult thoughts or emotions, you might just touch the thought lightly as you would a bubble, and send it onward. Some find it helpful to label their thoughts “thinking” as they arise, likewise sending them onward.
It was this last practice that inspired the poem, “Thinking.” Many of us are aware of our negative habits of mind, and the often poisonous self-talk that can lead to more suffering. One of the worst culprits is our habit of, as some teachers put it, “shoulding” all over ourselves. Instead of enjoying the present moment, and our own place in it, instead of accepting ourselves and our circumstances as they are, we start thinking things “should” be this way, or we “should” be that way. In my poem, a quiet moment sitting out in an overgrown field at the end of summer quickly turns into a playful but neurotic look inside my own busy mind. For me, it’s humbling to realize that even a practice with sacred intentions, like meditation or labeling thoughts, can quickly become a source of striving, a way to self-criticize. This is true of any spiritual or creative practice, however, and so we must be vigilant and ever watchful of our minds’ movement. We can simply notice when we go into the negative self-talk, and bring a lighthearted, friendly approach to the whole thing, without feeling like a failure. The mind is meant to serve the heart, after all, and not the other way around.
Invitation: What are your own “shoulds,” those negative loops that can ruin an otherwise spacious moment? How do you interrupt the unhealthy self-talk — by paying attention to what’s at hand, to the natural world, to those you find near? See if you can identify and list each “should,” even if it’s something you’ve carried from the past, and do your best in the writing to move beyond that litany into a place of greater attention and grounded awareness.