Poetic Reflections on the Nature of Meditation

Over a crisp October weekend, the Learning Center was host to a class called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. Taught by Zen teacher and author, Kurt Hoelting, and writing teacher and poet, Holly Hughes, participants began their days with a sitting meditation, followed by writing and sharing poetry and short nature essays, walking meditation, and exploring the woods around the Learning Center with Institute naturalists and graduate students.

 Above two photos: Participants getting comfortable for a writing session in the classroom. Photo by Holly Hughes
Cohort 11 graduate student, Erin Soper, leading a naturalist walk through the woods. Photo by Holly Hughes

Following, are some pieces that came out of the class:
Bob Hicks
The bell’s clang
births a precise circle,
multiplying instantly into brassy rings
that spread out,
imitating the round wake
of a drop plunged through pond surface.
The bell washes
around tree trunks, birdbaths and homes,
over yards, asphalt, hills and water.
Then at some unknown point
the metallic circles retreat,
receding incrementally,
and collapsing
to that infinitesimal single speck
at which all things disappear.

Breath of Life
Kurt Hoelting
Breath of life
heard now in the soft sigh
of fir and hemlock forest
on the wings of a rain-soaked wind.
Heard now
in the same soft sigh
of my own breath
that joins the forest’s singing
perfectly in key.
Indistinguishable now from
the same soft sigh
of water flowing
off a nearby ledge
immersed in climax forest
Forgetting to fear
that it won’t get what it wants,
the mind falls back
into the abundance
that it already has
and is.

 Shelf Fungus growing between a Paper Birch and a Red Alder. Photo by Holly Hughes

The Democracy of Rain
Holly Hughes
Listen: rain falls on all,
doug fir needles, cedar scales
yellow alder, red vine maples,
roof and gutter, brick and concrete.
Listen: it seeps into the spaces between
stones, runs down each needle, drips off
the beak of the raven high in the fir,  runs off
each scale of cone to fall headlong—or is it tail first?—
to earth,  to bless us all.  Does the rain fear falling?
Or does the rain know only that it must
fall, that each drop carries its own momentum, its pull
to earth’s gravitational field.  This drop that put the polish
on Newton’s apple,  this drop that rode with Cleopatra
down the Nile, the same drop that washed a dusty wren,
this molecule of water that’s travelled for epochs to land here
in this place, in this time, in this moment, to bless us all.
The Alder Tree
Erin LeTellier
I’m looking at a tree that called to me this morning
Come by me! Smell me, get close!
And now I take a second look,
From a distance.
This tree is curved and wounded,
This tree is young and resilient.
He reaches up and out.
His leaves are key lime,
Fading to yellow,
And smell like fresh rain and autumn sweetness.
Soon his leaves will fall,
But still, he gives,
With enthusiasm
The fullness and freshness of life
From every part of himself.
What is your name sweet, life-giving tree?
My name is on the wind, he replies.
You will hear it not in words,
But in the whisper of a scent
And the feeling of renewal and hope
That washes over your spirit.
You will hear my name
Whether you realize it or not,
And it will make you feel safe –
If only for a moment as you pass by.
But if you sit and listen,
If you stay and feel,
I could tell you stories of prosperity
And the continuity of life.
I will show you that life is everywhere around you,
And within every part of you.
Life holds you
And so, you are the one who must be careful
Not to slip away.

A squirrel eating seeds out of a Douglas fir cone. Photo by Ryan Weisberg

What the Squirrel Says
Sharon Wagner
In the autumn forest, next to the exposed root of a Douglas Fir, look for a tiny mound of scales shucked from a Doug Fir cone.  Scratch there in the loose duff to find a bare stem – the cob of that cone.
Now picture the Douglas Squirrel, slim and quick, who paused there, squatting quiet on his haunches, an ear of Doug Fir corn in his hands.  He may enjoy each kernel, then and there.  More likely, he stuffs his cheeks, putting by a stash against winter.
Oscar Wilde said, “Wisdom comes with winter.” To me this speaks of the winter of one’s life, later in the cycle.  But for this squirrel, in this forest, in this season, perhaps wisdom comes before winter.
Patricia Nerison
Greedy as a sponge
I suck green from maple
leaves paling with autumn,
and cloak the bark in wet
chlorophyll  fur.  My fronds
like tiny fans unpleat
as heaven falls in rain.
My offspring perch and nest
on one branch, then another
until our presence carpets
a stairway to the sky.  I am
the emerald herald, welcoming
Winter’s frozen throne.

 The bright red roots of a Western Redcedar surrounded by Step Moss. Photo by Holly Hughes

Ragged, Dark
Arlene Naganawa
I found a newborn rabbit under the cedar, half-buried in loam.
The cat skulked in the shadows, robin eggs broken under the window,
chipped shell-blue, the sky in pieces, jagged necklace. There was always
some piece missing: tooth, seedpod.  A piece I couldn’t see.
Cat-shaped shadows inked the space.  The sky filled with falling.
All this cheer, the Christmas lights pulled taut across the eave, bulbs like hearts,
red, blue that could fit in the chests of smallish reindeer.  Wine in the glasses,
not silver-cupped like Christ’s blood. Plastic ice crinkles on the table,
and, of course, everyone singing.  I wish it would snow, that holy silence,
unholy wish for everyone to disappear, for the snowman to burn like a star.
All night the quilted landscape slips under the plane. Flying alone,
I am not alone: young Spanish woman with her shrill red mouth flirting
with the black goatee next to me.  Which circle of hell recirculates scotch?
Luggage overhead like cows asleep in holding pens, force-fed grain,
their bodies bloated, our clothes folded, bills crumpled into wallets.
Unwritten, my page. There is nothing to dog-ear, just a ragged soft edge
where the paper ripped out.  Like leaves fallen on the forest floor,
vine maples, larch, tender as salad days soaked in rain—lives I
forget, then remember—lace of sunlight.  Ears of skunk cabbage,
cougar in its lair.
A Gap in Mindfulness
Malcolm Best
A gap is a fear that has
actually closed me down
so I do not bridge
the open space.
Do not leap from this
cliff with its smell of granite
and its vine maple
playing orange and yellow sonata notes
to the sky.
Do not leap and fly
as in my dreams I do
rising on great black wings
beating slowly as
the ridges of mountains shine through
the mists of mystery
that swirl in sentient patterns.
I feel the sun on my great black back
and I launch the primordial cry
from the core of my being
so that even the pine beetle
in the far off wood
stops an instant,
and wonders.

Checking out some Black Bear scratches on a Red Alder. Photo by Holly Hughes

After Watching   “Deep Presence”
 Salmon nation.
A bear appears
laser focus gaze
sound of fear
invincible forces
power of water
time passing
gentleness of water
in full spate
she swims like white birds
in translucent gauze
a seed of terror
fractal view
a bird dances above
water restricted
water unrestricted
sacred survival
translucent blue
immersed in rhythm and life
relentless Galena light
granite and sharp diamonds
plummeting slowly like a sinking tower
Note: We each contributed a phrase after viewing the film “Deep Presence” and I put the phrases together, changing the order in only a few places. – Holly

Leading photo: Participants in Sit, Walk, Write taking in the outdoors. Photo by Holly Hughes.


  1. Ms Jerry Rutherford

    The poetry is outstanding. I was there with you.

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