In this interview, poet Robert Annis makes a connection between poetry and meditation. Enjoy!
When and why did you start meditating?
I started meditating as a practice in my second year of graduate school after one of the strangest guest lectures I’ve ever witnessed. The poet Li-Young Lee was invited to campus for a series of classroom visits and a poetry reading. He is a deeply thoughtful man, but he’s also plagued by crippling insomnia. Up for nearly three days with no sleep, he led our poetry workshop. At one point, he stood up while discussing yin and yang and dramatized the concept by shifting his weight back and forth from each leg for five minutes. However odd his commentary was, he imparted a great deal of wisdom a la Ryōkan, saying something that became the impetus for my meditative practice: writing poetry cannot only be a practice of mind, but must be enacted through the body as well. For him, this manifests through the fluid movements of Tai Chi.
I was dabbling in zazen, seated meditation, after reading Way of Zen by Alan Watts, but after Mr. Lee’s lecture, I delved deeper into Zen practice, reading nearly everything I could get my hands on starting with D.T. Sazuki, Shunryn Suzuki, and an American Soto priest and punk rocker, Brad Warner.
I began sitting zazen daily and found that meditation helped fill a void that was left by my departure from the Catholic Church as a teenager. I had been seeking a reverential practice that felt honest, and Meditation and the study of Zen offered an avenue for me to be contemplative, maybe even religious, without deep guilt for lying to myself about my faith.
How did you learn about meditation?
I learned about specific kinds of meditation from books by Buddhist practitioners and commenters. Most notably, I listened to a lecture series called Breath Sweeps Mind by Jakusho Kwong, a teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki based out of California. Kwong-Roshi draws upon the Fukan zazengi, mediation instructions, by Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen.
I like how Zen meditation doesn’t promise very much. Zazen is a lot of work for rather mundane results—inner peace isn’t a goal or destination, it’s something to glimpse through a crack in a fence as you walk by.
What type of meditation works best for you?
I primarily practice shikataza, or just sitting. This is a type of meditation involves sitting and trying to clear the mind of all thoughts. It can be very difficult to start, so most of the time I count my breaths up to ten. After about ten minutes, something clicks and I get a feeling like my lung capacity is expanding. If I’m really on roll, I’ll stop counting and enjoy the rest of the sit, losing track of time for a little while. Afterward, I feel like I got a full night’s sleep.
I usually do this the semi-traditional way—starting at my office wall, but I really enjoy sitting in nature. There’s a spot on campus under a giant oak tree where the boughs dig into the ground on one side forming a curtain of leaves. It’s always been a favorite place to sit, write, and think even before I started meditating. There’s something really wonderful about sitting directly on grass or dirt.
Is your meditation connected to a spiritual, religious, or philosophic tradition?
It might be the Catholic in me, but I never wanted to engage in a spiritual practice casually. As a child, I studied the Gospels, not because my parents told me to, but because I got the feeling that there was something they were keeping from me in Sunday school. As I learned more, I started asking questions, which led me to doubt Catholic doctrine. I just couldn’t buy their answers about the role of Judas!
I approach studying Buddhist practices in a similar way. I read Japanese, Chinese, and Indian history, historical and contemporary commentaries on the sutras, and a lot of meditation manuals. I never wanted to pick one voice to follow just because it promised the most esoteric level of teaching. I want to be honest with my practice.
Among many things, Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, taught about cultivating a Great Doubt, or making decisions and assessments, especially those regarding practice based on experiences, not just blind faith. This spoke to the fallen Catholic in me, it was reassuring and most importantly, it didn’t scare me off. The concept can get a little complicated, but I think Zen Master Boshan sums it up best as, “Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.”
What would you say to someone who expresses interest in meditation, but claims to be “unable” to do it?
I recently met with a student who told me he tried meditation once, but couldn’t sit keep his mind still long enough for it to work. The thing about meditation is it does take work, especially shikantaza, but that isn’t the only kind of meditation. It is important to come to meditative practice with measured expectations. No one falls into a deep trance to emerge as a levitating bodhisattva, especially not on their first try. Don’t overdo it: start with five or ten minutes—count your breath, focus on chanting OM, watch the wind blowing leaves. If seated mediation is too challenging, try kinhin, walking mediation.
Meditation goes beyond the cushion. In monasteries, monks don’t stop meditative work when they stand up to take care of the temple; they continue the practice of compassion in their chores by being mindful of and contemplative in each action. This works similarly to taking a break from writing a paper to mow the lawn, and finding the perfect phrase in the whirr of the motor. As focus shifts away from one task to another, the brain doesn’t pause the first thought process, it continues processing. Try to remember that learning meditation isn’t something to speed through. In Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Don’t be afraid of making mistakes, that’s how you learn about yourself.
What does your meditation practice do for you? That is, what are some of the specific benefits or consequences you experience, long or short-term?
Daily meditation helps me continue practicing compassion. I’ve found myself less irritated by minor annoyances in daily life, more thoughtful of the perspectives of others, more patient with long and short-term challenges, and more focused in my writing practice. Meditation and the study of Buddhist, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian texts and history has given me the tools to navigate the complex social and political landscape we’ve found ourselves in as a nation. It can be difficult to balance, the stress of daily life, but meditation forces introspection and stillness—two things the world needs a lot more of.
Robert Annis received his MFA from the University of South Florida, where he works as an advisor at the Office of National Scholarships. He’s an assistant editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. His poetry has appeared in Exit 7, American Tanka, Foothill, Oracle Fine Arts Review, and the Noctua Review.