(cited in BAE 2015, 2016, 2020, 2022); PUSHCART poetry finalist

Writing, Meditation, and the Art of Looking

Managing Editor’s Note: Does meditation fuel our writing, or does writing fuel our meditation? Or is writing itself a form of meditation–seeing, reflecting on, and processing what we notice in the present? In this essay, poet Marilyn McCabe explores her own experiences with meditation, and the hope that writing itself leads her to the “mind-full” state she desires.


Writing in Mind

by Marilyn McCabe

I took a class to learn how to meditate. It didn’t go well. At least I didn’t keep falling asleep, like one guy did. I was always thinking about food. (This kind of stuff seems to have that effect on me — I took a yoga class some years ago, and all I could think about was: Is this over soon so I can go have a beer? And I don’t even really drink beer.)

But I recognize the essential nature of being present, of breathing with consciousness, of trying for a few scant moments on a regular basis to banish thoughts/fears about the past and future from the zooming brain, and I had hoped the meditation class would allow me to go deeper in my poetry, to plumb the dark depths of my slow-breathing soul. I found I was just as distractible at the end as I was at the beginning, but it did open my mind to the varieties of the meditation experience.

I’m a walker, so walking meditation made sense to me. I can probably get about a block down the street being present just to the movement of my body, the passing flash of bird, before imagined conversations, long-ago arguments, lists of tasks, opening lines of poems, twinges of knee or back bring me back into my daily, mouthy self. But a few minutes of walking has not been enough to allow me to reach into some as yet unreached depth of emotional truth. And I am starting to think that the only way to get there is to write my way there.

Every morning I pour a cup of coffee, open my notebook, and write the day — color of sky, look of tree limbs, bloom of bush, neighbor noise, dreams, what I’m thinking about. It occurs to me that that itself might be meditation. I am present to the day, and my hand (I still scribble in notebooks rather than tap first thoughts into a computer) is the movement of the meditation, the mind in flow.

Rilke believed in the power of looking. If one looked hard and deeply enough at anything, some inner concern would arise that would embody the thing. This daily looking is my writing meditation.

I’ve also set myself the task these past few weeks of doing a daily imitation. I pick up a poem by someone else and substitute my own nouns and verbs, following the original syntaxes and conceptual directions, but allowing my own mind to blow through the other’s work. Is this too a kind of meditation? I am present to the word, the word, the word, and unconscious and nonjudgmental about what bubbles up from my brain to fill in the demands of the poem. It’s a kind of Mad Lib meditation, perhaps.

Am I writing more deeply? I’m not sure. But I am writing. And just sitting down to the page makes me mind-full. Meditation is about being present, and so much of my poetry derives from that kind of deeply-present looking that Rilke was talking about.

I think my hope that meditation would be the cause of deeper writing was a misunderstanding on my part. Jon Kabat-Zinn said about mindfulness meditation that it’s not about getting anywhere else, and it’s not about feeling something you’re supposed to feel. It is just being. When I write, I am. I am mind and the thing I am looking at or thinking about, which becomes a part of me, as I become a part of it. And I don’t even think about what to have for dinner. Well, at least for a little while.

Photo Credits: Emily BalsleyConstance Wiebrands, and mario..olmos


  1. Donna Fleischer

    “When I write, I am.” Say no more.

  2. J. Spru


  3. Fred Setterberg

    Lovely piece, Ms. McCabe. And a great joy to see you here…

  4. Betsy Fuchs

    I recently was in a mindfulness-meditation workshop I took, where we sat in silence for 30 minutes, walked in silence for 30 minutes, sat 30, walked 30 and ended with 20 minutes of chanting.

    During the two 30 minutes of silence, I sometimes (rarely) came back to my breath, the gentle instructions on “how to meditate” that were given by the workshop leader. But mainly, I thought deeply about how to rearrange my house to create a quiet space for me to sit, read, journal and be peaceful. I would say to anyone that asked that my meditation experience at the workshop was a great success. And the space I created in my house is working very well. Quiet, peaceful, relaxing.

    Marilyn thanks for the reminder that each of us finds our own way to go deeper and find peace.

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