Teach Us to Sit Still

Eliot, Wordsworth, and Meditation Practice


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Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still.
— T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

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… While with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony,
And the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
— William Wordsworth, A Few Lines Composed above Tintern Abbey

When I first read these two poems years ago, passages from both of them struck me as ideally applicable to a holistic spirituality practice. The second line of the first poem, Ash Wednesday, may well be the universal prayer of meditation students everywhere: Teach us to sit still! As I mentioned in my post, Meditation May Be Habit Forming, many stray thoughts and sensations conspire to prevent beginning meditation students from sitting still (both physically and mentally); some people never make it past the first five minutes.

Teach us to care and not to care. To me, this expresses succinctly the desire to be both sufficiently engaged with life to be effective, and detached enough to maintain a state of equanimity. Our happiest moments, it seems, are those in which we’re thoroughly engaged in a task or activity and have no particular sense of attachment to it. It’s what child psychologist Jean Piaget called engagee, the state of total absorption and self-forgetfulness that children experience, living completely in the present moment.

The passage from Wordsworth’s A Few Lines Composed above Tintern Abbey was first brought to my attention by the great meditation teacher Sharon Saltzberg. In one of her video discourses, she quoted the passage as something capturing both the state and the aim of the meditator: our eyes are made “quiet” by the power of harmony and joy; we seek to “see into the life of things.” This is the essence of looking deeply, of insight meditation. Our goal is to quiet our minds, to interrupt the nonstop flow of sensory information, and look deeply into life.

Both these poems are deep treasure troves of poetic beauty: one is a testament to the 20th century modernist spirit colliding with newly-acquired spiritual beliefs; the other, a prime example of the 18th century English Romantic Age. Both contain fragments of meaning essential to the practice of holistic spirituality.

Namaste,

William

Copyright © 2012 by William K. Ferro. All rights under copyright reserved

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