Last year, a friend gifted me a small heart-shaped patch (like the kind that Girl Scouts sew onto their sashes) with the words Heart Tender stitched on it. I cherish this gift because I like to think of my work as a poet and as a teacher as someone who tends the hearts and minds of the children I teach. If there is one lesson the pandemic has taught us is that in this time of peril and possibility children’s hearts matter. We cannot proceed with business as usual in schools with a singular emphasis on hard skills and testing.
Poetry can cultivate our hearts and so can mindfulness. In fact, poetry is a powerful act of mindfulness in its own right. It invites us to slow down, be present, feel how a poem resonates inside us, listen to the musicality of words — while quieting our restless minds.
I’ve practiced mindfulness and meditation for over thirty years. When I was a poetry student at Columbia University, I began a meditation practice and I was also teaching poetry and writing in the New York City schools through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In my Subaru station wagon, I traveled to schools from Far Rockaway to the South Bronx where I spent the day listening to the poetic imagination and wisdom of children. In the late afternoon, after circling the streets searching for a parking space, I climbed the three stories to my apartment, sat on my couch and meditated. Mindfulness and meditation haves been an anchor for me all these years, and from this center I learned how to listen deeply to children, and to my own voice.
In the beginning of my book, the poems speak to our need for mindfulness. In “There Is a Monkey In My Mind,” the words themselves, and the illustration, show how our thoughts sometimes leap from branch to branch, tree to tree like a monkey, and how ultimately, we can lead our monkey mind to a peaceful place through mindfulness. I also want to applaud Isabel Roxas, my brilliant illustrator, whose illustrations and design help the book come alive and give clarity to all the poems.
Mindfulness is not a one-size-fits-all practice. Each person must find their own way into it. The poems in the book are divided into five sections that speak to different approaches to mindfulness.
The first section, Breathe In Breathe Out, consists of poems about breathing practices such as “Counting Breaths” and “Ocean Breath.” One of the easiest and most natural ways to get started in mindfulness practice is to focus attention on the natural rhythm of our breath.
Being mindful of our emotions helps us stand back from our feelings, understand them, not to fear and struggle against them, and gently guide us to calmer place. In Mindful Me, the poems focus on how to let our thoughts sail by/like sweeps of clouds in “My Thoughts Are Clouds.” In some schools, children are inspired to create daily inner weather reports to check in on how they’re feeling based on my poem “My Inner Weather Report.”
Poets havelong observed the world in a mindful way, and noticed beauty where others might have missed it. Mindful World includes poems that teach us how to be mindful in the world around us such as in “Nature Walk” where taking a walk in a forest, or any place in nature, can be a mindful practice. In Japan they have a word for the peace that nature gives us — shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means forest and yoku means bath. So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere. Another poem in this section “Consider a Raisin” is about mindful eating, and how the joy we feel about what we’re eating depends on our level of mindfulness.
In Meditation, I hope to shift perception of meditation from sitting cross-legged for hours on a snowy mountain top to any practice that simply freeze frames a small portion of time to be fully present. “Butterfly Body Scan” takes the metaphor of a butterfly as a way to bring mindfulness and alertness to parts of our body that feel tense.
The final section, Kindfulness is a mindfulness practice where we take a deep look at our perceptions, our actions in the world and see the dignity and beauty of every person. Maya Angelou once said that poetry makes us more tender to each other, and I believe mindfulness does too. Poetry and mindfulness share the twin job of bridging barriers as Amanda Gorman says:
In my poem “Kindfulness” a student writes her own version of Christina Rossetti’s popular poem “Hurt No Living Thing,” Be mindful in thought, in the words you speak./ Open your heart to the world; open it deep.
Despite the growing interest in mindfulness, there are a few stereotypes of what mindfulness is. The longer I practice, the more I realize that it’s not about numbing uncomfortable feelings and forcing myself not to have any thoughts. Nor am I calm and serene every minute of the day. Instead, mindfulness teaches us to pay attention to our thoughts and steer our mind back to the present without negative judgement when it wanders. It helps us stop just for a moment, take life a little slower and gives us a chance to think about ourselves and our connection to others. I think of mindfulness the way Rita Dove writes about poetry:
My hope is that the poems in My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness will inspire your students to practice mindfulness, and to honor and listen to their interior lives.
Georgia Heard is the author of 18 books including My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness and Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School. She received an MFA in poetry from Columbia University, and travels the world giving workshops on writing and poetry. She lives in South Florida with her husband and family. To learn more about Georgia check out her website, www.georgiaheard.com, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
This giveaway is for a copy of My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness and a 20-minute Skype/Zoom visit. Many thanks to Macmillan for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 28th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 4th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – HEARD. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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Congratulations to Jill Puhlmann-Becker whose commenter number was selected for this giveaway.