10 Jul 2018

How poetry can help with mindfulness

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:35 pm on 10 July 2018

We're constantly bombarded by information on screens, from texts, news alerts and social media updates.

That distracted world sits uncomfortably with the increasingly popular idea of mindfulness which encourages us to take stock, calm down and tune out. 

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Photo: Trust Katsande/Unsplash

Easier said than done, but an award-winning poet says poetry could help.

Dr Bryan Walpert, an associate professor at Massey's School of English and Media Studies, has written a book about it Poetry and Mindfulness Interruption to a Journey.

Studying poetry as a reader or writer is, like mindfulness, a means of developing certain mental muscles, he says.

“Poetry asks us to focus intently on the present,” Walpert says.

“Poetry has a number of effects I’ve come to see that are in sympathy with mindfulness, one of them is it helps us to develop a sense of tolerance of ambiguity, which I think we badly need.”

He believes the creep of technology into every area of our lives has weakened our reasoning abilities.

“There’s evidence that all this technology is making it harder for us to follow longer, nuanced arguments.

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Photo: Supplied

Our brains are also becoming less compassionate, less empathetic, our brains are being asked to be less tolerant of difference and ambiguity. Poetry says resists those tendencies.”

To understanding poetry we need to understand interlocking systems, he says 

"Thinking about how a change in one area affects another area, possibly quite distant.

“A poem is a system and a word in line seven will often have echoes in lines twelve and eighteen, which in turn will contribute to a web of meanings.”

Studying poetry he says requires putting not just words or lines into the system of the poem but putting the poem itself into a series of overlapping contexts - historical, cultural, economic and linguistic - that are all, in fact, systems themselves.

“Poetry helps us to see things without the blinkers of habit, so we actually start to see things in new ways or fresh ways.”

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