Friday, July 24, 2020

Mindful Poems from Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley

Young writers from the Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley in Milford, NH, wrapped up a four-session mindful poetry writing workshop this week. Below are six poems they wrote in small groups as part of a Mindful Eating for Description activity.  

Congrats to these very creative young thinkers!!

Poem #1

Ode to the Blackberry

It feels like a blueberry:
little circles on the entire thing.
It's bumpy like a mountain,
bumpy like a giant pile of little rocks.
Its colors remind us of Earth.
It's bumpy now, but like just one rock.
Dark in color, like the night sky.
We could probably climb up the stem,
though climbing it would make the berry pop,
and a river of juice would come down the mountain.

Poem #2

Ode to an Oreo

You look nice & tasty--
You have a creamy filling.
No, you have a fuzzy filling. 
You have pretty designs.

Poem #3

Ode to the Grape

It's brown where a stem once was.
Black little dots like dirt or bugs.
The grape rolls all over the mouth:
It's confusing. It looks like a green cat
running all around the room.
Now it feels like a dried fig
or a tiny apricot. Grape,
run like crazy from people
or you'll be eaten!

Poem #4

Ode to the Oreo

This Oreo is like wood.
This Oreo is like metal.
It feels like black sand,
sand which once was an enormous rock
crushed by the sea.

The cream in the middle
is like the winter sky,
like a snowflake
that's great for a snowflake pie.
It stays alive.
It gets cut into half, the three parts,
and the parts keep breaking.
It stays alive and marries another rock!

Poem #5

All Mixed Together Ode

The grape: it's like there's liquid inside of it.
The Oreo: eating the cookie, it turns brown. 
Future cavities!

The Dorito smells like nacho corn chips.
Back to that grape. It's hard like a rock.
The frosting in the cookie looks like
milk in a bottle.

Dorito chip: you smell spicy!

Poem #6

The grape: a prose poem


It’s brown, yellow, red. I can see the insides already without opening it: the juice and seeds. The interior looks like water. It’s like an apple, a pear, a raisin. It’s like Mindcraft. It smells like warm trash. It smells like water. It feels like an organ. It feels round, like the inside of a kiwi. In the mouth, it’s like slime, applesauce. It feels warm when you keep chewing. It feels like a slimy thing.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

20 Mindful Breaths During COVID-19

[This is a re-post of an earlier discussion to make it easier to locate for members in the online Introduction to Mindful Writing course I'm currently offering to New Hampshire residents.]

I'm finding mindful writing to be a helpful practice each morning during the COVID pandemic. It's providing an oasis of focus and calm. The following is one of the grounding techniques.

20 Breaths
Preparing to Write:

Find a quiet location and draw your mind to the point at which air enters and exits your nose. (Don’t listen to music.) Put aside your other thoughts: redirect your attention to your breathing for at least a minute before starting to write this exercise.

Next, breathing in, think “here.” Breathing out, think “now.” Repeat for a minute. If you find your mind wandering, it’s no big deal. Just gently guide your thoughts back to breathing.

Describe what a single breath feels like physically. Watching the inhalation, notice the breathing-in as a brand-new event—as though it has never happened to you before. Watching the exhalation, notice the breathing-out as a brand-new event—as though it has never happened to you before.

Stop for a moment. Number this breath: Breath 1.

Write 3-4 phrases or 1-2 sentences about Breath 1.

For instance, you could try answering a few of these questions: Where did you feel the breath in your body? With what did the breath make contact? What moved or changed in your body because of the single breath? How long did the breath seem to last? What was the temperature of the breath? 

To head in a more poetic direction, if the breath possessed a shape, what shape would it have? If the breath was an object, what kind of object might it be? If the breath came in a color, what color or colors? If the breath was a single word or phrase, what would that be?

Repeat until you’ve described twenty breaths.

The purpose of this exercise is to use writing to retrain the mind to pay attention to the present. For the times we're all living in right now, watching our breathing through writing can ground us and lead to a calm outlook. Ultimately, this will help you pay attention to the present while you write, which will carry all sorts of benefits in terms of your outlook about writing and the ideas you reach.

* Image from

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Writing, No Writing: Cultivating Emptiness of Page and Screen, Part Two

Part Two of Previous Post


On another level, The Heart Sutra tells us that the blank page is not ever really blank. That blankness is a construct—one that comes from our misguided sorting of wording into what’s desirable (we can use it in our document) and useless (it won’t serve the goal of advancing this particular document).

If this sorting mechanism is eliminated, we notice that an empty page or screen is actually surrounded by signs of our interconnection and communication—the nameless people who designed, manufactured, transported, and sold the screen or notebook page, the No. 2 pencil in the hand, the ballpoint pen. I look at the opaque black plastic framing my laptop, and I should see the presence of others and know that it took their language usage to get the computer made. Other words also occur all around my screen—File, Home, Insert, Design, Layout, References, Mailings, Review, View, English (United States), Page 2 of 5, “Tell me what you want to do” and the header “Article for Buddhadharma.”

An egoless approach to write does not differentiate between “found” language of others and language generated by the self. 

Developing a meditation practice which reflects on the interbeing behind our writing tools can make the blank screen less static, less autonomous, and immediately help us begin viewing our writing task as part of a dependent arising. We can adapt Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation on a sheet of paper in which mindful inspection reveals the trees and rain clouds that made the paper possible. We gain a sense of the interconnected emptiness we operate in as writers.

            Not only are we surrounded by all sorts of language as we write, but that opening sentence we’re seeking as we stare at the empty screen is probably already present. It’s temporarily camouflaged in blankness, covered over for now by the white-out of the unconscious. Blanks are loaded with possibility: inside an empty moment is a turn of phrase that will give you momentum. Other fragments are ready to step forward—tidbits of voice, language and thought recalled, an image that shimmers in possibility. 

            If you turn to that emptiness rather than avoiding it, writing will manifest on the page or screen. It’s all there. It’s just that with emptiness, since all is undifferentiated and interconnected, nothing yet emerges as discrete and visible. 

I’m partial to the view of Edo Shonin and his colleagues that we substitute “fullness” for “emptiness” and that we see emptiness as an occasion for a joy that comes from interconnection. In The Heart Sutra’s notion of sūnyatā, a mutuality of form and formlessness is evident, or an emptiness in which it is said that all things, not just the human ego, lack independent existence. Sūnyatā is not the annihilation of existence but rather the repudiation of a particular kind of existence (independent and permanent), replaced in a Buddhist perspective with an interconnected and continuously changing one. 

The nonverbal means something very different through a Buddhist lens. Emptiness teems with presence, just as non-writing overflows with writing.

            In the binary-dissolving spirit of the Heart Sutra, it’s important to note with equanimity not only how much language encompasses us—if we’re not selective or discriminating—but also how much emptiness surrounds us. The task for mindful writers is to learn to observe without evaluation both verbal and blank occasions. 

            Empty moments abound, including the gap between words and between letters. Those nonverbal moments are as frequent as verbal moments in the writing experience—probably far more prevalent. Word count: 3,000. Gap count: 10,000. In actuality, whenever we write, we make contact with countless moments in which we are not writing.  



The writing process is often depicted as a sequence through which language moves from formlessness to ever-increasing form, from the multiple and divergent possibilities of early drafts to a stabilized final version likely intended for readers. 

This line of thinking is biased toward bigger amounts of form: writing products are price tagged as more valuable the greater their removal from verbal emptiness. On top of that, certain types of writing are seen as possessing more accumulated form; for example, a poem has more form (and therefore more value) than a less organized freewrite or private writing—an anxiety that originates in our unease with verbal emptiness.

Conventional, mindless understanding of the timing of writing also divvies up the writing process into discrete stages: prewriting, writing, rewriting, editing. The phases are cast as predictable to the point that writing theorists have on occasion quantified the amount of time each takes: 85% for prewriting, 1% for the first draft, and 14% for rewriting, in one approach.

 We often specially demarcate the starting area of our writing experiences, marking its boundary with special yellow tape. That’s how we usually learn about writing in school. 

This arrangement puts tremendous pressure on certain (initial) moments in our writing experiences. Those who write while mindfully aware of their physical and emotional states note an acceleration of their pulse, spikes in adrenalin, and shallow breathing when contemplating how to start a new piece of writing. We fixate on a document’s introduction, for instance, roping it off with preconceptions and self-imposed writing rules that warp those moments into a high-stakes performance, when a more continuous view of emptiness wouldn’t bother with such designations. 

A view that embraces verbal emptiness is a view toward the fleeting, with the moment as its unit, so writing time is ongoing, not discrete starts and ends. As stated in The Heart Sutra, “all things having the nature of emptiness have no beginning and no ending.”

Operating with this false time line, writers tend to compartmentalize verbal emptiness as mainly occurring when we start a piece of writing—during the prewriting phase—when in actuality emptiness surrounds us, even at late-stage editing phases, due to the radical groundlessness of present experience. The actual switch-over is frequent and momentary; anything written is the immediate neighbor of emptiness. For example, the thirty seconds or so around the time I pressed “publish" for this post contained traces of the nonverbal. Changeover between formlessness and form happens on a moment-by-moment basis rather than in macro phases like “prewriting” and “rewriting.”

For struggling writers, any delay in starting is perceived as a problem, as though we think we’re in charge of the timetable for writing and can predict or dictate the arrival of words. This thinking is hubristic and perpetuates mindlessness because it means we are loading up the next moment with our preconceptions. 

Experienced writers know that non-activity is part of the writing process, while novices often mislabel it as a weakness. Experienced and prolific writers learn to trust these moments of delay and emptiness, accepting those stretches of staring off into space or decisions to vacuum the downstairs instead of write, for reasons that a mindfulness perspective can illuminate. 

Don Murray once proposed that writers encounter five natural delays as they wait for voice, insight, organization, purpose, and information. As Murray says, “The writer has to accept the writer’s own ridiculousness of working by not working” and that “accepting the doing nothing that is essential for writing” is key to the development of a piece.

What makes writers doubt themselves? It’s often due to a misunderstanding of the timing of writing. 

In past summers, as director of my university's first-year writing program, I reviewed over a thousand writing samples from incoming college students, essays in which students make a case for taking either a non-required developmental writing course or the required course. 

The vast majority who pick the lower level course attribute their decision to the time it takes for them to start an assignment. Their high school teacher distributed the prompt, the student didn’t know what to write until a day later, and so the student concludes that delay is a defect in their writing ability.

 I was flabbergasted by younger writers’ stringent expectation that they should be able to immediately start writing—even their teachers would need time to mull over a new project—and by the extent to which nonverbal experiences of writing are rejected. We should be concerned when any writer (including ourselves) expects continuous and automatic verbal production. 

We actually need stretches of non-writing for the purposes of writing.

To be continued.

 * Image from 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Writing, No Writing: Cultivating Emptiness of Page and Screen, Part One

The cursor is blinking away. The illuminated rectangle of the new document opened on the laptop looks like a vacant lot on a hot afternoon, page 1 of 1, no word count in sight. A faint hum is coming from your computer; the device is waiting for you to make the first move, anything other than staring out the window or constructing piles of paperclips. 

For a split second, even the most proficient of writers might wonder if this isn’t a sign of forthcoming troubles—possibly even a full-blown writing block. What if writing doesn’t happen this time?

Over the next few blog posts, I want to make a case for cultivating blankness, not avoiding or fearing it, by turning to The Heart Sutra for its instruction on the non-dualistic interplay of form and formlessness. It’s pretty common that we misperceive verbal emptiness, missing out on important writing resources and sometimes self-diagnosing verbal emptiness as a sign of our deficiency as writers. 

Normally, not-writing is rejected experience. Dread of the empty page is a near universal experience: it doesn’t matter if we’re a professional author with ten books, an employee struggling through an end-of-the-year performance report, or a person trying to come up with a toast for our best friend’s wedding. For some writers I’ve met in my teaching practice, this dread becomes so debilitating as to altogether prevent them from satisfying experiences with their own writing.

Most of us overly value the popcorn sound of typing or any sign of productivity, so developing comfort with blanks takes practice. We only begin to feel secure once language makes an appearance on the screen and the word count climbs, each new sentence rescuing us from our plight of possible failure, transporting us farther away from this face-off with nothingness. We grasp after words, clinging to every phrase we produce until second guessing and self-critique washes over us and we’re back to facing sūnyatā, or verbal emptiness. 

Traditional schooling has also told us that blank moments are to be avoided. Well-meaning teachers and writing coaches usually offer prompts that springboard a writer from no-writing into writing. The problem is that this still sends the message that there’s something to fear about nonwriting—a message we carry around with us for the rest of our writing lives.

 By engaging in this dualistic thinking in which non-writing is avoided, we’re perpetuating our suffering as writers, if we understand this suffering as resisting what’s happening in present time as we write. Conversely, with mindful writing, it takes perception (mindfulness) of what’s really happening as we write (the present) to acknowledge change (impermanence) and be released from writing problems (entering into prolific, content writing experiences). If we are biased toward product and outcome, we are disregarding the experience of the moment—for instance, verbal emptiness—and increase our own struggle as writers.

The Heart Sutra offers an alternative approach to those occasions of verbal emptiness or sūnyatā  that frequently happen as we start a new piece—but can also surface in the middle of a project, making it hard for us to continue. The Buddhist mutuality of form and formlessness reassures writers that a wordless stretch will turn over to words. The moment starts off as verbally empty and turns wordy (and back again). Ultimately, the concept of emptiness in The Heart Sutra dissolves binaries of writing ability/inability and increases our confidence. The paradox of emptiness is that nonwriting is included in every instance of writing, and writing is included in every instance of nonwriting.


The Heart Sutra offers a better approach to those incidents of verbal emptiness than the model traditional education usually provides. Avalokitesvara’s instruction to Sariputra on prajñãpāramitā through egolessness was “Form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, neither is form different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is form.” 

In Avalokitesvara’s reply, this pivot between form on the one hand and emptiness on the other becomes a swing dance involving two partners around the single word “is.” The rotation between form and formlessness has implications for writing, for the nonverbal and verbal. The teaching can help us cultivate a healthy relationship to blankness by first fixing our errors in evaluation (how we cling to the verbal and reject the nonverbal) and then adjusting our sense of timing (our assumptions about when the verbal should occur).

The most powerful word in “Form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, neither is form different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is form” is that deceptively humble “is.” This tiny word points to how both writing and no-writing are present—are adjacent experiences. 

The situation is like turning a corner: by the time we reach the second half of the equation, “Formless is form,” form, or writing, is visible. Secondly, this pivot word suggests that both writing and no-writing are equivalent: a fundamental notion because it reduces false evaluation of experience, clutching and striving: mental formations which lead to writing-related suffering.

In the sutra, “form” refers to both the physical aspects of the world as well as skandha of feeling, perception, consciousness, and impulses. By “form” in writing, I mean material that results from mental formations and that falls on a spectrum of the inchoate (nonverbal, sensed ideas without verbal accompaniment) to the word-by-word tracking of internal discourse not organized for others (freewriting, brainstorming, private writing) to genre-specific, highly revised texts, and back again. A single letter in Garamond font is an instance of form; a well-formed paragraph, the use of description, and a haiku are also instances of form. Form doesn’t differentiate on the basis of perceived usefulness or quality or on size. A fragment is as legitimate a form as a complete sentence or a book.

The Buddhist mutuality of form and formlessness evident in the praj󠆿nāpāramitā of The Heart Sutra reassures writers that a wordless stretch will turn over to words. The moment often commences as verbally empty and ends discursively. With an inhalation, each moment of present awareness for writing starts off as a razed, non-conceptual space usually wiped clear of mental formation. It’s dunked in verbal emptiness. This moment may or may not turn verbal—it usually does, given our human propensity for inner discursivity, our monkey mind. The air entering our nostrils may start off nonconceptual, but by the time the accordion of our rib cage expands, our inner talk or what Buddhists call "monkey mind" has usually commenced.  

Ultimately, this concept of emptiness dissolves binaries of writing ability/inability and increases our confidence that writing will happen. The emptiness of the present moment is active, emergent; it is the surface upon which words and images arise and disappear in the impermanent nature of all entities. The paradox is that nonwriting is included in every moment of writing, and writing is included in every moment of nonwriting.

 [To be continued] 

 * Image from 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Online Course on Mindful Writing (For Residents of New Hampshire, USA)

I'm offering the below online course in my capacity as New Hampshire State Poet Laureate. 


Description of Course:


This online course is geared toward individuals wanting to increase their enjoyment and satisfaction with writing in any genre (poetry, fiction, nonfiction). We discuss how to develop a calm, productive mindset and greater self-acceptance toward our writing through paying attention to the ever-changing present moment. We cover the main tenets of mindful writing, including noticing and making use of impermanence, accessing our monkey minds for new ideas, and reducing audience demons. This course is a combination of discussion and hands-on activity, and participants will be asked to prepare readings and complete activities to develop a regular mindful writing practice. This course is facilitated by New Hampshire State Poet Laureate, Alexandria Peary. Enrollment is limited to 10 participants who are New Hampshire residents.


Participants will:


-Learn strategies to more consistently focus on the present moment during writing.

-Practice methods to increase writing productivity.

-Change negative feelings about writing to positive ones of calm and self-acceptance.

-Develop a mindful writing discipline.

-Engage in a community of writers, sharing work and ideas.

- Gain basic skills to proceed, if desired, to upcoming master classes offered on mindful writing.


Meeting Details:

·      This online class meets for 75 minutes on Zoom, from 3-4:15 pm on Saturday, July 18; Saturday, July 25; and Saturday, August 1, 2020.

·      A Zoom link will be emailed to you the Friday before each class meeting.

·      A donation of $30 is strongly recommended to the New Hampshire Food Bank or the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.


Ground Rules:


Participants will be asked to prepare readings as well as come to class with completed writing exercises. Handouts of reading materials will be provided as PDF. It is important that participants commit to attending all three sessions as each class discussion will build upon prior one.

Background of Presenter:


Alexandria Peary, MFA, MFA, PhD, specializes in mindful writing, an approach captured in her book Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing (Routledge 2018) as well as her 2019 TEDx talk, “How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write,” available on YouTube. She has presented on mindful writing for the Imperial College of London, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Southern New Hampshire University, the National Council of Teachers of English, the New Hampshire Poetry Festival, and the New Hampshire Humanities Council. Alex serves as New Hampshire Poet Laureate and is the recipient of a 2020-2021 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship in support of her initiatives with mindful writing for youth survivors of the state’s opioid crisis and the development of a young writers’ festival in the North Country.


How to Join:

If you are interested, send an email with the below information to Alex at by Sunday, July 12. Include the following information:


·      Name

·      Address

·      Email

·      Writing Background: Include a brief paragraph describing your writing background and your reasons for wanting to take this course.