Poetry and the Further Reaches of Our Potential
A conversation with ITP practitioner and board member, Bob Doenges
One of the highlights from my time spent in ITP workshops and programs is having the privilege to experience ITPI board member and long-time practitioner, Bob Doenges, spontaneously recite poetry. It was during my first year participating in the ITP Mastery program where he introduced me to poet David Whyte. A copy of the poem, Start Close In, is still tucked into my journal, a gift from Bob so many years ago.
The poem is from Whyte’s collection, River Flow, and one of Bob’s favorite books of poetry. It begins:
“Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
the step you don't want to take.”
In our life-long pursuit toward the further reaches of our potential, we proceed with that first step. I recently spoke with Bob about his practice, particularly his extraordinary capacity to retain and recite poetry. As with so many special conversations we’ve had, it was a flow of wisdom punctuated with a poem.
We often reference feats of physical athleticism or strength when envisioning the further reaches of our potential. However, as ITP co-founder Michael Murphy writes in his book, The Future of the Body, there exist many kinds of experience, which he refers to as “metanormalities of everyday life.” Bob’s ability to channel the Divine through poetry is one such experience.
As he shared with me, “These poems, I’m not doing them, they are doing me.”
Like our practice, this is an integral experience for Bob. Poetry plays a transformative role in body, mind, heart and soul for him. Often, it begins with walking and being in his body and of this world. Noticing the environment and connecting with people he meets along his walks, particularly along the river near his home, has gifted him extraordinary conversations with fellow walkers as well as with nature and spirit. As he walks, poems seem to invite awe.
“Poetry is a bridging language that helps people put words to their experiences. It moves us into a higher level of appreciation of special moments. I have these extraordinary experiences talking to people. I am able to move to another level through curiosity and creativity inspired by poetry.”
Could it be that the further evolution of our species is connected to us as individuals and our planet? If so, poetry could be a vital tool in our Core Practice Intention #9 of “looking for ways to be of service, supporting the evolution of humankind towards a more balanced, peaceful, and joyful condition.”
Bob’s practice in “gifting” himself poems to memorize goes hand-in-hand with the practice of balancing and centering. He reflected that "reacting is inherently negative and divisive, while responding is inherently positive…and unifying.” It is his practice of poetry and walking that allows him an openness to see the literal and metaphorical horizons which help him take the “high” road or even simply a different road in daily encounters. While sharing these reflections, he smiled and began reciting Terns by Mary Oliver, a poet we both admire. “This poem speaks to me because the once endangered Interior Least Terns visit the sandy islands on the Arkansas River each summer where I walk.”
“Don’t think just now of the trudging forward of thought,
But of the wing-drive of unquestioning affirmation.
It’s summer, you never saw such a blue sky,
And here they are, those white birds with quick wings,
Sweeping over the waves, chattering and plunging,
Their thin beaks snapping, their hard eyes
Happy as little nails
The years to come-this is a promise-
Will grant you ample time
To try the difficult steps in the empire of thought
Where you seek for the shining proofs you think you must have.
But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
Than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world. …
We retain what we experience. ITP is so powerful because it is in our bones, our mind, our emotional experiences and spiritual encounters. For Bob, poetry is an integral practice in motion. I asked him how he has collected so many poems for his “practice toolbox.”
His response: "When I come across a poem that speaks to my heart and am drawn to, I often put it in my “heart cloth.” With this thought, he flowed into another David Whyte poem called “Everything is Waiting for You.”
“You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.”
There couldn’t be a more appropriate threading together of language than this poem. It reinforces our steadfast path of practice toward our true and full potential. In our personal and collective pursuit to evolve the further reaches of our extraordinary nature, we can be inspired by practitioners like Bob and the tools we have been gifted, the context that grounds and propels us and the commitment to show up for the long-haul. For Bob, it is the poetic incantations of David Whyte, Mary Oliver, William Stafford and so many others that both root him and act as the winds of GRACE in his practice.
“Almost every time I walk alongside the river, I am moved to recite David Whyte’s poem “Where Many Rivers Meet.” This poem speaks perfectly to our integral beings and the unity consciousness that leads us into the undiscovered territory within each of us and the ones that we are.”
All the water below me came from above.
All the clouds living in the mountains
gave it to the rivers,
who gave it to the sea, which was their dying.
And so I float on cloud become water,
central sea surrounded by white mountains,
the water salt, once fresh,
cloud fall and stream rush, tree roots and tide bank,
leading to the rivers' mouths
and the mouths of the rivers sing into the sea,
the stories buried in the mountains
give out into the sea
and the sea remembers
and sings back,
from the depths,
where nothing is forgotten.
Before we said our goodbyes, Bob shared a Sanskrit mantra/prayer that he says each morning in its English version before moving into the meditation part of the Kata:
“Salutations to the WORD present in the earth, the heavens and that which is beyond. Let us meditate on your glorious splendor, o’Divine Giver of Life. May you illuminate our prayers and give us your peace. OMMMM…"
In sharing his extraordinary capacity for expressing the WORD that manifests for him through poetry, we can experience a deeper connection to ourselves, to Bob and the larger world that, as Bob says, can make our hearts sing.