Poetry & Other Readings We Use in the MBSR Classes

  • The Guest House by Rumi (translation by Coleman Barks)
  • Love After Love by Derek Walcott
  • Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
  • Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
  • The Journey by Mary Oliver
  • The Swan by Mary Oliver
  • The Hippo by Steven Hickman
  • If I Had My Life to Live Over by Nadine Stair
  • Still Water by W.B. Yeats
  • On Commitment by Goethe
  • The Five Hindrances by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield
  • Between Going and Staying by Octavio Paz
  • The Well of Grief by David Whyte
  • I Go Among Trees and Sit Still by Wendell Berry
  • Important by Helen M. Luke

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

By Rumi, Translation by Coleman Barks

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

By Derek Walcott


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night
with plans and the simple breath
that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

By Naomi Shihab Nye

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

By Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992
Beacon Press, Boston, MA

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

By Mary Oliver from Dream Work

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

By Mary Oliver

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air –
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snow bank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds –
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

By Mary Oliver from The Paris Review #124, Fall, 1992

The Hippo

The hippo floats in swamp serene,
some emerged, but most unseen.

Seeing all and only blinking,
Who knows what this beast is thinking.

Gliding, and of judgment clear,
Letting go and being here.

Seeing all, both guilt and glory,
Only noting. But that’s MY story.

I sit here hippo-like and breathe,
While inside I storm and seethe.

Would that I were half equanimous
As that placid hippopotamus.

By Steven Hickman

If I Had My Life to Live Over

I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax. I would limber up.
I would be sillier than I have been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances.
I would take more trips.
I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would perhaps have more actual troubles but I’d
have fewer imaginary ones.

You see, I’m one of those people who live sensibly
and sanely hour after hour, day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments and if I had it to do over
again, I’d have more of them. In fact,
I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments.

One after another, instead of living so many
years ahead of each day.

I’ve been one of those people who never go anywhere
without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat
and a parachute.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot
earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall.

If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter next time.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.

By Nadine Stair (age 85)
from Condensed Chicken Soup for the Soul
Copyright 1996 by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen & Patty Hansen

Still Water

We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us, that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.

By W.B. Yeats

On Commitment

Until one is committed there is always hesitancy,
the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness,
there is one elementary truth,
the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
Raising to one’s favor all manner of unforeseen accidents and meetings
And material assistance which no man could have dreamed
Would come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

By Goethe

The Five Hindrances

  • The desire for sense pleasure: pleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily sensations, and mind states. Typically identified as an “If only . . .” seductive mentality. “When a pickpocket meets a saint, the pickpocket sees only the saint’s pockets.”
  • Aversion, hatred, anger and ill will. Has a burning, tight quality to it that we can’t escape. Fear, judgment and boredom can all be forms of aversion, because they are based upon our dislike of some aspect of experience.
  • Sloth and torpor. Includes laziness, dullness, lack of vitality, fogginess and sleepiness.
  • Restlessness can be the opposite of sloth and torpor. Agitation, nervousness, anxiety and worry. The mind spins in circles or flops around like a fish out of water.
  • Doubt. Can be the most difficult because when we believe it and get caught by it, our practice stops cold and we become paralyzed. Could be doubts about ourselves, our capacities, doubt about our teachers, doubts about the practice (“Does this really work?”)

From: Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, The Path of Insight Meditation
By Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, Shambhala Publications, 1987

Between Going and Staying

Between going and staying the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.
All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.
Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.
Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.
The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.
I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.
The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause

By Octavio Paz

The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface of the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown away by those who wished for something else.

By David Whyte from Close to Home

Go Among Trees and Sit Still

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
Around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
Where I left them, asleep like cattle…

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
And the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

By Wendell Berry from Sabbaths, 1987, North Point Press


“We hurry through the so-called boring things
in order to attend to that which we deem
more important, interesting.
Perhaps the final freedom will be a recognition that
everything in every moment is “essential”
and that nothing at all is “important.”

By Helen M. Luke