Present-Mindful Poetry: Origins

Photo by Levi XU on Unsplash

My first exposure to the practice of present-moment mindfulness dates back more than two decades ago, when I started the efficient but elaborate (and time-consuming!) commute from a suburban gaijin house to my new job in west-end Tokyo. E-books and audiobooks became more than just my constant travel companions but tools to help me make the most of my overseas adventures.

20+ years later, I’m still commuting, if in more comfortable circumstances, but still three hours a day round-trip 🙂

My mindfulness practice, enhanced by a lay study in Buddhist philosophy, has deepened to the level that I have become a certified teacher of mindfulness to young people and a facilitator for adults, such as the other staff and faculty at my school and the parents of our students.

One constant has been the close connection between present-moment mindfulness and meditative and philosophical traditions that predate or are roughly co-existent with the rise of Buddhism. As with Buddhism, mindfulness did not arise fully formed out of a vacuum. Present-moment mindfulness echoes in pre-Buddhist and contemporary philosophies, religions, and texts.

If I can make the analogy without insulting anyone, Jesus was Jewish until he was not, just as the Buddha was Hindi… until he was not.

I find poetry and poetic prose a particularly accessible gateway into mindful thought, and curiosity led me to look past the traditional origins of mindfulness in Buddhism to find other texts that express what we would now recognize as mindful principles, even if they were not influential in the roots of mindfulness itself.

Today I want to share some sources with you, with quotations from each.

For example, in ancient Chinese literature, poetic works express similar themes of mindfulness and introspection. The Taoist classic Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu, which predates Buddhism, contains many verses that reflect a sense of mindfulness and awareness of the present moment.


Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

The Tao Te Ching is a classical Chinese text considered one of the foundational works of Taoism. This philosophical and spiritual tradition emphasizes harmony with nature and cultivating inner peace and wisdom.

The legendary sage Lao Tzu, believed to have lived in the 6th century BCE, is credited with having composed the Tao’s 81 short chapters, each of which contains poetic and paradoxical statements about the nature of the Tao, or the Way, which is the underlying principle of the universe.

Lao Tzu taught that by following the Way, one can achieve inner peace and harmony with the world around them. It emphasizes the importance of simplicity, humility, and detachment and discourages excessive striving, ambition, and materialism.

The text has been translated into many languages and has profoundly influenced Eastern and Western philosophy, spirituality, and culture. Its teachings have inspired generations of seekers to explore the mysteries of the universe and the nature of the Self, and to cultivate a deep sense of wisdom, compassion, and harmony with all of creation.

Jim Powell, in his graphic guide Eastern Philosophy for Beginners, artfully explains Taoism like this:

Imagine a Chinese landscape painting. We are first struck by a sense of sheer vastness. In the upper right corner juts an eccentric, jagged peak. Diagonally opposite a river twists and turns, like the tail of a dragon. Most of the canvas, however, is a sea of bright mist. Billowing nothingness. Shining void.

Occasionally, barely visible among these luminous vacuities, towering precipices, waterfalls, rocky crags, and tortured pines, we find a miniscule human figure. This is the Taoist hermit. Crossing a rustic bridge, or sitting atop a rock, he languishes, plucking his lute, leaning against his bamboo staff, drinking in the view, or secluded in a hut of bamboo, meditating on the moon, painting a poem or a landscape on a scroll of rice paper, serenely aloof from the mundane affairs of worldly men. — Jim Powell

Never mind that this passage describes nigh-perfectly the design on my favourite t-shirt; it also encapsulates both an aesthetic and a philosophy that speaks directly to my imagination and, I hope, yours.

With that image in mind, the Tao is a collection of poetic aphorisms addressing many universal themes that confront human existence, including mindfulness.

Here’s an example:

“Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings, but contemplate their return.”

This verse emphasizes the importance of observing thoughts and feelings without identifying with them and thus avoiding turmoil. (The allusion to impermanence here is another theme in pre-Buddhist, Buddhist, and other texts across times and cultures and is interesting and worth returning to another time).

Another example:

“Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?”

Again the speaker reminds the listener to be patient and observe: only then will “the water clear” and the right action reveal itself.

And another, which prompts the audience to deny sensory impressions and “trust his heart” to focus on Heaven.

The five colours confuse the eye.
The five sounds deafen the ear.
The five flavours spoil the taste.
The five thoughts confuse the mind.
The five wishes weaken the heart.

Therefore the Wise One trusts his heart
above the world,
lets all things come and go,
and focuses on Heaven.

Taoism emphasizes cultivating inner peace and harmony with the world around us. Its teachings encourage simplicity, humility, and detachment and discourage excessive striving, ambition, and materialism. Through its poetic and paradoxical statements, the text challenges readers to observe their thoughts and feelings without identifying with them, to be patient and wait for the right action to arise, and to trust our hearts above the sensory impressions of the world. The Tao Te Ching has profoundly influenced Eastern and Western philosophy, spirituality, and culture, inspiring generations of seekers to explore the mysteries of the universe and the nature of the Self.


Sadly, I don’t have a t-shirt to succinctly communicate the essence of some of India’s epics and holiest texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita or Upanishads, to us visual thinkers. Nor does Powell give us a visual analogy. We must rely on mere words.

Perhaps it is only fitting. India’s literary and religio-philosophical tradition is as vast and richly complex as the region’s culture, history, and geography. Still, I don’t know how else to write briefly about such a multifaceted history which disappears into the mists and myths of pre-history…

The practice of mindfulness, known as “sati” in Pali and “smriti” in Sanskrit, translates to “remembering” or “recollection.” Mindfulness is central in texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita — part of the epic Mahabharata.

The Upanishads

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The Upanishads are part of the Vedas, considered some of Hinduism’s most important spiritual and philosophical writings. They are thought to have been composed between 800 BCE and 400 BCE.

The word “Upanishad” comes from the Sanskrit words “upa” (near), “ni” (down), and “shad” (to sit), which suggests the idea of a student sitting near a teacher to receive spiritual knowledge. The Upanishads contain profound teachings on the nature of reality, the human condition, the Self, and the ultimate goal of human life.

About 12 texts are considered the most important, and it is here where we find guidance on present-moment mindfulness.

“When the mind, restrained from all directions, rests only in the Self, then it surely becomes tranquil.” — Katha Upanishad 6.11

This Katha Upanishad verse conveys that calming the mind is a matter of letting go to attain innermost peace.

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In the Upanishads, mindfulness is described as the key to attaining self-knowledge and liberation. The Chandogya Upanishad, for example, teaches that by being mindful of the present moment and all that it contains, one can attain a deep understanding of the true nature of reality and the Self.

“When the mind, restrained from all directions, rests only in the Self, then it surely becomes tranquil.” — Katha Upanishad 6.11

This Katha Upanishad verse conveys that calming the mind is a matter of letting go to attain a state of innermost peace.

“The mind is everything. What you think, you become.” — Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5

“He who sees everything as nothing but the Self, and the Self in everything, never hates anything. To him, all existence is bliss.” — Isha Upanishad, verse 6

“Those who are established in the Self, who have freed themselves from all attachments, who neither crave for nor reject anything, and who are indifferent to pain and pleasure, are truly wise and are in a state of perfect peace.” — Katha Upanishad 2.1.2

Mindfulness is emphasized as a critical element in attaining self-knowledge and liberation. The verses from the Katha Upanishad and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad illustrate the importance of calming the mind and the power of one’s thoughts. The Upanishads continue to be studied by seekers of spirituality and scholars worldwide for their timeless wisdom and teachings.

The Bhagavad Gita

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The Bhagavad Gita, part of the epic poem Mahabharata, tells the story of a great war between two families. In a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna, who appears in the form of his charioteer. As Arjuna is about to go into battle, he becomes overwhelmed with doubt and despair and turns to Krishna for guidance.

The text is composed of 18 chapters and contains over 700 verses. In it, Krishna teaches Arjuna about the nature of the Self, the universe, and God and provides guidance on how to live a life of dharma or righteous action.

The Bhagavad Gita teaches that by performing one’s duty with detachment, devotion, and selflessness, one can attain spiritual enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. It is a text that has inspired countless people throughout history and continues to be a source of wisdom and inspiration for people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

“The self-controlled soul, who moves among sense objects, with no attachment or aversion, experiencing them through the senses, and who is free from likes and dislikes, attains tranquillity.”

This verse speaks to the importance of self-control and detachment from likes and dislikes in attaining tranquillity. It reflects the idea of being present and non-reactive to sensory experiences, an essential aspect of mindfulness.

Similarly, The Bhagavad Gita teaches the importance of mindfulness in achieving spiritual growth and inner peace. In chapter six, verse twenty-six, the Gita states,

“From wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, one must certainly withdraw it and bring it back under the control of the Self.”

Elsewhere, the text elaborates:

“One who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws its limbs within the shell, is firmly established in perfect consciousness.” — Bhagavad Gita 2.58

“The practice of yoga is to still the mind in the midst of activity and to see the Self in every creature.” — Bhagavad Gita 6.8

“The wise, with the mind fixed on the Self, see everything in the Self and the Self in everything.” — Bhagavad Gita 6.29

It is being present in the moment and cultivating a still, focused mind to attain wisdom, inner peace, and liberation.

Practicing mindfulness and being present in the moment one can attain wisdom, inner peace, and liberation, regardless of background or beliefs. The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita emphasize the importance of mindfulness in achieving spiritual growth and inner peace. The Upanishads teach that mindfulness is critical to attaining self-knowledge and liberation, while the Bhagavad Gita emphasizes the practice of detachment, devotion, and selflessness in achieving spiritual enlightenment. Both texts offer guidance on cultivating a still, focused mind and seeing the Self in everything.


In working through some of these early texts, I found it a challenge and a limitation to separate the precursors of present-mindedness in the verse of pre-Buddhist mindful thought.

In my next post, let’s expand the parameters of our reading to include pre-Buddhist verses on mindfulness as impermanence.