I finished Mary Oliver’s book American Primitive yesterday, and I recommend it highly. This is her second-to-last poem, and it blew my mind:
The Plum Trees
Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into
the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment
rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t
succumb, there’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy
is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body
can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,
the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it
into the body first, like small
I was struck by the idea of happiness as being physical first and only then mental. I usually think of it as an aspect of the mind, a mental state. And many think of happiness as a spiritual state. But I love the idea of finding happiness by taking it in through the senses. I think, generally, that attaining a state of happiness isn’t a good goal — it’s so elusive and fleeting and for some reason humans just don’t seem to be made to be happy. And what is happiness, exactly? But I think if one is going to seek happiness, even short experiences of it, seeking it through the physical world is going to be the most reliable way — through experiencing the body intensely and through interaction with the outside world.
The connection between body and mind is built into our language. Oliver’s line about sensual inundation being sensible is breath-taking: she’s playing with word “sense,” its inclusion in both “sensual” and “sensible” and its reference both to the bodily senses and to mental sense, or thinking. Sensual inundation, while it might appear to be excessive, overloading the senses, really is the most sensible, or reasonable, thing to seek. Bodily experience is not something opposed to mental experience — a deeply-felt bodily experience, even one of “disorder and astonishment” that “rattles your thoughts” as Oliver says, is going to strengthen your mind.
I feel like I have things to say about this I don’t have time for now, so I’ll probably come back to this poem and this idea, but I will say that one of the most important things I’ve learned as an adult is to stop privileging mental experiences over physical ones. I grew up in a Christian tradition that is profoundly ambivalent about the body, and it is only by moving away from that tradition that I’ve been able to think about the relationship of mind and body in what I think is a saner way. I like to write about cycling and backpacking because they are part of how I think through these issues: exercise isn’t merely exercise but another way to live in the world. It’s sort of like my body’s way of “reading” — reading is one way the mind understands the world — one way out of many — and walking, running, riding are possibilities for the body.