Contemplative Writing with Reed Bye
Spontaneous 3-line poem practice
This delightful poetic practice can be used in the classroom or in any gathering where you would like to invite creativity and intimacy. It is a practice of spontaneously speaking poetic verse, drawing from one’s present-moment experience and in response to one’s partner. The point is not to create a “good poem” but rather to dive deeply into the experience of space and simple presence from which words can arise and communication can develop. The practice invites us to co-create with sincerity and without judgment about ourselves and others, allowing for a sense of play and simple, genuine engagement with another. The quality of being “on the spot,” a hallmark of Naropa University’s contemplative education, is an important and sometimes challenging aspect of this practice.
Historical Background and Lineage
This practice has been developed by Prof. Reed Bye over his teaching career at Naropa University. He says “these [exercises] have arisen primarily from my practice and study of Buddhist sitting meditation, and other sense awareness practices, but they are closely related to a natural exploration and discovery of states of mind or attention in which verbal composition is encouraged to arise spontaneously from simple perception.”
About Professor Reed Bye
To hear Reed talk more on contemplative pedagogy, please view the following video:
Benefits of the Practice
- Jumpstarts creativity and offers fresh perspectives on the process of verbal composition.
- Helps students overcome hesitation and learn to trust their spontaneous voice.
- Cultivates an ability to listen to others and oneself without judgment or evaluation.
- Invites curiosity about where and how the process of creativity takes place, as it is happening.
- Encourages engagement and connection with another person.
Preparations for Teaching
- Practice this exercise yourself with a partner several times and reflect or journal on what you have gained from it so that you can bring your personal experience to bear on the practice as you offer it in class.
- Reflect on where in your syllabus you want to situate the practice. Perhaps it can offer freshness half-way through the semester.
- Reed Bye recommends that “it is best if the exercise is kept as non-conceptual as possible, so the teacher should have a personal understanding of the difference between immediate experience and ideas about it.”
Steps for Guiding the Practice
- Create a conducive environment for engaging with contemplative practice. Explain the reasons and benefits for contemplative practices in general and for this one in particular (see above for some of the benefits students have reported). If you have introduced contemplative learning in the classroom already, then you may not need to do as much (if any) setting of the context for this practice. In general, students respond better if they know ahead of time why they are doing something.
- Invite students to notice what comes up for them as they try this out, without judging themselves, as this may be a very new experience for them.
- Encourage students to practice deeply listening to their partner. When they are fully present while another is speaking, they will not have time to formulate their own response ahead of time.
- Let the class know that there will be a discussion about the practice and that students will have a chance to share their experiences afterwards. This can help students go deeper into the practice.
- Have students pair off into dyads and sit facing each other. One student should have blank paper and a writing implement beside them. Have a quick and easy way to choose who will go first, such as saying “the person with shortest hair will go first” (so as to avoid needing a discussion about who will go first).
- (Optional) Have partners bow to each other to begin, as sign of presence, mutual respect, and attentiveness.
- Offer a brief guided mindfulness practice (alter as you see fit) in order to establish a mindful presence in the beginning:
- I invite you to sit with upright posture and settle into a basic sense of the presence of your body. (Take a few moments for this.) Notice your breath entering and leaving your body. (Pause.) Breathing in, feel your sit bones on your chair or cushion. Breathing out, allow your body to relax. Breathing in, feel your sit bones resting. Breathing out, let yourself relax while being present. Allow yourself to notice what you see and hear and feel without Judgment, just being with what is and returning to the feeling of your body here, upright and breathing.
- From this space of silent presence, prompt the partner who is going first to offer a short, spontaneous phrase.
- The second partner listens, remaining fully present without judgment and without planning their phrase. Allow time and silence between responses, so that the listener can feel into the phrase that was spoken.
- Then, when ready, and ideally without having planned out what they will say ahead of time, the second partner offers their own phrase in response.
- The first partner listens to the second phrase and, when it feels right to them, closes the exercise with a third spontaneous phrase, which completes the poem. Remind students to maintain a sense of mindfulness and connection with the present moment throughout.
- After the three lines have been spoken, one of the partners writes down the entire poem.
- Repeat the practice, alternating the first speaker, for a total of four three-line poems.
- (Optional) Invite each of the dyads to share one or two of their poems with the class.
- Facilitate a discussion of the practice and let students share their experiences of it.
- What did you notice before, during, or just after the practice? What was your experience of listening deeply without judgment and without preparing a response? Was there a sense of surprise in what the partner said, or in what you said yourself? Was there a sense of something developing as each line of the poem was spoken? Did the phrases seem to fit together, or not? What was your experience of speaking spontaneously? What was your experience of the silence between phrases?
Additional Teaching Notes
- It can be helpful for the teacher to partner with a student to demonstrate the practice ahead of time.
- As with many contemplative practices, we try to find the sweet spot between being true to the form and allowing for a sense of naturalness and ease. Students usually become more comfortable and relaxed as they do this practice several times in a row.
- The purpose of this exercise is not to satisfy anyone’s idea of a “good poem.” There is no right or wrong phrase; if a student is doing the practice sincerely, they are doing it correctly. The content of the phrases is not being judged or, usually, commented on by the teacher or students. Appreciation for the poem will happen naturally, but it is worth emphasizing before starting that there is no goal beyond the practice and activity itself.
The Video Clip demonstrates this practice.