I have dedicated my studies to considering the deep relationship between poetry and consciousness and how grasping the creative nature of both opens up a kind of spirituality—an ethical attitude towards life that is grounded in what ancient wisdom traditions called nonduality.
Such a spirituality is essentially ethical because it stems from the recognition of a fundamental nonduality (or “oneness”) between humans and the world (or nature) and the insight that the failure to value, relate, and act from this nonduality creates suffering for both humans and the so-called separate “other” or environment.
If literature, most broadly conceived, is the creation of meaning through form and language, then poetry—before it is literalized, physicalized—is that formless, intimate, aware presence in which any phenomenon (a thought, a feeling, a word) arises and subsides and out of which we give those phenomena a name and a form. Understood this way, we might see why poetry and the literary forms most akin to poetry—song, psalm, prayer, mantra, ode, epic oral stories—have had a long history of expressing a culture’s spirituality, its place in the world, its relationship to the whole. Interpreting how certain poetic language and art forms can collapse the artificial distinction between consciousness and its contents—between the existence of a subjective I “in here” and the separate existence an objective world or other “out there”—invites, I contend, the most fundamental and ethical kind of reading: a reading that perceives the nature of itself, that inquires into the knowing element that has remained with us at every moment of our lives, that is responsive to the intersubjectivities of the world and our shared being.
As a life-long lover of literature and language, I often begin teaching students by teaching them the art of forgetting. I ask them to forget what they already know about English so that they can learn it in a new way, in a way that feels earned. I don’t tire of being a student of my own life, so I too cherish opportunities to learn my craft anew. Often, we atrophy in our learning because we feel that our cup is full and we settle for knowing a minimal, functional amount. Or, what’s also common: over time, we subtly convince ourselves that we know all we need to know about something when we really don’t; and after all that self-convincing, we subconsciously believe our own story and thus become closed-off to genuine and even enjoyable learning.
So I strive to remember to start each class—no less my own waking state—with a beginner’s mind. That’s a beautiful and powerful place to be.
Something I also convey to my students: forget about your limitations and insecurities because you don’t know what you don’t know. Oftentimes, students will be in my course and see me read a sentence or a poem, or even one word, and then I’ll start talking about and connecting to twenty five things that didn’t even seem related to the original words. All of a sudden, literature’s wonder and magic and far-reaching understanding take shape and reach students. And the students exclaim incredulously, “Wow…how did you do that? I would never have seen that.” But I always tell them that I don’t do that to impress them; I do that to express to them what’s really possible because the truth is, they can do it too, regardless of their age, their background, their education. They can read like a person on fire—traverse a thousand cities, meet ten thousand unforgettable strangers, and connect to the fabric of this and any other living world (after all, our English word “text” comes from the Latin verb texere, which meant specifically “to weave,” and, by extension, “to join or fit together anything; to plait, braid, interweave, interlace; to construct, make, fabricate, build. From texere also comes textum, “that which is woven, a web”) in a way that being “connected to Wifi” cannot replace.
Our schools have trained us to be very passive: sit quietly by yourself, be lectured to, just study for tests and results, don’t ask tough questions, and just consume information and be happy and distracted with collecting objects.
But our brain doesn’t learn based on consumption. It learns through creation, and so learning is not a spectator sport. You have to get involved; you have to take great notes; you have to feel the pages of what you’re reading; you have to hear other voices, including your own; you have to ask lots of questions; you have to hold people accountable; you have to follow through; you have to forget; you have to be the CEO of your own mind.
I encourage my students to remember this: most of learning is state-dependent. If they want to learn more, they have to control their state of mind. And who’s in control of their state, their inmost landscape? They are, because they are a thermostat, not a thermometer. What do I mean by that? What does a thermometer do? A thermometer reacts to the environment: it reflects what the environment is giving it, and so we have all been thermometers at some point in our lives. We react to the weather; we react to the government; we react to the economy; we react to how people treat us. But in reality, where does the locus of focus always remain? Who is the witness to and creator of our experience?
We are. Because we’re always already a thermostat—we just forget, and that is what higher education can remedy. A thermostat is different than a thermometer. A thermostat sets a vision; it sets a goal; it sets a reachable existence, and what happens to the environment? The environment raises to meet that thermostat. I want for my students to identify with the thermostat, not the thermometer—to have an active and sincere say in how their experience unfolds, in the vitalizing recognition that things don’t just happen to them, but through them.
When life allows, I enjoy writing, cooking, curiosity, playing basketball by October sunset, watching Netflix shows that involve time travel, learning songs on the guitar that I can’t sing, the fact that you can never have enough books that you almost finished, optimism, old-fashioned’s, seeing the world through my six-year old’s eyes, and learning with my partner how many ways one can smile.
- PhD (forthcoming 2019), The University of Iowa, English with a specialization in 20th century poetry and consciousness studies
- MA, The University of Iowa, English
- MA, New York University, Media, Cultural Studies, and Communication with a specialization in postcolonial studies and transnational literature
- BA, California State University Fullerton, Philosophy with a specialization in existentialism and ethics
- BA, California State University Fullerton, English
Awards & Publications
Composition, Creative Writing, and Journalism
jomil.ebro [at] arapahoe.edu