From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
On the Bookshelf
Michael Sowder

Michael Sowder, associate professor of English, is the author of three books of poetry and is working on a spiritual memoir. “Poetry is still important because it uses language to the fullest way possible,” he said. “It really takes language to the fullest capabilities of its expression.”

A Journey, a Book, and a Fire in the Heart

By Kristen Munson

Michael Sowder limbed Arunachala, a mountain in southeast India, in search of enlightenment a year and a half ago. The site is believed to be where the Hindu deity Shiva first appeared on Earth and was part of a month-long pilgrimage he made visiting the ashrams of his spiritual teachers.

Sowder, an associate professor of English at Utah State, lived on what amounted to $5 a day and spent much of the time meditating, studying, and writing. He was there trying to find God. Inner peace. Cosmic Consciousness. Or something close to it. He was also there to find inspiration.

“It was the most fantastic thing I have ever done,” Sowder said. “I don’t know how I feel about reincarnation, but when I got there I had the feeling that I had been there before. I really felt like it was my spiritual home.”

While in India he participated in the daily activities of each ashram, but the spiritual journey is one he had to go on alone. Sowder left behind his wife and two sons to pursue inward reflection.

“It’s a real conflict in some ways,” he said. “You go very deep inside yourself, but the whole point is to bring it out into the world—in your family, your scholarship.”

While away he wrote about his spirituality and his family overseas. Sowder’s new book House Under the Moon was published by Truman State University Press, the same press that recognized him with the T.S. Eliot Award in 2004 for his book The Empty Boat. The new collection stems from his spiritual journey over the past 30 years.

Sowder was raised Catholic, and while no longer one in the traditional sense; he remains a devout follower of spiritual practices. In college, he discovered tantric yoga—a path that led him to India and Spain to explore the common spiritual experience between Buddhism, Hinduism, and mystical Christianity. He received a seed grant from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences to pursue work on House Under the Moon, and a forthcoming spiritual memoir Fire in the Heart.

Sowder subscribes to the perennial philosophy that all the world’s religions share a common spiritual thread; and despite their differing ideologies, deep down their followers speak in similar terms when describing the spiritual process.

“Part of my mission is to try and increase the understanding of the unity at the heart [of religions],” he said.

About a year ago, Sowder established a meditation group in Cache Valley called Amrita Sangha for Integral Spirituality. The group meets weekly for guided meditation and to discuss aspects of spiritual philosophy.

“We try to learn from all of the world’s contemplative traditions,” he said.

He wakes up every day at 4:30 a.m. and meditates for an hour. Then he writes in his journal. Some words turn into poems. Some never leave the page. Others are revised again and again. Sowder tries to keep his work accessible to readers, but not necessarily easy to interpret.

“Meditating and writing go really well together,” Sowder said. “Poetry is about being in the moment. I do feel that accessibility is important. But like meditation, the reader has to work for it.”

He also returned to teaching meditation courses at the Cache County Jail, where he teaches once a week. Sowder has taught in correctional facilities since the 1970s. He does it to share the joy he feels from meditating with others.

“Scientists have been proving things that yogis have been saying for centuries about the health benefits of meditation,” he said. “When the inmates first walk in you can see anger, you can hurting, you can see so much stress in their faces. By the time they leave class they are open again. They just have the look of someone who’s okay.”

Like his spiritual journey, Sowder’s professional path has not been without turns. After graduating from college he wasn’t sure whether to pursue graduate study in English or attend law school. He chose the latter and regretted it immediately.

“It was like being in a car accident,” Sowder said. “The whole time I felt that this not right, this is not right.”

But he studied hard, did well, and then clerked for a federal judge. While working as an attorney in Atlanta he continued to be drawn towards poetry and literature and finally left the bar to earn his doctorate. Now when talking to his students about poetry Sowder warns them that “it can ruin a perfectly good career,” he said.

And help lead one to fulfillment.