Why Haiku?

In our modern world we enjoy a great many conveniences. I enjoy a laptop and a playstation, heating and espresso coffee as much (maybe more!) than the next guy. But there’s a downside. In some ways I think we are far too comfortable, far too often. So what’s the problem with THAT?

Let me explain. We like to be in our comfort zones, and I am no different. But comfort zones, like everything else, are constantly evolving in reply to what else is going on in your world. Any single experience, and our feelings about it, are relative to the sum of our experiences in a week or a month in the same way my body may react to a piece of chocolate relative to what else I have eaten this month. Here’s an example.  You get out of bed at 7 am on a freezing cold morning, and stumble (and grumble) straight to the hot shower.  Another person is up at 5 am, outside practising their art (be it bonsai, karate do, or long distance running). It was probably hard to get up, but it’s hard getting up at 7 am as well right? They come in at 7 am, and get into a hot shower. I think it is a safe bet the latter person is enjoying that shower more than the former.  Is the shower responsible for the joy, or was it the run/gardening/practise session? Was it the cold that made the shower so welcome? Perhaps, or maybe there’s also sense that they have participated in their fate a little more than if they had slept another 90 minutes?

When we avoid the elements, stay in and opt for ‘virtual experiences’, devoid of discomfort, transience, uncertainty and vulnerability, our comfort zone gets smaller, quickly.  In fact many ‘behavioural treatments’ for mood problems specifically require people to ‘push back’ and work on expanding their lost ‘comfort zone’.  In the process of getting so comfortable, so much of the time, we’ve lost something vital, something magical.  I think this is contributing to an epidemic of excessive fragility and a spiritual and psychological malaise. We’ve never had it so easy, and many of us feel so empty.

“Well OK, that’s a cheery thought.  What’s this got to do with Haiku!?”

I’m glad you asked! It is my belief that some of the magic we have lost involves falling out of contact with natural rhythms; day/night, spring/summer/autumn/winter, tired/rested, hungry/sated.  It seems it’s almost always light (so we can’t sleep), it’s always 21 degrees (so we’re always cold), we’re always full (and more and more unwell) and we’re always tired (but do we listen?). There’s no contrast!  Experiencing the contrasts means getting past ‘preferred states’ and taking things as they are.  Doing this connects us to something much larger than ourselves.  Falling out of touch with natural rhythms – I believe – increases our sense of ‘separateness’ and alienation.  When we can ‘get past’ that separateness and feel at one with our environment, our activities, and our challenges, we experience something special.  There’s a cost though! We may have to let go our comfort zone and our safety – and confront what is in us that keeps us from experiencing nature (‘our’ nature).  Haiku concerns itself with evoking a sense of, a longing for, those rhythms; reminding us what is in our reach, if we go outside our comfort zone. For, to quote John Muir:

“… going out, I found, was really going in…”

Haiku (as I understand it) started as something of a party game in China and later Japan.  During Hanami (cherry blossom viewing), Autumn tree viewing or Full moon parties, attendees would try – in 17 beats (5, 7, 5 – but rules were made to be bent) – to ‘evoke’ the sense and feeling of the natural scene.  As a group they would decide who best managed such an awkward task.  Of course haiku were also used to describe journeys like Basho’s wonderful ‘Narrow Road to a Far Province‘, and are also used for private reflection. It has also been suggested that haiku are an attempted distillation of the often misunderstood phrase ‘wabi-sabi‘ , a solitary, humble connection with nature and the impermanence of existence.

I have written a great many Haiku over the years (and other poetry besides), but I include my favorites which arose from experiences I had with nature, when I was out in it and not necessarily comfortable.  Unless I mention otherwise, I’ll only include photos where I was actually there at the time! Please read and enjoy, but I would be most gratified to imagine they were received as a ‘call to arms’, to go out there and get cold, get hot, and extend yourself in great enthusiasms.  Go out in the weather, the wilderness, the gardens and practise your art, your passions and to quote Thoreau ‘live deliberately’.  Go with less, set yourself a challenge, mess it up, try again. And maybe later, you’ll REALLY enjoy a 5 minute hot shower!

Forgiven

Maples bare arms bask
in northern sun’s Spring promise
All those frosts forgiven

Notes: Last week, after practise, my teacher (sensei) and I were talking in general terms about how fickle our moods can be.  Our session had been a fairly tough one, with lots of effort and no small amount of discomfort (for me anyway!).  But afterwards, it took just a cup of tea and a moment for me to look back fondly on the very discomfort I was struggling with moments before. The fondness came from the fact I did not resile from it, and I felt gratitude to my teacher for putting those tasks in my way.   Last weekend, the entire garden was dressed in winter. Maples are still just sticks and it was a very icy morning; but sunny and clear. Only a couple of hours later it was warm, and life didn’t seem so bad after all. Even the chickens, rolling in a nice dirt bath, seemed to agree! 

Yellow

Black hole sun, will come
following yellow respite.
How long will you stay?

Notes: Perhaps my first Seattle grunge haiku? In between cold fronts, two days of gloriously warm winter sun. The Chinese elm (above) glowed yellow as did most everything in the long winter light. Practising in this ‘perfect’ condition was just as challenging as getting up in the dark.  The preoccupation with ‘how nice it was’ was just as distracting from the present moment as ‘how cold is this??’.  Then there was the thought of how long it will last, and longing for it to last longer (a great way to waste a moment). Knowing this respite was brief, and that the cold would return, I tried not to get caught up in ‘wishes and fishes’ and just get into the moment the same as if it was freezing. The better to appreciate it. Of course, this one is also a ‘homage’ to genius Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden), a master of ‘evocative’ poetry himself.  – Rest in Peace. 

Grey

‘Eastern grey promise
The pre-dawn breath wets my face
Roosters rouse sleepy-heads!’

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Notes: I’m learning the love the greying pre-dawn light, but some mornings my face is all wet just walking in the garden.  My muscles are warm, but there’s a chilled shell of slick wet skin like a cold sweat. The rooster is crowing, waking everybody up, but I notice when it’s cold he stays in the henhouse.

Solstice

‘Winter solstice treat
Sunshine slants to zazen seat!
the wood warms my toes’

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Notes: I couldn’t have planned it any better. I doubt I would have had the imagination to plan it at all, but it happens that around the winter solstice when the days are shortest, the midmorning sunshine slants into the window precisely in front of the shomen (front centrepiece of the dojo) where I sit in zazen (sitting meditation).  During the week I practise while it is dark and cold. But on Sundays, when I have the luxury of practising midmorning, I enjoy a few moments when the sun has warmed a patch of wooden floor and my toes thaw out. Reward for my week’s persistence. It doesn’t sound like much, but it is a very pleasant change from the usual icy floor!

Arrived

‘Swirling yellow notes
gather cool in damp corners’
mossy green pillows’

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Notes: Every corner of the garden seems to be filled with yellow post it notes heralding the death of autumn, when the trees sleep.  The wind eddies round them up and dump them on the mossiest patches as if they were finding them a bed.

Wet hens

‘Wet day with no eggs
Hens have better things to do
Dream of distant sun!’

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Notes: Given how much they eat, I’m sometimes mildly irritated when there are no eggs for the day (and 12 chickens!). But today, it was so cold, it was too much to ask of any hen. Best off they huddle in the henhouse and look forward to the spring dust baths.

Contrast

‘Only a few days
but the sun just memories!
of warm scented grass.’

‘Welcome concrete skies
without your numbing icy breath
would I love the Spring?’

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Notes: I wrote these two together, and they need each other. I can lament the easier warmer days, but the occasional austerity hollows out the cup that holds life’s pleasures, so should we resent them? All is contrast. There’s no growth where there’s no change, and growth – I suppose – is the only evidence of life.

Jewels

‘Morning sun shower
Falling jewels scatter off
winter’s naked arms’

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Notes: I didn’t get a photo, but one morning the sun was shining when huge diamond raindrops came down, bouncing off the cherry trees which at the time had no leaves. Not much else to say about that, it was spectacular. (The pic is my very favourite zen gravel garden in Kyoto. It was pouring rain that day and young Finn – 3 at the time – didn’t really share my enthusiasm for marvelling at gravel you couldn’t even kick!!).

Boys in winter

‘Even old men learn
Laughter warms the coldest homes
prepare her warm return’

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Notes: A sentimental reflection. Melissa had to travel to Thailand for work last year in midwinter.  On the way, there was a mix up with flights and no-one (including Melissa) was really sure where she was for some hours. I was surprised at how unsettled I was by that – and very relieved to find she was safely ensconced in a hotel room in Singapore for the night. The boys and I missed her very much. We boys made the best of it – movie marathons, games and special dinners. I wanted Melissa to return to a joyful home – and we three lads pulled it off in style!