‘No one travels
Along this way but I
This autumn evening.’
– Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694
Haiku is a Japanese poetic form closely tied to meditation. Classic haiku are works of genius penned by Zen monks. Their beauty lies in their beguiling simplicity. Anyone can practice writing their own haiku as a personal meditative practice. Reading and contemplating haiku can open and free the mind.
I love and endlessly admire the work of Basho, Issa, Buson and the great Haiku masters. In my own small way, I also like to compose haiku as a form of meditation. My little productions compare poorly with the precise and haunting beauty of the masters’ work. But the experience of composition focuses the mind and heart. It feels like solving a particularly satisfying puzzle.
Small, Precise and Beautiful
Small, precise and beautiful, a haiku evokes emotion, usually by making reference to nature. A haiku poet seeks carefully to observe the detail of the world around. Her or his words encapsulate a sliver of experience, awaking awe, surprise or recognition in the reader. Sometimes there is a surprise in the juxtaposition of images or ideas. Like all poetry, haiku aims to communicate something real with felt accuracy. It can be sad, happy, funny, or simply an observation. A good haiku is worth long and slow consideration.
Three Short Lines
A haiku usually has three short lines. Traditionally there are seventeen syllables, with a 5-7-5 structure. A haiku doesn’t usually rhyme. Some excellent writers maintain that the 5-7-5 pattern is not required in English. It is sufficient to create a concise three line poem. I enjoy the constraint of the syllable count when I try to write as it makes the construction more challenging. I can’t simply use the first phrases that spring to mind, as I have to search for other forms to fit the syllables. This encourages me to play with words as I struggle to express my idea.
Poetry and Meditation
We are creatures who naturally use language. Words can confuse and hurt us, but they also have the power to calm, centre and soothe. Poetry, scriptures and mantras have all been used for centuries in meditation to focus and settle the mind. I frequently read poetry at the end of my Yoga classes to facilitate contemplative relaxation.
When you read or hear a poem you don’t have to struggle to understand everything. Just let the words wash over you like water and enjoy the images that settle in your imagination. Poetry can paint a picture or leave you with a resounding word or phrase. Let that become the focus for your meditation. The word or picture that feels meaningful for you is like a delicious sweet in our mouth. Enjoy it, explore it and let it linger. Relax into it.
Writing your own haiku or poetry can be a private expression for you alone. Don’t worry about whether or not it is “good”. Try playing with words in the same way that you might experiment with fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle. It is like testing different shades of paint on a wall, or trying on clothes looking for the perfect outfit. There is no right or wrong way to do it. The experience of finding words for this moment in time is a meditation in itself.
Writing down your poems, maybe in a special notebook, is a lovely way to keep a record of your feelings and experiences. You can do this simply for yourself.
Of course you might like to write poems to share with others. This can become a deeply absorbing hobby. You might even like to join a writing group or share your work online. But don’t discount the liberating experience of composition purely for pleasure too.
Nature, Walks and Moods
Nature has moods, and so do we. I like trying to compose haiku when I am out walking. It is a little challenge that encourages me to notice details in the world around and how they make me feel. Finding words for my experience of nature on this particular day focuses my mind and imagination. It turns my walk into a meditation. If I am feeling low or agitated, thinking about my haiku calms me and lifts my mood. I found this especially helpful on my walks during the lockdown.
A Couple of My Attempts
With apologies to Basho, here are a couple of my recent haiku attempts:
Ferns stand head high now
Unfurled to herald summer
You can’t lock them down.
– 3 June 2020
Walking the seawall
Sky maze on purple salt marsh
A landward rainbow.
– 21 August 2020
Work of a Master
And here is one from a great master:
‘The light of a candle
Is transferred to another candle –
– Yosa Buson, 1716 – 1784
Today’s Calming Practice – Write a Haiku
Today have a go at composing a haiku. It often helps to go outside or look closely at something from nature. When your attention is drawn to something, notice exactly how it appears to your senses. What feeling, thoughts and emotions does it evoke for you?
Now try to write three short lines which describe your experience. Don’t worry about what anyone else would think of it. Just take time to put your own meditation into words. Notice how this makes you feel.
If you would like to learn more about haiku and read some more beautiful examples, these links are a good place to start:
Thanks for reading this blog post. I am writing a series of 31 blogs every day this August. I plan to publish them later in the year as a book entitled, ‘Finding Your Calm Space – 31 Ways to Find Calm in a Crazy World’.
I’m Karen. I am a Yoga teacher, Reflexologist and busy mum of seven. I live with my family in Billericay, Essex, UK. In the past I have worked as a Midwife, Health Visitor, Baby Signing teacher and Tax Inspector. I love getting outdoors, swimming in the sea, walking and writing. Helping people relax is one of the things I do best.
You can learn more about my Yoga classes and Reflexology at my website www.thecalmspace.co.uk