Cultivating a Haiku Mind- A Mindfulness Practice

April is National Poetry Month. Just returning from a pilgrimage in Japan, it seems natural to talk about the mindfulness practice of writing haikus.

In Japanese, haikus are seventeen syllables in three phrases (5-7-5). In English, it’s as simple as three lines. Patricia Donegan, a poet, translator and haiku expert defines a haiku as “a crystalline moment of heightened awareness in simple imagery, traditionally using a kigo or season word for nature.”

An haiku typically contains an element of nature and an emotion. Here are some examples:

In the cherry blossom's shade
there's no such thing
as a stranger.
Kobayashi Issa

Cutting a pear
sweet drops drip
from the knife
Shiki Masaoka

letting go
of a slanderous heart
while shelling the beans
Hosai Ozaki

The time it takes
for snowflakes to whiten
the distant pines.
Lorraine Ellis Harr.

In the ancient Japanese calendar, there was not just four seasons but twenty four small seasons (called sekki) each lasting around fifteen days, and seventy-two micro seasons (called ko) each lasting around five days.
Examples of names of micro seasons are:
east wind melts the ice
nightingales sing
silkworms hatch
blanket fog descends
North wind rattles the leaves

During my time in Japan this Spring, I lived through two small-seasons and three micro-seasons.

On March 31st, I started my visit to the Kii Peninsula, south of Nara, in the small or sekki season of Spring Equinox and the micro/ko season of Thunder Raises Its Voice. This micro season was the last one of the Spring Equinox season. Then, on April 4th, we entered the small or sekki season of Clear and Bright and the micro/ko season of The Swallows Arrive. And five days later, it was the micro/ko season of The First Rainbow Appears, still in the small or sekki season of Clear and Bright.

So with this culture of awareness of the changing nature of our surroundings, and such poetic names for each season, it’s no surprise that on my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, I felt like I was walking into haiku country.

So why embracing an Haiku Mind?

Here is what poets, priest and authors say:

In her book, haiku mind; 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart, Patricia Donegan writes: Haiku mind is the awareness to tune into the vastness of the moment. When we can pause and relax in the moment, that is our haiku mind: the awakened, openhearted awareness that we can always tap into.

Similarly, in his book, A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness, Br. David Steindl-Rast writes:The Haiku is, paradoxically, a poem about silence. Its very core is silence. There is probably no shorter poetic form in world literature than the classical Haiku with its seventeen syllables and, yet. The masters put these seventeen syllables down with a gesture of apology, which makes it clear that the words merely serve the silence. All that matters is the silence. The Haiku is a scaffold of words; what is being constructed is a poem of silence; and when it is ready, the poet gives a little kick, as it were, to the scaffold. It tumbles, and silence alone stands.

And according to poet Tom Clausen: Haiku is all about the fleeting preciousness of experience, nature, and our seamless connection to everything.

So clearly composing an haiku, like reading poetry, is a mindfulness practice that would like to invite you into for the month of April. It’s simple and challenging at the same time, an exercise of being present to your life, and a way to capture your own experience in a few words that will resonate with you for a while.

And if you feel so inspired, please leave your haikus as comments on this blog.

Here are more haikus that inspired my pilgrimage on the imperial Kumano Kodo. Thank you.

In silence
and still in silence
along the way
Pilgrim’s staff — 
I fill my mind
with emptiness
At first I follow
then pass and get passed —
pilgrim’s path
the pilgrims walk —