Pausefully Magazine

the online magazine about life as a creative process


Haiku and meditation - Part 2

by Ray Rasmussen



See Part 1

It is perhaps for its meditative and connective aspects that haiku, along with other Eastern disciplines, has become increasingly popular throughout the western world. Robert Spiess, past Editor of "Modern Haiku", surmised that part of this interest "is due to an increase in sensitivity among a number of poets with concern for the destruction of our natural habitats, with the sense that we are becoming too alienated from our roots in nature." Haijin Dusan Pajin suggests that rootlessness is not just alienation from nature, but also from family and place, that rootlessness prompts people to search for authenticity and connection in the form of expressive art and that haiku is one such art that lends to a sense of connection.

In one of her memorable haiku, Chiyo-ni (1701-1775), one of the rare-for-her-times female haijin, speaks to her deeply felt connection with nature:

since morning glories
hold my well-bucket hostage
I beg for water

One aspect of haiku that I particularly enjoy is the wide variety of expression found in its practitioners. It would be a mistake to suggest that most haiku, either that of the Japanese originators or of current haijin, are limited to simple descriptions of nature. Another favorite of mine is by Issa [1763-1827] whose writing often expressed an empathy with living creatures and a note of humor about the difficulties of the human journey. When swatting those pesky mosquitoes that are attempting to ruin the pleasure of an outing, who could not feel better for having read Issa's poem?

fleas in my hut -
it's my fault
you look so skinny

Issa's poem is an example of senryu, a variant of haiku. As the practice of haiku composition has spread, there is much controversy about what constitutes a proper haiku poem. English haiku generally follow the form of the Japanese original, namely, a count of 17 or fewer syllables delivered in three lines with a reference, direct or oblique, to nature. The senryu form deals more with matters of human and social nature, often in a playful, satirical manner and carries no seasonal reference. For those of us who are city dwellers, its natural to bend our focus and writing to daily living in the urban environment.

In my own practice, I've found that maintaining a focus on the haiku process and not getting hung up on the precise form or final product leads to the best results in terms of meditative outcomes: relaxation, peace of mind, enhanced awareness. Those who insist on strict rules [exactly 17 syllables in 3 lines, a season reference, etc.] are likely to reverse the meditative outcomes and those who are focused only on producing a perfect haiku are as likely to be denied relaxation as those who take a walk in the forest and expect to find no mosquitoes. Here's what Buson (1716-1783) has to say about having an expectation of a mosquito-less environment:

a mosquito buzzes
every time flowers
of honeysuckle fall

One of the best exercises for developing an appreciation of the haiku process comes from well-known contemporary haijin Timothy Russell. He suggests that a novice begin his or her haiku composition experience by simply going outside and practicing the skill of describing what he or she sees, [e.g., a leaf falls from the apple tree, the alley is filled with litter]. These are not a haiku! His process is a path to learning to compose haiku by first learning to avoid interpretation, embellishment, poetics - by learning, in other words, to see and describe. I'll leave the rest of his instructions for the reader to follow up on.

Returning to a theme in the first part of this series, it would be foolish, that is it would be typically human, to want to write a good haiku early on in one’s practice. I would suggest, instead, that novices focus on the process, not on the product. Over time, the practice will lead to an enhanced ability to read and appreciate haiku poetry and perhaps even to write one or two good haiku in ones lifetime. Meanwhile, the meditative aspect will be working and is one of the gifts that the Japanese haiku masters have left to us, their descendents.

With respect to the process of writing haiku, there is some misconception that a haiku is a spontaneous expression of awareness composed by an adept in the practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Japanese masters [Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki] all spent considerable time writing and revising. And, not all of their haiku originated from an encounter in the field. Many of them are 'remembered' encounters composed while at whatever substituted for a writing desk in the simple dwellings that they occupied. Writing, then, becomes meditative in the sense that experiences are recalled, and then described, again, without inference or evaluation. Most of today's haijin speak of a deep experience consisting of recall, reliving, composing, and revisiting and recomposing. After writing the initial impressions, Russell suggests putting aside today's descriptions for at least 5 days before revisiting them and beginning to compose haiku.

If you are interested in experimenting with the haiku process, my search for information led to a number of excellent on-line resources. The World Haiku Club, for example, offers [for free!] discussion lists on the various forms and lessons for beginners. Several online journals publish haiku and related forms of poetry: Modern Haiku, The Heron's Nest, Simply Haiku and the World Haiku Review, to name a few. And, the Internet is rife with individual haiku web sites. If you decide to take the haiku journey, I wish you well.


"Ecstasy of the Moment and the Depth of Time" by Dusan Pajin (Yugoslavia), World Haiku Association Conference - Tolmin, Slovenia - September 1-3, 2000, online in Aozora E-journal

Timothy Russell “training exercise… to help exercise the muscles necessary for writing haiku” can be found on the web.

See Part 3.


Ray Rasmussen is a photographer who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He spends a good deal of his outdoor time in Canyonlands National Park, Utah and in one of Canada's most remote and untouched provincial parks, Willmore Wilderness just North of Jasper National Park. He writes haiku poetry and its related forms haibun [prose plus haiku]. He is also active in creating haiga [haiku plus images]. In a previous life he was a University Professor. See website.




Resources: Demystifying mindfulness - From mindless to mindful - Mindful pause - Mindfulness exercises - Mindfulness exercises - Relational mindfulness - Relational mindfulness - 12 steps without god - Somatic psychotherapy - Proactive mindfulness quotes