Haikus and Mindfulness

6 May

What is a haiku?
About three years ago I picked up a small, slim book of haiku poetry from a person selling books on a suburban street in Whakatane (a small town in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty). It was only $1 and I thought, “what the hey”. I’d never read any haikus before and the book looked quick to read. It’s called “Haiku Poetry Volume Four”, by James Hackett.


Floating with fallen
petals on a pool of sky:
a fledgling sparrow.
(James Hackett)

 I read the author’s preface (a sign that I’m getting older, I think) and was unexpectedly struck by the profoundness of what he was trying to express. A haiku, I learned, wasn’t simply a poem that goes 5 syllables – 7 syllables – 5 syllables (Mrs Hines, why did you put me so wrong?). To write a haiku is to capture a moment in time truthfully. To “hold a mirror to nature”. To observe (nature) without judging or analysing. You don’t bother with analogies. You don’t try to be clever or arty. You sit, you watch, and you capture what you’ve seen in 17 simple syllables (though it seems most people will allow you some artistic license to break this rule if you really must fit in that eighteenth syllable, God what a glutton).

I’ve since learned that you can write other 5 syllable – 7 syllable – 5 syllable poems, say about human nature or human things, but these aren’t haikus. They’re  senryūs. You can be as arty or as clever as you want with those.

Her bull-like snorting
is so mechanical it’s
like a train, or sex.
(I.K. Paterson-Harkness)

What is mindfulness?
The reason I started thinking about haikus again is that I’ve just begun a yoga teacher training course. I’m not entirely convinced I want to teach yoga, but I was offered a scholarship, and well… I’m sure it’s good for me. When most people visualise yoga they imagine people with their legs tied in a knot around their neck, so I’m going to disappoint you right now by letting you know I actually can’t do that. And I’m not sure if being able to do that would really help me much in life, except to impress/disturb people at parties. The real purpose of yoga is to “calm the fluctuations of the mind”, and this can be achieved with more practical bodily positions. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying tying your legs around your neck is bad for you per say. Just that you don’t have to do it to be doing yoga.)

Mindfulness is when we observe what is happening to our mind and to our body, without judging or analysing. We simply notice – our breath, our racing thoughts, the noise of the truck outside, the feeling in our knee – and fully accept what is occurring. The point of being mindful is to bring you into the present moment. So often we’re reflecting on the past (“Did I tell John I’d be home at 6?”) or we’re projecting into the future (“I hope Mary likes the present I’ve bought her”). If you take the time to think about it, it’s kind of sad that we do that so often. The present is where we are now. It’s the only place we’ll ever be.

How to link the two?
To be honest I’m not all that good at being mindful. I find it nearly impossible not to analyse or judge, or even more impossible to stop my racing thoughts. It’s true that yoga does help, but let’s face it, I’m no guru.

But I am a writer! And I’ve decided that to write a haiku properly one must be mindful – at least mindful of the present moment that we observe with the senses of our body: sight, sound and touch. So my general conclusion is that writing haikus will help me practice being mindful. And being mindful is good for me. So writing haikus is good for me. There’s some unbreakable logic for you, so go on – go write a haiku.

Watching only to his
right, the strutting seagull
walks in a circle.
(I.K. Paterson-Harkness)

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