Pausing for Emptiness

on morning walk wind

nips at ears, whispering of

snow, a broken branch -

Last week I attended a program called 500 Years of Haiku at Upaya Zen Center. Natalie Goldberg and Clark Strand were teaching, two important mentors in my writing life through their respective books, Writing Down the Bones and Seeds From a Birch Tree. I was craving quiet and inspiration. New to group meditation, I was surprised by the silence of seventy people within one room, the way it opened up a river of quiet that I gladly let sweep me down its soft current. There was bowing on entering and leaving the zendo, also before sitting down on your cushion or in your chair, an action that eluded me and brought up the image of the small laughing Buddha that graces my desk:

when I forget to

bow to my chair, silent laugh—

big-bellied Buddha

After three days of reading and writing haiku I was struck by its complexity. Its structure comes easily for me, though it gained a more complex meaning when Clark Strand instructed us to count the syllables with our fingers tapping our palm, a physical action that activates the musical part of the brain. As I sat searching for the right word, tapping out the syllables, my Beginner’s Mind woke up to the sudden realization that this seemingly simple act of writing three lines was a lifelong devotion to a penetrating awareness of nature and the multiple levels of meaning within both individual words and an individual’s experience—illustrated by the most famous haiku in Japan:

the old pond—

a frog jumps in,

sound of water *

Haiku asks us to pause, to let emptiness take a breath inside of us—to let the mind go out, then return—ourselves empty of the extraneous, filled with the essence and wonder of a world brought into deep focus. With laughter in her voice, Natalie Goldberg admitted haiku wasn't easy, how she had contemplated that most famous haiku for months and just didn’t get it. Until one day she felt “the old pond of the mind finally empty.” **

*Written by Basho (1644-1694), translation by Robert Hass

**Quote shared by Natalie Goldberg on Feb.10, 2019, reading from her soon-to-be published book.

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Calming Practice: Haiku

Tonight before falling asleep, remember a moment from your day.

Write a haiku—three lines only.

The first and third lines contain five syllables, the second line contains seven syllables.

Follow this structure if you can . . . if you can't, don't worry.

Use a seasonal word if possible—icy, spring green, etc.

Choose your words with care.

You are capturing the essence of that moment.

Tomorrow morning, read your haiku.

Feel how it comes alive within you.

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