As a young woman in college, poetry anchored me during some emotionally tumultuous years. I read Kahlil Gibran, Delmore Schwartz, Rumi, and others. But it was in composing my own poetry that I found an outlet for processing my thoughts and pain.
Fast-forward many decades to the relentless strain on mental well-being during a year of pandemic quarantine. I rediscovered a small paperback purchased in a New England used bookstore many years ago, Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey by Clark Strand. It offered me a renewed path for poetry as salve for my spirit, inviting a focused mindfulness and providing a tool for being fully present in nature.
Daily walks have long been one of the pillars of my self-care routine, but they became essential in 2020. Getting out in nature with my dog at my side gives me a much-needed mental break and helps ground me. But as my anxiety level rose, our walks took on a stressed, hurried quality that defeated their whole purpose. Writing haiku transformed my walks, reconnected me with nature, and helped me rediscover poetry as a creative outlet.
What is haiku?
Haiku is a traditional Japanese short-form poem composed of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Each poem evokes a season and contains a pause that separates two elements. Sometimes the pause, also known as a “cutting word” or kireji, can be a punctuation mark. The art is in the juxtaposition of those elements and the suggestion of something beyond their mere physical description.
The practice requires a heightened mindfulness while walking in nature. The first thing I noticed was the impact it had on the types of things that I became aware of. My attention was drawn to small things that drew on my senses—the vibrant red of a berry peeking out of dark foliage, the flap of a duck’s wing in the water, the soothing embrace of a soft breeze, a sudden intoxicating whiff of sappy pine. My search for daily inspiration was rewarded in unexpected ways. It was almost as if there were suddenly more plants, more animals, literally more nature. So abundant were my observations that some days more than one poem would arise.
See also: Mindful Moments
Haiku as a creative outlet
Some people find it useful to carry a notebook and record observations from which they compose haiku poems later. I found that it was helpful to observe until a subject revealed itself to me, and then I would begin composing lines in my head while walking. Part of the meditative quality was the process of reworking lines and memorizing them, including sometimes reciting them out loud. The final piece of the ritual was dating and writing them into a special journal I had purchased for just this purpose.
For me, the end result is not about the quality of the poems or even sharing them with others. It is the process itself—the slowing down, the attunement to nature, the discipline and challenge of the simple, yet structured form. It was incredible how quickly and organically that process took over, providing a welcome release from my mind’s chatter and the stress held in my neck and jaw. But the big reward is in the delight of what nature offers me every day, and the haiku it inspires is a lovely reminder of the rich experiences that are to be found on any ordinary day—but especially on the most difficult of days.
Try it: For those who want to add haiku to their routine, Clark Strand teaches a popular Weekly Haiku Challenges group on Facebook and moderates a Monthly Haiku Challenge for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
Susan K. Hartman is Director of the 2021 Yoga Journal Live Be Yoga Experience presented by NOW.® Join our Live Be Yoga Ambassador Trisha Fey Elizarde, along with our partner teachers and experts, for video classes, special content, live events, and more! This year our intention is to SPARK JOY through Movement. Mindfulness. Rest. Gratitude. Kindness. The Live Be Yoga Experience is sponsored by Cetus, JointFlex, NOW Essential Oils, NOW Supplements, Visit Sun Valley and Zebra CBD. Follow the 2021 Live Be Yoga Experience and stay connected with us @livebeyoga.