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In Praise of the Lowly Haiku

We all experience moments that seize our attention. We pause, listen, look, and look again. It might seem to us as if this pause stops the flow of time. I think of these as haiku moments.

Most of us will remember learning in school about this Japanese form of poetry. It’s easy to dismiss the haiku as a poetic trifle because it is so brief. A classic haiku contains just three lines totaling 17 syllables — five on the first line, seven on the second, and five on the third. The form, though, is deceptively simple. Its brevity forces us to laser our attention, and to distill our experience into just a few essential words. This is what makes haiku writing such a worthy contemplative practice.

Many people I admire compose haiku regularly as a way of practicing presence — what a Benedictine writer describes as “Be where you are and do what you’re doing.” My friend Brother Paul Quenon is a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, the author of several poetry collections, and my co-author on the book, “The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.” When we first met, he told me he writes a daily haiku as part of his meditation practice.

“I aim for a simple awareness of the present moment,” Brother Paul said. “My haiku is an articulation of the gift of that moment, a brief conclusion to time spent in silence. Because of its short form, haiku writing doesn’t become just another distraction.” Brother Paul and I exchanged a haiku a day over a period of two years. It was great fun and these exchanges, along with short reflections we wrote to accompany them, became the basis of our book, “The Art of Pausing.”

Here’s one of my favorite haiku written by Brother Paul:

I’ve nothing to do

So I’ll get down to nothing

Expeditiously

Another intrepid haiku practitioner is Shirley Showalter, the former president of Goshen College and the author of the powerful memoir, “Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets A Glittering World.” (If you haven’t read “Blush,” treat yourself to it). To me, Shirley is the epitome of the wise elder, the kind of hero Joseph Campbell described as the archetype of all that is decent and striving in human beings. Whenever I need to be reminded of what gift it is to be alive, I check in on Shirley’s website (listed below).

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Shirley Showalter in the Shenandoah Valley.

Shirley often includes haiku in the reflections she writes. She likens writing them to “praying … one pearl at a time.” Here’s her haiku about a day in winter:

This is the season

of silence and endurance,

deep freeze of the soul

Like me, my friend Pat Leyko Connelly is a lay associate of a Benedictine monastery. (In her case, Weston Priory in Vermont; in mine Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, KS).

She combines her haiku-writing with photographs she takes exploring the sacred in the everyday. Pat posts her poems and their accompanying image daily on Facebook for others to enjoy and use for meditation. Her Facebook page is “My Haiku Prayers and Photos By Pat Leyko Connelly.”

Here is one of her recent offerings, which she posted after attending Compline, the last prayers of the day at Weston Priory.

Chapel bells ringing

Silence calms all the clatter

Monks and birds sing now

When I guide retreats on ‘The Art of Pausing,” I often ask those attending to recall a sacred moment they experienced in the last 24 or 48 hours — a time when they felt part of something larger than themselves. Inevitably, someone complains that they have suffered poetry anxiety since their school days and there is no way they are going to attempt to write even a three-line poem. That person usually ends up writing one of the best haiku in the group.

Here’s one composed by someone who had insisted she couldn’t write:

Rule of Silence

To speak in few words

In the right voice, right tone

Of things necessary

I think that is so beautiful!

I recommend writing a haiku a day, and perhaps even finding a friend with whom you can exchange your poems regularly, as I did with Brother Paul. Some folks who have read our book, The Art of Pausing, have run with this challenge. Michael Kroth is one. He’s the author of several books on the workplace. He now posts his haiku regularly at ProfoundLiving.live.

“In the few short months I have been doing this, I have found it to be such a meaningful activity,” he writes. He goes on to say, “I’m not a trained poet, but I don’t think poetry has to be created by an MFA graduate to be meaningful, and certainly meaningful to the author.”

For those of us seeking to slow down amid the tyranny of Twitter, the stress of the daily commute, the demands of family, the distractions of work, haiku moments provide pauses written on our days. They are like the stops African tribesmen make while traveling on safaris. They pause periodically to listen to the beating of the heart. They say they are trying to let their souls catch up with them on the journey. Sooner or later, we all have to let our souls catch up with the rest of our lives.

I leave you with one of my offerings from The Art of Pausing:

Day of solitude

Six wild turkeys crisscross field

No one is alone

For more haiku enlightenment: Visit Shirley Showalter at www.shirleyshowalter.com. To learn more about Brother Paul Quenon, visit www.monks.org. To see Pat Leyko Connelly’s haiku and photographs, visit her on Facebook. Michael Kroth tweets his haiku at @Profound_Living.

Written by

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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